This holiday season, I will once more step away from the technicalities and legalities of contracts and publishing deals. Instead I’ll focus on a simple fact that I’m often surprised people don’t remember, and this is a good time of year to recall it to mind. Agents and publishers are human beings too. This is essential to understand as I explain The December Slowdown, and the human element of publishing in general.
I’m not sure anyone else capitalizes the term December Slowdown. It just seemed more official that way. December is not the month to land an agent or sell your book unless the process started weeks or even months ago. This is because agents and publishers celebrate holidays, or try to at least. This is not the month when people take on new projects or sign up for new commitments. Never be offended to have no progress on your publishing career in the month of December.
This principle extends beyond the market realities of December. Whenever you send off a submission, remember that there’s a flesh and blood human being who receives it, and always bear that in mind as you evaluate what happens next.
Many agents do not respond to all queries, even at the height of summer, and I’ve heard people rant and rave about how awful that is. Agents can receive 300 or more submissions a day, though. If I get a form letter response, I consider that a professional kindness, not a rudeness. Who has to type 300 separate responses a day? If I get a personalized rejection, that is a real act of kindness, and a sign that I stood out from the crowd. Bear in mind that every time an agent sends out a rejection letter, they run the risk of the author talking back, and that will happen on another day when they have yet another 300 submissions to deal with. I understand why so many agents don’t reply. If I were in their shoes, I’d likely be the same way.
People with contracts with traditional publishers often complain at the pace of the publishing process – and here I won’t defend all traditional publishers, but it’s worth taking a moment to think about what goes on at a publishing company. Every editor is juggling a bunch of projects, and things never go according to plan. Their biggest star author might have been late on a deadline, but said author’s book might pay the rent for six months. An editor can’t afford not to set your book aside and work on the project that should have arrived weeks ago. Someone in another department might have run over their deadline, or your editor might have had a nasty winter and been out with the flu for several weeks.
There are a lot of pitfalls in the submission and publication process, and it’s easy to get frustrated. This isn’t always the wrong response; sometimes you do need to rattle cages or re-evaluate whether you want to work with other people to publish books or go indie instead. But a little piece of advice that can take you a long way in this or any other business: have compassion. Be aware of others lives and needs. The only way to have a good relationship with the people you work with is to show them respect and understand their side of matters.
A story to illustrate how a misunderstanding can lead one astray: A friend of mine who is an academic called a well known academic publisher to ask about some textbooks for a class she was going to teach. The woman who answered the phone sounded like she was on drugs. My friend asked about the books and the woman said things like, “Oh… yeah… um… yeah…” Needless to say, my friend was annoyed and pushed the woman to complete a coherent sentence. Given the caliber of this publisher, it seemed ridiculous that they’d have someone this incompetent answering the phones. Finally the woman who’d answered the phone said, “Have you turned on the news yet today?” My friend had not. It was September 11, 2001, and the publisher was based in New York. The woman was perfectly competent, and also human.
December is a dark and cold month for us humans, in the Northern Hemisphere at least. It’s easy to feel, as you type away with freezing fingers, like your long journey to publication is ten times longer than it was in November. It’s easy to give up and despair as the days grow short and the nights grow long. It’s easy to want to curl up and hide rather than celebrate the holidays.
You aren’t the only one.
Publishing is full of people who work alone, on tight margins, and wonder whether the stress of publishing is worth the outcome. Stay warm this month, keep writing, and next year we’ll kick off The Business Side of writing with a look at agency contracts. But in the meantime, have a very Happy Holidays and give yourself a break.