Advice from Random House – The Hard Truth from Editors that Every Author Needs to Hear

I am no stranger to the indie scene, nor the trade publishing scene. In recent months, however, I have noticed a growing trend among authors who are constantly losing their cool and ranting all over FaceBook, blogs, Twitter, and writing groups about the bad reviews they are getting from reviewers. It’s something that I can no longer sit idly by and watch as countless authors step up onto a soapbox that they have no business being on in the first place.

For now, I’m going to play devil’s advocate. As I said, I am no stranger to the publishing game, neither indie nor trade. I began my decent into this dog-eat-dog world some twenty-three odd years ago, when I was but sixteen, when I first started sending out query letters to every publishing house in the country. I was met by nothing but rejection letters and a lot of well-meaning editors who were more than willing to give me advice on what all I was doing wrong, and what I needed to work on to become a better writer.

A lot of what I heard from editors was cut-to-the-bone insulting. It hurt, a LOT. I cried an ocean of tears the first few years I spent trying to get published.  I, like so many other aspiring authors, thought I had written an absolute masterpiece beyond compare.  I could not understand why they were not jumping all over themselves to publish me. Their advice couldn’t possibly hold any type of truth to it. After all, all of my family and friends all raved about how well I had done. These editors had to be doing this out of spite because their own writing careers had failed.  They just wanted to take out their own inadequacies on good writers, ruining their chances of ever becoming published. Because, let’s face it, if there was a single shred of truth to anything they were saying, it would mean I was no where near as good a writer as I thought. Worse, it would mean that maybe I just wasn’t cut out to be the one thing on this planet I really wanted to be good at, and that was weaving a tantalizing tale.

I will admit that it took me YEARS of writing and editing other people’s work before I realized that 99% of what those editors told me over the years had been 100% truth. It took me even longer to admit that I actually NEEDED to hear the earth-shattering truth as to just how gawd-awful my first attempts at writing truly were. They were not secretly out to destroy me or my career; they were trying to get it through my thick skull that NO ONE writes well the first time around, and that EVERYONE needs to practice, practice, practice in order to hone their writing skills. It took me a while, but I finally stopped whining about how they were all plotting against me and actually looked at my writing through their eyes. Only then, once I stopped being so full of myself and to actually look at the work without any emotional attachment, that I realized they were all RIGHT. Most of my first few attempts at writing novels truly sucked eggs.

The self-publishing industry has done authors a great injustice because there is no longer editors standing in the way telling authors exactly what improvements they need to make to their manuscript before it can be published. Today’s fly-by-night, work-at-home editors are out to make a few quick bucks, and the scene has been flooded with phony basement-built publishing houses filled with ‘editors’ who will take anyone’s manuscript, tell them how greatly written it is, and be more than happy to publish it on Amazon for a cut of the royalties.

It’s a business built out of scores of poor, unsuspecting writers who are so eager to become published that they will do, and believe, anything, so long as they get to see that book in print. These people never stop to think that, out of hundreds of thousands of submissions sent in to the several hundred publishing houses in the country each year, only about 1/3 of them ever get any type of contract. So why on earth would some no-name publishing house suddenly take their first attempts at writing and be willing to publish them? It never occurs to these writers that these companies are not about quality literature and making your manuscripts the best it can be; they are only out to piggy-back off of the little bit of royalties you might can make them if you have a strong enough social media presence. These writers have never had a professional editor tell them the honest truth about their manuscripts. And since none of them have ever had any type of rejection letters or had anyone to tell them the cold, hard truth of just how badly written their work really is, it has left them unable to adequately deal with reviewers who not only know what makes up a good book, but also may be editors and authors themselves.

I can honestly say that, as a freelance editor with nearly two decades’ experience, a good 95% of what I have seen come across my FaceBook feed would NEVER be allowed to see the light of day by any self-respecting, professional editor. At least, not as-is.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received in a rejection letter came to me when I was about twenty years old , and it came from an editor from Random House. The rejection letter I received (and ripped to shreds in a fit of rage) called my work ‘amateurish’ and my writing style ‘bland.’ The editor went on to say that it was ‘painfully obvious’ (one of my favorite things to say now) that this was my first attempt at writing a novel (it was) and as such he had this advice to give to all aspiring writers: Never try to publish your first book, your second book, or even your third book, because it takes a writer approximately four novels before they settle into their ‘writing voice’ and really get a feel for what they are doing.

I cannot possibly stress how right this editor was. I have seen it happen time and time again, not just in the indie community, but in the trade publishing industry as well. Those who like to read series have no doubt noticed the change in an author’s style as the series progressed, the storyline becoming richer, the characters more tangible, and the overall flow of the writing much more palatable. Whether you like to admit it or not, the first thing that you write is going to be utter crap, pure and simple. The second thing is not going to be much better.

Now that I have adequately pissed off all the authors reading this, let me say that there is hope for every single writer out there, and it comes in the form of criticism and practice. A lot of authors are cutting their noses off to spite their face by NOT listening to all those negative reviews. Sure, it’s easy to chalk it all up to haters, jealousy, people just trying to pull you down. And while there ARE legitimate cases of weird people out there who make it their sole mission in life to ruin an author, most reviewers’ only intent is to warn people away from a book they deemed truly heinous.

We have all seen the mountains of astro-turfed reviews sitting on independently published “Amazon Best Sellers,” reviews  that are all the work of family, friends, fellow authors, ass-kissing bloggers and hundreds of street team members all singing the praises of an author. So you buy the book, get a chapter or two into it and wonder how on earth anyone could think it was actually a good book. So you start looking at the one-star reviews and realize that it’s not just you, there actually ARE people out there who thought the book stunk as much as you did.

But now here’s the question: how many of those authors blew a gasket on FaceBook and proclaimed to the social media world that they were being ‘picked-on,’ ‘bullied,’ or otherwise had jealous people ‘hating’ on them because of a few bad reviews? If you see any of them doing this, what is your first reaction? Chances are you feel like telling them to grow up, and take some notes, because you actually thought the book was terribly written as well.

You’ve heard the old saying, “The proof is in the pudding.” Well, in the publishing business, editors like to say, “The proof is in the one-star reviews.” It doesn’t matter how many perfect reviews you have if people are also complaining that your manuscript sounds childish and is an editing disaster. It’s one thing when someone just doesn’t like a story for no reason other than they just couldn’t get into the storyline. There’s not a whole lot you can do when they hate romantic comedies but read it anyway and still hated it. However, when you have people complaining about actual, tangible problems within your manuscript that an editor would have warned you about, such as typographical errors, bland writing style, formatting issues, etc., then it’s time to stand up and take notice.

I have often told writers, “If you want someone to stroke your ego and tell you how great your writing is, go talk to your mother. If you want to actually learn how to become a better writer, come talk to me.” What separates a mediocre writer with great potential from a mediocre writer without any potential is ability. Not the ability to get better, but the ability to WANT to get better. A mediocre writer who thinks they don’t need to practice or listen to criticism or to improve on their craft will never be anything BUT a mediocre writer. They will turn their noses up at the fountain of help that reviewers are offering, think none of it applies to them, and will continue to float around in their self-absorbed bubble until one day their rose-tinted glasses come off and they see their writing for not only what it IS, but what it COULD HAVE BEEN this whole time, if they had only listened and taken heed to what others had been trying to tell them.

This is not meant to discourage. Writers who are willing to listen to the criticism and try to get better WILL get better. It is those writers who want to throw pity-parties about how everyone is against them that will not improve their craft. Writers need to be encouraged, yes, but they need the RIGHT kind of encouragement. So if you want to get better, to really, truly become a better writer and have a snowball’s chance in hell of making it in the writing world, you are going to have to put on your big-girl panties, listen when others are trying to help you better your writing, and DEAL with the criticism. Otherwise, you are just another lonely, bitter author raving on FaceBook about how the whole world is out to ruin you. No, they’re not. But they may be trying to tell you to take that manuscript to a decent editor who isn’t afraid to tell you that you suck.


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