Many authors seem to think that, if their writing is good enough, a major literary agent (and ultimately, a major publisher) will sign them up. If they get turned down repeatedly, they assume that their writing isn't good enough. According to this interview, that attitude can show a misunderstanding of the publishing industry.
Today, I listened to Steve Harrison interviewing literary agent Jeff Herman, who's seen over 500 clients get published (primarily nonfiction). His insider insights reveal a lot about the publishing industry. (This isn't word for word. I'm just summarizing and editorializing.)
First, the quality of your writing is just one part of the puzzle. Countless excellent writers aren't getting published, and they don't even understand why. Other writers, not nearly as talented as the excellent ones, are getting published repeatedly and experiencing good sales. So what's the difference?
According to Herman, it's all about platform and marketing. Successful writers (those who get published and sell their books) see their books as products. Without letting people know about these products, they simply won't sell. They see the authors' job as to get the word out about their books.
The authors who don't get signed think that writers write and publishing companies market. After all, don't major publishers have marketing and sales departments? True, but these departments don't work like the marketing of, say, a Proctor & Gamble product. From that standpoint, they're rather anemic. Rather, they focus on coming up with materials to sell it to the bookstores. (They also give you a lot of credibility, since they're very selective.)
But getting it into bookstores doesn't mean that readers will actually walk into the store and buy it. If you're not out there, making yourself and your book visible, why would anyone buy your book? (And if nobody buys it, the bookstore will probably return it to the publisher for a refund.)
So here's the dirty little secret that many authors don't get: publishers aren't just looking for good writing. They're looking for authors who understand marketing and have a strategy for marketing their books.
"Most of your bestsellers, especially in the nonfiction area, are really being generated by the authors themselves."
These authors have created platforms, such as a busy website, or a significant presence on other well-traveled websites. Or, for example, they build a seminar business, selling books after the seminar. Successful authors don't just bring their content, they offer their own marketing machine.
Herman gets 100 to 300 book proposals per week from people he doesn't know. To set yourself apart, try to meet literary agents personally at places they show up, and convince them that you can market your book.
What do you think? Feel free to comment.