Ransom notes

Like many others in the publishing industry, I had a good laugh/sphincter pucker when I read the Galleycat article about Tin-House-gate – whereby Tin House has instituted a three month open submission policy, but it comes with a special condition; authors must include a receipt from a bookstore with their query.

It’s all pretty tongue-in-cheek, and the prevailing thought is that authors need to help support the business in which they hope to become a part, and Tin House is holding that ideal for ransom. Buy a book or don’t submit to us.

I laughed because I understand what they’re saying. Sure, many writers buy a ton of books, so you’d think this is insulting. And sure, it is. However, the perspective changes when you’re sitting in the editorial chair reviewing hundreds of queries. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that many writers don’t read. And because they don’t read, their literary worlds are often shallow, limited, and unremarkable.

An example I’ve used in the past is the author who queried me years ago with his lawyer fiction. I commented to him that his story was eerily reminiscent of John Grisham’s The Rainmaker. Now I don’t if he was yanking my chain, but he wrote back: “John who?”

Gah.

If I hadn’t seen this time and time again, I’d think he was having a bit of fun with me. But the truth is that many writers don’t appear to be in touch with their own competition and they submit works that have been done a thousand times over. So from that perspective, I can see Tin House’s point, which is, “for the sake of all that’s holy, buy a damn book!”

But being the capitalist pig that I am, I bristle at the notion of having self-serving stipulations put on me. So given that, I’d avoid this company like the beagle avoids gin because they strike me as arbitrary and illogical. Given the idiocy that often embraces this industry, I’m not looking to expand or support the advance of illogical ideas.

Agent Kristin Nelson rhetorically asks if agents had this policy whether it would reduce the queries they receive. It’s all said in jest, but it does foster a nagging question that plagues agents and editors [who allow unagented queries], and that is the irritant that many writers can be – shall we say – a bit tight with their book purchases.

You can’t be an island

Over the years, I’ve noticed there are a couple subgroups of writers – those who get out and know their competition and are well read, and those who are islands.

We see a lot of islanders. They make up a huge percentage of our rejections. These are the folks who thought of an idea for a book, sat down, and wrote it. They’re not well read and have little clue as to their competition. Maybe they read a cool book back in their senior year in high school, but very little beyond that. This means they are out of touch with plot development, character development, pacing, flow, etc.

Literary tastes change as the years roll by. The big hits of yesteryear might not see the light of day in our current literary world. The islander doesn’t know this. And what happens with the literary islander is the same as with physical islanders  – nothing gets on or off that island. Hello, Mr. Rejection Letter.

So while I appreciate the finger-in-the-eye approach Tin House is  making with their ransom note, I think a deviation into social engineering is pure folly.

If anything, I think it would be lovely if more writers woke up and concluded that this writing bug they seemed to have caught needs to be nurtured – and the best way to do that is to fraking READ!!! There is simply no better teacher than the books sitting on those shelves. Where else can you get a feel for dialog, character development, plot, endings, syntax, voice? Learn from those who came right before you.

So, laugh at Tin House if you like, but consider the message and do yourself and your writing the biggest favor of all…go out and buy a damn book. Heck, buy three.

[shameless plug time] I can think of any number of great books sitting right on our website

9 Responses to Ransom notes

  1. AstonWest says:

    I do wonder if reading too much of one’s competition will begin to make one’s writing come off too similar. :-\

  2. cat says:

    I bought three this week – am now on horrid tinned mice instead of fresh and water instead of cream – but I have the books. Cannot have it all ways I suppose. Sigh..the beagle will understand.

  3. On the other hand, if you don’t read the competition you might reinvent the wheel without realizing it. Even if you’re smart enough to avoid a “John who?” moment.

  4. Todd: what Marian said. To me, this is akin to sticking one’s head in the sand.

    Cat: you never fail to crack me up. I’m sorry for your tinned mice. It must be dreadful. The beagle has been known to drink white label tequila in order to feed my appetite for reading. May you be back to freshies soon!

  5. Webb says:

    Does Amazon count? Will they take an e-mail receipt. ANd what if teh last book I bought was 101 Ways Uses for A Dead Cat – unabridged – and not a sci fi novel? Does that still count?

    Maybe they’ll take a handwritten garage sale receipt cause that’s where I get most of my books.

    How about a receipt from the library?

    Just asking…

  6. Geez, Bill, I have no idea. Best ask Tin House. I’m just commenting on the passing parade.

  7. NinjaFingers says:

    I can’t afford to buy as many books as I would like, and my to-be-read pile takes up shelves…so, I’m not buying much *right now*.

    And I couldn’t provide a bookstore receipt right now, but maybe I should save the next one I get? ;).

  8. Barbara says:

    I love that name “islanders,” Lynn–a great description of beginning writers working in a vacuum. Perhaps we all need to remember that being active readers doesn’t have to mean constantly buying new books–though of course we do want to support publishers, when we can afford to. Great books always have something new to teach us, no matter how many times we re-read our favorites.I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve re-read some Agatha Christies!

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