Why are you struggling to get your book picked up by agents and editors? Why does your novel feel unpublishable?
If you want a comprehensive answer to these questions, I recommend you read and carefully study The Cynical Writer’s Guide to the Publishing Industry by Naomi Kanakia, a book that may as well have been titled — Why Your Novel Is Not Going to Be Published. At least, it felt like that to me. And I am sure it applies to many other first-time novelists out there (as well as to many already-published authors and midlisters struggling to sell their 2+ novels). Here’s my review.
***SPOILER: ‘Cheesy’ and ‘Twist’ can save your life***
A few years ago, when I decided to write my first novel, I set myself a parallel goal: to get a comprehensive education on the realities of the publishing industry. I wanted to maximize my publishing chances and was ready to put in the work.
I went through pretty much every guide available on Amazon — manuals on how to write sellable books, how to seduce agents, how to edit your work for ‘the market’, and so on. I also watched hours of literary agent interviews on YouTube, studied agents’ Twitter feeds and manuscript wishlists, and read countless blog posts discussing the publishing industry.
Oh, and I also devoured the publishing journeys that were narrated in blogs and vlogs by their very protagonists: the writers who had been successful at finding an agent and getting a deal — or even better, the writers who had been successful at being successful as a writer and who not only had managed to publish but were also living now completely off of their books — or, still even better, authors who were now rich because of it. Ah, how I relished those writerly rag-to-riches stories!
Thanks to all this research, I thought that I had a very good grasp on how the publishing industry worked and what the big no-nos were if you wanted to get an agent and ultimately a publishing deal.
And yet, I didn’t understand anything really.
Because in all those manuals and guides, the rules, the dos and the don’ts, weren’t shown. They were just told.
We writers know how in fiction, if, instead of showing, we just tell things to the reader, then they don’t truly believe what they are reading, right? Well, I realize now that the same applies to this prescriptive genre of non-fiction. When the rules are merely listed (or at best explained in a non-vivid manner) the writer who reads them doesn’t truly believe them.
Yes, you think that you’ve gotten the point, but in reality, at the back of your mind, your egomaniacal authorial imp whispers to you that you know better. Even if your book is breaching some of those no-nos, it still can be published because those rules are not that important anyway. Because you have created a very entertaining story filled with twists and excitement and unforgettable scenes — “Good twists and excitement, that’s what the publishing industry wants after all, isn’t it?” your imp buzzes in your ear. “Then, you will be just fine.” Your imp is, of course, lying to you.
But, by contrast to all those dull recipe books on publishing success, Kanakia’s guide is painfully vivid. It showdontells the rules we all thought we knew about what makes a book unpublishable and explains why, even if your book has twists and excitement and pathos and beauty and lots of other great things in it, if you break those rules, you will not be published.
When you finish reading The Cynical Writer’s Guide, you realize why these rules had been listed in all those other how-to-publish guides that you’d read before. The agents, editors, and authors who had penned them knew perfectly well that those were essential rules that needed to be included (anybody who’s spent more than 5 minutes in the publishing industry knows this), but they didn’t dare to explain in raw, truthful terms why those rules apply so mercilessly and what forces are causing them.
Because — allow me to do this again — this book could also have been titled: Everything You Wanted to Know About Publishing but Authors and Publishers Were Afraid to Tell.
After years of interacting with agents, editors, and authors, Kanakia has not only learned the inconvenient truths that lie behind these rules, but she has also dared to put them down in black and white without any restraint or attempt at self-censorship. ‘Cynical’ is too gentle a word to describe this book; the density of uncomfortable truths about the realities of the publishing industry and about the way in which most readers read is beyond anything else I’ve ever found on this topic. Actually, not only on this topic; insiders who deliver raw, unapologetic truths are hard to find in every field.
Here, though, you may be thinking — Okay, but my novel isn’t breaking any no-no’s so why am I not going to be published? This doesn’t apply to me!
And you may be right. The categorical title I’ve used for this post was written for effect. It’s not at all guaranteed that your particular novel is unpublishable. But I wanted to attract your attention because, for most of us, that is, unfortunately, the case. And the sooner we learn that ugly truth the less time we’ll waste in delusion.
I don’t mean that we must necessarily change our behavior because of this realization; we can as well continue writing exactly the same novel we were writing. But if we do persist, at least now we will be doing it knowing the consequences of our acts. We will be doing it knowing the truth about our publishing chances.
Because, if you have indulged in some of these no-nos when crafting your current novel (or, similarly, if you don’t have enough of the yes-yes that agents and editors need to see) the news is bad: you can be certain that your novel is not going to be published.
The reasons behind the ‘Publishing Commandments’
As for what these no-nos are, Kanakia’s book doesn’t mention many new ones that you haven’t heard already if you’ve read a few other how-to-publish guides: Stick to the expected word counts; stick to existing genres; if you really need to mix genres, do so with a very clear book-buying demographic in mind; respect the conventions of your genre/genres about plot and characterization; etc. There’s little new material in this respect.
Probably the only rules that I had never seen clearly spelled out before are the ones on how to deal (or not deal) with the sensitive topics of race/orientation/gender/immigration depending on what minority status you ‘enjoy.’
Also, if you are an already-published author, or even if you are midlist-level successful, this book offers the most insight I’ve ever found on how to secure publication for your next novel (yes, in case you didn’t know yet, authors who managed to sell reasonably well one novel, still struggle to have their second, third or ‘nth’ novel accepted for publication — fun times!).
But apart from this new material, where Kanakia fully shines is when she explains the rationale behind these old publishing commandments that we all think we know. That underlying rationale is caused by an interaction of three layers. The 3 layers of the publishing sieve.
The Readers’ Tastes Dilemma
Readers can be classified into 2 groups.
The first group is made up of the pre-existing audiences. These readers want cheesiness (even if they don’t necessarily know they want cheesiness, they crave it like you crave a comforting tub of ice cream on a cozy Sunday evening). These readers are into a specific genre (or a sub-subgenre, or a sub-sub-subgenre) and they want more of that familiar, comforting same, only with a slightly new twist, a slightly new configuration of the usual ingredients that allows them to feel that they are experiencing something new.
Maybe they are into Regency romance — then they might enjoy a classic Regency romp but with, for example, a love interest that this time turns out to be, say, a set of triplet twins, each one even more irresistibly attractive than the last. Or maybe their thing is zombie horror. Then they might appreciate a classic zombie story but that this time takes place in some new setting like, say, a cruise ship stranded in the middle of the Atlantic ocean with all the gory complications that such setting would entail. (Actually, I’d love to read both of those novels!)
I mean, when you head to your fridge to reach for your chocolate-chip cookie ice cream, you can be happy to find that the tub came with an extra flavor in it like vanilla or stracciatella or cherry, but you are going to be seriously frustrated if what you find is some entirely experimental nouvelle-cuisine savory ice cream there, no matter how good and interesting that experimental ice cream is. You want your sugar hit. You had pictured your sugar hit.
‘Cheesy with a twist.’ That’s the term I’ve coined to summarize what Kanakia tells us about this group of readers. They want no more (and no less) than that — cheesy with a twist.
But you know better than that; you know that there are more sophisticated readers than these. You are writing for all those other readers out there who appreciate the completely unexpected, the daring, the fresh! Well, that’s the second group I was going to mention. This group does exist, but, alas, it is almost impossible to directly market to such a type of reader.
The reason is that, although most of us tend to have both cheesy tastes and sophisticated tastes, our cheesy tastes tend to be extremely similar to those of other people, while the things that make us special (our quirks, our expertise, our pet passions), those are by definition almost unique and overlap with very few other people’s.
Publishing, as a result, doesn’t know how to market a book to that second group of readers because the readers who are after something special are not going to necessarily all like the same flavor of special. They won’t like a weird novel just for the sake of it being weird but because its specific weirdness presses their particular buttons. Publishing can’t be certain that enough readers out there will be compatible with the specific way in which your novel is unconventional and so Publishing rejects it and sticks to proven formulas.
But what about the ‘mainstream & upmarket’ fiction rank in the bookstore? you may be wondering. And what about the literary category? Aren’t those two the spaces for books that dare, that mix, that risk, that subvert, that…?
Trust me, I, myself, had all my hopes set on the ‘mainstream & upmarket’ category. I thought that it could accommodate my rule-breaking-yet-commercial novel. But the shocking truth is that the mainstream & upmarket category, as well as the literary category are, contrary to popular belief, genres themselves, and genres with as many rules (if rarely spelled-out rules) as the traditional genres. So in that sense, they are also derivative (even if the way in which they are derivative is not as in-your-face) and they can’t accommodate every kind of unconventional book, even if it is a good unconventional book. We could in fact call these two categories the ‘crypto-genres.’
So, again, if you want to please the types of readers who read mainstream/upmarket and literary (or at least persuade agents and editors that your book is capable of pleasing those readers) you also need to follow the implied rules of those crypto-genres.
The Publishing-House Editors’ Fears
Here, Kanakia surpasses herself at helping you picture how precarious, underpaid, and job-unsafe the life of the publishing house editor is. I had heard this many times before in passing, but again, the level of detail, vividness, and candidness with which Kanakia describes their working lives is very compelling. It almost feels Dickensian. After reading this guide, you stop seeing editors as those heartless enemies of any great unconventional novel and begin to feel sympathy for their daily struggle. They are just another victim of the big corporate structures to which we all need to submit.
Basically, according to Kanakia, editors are folks who once loved a special and daring novel as much as any other sophisticated bookworm out there, but who, after years of being exposed to the ruthless grinding wheel of publishing, grow so concerned about making a mistake and losing their jobs that they are terrified of buying anything other than completely safe, foolproof formulaic books (‘cheesy with a twist’).
Because, in the office politics game that they need to play to keep their posts, nothing is more career-damaging than buying a ‘quirky’ book that fails. In their Kafkaesque work environment, failing several times with books that follow the rules is forgivable, but failing just once with a daring book can end a career.
The Agents’ Quest to Not Work for Free
Unlike editors, agents don’t live in fear of losing their jobs because, for the most part, they are their own boss and office politics don’t affect them at all or very little. But they have another big constraint that entirely conditions what books they can represent: when they take you as a client, they will be working for free until they manage to sell your book.
As a result, they are terrified of representing books with publishing no-nos in them. Not because they are afraid of losing their jobs, but because they are afraid that the editors who are afraid of losing their jobs won’t dare to buy it. They would end up having worked for you and your book for months in exchange for nothing. No book sale, no agent commission, no food to put on agent’s table, agent’s children starve, bad stuff.
So agents, too, read your query letter, your opening, and your manuscript searching for proof that what they have before them is… you guessed it: cheesy with a twist.
In summary: the readers who can be reached by the publishing industry’s sales channels like derivative stories that respect formula with only a small twist or variation. Editors try to guess which books submitted to them fall within these pools of known reader interest and, anything that sticks out too much, they avoid buying because their career is at stake. Agents try to guess what types of books editors think that readers would like and try to avoid anything that sticks out too much because that can mean the difference between working for free or getting an actual commission for their work. Are you crying already? Indeed, Publishing is a hell of a Greek tragedy.
Can you escape the fate of the Unpublished?
Yes, you can. According to Naomi Kanakia not everything is lost. Basically, there are two ways in which you can achieve the feat of publishing a novel:
- Write a ‘cheesy with a twist’ novel. (Or, if you’ve already written a novel that is unconventional, completely sell out and transform your non-formulaic novel into a cheesy-with-a-twist one.)
- If you don’t want to sell out, you can still write a non-formulaic novel and manage to have it published. It’s not easy but, by using what Kanakia calls ‘breadcrumbs for unsophisticated readers,’ you can make it happen. Those cliched breadcrumbs strategically placed throughout your novel can be enough to quench the thirst for the familiar that readers have. They can disguise your novel and make it appear more conventional than what it really is and therefore acceptable for getting into the publishing conveyor belt.
Of course, you can also do neither of the above and leave your novel exactly as you had envisioned it, and I will admire you all the more for it. But now you will be doing it as a consenting adult who is about to do something dangerous knowing how dangerous it is. Because the chances of such a novel being published will be extremely small. Lottery-winning-small small.
Write a truthful book by all means, but also open your eyes to this truth: truthful books with a slightly cheesy coating sell so much better.
Here concludes my review. But Naomi Kanakia’s guide touches on many more aspects of publishing. It goes into detail about how to place those publishing-friendly breadcrumbs, it contains tons of advice on how to pitch your novel for success, it describes the real relationship that you can expect with your agent and editor, and a wealth of other useful stuff.
I could never have imagined that I would be this excited about a book that has delivered such bad news to me. But there’s always something intoxicating in reading somebody speaking their mind freely. If you are tired of wishy-washy, ‘politically correct’ guides on the industry and want to know what people think but don’t tell, I strongly recommend Kanakia’s guide.
Truth always has a certain amount of beauty in and of itself, even if it delivers ugly news.