See You In September.

Jeff Drew PW

See you in September? No, I’m not going anywhere.

But that is the title of a recent Publishers Weekly lead article from Vice-President, Editorial Director Jim Milliot reporting on NYC publisher surveys regarding plans on when and how their offices might reopen. Like so many businesses there and in other cities nationwide, the “Big Five” plus Abrams, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Kensington, Norton, Scholastic and others responded with cautious and flexibly phased plans, none of which involved employees returning before Labor Day. Till then, work-from home, Zoom conferencing, digital manuscripts, galleys and review copies will remain the norm.  In some cases, senior management is even reassessing long term office space needs, anticipating that some portion of their staff will continue with WFH at least in some capacity. To a degree, it may be less about reconfiguring office spaces and work schedules, and more about the logistics of getting to and from work, those challenges all too apparent to any city dweller. Bus, subway, El and train commuting are still scary prospects. Further, how will crowds navigate elevators up and down hi-rise office buildings?

The following week’s issue included the first in a series of independent publishing columns, that one by past chair of the Independent Book Publishers Association, Peter Goodman, who speculated that the pandemic’s impact will likely reshape independent, hybrid, micro-press and self-publishing with increased adoption of e-books, a regrettable but likely inevitable shakeout among indie retail bookseller accounts, and the growing influence of distributors and their print-on-demand capabilities. Myself, I’m all for that last one, a crucial component in keeping indie press and backlist titles available, particularly if retail bookstore upfront orders are publication go/no-go criteria. Goodman also acknowledges what many have fretted over or even joked about: The sheltering-in’s sudden proliferation of budding writers. “…A lot of smart, creative people who are spending more time at home will be producing more books,” Goodman states. “Is this a good thing? Not entirely, as it crowds the marketplace and may again create an unfortunate line between ‘real’ and ‘hobby’ publishing.” Will retail bookstores – indie or chain – get serious about stocking some of these self/hybrid/micro published titles, or will the nearly non-navigable and overpopulated online maze remain their only marketplace?

stef van der laan marie claire france 2015 by robert nethery

A second entry in this series the following week, this one from Ed Nawotka and Claire Kirch, reported a mixed bag of business results and planning among independent publishers. Topline: Nearly all endured a brutal March and April with drastic drop-offs in orders, though sales have steadily picked up since. Back to normal? Not exactly. Nor are independent and smaller presses racing to get back to their offices just yet, even if they aren’t in the same types of workplaces the majors are.

Along with Publishers Weekly, a number of book sites/blogs I follow have been reporting on the plight of booksellers throughout these sheltering-in months, now transitioning to updates about their slow and cautious re-openings. But the entire industry hit pause back in March or thereabouts, and if publishers and retailers aren’t up to speed, then agents won’t be either, so writers will have to make their own individual decisions about queries and submissions. Myself, I hate to think of sitting on my hands till Autumn (though Summer has always been considered a notoriously bad time for querying/submitting anyway), but I’d already concluded it might be prudent to do so, and reading reports from industry insiders simply reinforces that.

Oh well, Fall’s always been my favorite season.

Publishers Weekly cover illustration: Jeff Drew; Bookstore photo: Stef Van Der Laan by Robert Nethery, 2015.

NORMAN’s

Ilya Rashap

“If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.”

“Silence is golden.”

“No news is good news.”

Oh yeah? Try those on for size if you’re prowling ZipRecruiter, Indeed, Glassdoor or LinkedIn for a job. Cover letters properly personalized, applications filled out, resumes (and in my biz) portfolios/websites attached or linked. Filled with hope, you hit send, and then…

You hear…nothing. Not even a form reply…nothing. Ever.

Thankfully, I haven’t had to prowl those boards for a new job and don’t expect to need to (fingers crossed). But I’ve spent enough time on them, though only on the receiving end. I ALWAYS send “sorry, but no” emails to every applicant, personalizing a pertinent note for some, form replies sent as promptly as possible to the rest. Those typically number three or four hundred per job posting, and once topped out at just over 1,400. Since I don’t trust the popular job boards’ automated features, I do it the old-fashioned way, setting aside time to copy-n-paste emails daily till I’ve worked through the list. Tedious? Sure, but it’s just part of the job. I’ve listened to enough interviewees’ horror stories about how few employers bother to follow up at all on applications, or worse (and unbelievably) actual interviews.

It’s actually a lot like the writer’s querying and submission process: redundantly filling out online query forms or composing carefully worded individual emails, partials pasted in or attached per each agent’s or editor’s individual specs (first 5 pages, first chapter, first 50 pages, first three chapters, synopsis vs. no synopsis, or even query-only with no material, etc.), and trying desperately to come up with catchy ways to personalize each cover letter without sounding silly or sycophantic. All too often the result is just…nothing. Ever. Oh, I’ve been there, and am right now, in fact.

The most maddening part? Never knowing if the query/sub was even received, much less glanced at.

David Dubnitsky

Clearly the writing/agenting/publishing marketplace trend is transitioning to “No Reply Means A No”. I guess I’m the very last writer on earth to realize that this is a ‘NORMAN’. I assume that’s: No Reply Means A No.  (I hate being clueless.)

This would’ve have made more sense in prehistory when typed letters, photocopies, pre-printed forms, licking stamps and No. 10 envelopes or at least checking off a box on a pre-stamped BRC were the norm. But now when a grade schooler (to say nothing of an undergrad/grad school intern) needs no more than a few minutes to configure auto-responses or to streamline software, it’s hard to swallow, and just seems kind of…well, bratty.

Janet Reid Blog

I’ve mentioned literary agent Janet Reid’s excellent blog here before (link below) in an August 2019 post titled “Not Sucking Up, I Swear” (link also below). Once again, I’m not sucking up. Reid, formerly an agent at New Leaf Literary and now agenting in her own operation, ran the popular Query Shark site which has since morphed into her own blog with daily posts that range from writing/submission tips, industry insights and some random musings, all relayed with a good dose of sassy, smart-assed wordsmithing. Frankly, it’s just fun to read, even if you’re not currently querying/submitting writing projects.

Last week Reid stuck her neck out. Instead of telling writers what and what not to do, the agent asked her followers for some input, writing “I’ve been asked to contribute to a list: Things That Drive Agents Bonkers. Of course, I have a list. Of one gazillion items. But it dawned on me that y’all might have a list too, and it would be interesting to see what we have in common. So, if you have a spare moment or ten…tell me what drives you crazy during the query process.”

If I was surprised by the responses, it was only that they didn’t flood her blog platform. I mean, a chance for writers to rant about agents and querying? Keyboards should’ve been melting. I tried to add my own two cents, but it never appeared (Let’s assume that I did it wrong). While the remarks touched on a range of topics, one issue came up again and again: NORMAN’s. No Reply Means A No. For the record, that’s what my comment addressed as well.

Writers querying agents about their manuscript or eager job seekers applying for a position…they’re kind of the same thing, when you think about it. If a business (and literary agencies are businesses) solicits ‘applicants’ then it should expect to respond to them, and in a reasonably timely manner. Anything less isn’t merely discourteous. It’s unprofessional. A company’s HR department is inundated with job applicants, huge portions of those unqualified for the position? A literary agency is deluged with submissions, the majority of them unpublishable? Responding – even with generic form replies – is too time consuming or costly? Boo-hoo. It’s part of the job, no different than any other nettlesome workplace task. That’s why we call it work.

Now Reid herself is on top of responses (I got my own form rejection about a week after querying her, so I can attest to that) and endorses confirmation emails to ensure a writer knows that at least their query was received. But, reading between the lines, you have to wonder if that could change at some point in the future. After all, computers have turned everyone into a writer. Online submission eliminated some of the legwork and out-of-pocket expense. Agents and editors are deluged, and everything we read tells us that the overwhelming majority of what comes in over the digital transom is bad. Really, really bad. So, creatives are (or ought to be) ready for rejection. Frequent rejection. Sometimes harsh rejection.  And as I’ve noted before, any writer whining about a curt rejection email should compare notes with an actor, musician or dancer coming off an audition. Enduring those must take nerves of steel.

raica oliviera by fulvio maiani

Rejection is what it is. It’s part of the job, so to speak. But never hearing back at all is just not cool. It’s lazy. It’s amateurish. So it’s no surprise that it’s an issue writers often raise when they’re griping about the querying/submission process. Surely, no one expects personalized responses with critiques in all but the very most select cases. (Well, no one with a brain would.) Just a form email, a brief “thanks but no thanks” so the writer can check that agent or market off and move on to the next.

The writers among you (and I know there’s a bunch at WordPress. BlogLovin’ and Tumblr based on some followers’ names and sites) should pop over to Janet Reid’s blog for a peek. The aggravating issue of NORMAN’s – and the fact that the practice is so prevalent it even earned an acronym/nickname – is a good place to start, but I bet you’ll want to linger and snoop around more…there’s a lot to digest there. Her blog is a valuable reference and as noted above, pretty fun to read.

And if NORMAN’s drive you ballistic, feel free to rant. Do it here if you need to. Just don’t do it in an ill-advised email to an agent after a few glasses of wine in the middle of the night. Promise?

http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/08/07/not-sucking-up-i-swear/

Photos: Ilya Rashap, David Dubnitsky and Fulvio Maiani

 

 

 

 

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