Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Publisher's Question Time, Vol. II

So, you may remember that last week we began to lift the veil from the face of publishing to reveal the beauty – and the monstrosity – beneath. In an effort to probe those murky depths, I solicited from my co-workers the most common questions that they get about their job, and their replies included queries covering everything from what editorial folks do all day to the correct pronunciation of Knopf. However, I saved the most common, and the most difficult, question for this week.

I have a manuscript—will you be my editor?
My [mother’s brother’s best friend’s daughter’s childhood crush’s dog] has a manuscript, will you take a look at it?
My dad, friend, grandpa, hairdresser etc is writing a book - can you help them get it published?

To someone who works in publishing, these words are akin to ragged nails screeching down a chalkboard. Not that this behavior is confined solely to aspiring writers: people who work in music, film, fashion, modeling, and sports get bombarded too. And it’s supremely awkward. You want to be nice; you want to help people and spread good karma. And you never know when someone might be proffering a hidden gem, the next best-seller that just needs one person to take a chance and believe in it. But the likelihood of that being the case is very small.

The issue here is the personal nature of the request, and the obligation it immediately creates. If a close friend who is serious about writing asks me to read something, I will do so because I genuinely want to help where I can. Hopefully, she will understand enough about my job to know that it’s not a question of me waving a magic wand to produce a book (I really have little power at all), and be comfortable with a respectful and honest exchange of ideas and suggestions. Most importantly, I can be sure that she’s approaching me as a friend and peer without any expectation of professional results.

However, the situation becomes very different if someone I don’t know well (or at all) asks for feedback. What do I say? They don’t know me well enough to value my opinion in and of itself or really care about what I have to say; they only want the possible connections I might have because of my job. It’s one thing to ask for neutral industry advice – for example, how best to select an agent or prepare a query, or even how to go about finding a job – and I’m always happy to provide that because it indicates that the person is professional and has a grip on the realities of publishing. There’s no inherent expectation of results, or the potential for an awkward dilemma about whether or not to be honest, and well-within the socially appropriate norms of networking and general goodwill. But it’s another thing to be cornered at a party by an acquaintance and asked point-blank if I can help her publish her boyfriend’s short story collection. Once, during a short-lived attempt to find a roommate through Craigslist, I went to see someone’s apartment; we were chatting about ourselves, and I mentioned what I do for a living. “Oh!” she said, eyes alight. “My mother writes romance novels! Can I put her in touch with you?”

You can call me grumpy and selfish and ungrateful if you want, but I think it’s rude for people to abuse social goodwill and demand an uncompensated investment of time and effort. For example, say you hurt your knee in an accident. You might ask your friend to talk to their mother who’s a doctor and see if she has any advice or recommendations, and maybe she’d suggest you see her colleague the orthopedic surgeon or visit a chiropractor. Perhaps she might even offer to look at it herself. But you wouldn’t, after meeting someone at a party and discovering he was a doctor, immediately whip off your trousers and ask him to examine your leg, would you? Or even entertain an expectation of free treatment from your friend’s mother? No, you would not. And that principle applies to all situations, whether you have a novel you want published or parking tickets you want voided. Please don’t send me your pastor’s self-published paranormal thriller unsolicited with a heavy-handed, hint-filled note; please don’t give my e-mail to your casual acquaintance without asking for my permission first; and please, whatever you do, DO NOT MESSAGE ME ON FACEBOOK just because you saw a comment I made on someone’s post that in some way casually referred to work (yes, that’s happened).

Phew! I feel so much better now.

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