First Reads

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The Tail that Wags the Dog

A friend of mine wrote a wonderful novel.  It combined what I think is the best of the old-school thriller narrative stylists (big canvass) with a haunting contemporary “What if?”

My acquiring editor head (the one I used when I worked at the Big Five houses and still can’t turn off) thinks it could easily be positioned as Ken Follett meets Michael Crichton.  My neurons have cooked up the cover treatment and a list of bestselling writers to hit up for blurbs ready to go.

Can’t help it.  It’s a Pavlovian response when I read anything…how would I publish this thing? is mine own private internal parlor game.

My friend’s Grade-A agent sent the manuscript to the usual editorial suspects and the first reads were fantastic.  All seven of those gatekeeper editors with juice in the commercial fiction arena recommended it to their editorial boards and publishers for acquisition.

Let’s just stop here for a moment and think about that previous paragraph.  What does it mean?  Let’s break down the publishing vernacular.

To begin with, what are first reads?

The first read at a publishing company happens after an agent has solicited interest from the house.  That’s after he’s emailed or called an editor and asked her if she’d like to review a new project.  Now unless you have zero credibility as an agent, the editor invariably agrees to “take a look” at whatever it is you’re peddling.

It’s rude not to.

And then this is what happens:

The first reader is one of two people.

  1. The editor who the agent actually pitched reads it…or part of it.
  2. The editor’s assistant reads it…or part of it.

Whether a writer gets a read from Number 1 or Number 2 is dependent upon his agent (or what I call third party “buzz,” which concerns responses from entertainment industry book scouts).

This is where “Grade-A agent” comes into play.

If you have no agent, you have no chance of even being given the courtesy of formal rejection. You cease to exist.

Don’t be silly to think that you will be the exception.  Your emails to Sonny Mehta will never get through Penguin Random House’s spam filter.  And if they do, his assistant will delete them before Mr. Mehta (a delightful person and pillar of publishing who I wish would write a memoir of his time in the business) has had his first sip of morning coffee.

I still can’t believe that Penguin-Random House “merger.”

For a publishing nerd like myself, it’s like Coke and Pepsi merging.  Or Apple and Microsoft. Being defined as “not the other” for so long and now being “on the same team” must be very strange for the elder statesmen of Random House.  The elder statesmen from Penguin are already gone, for the most part.  It wasn’t really a merger. It was a quiet takeover that made use of those 90s era words and phrases…synergy and back office economies of scale.

To think that all of those scores of imprints inside of that new global corporate structure were once independent companies hanging on by the skin of their teeth with just a couple of backlist bestsellers keeping them afloat is mind-boggling.

We all obsess about today’s bestseller list and what tomorrow’s bestseller list will be, but the truth is that book publishing survives because of all of the stuff that sells with zero effort published usually to modest success (if that) a decade or decades ago.  I’m surprised that one of these big media conglomerates hasn’t figured out that frontlist publishing is a lot of bother that sucks cash out of the proceeds from these backlist annuities.

If the board washed their hands of having to pay and manage publishers and editors and new authors and all of the overhead all of that stuff entails and just took care of the backlist fulfillment, they’d increase the bottom line contribution of that segment of their business substantially.

Like U.S. Steel did in the 1970s and 80s, they could close down the publishing plants and play the Wall Street manipulation game—buying companies, shedding overhead, increasing quarterly returns to their shareholders, splitting their shares etc. until the end of time.

Quick, tell me what was #1 on The New York Times bestseller list last August?  How about six months ago?  Three months ago?  A week ago?

Now tell me if you’ve ever heard of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (published in 1962 by Viking and #43 on last week’s bestselling general fiction at Nielsen bookscan) or The War of Art (published by the defunct Rugged Land in 2002 and Black Irish Books in 2011 and #25 on last week’s bestselling self-help at Nielsen bookscan).  I don’t know if Viking would have made it all the way to being an imprint of Penguin Random House if not for Ken Kesey’s masterpiece and others on its ledger, but I do know that Steve and I wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing without The War of Art.

Anyway publishers back then and especially today have no use for amateurs.  And the first mark of an amateur writer is to think they can bypass the Darwinian process and often-absurd task of finding an agent.  Just remember it’s a survival of the fittest for this moment in time’s commercial sensibilities.

Not yesterday’s or tomorrow’s.

So don’t despair if you don’t get picked today.  Just keep working.  Eventually if you don’t get picked by an agent or a publishing house, you’ll become a pro and pick yourself.  And then the suffering and incomprehensible satisfaction will really begin.

A short pre-emptive strike here.  I’ve got a perfect number of clients already at Genre Management Inc., just enough to make me think I’m stretching myself too thin.  So if you email me a pitch, you’re going to get a nice “I’m not taking on anyone new” response back.

Back to this First Reads business.

Now if a writer has an agent who has a strong reputation in her field (Tina Bennett at WME calling about a new narrative nonfiction project for example), then Number 1, the editor, will read it.

Usually that night, or in Tina’s case, the second it comes over the server. The editor will read the whole thing that Tina sends too.  He’s not going to insult her by not having an informed and thoughtful response.  He wants her to send her next project to him too.  If he half-asses her read on this one, she might leave him out on the next…

If the writer has an agent who is an unknown commodity to the editor, but has identifying markers as possibly a good source of material down the road (freshly minted agents from big agencies), then Number 2, the editor’s assistant, will be asked to “take a look, but don’t kill yourself if the first 20 pages are lame.”

Obviously, Number 1 is the best-case scenario for a writer.

The editor will be “inclined” to agree with a Grade-A agent and like the project because of the agent’s track record of success.  That’s why Tina Bennett doesn’t have to look for clients. Once she submits something, she has an answer within 24 hours.  Not necessarily an offer but an answer.

She can’t and won’t guarantee an offer, but she can and will get answers.  Fast.

As time is the only really valuable thing any of us has, getting a definitive answer quickly is really why you want to have the best agent possible. As someone who gets answers and great offers, she’s inundated with material.  But I know she spends most of her time working with the clients she already has.  Who do you think edits them before they get editors?  That is what the best agents do…they edit the material before they submit.

I’ve worked on some proposals for close to a year before they were ready.  My clients don’t mind…they insist on that kind of work from me.  You only get one chance to grab the attention of an editor.

What about getting a Number 2 read?  Does that mean you have no chance?

If the editor passes your book to his assistant (and he won’t tell your agent if he does…I never did), he’s “disinclined” to acquire it.  For whatever reason, the pitch or the agent or the fact that he has a book in the works just like yours already, the chances of him changing his mind about your project are about the same as Donald Trump admitting a mistake.

What if the Assistant loves the book?  The editor will take a look and while he’ll still be disinclined to acquire the project, he’ll be curious.  And that curiosity will be your last best hope.

When I acquired top of the commercial list fiction for the majors, I got pitched probably a thousand novels a year (about twenty submissions a week).  And that was in the era before email…when messengered manuscript boxes would show up at the reception desk.

My office was stacked with stuff and I still have nightmares about “not getting back” to agents in a timely manner.

It was expensive to submit books back then.  Agents had to write individual letters to each editor, have their assistants stuff boxes with photocopied manuscripts with the right letter for each package tucked inside (every now and then I’d get a competing editor at Simon & Schuster’s letter by mistake).  They’d have to use a messenger service to track the boxes (or expensive mail services) and on and on.  My point is that I’d bet editors get far more submissions now than they did when it cost money to send them.

What was the bottom line for all of those submissions?

I edited and published only six to eight novels a year. Eighty percent of which were by writers I’d been editing and publishing for years.  So of those 1,000 new submissions, maybe I’d acquire two or three first novels.

Then why did I keep getting so many submissions if I bought so few?

Because I was charged with buying “big books,” I was authorized to spend extraordinary sums to purchase them.  So those two or three submissions I acquired would get (at the very least) six figure deals…sometimes seven figure deals.  The amount of money depended upon the response to the work by my competitors at other houses.

The psychology of the big publishing business (frontlist is everything) never ceases to fascinate me.  It makes sense on a primal human level, but it has absolutely nothing to do with what it will take to survive that future moment in time…when Mr. or Ms. CEO of Private Equity Holding Company X buys one of the Big Five and asks why he or she shouldn’t just shut down all of the silliness and let the backlist dollars flow in with no frontlist to run off revenue.

If publishers spent as much time figuring out how to create backlist bestsellers (getting readers first/buyers of the book second) as they do frontlist bestsellers (buyers right now!), that question would be ridiculous. Would you buy a company that knew how to create capital one time that pays out over and over again (Intellectual property plus digital distribution is a truly magical money machine, a goose that can lay golden eggs for 75 years) and then fire all of the alchemists?  I thought not.

Connecting writers with readers is the alchemy publishers need to perfect to keep those inevitable private equity wolves from the door.

So back to my friend, he has seven big editors at the top imprints excited about his book.  Smooth sailing from here, right?

Well, we’ll see.

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  1. Mary Doyle on August 7, 2015 at 4:41 am

    These forays into the world of publishing are always fascinating, and I’ll look forward to the next installment of your friend’s novel’s journey. I think I’ll stick to my plan to pick myself because I really can’t wait for “the suffering and incomprehensible satisfaction” to begin. As always, thanks Shawn!

  2. Vlad Zachary on August 7, 2015 at 6:59 am

    Thank you for the insights and advice Shawn. I bet I would not be the only one among your fans who would be really interested to read a detailed “How to get a Grade-A agent” for first-time, or young writers.

  3. A.R. Arias on August 7, 2015 at 7:32 am

    Hmm… interesting article, especially how Shawn closes. You mean your friend could still be out in the cold after 7 big editors are raving about his book?

    Sounds like it’s all about smelling the money. Always is, especially these days. If you don’t write the next, “Gone Girl”, you’re pretty much toast.

    In a word, sensationalism, leads the way. I just might change the title to my next book to; BLOOD, SEX, and SCANDAL.

    I’d just have to re-imagine another story. Right. Good luck with that. This is where the advice to write what you love, makes sense.

    Most of the time, personal satisfaction is all you get. So keep a sharp eye on marketing when you write. That’s the takeaway for me.

    Thanks for the insight, Shawn. Hope to read a follow-up on this cliffhanger. Intriguing stuff, as always.

  4. Alec Graf on August 8, 2015 at 11:20 am

    I see a behind the scenes, publishing house thriller shaping up here, Shawn. Thanks for a great read.

  5. Levi hart on August 9, 2015 at 12:19 am


    My name is Shelby and I am a 21 year old male, who would love to be a writer!

    I have recently found your work and I just got the war of art and have ordered turning pro.
    I’m really enjoying your blog as well and I think your a terrific write and would love to delve into your historical novels soon!

    I am Emailing you today for personal reasons! Sorry I know its bad asking for something when I first meet you but here goes.:

    I was wondering how you isolate the good idea you would like to start on, from the numerous bad or unworthy ideas?

    so basically I have been writing a bit of short stories and I have been having multiple novel length stories bouncing around in my head for a while. The problem I am facing is deciding of picking which one to start first!

    I was curious as your technique for picking what to work on if you have more than one idea? and also if you ever actually work on more than one thing at a time?

    Thanks in advance.

    P.s is there any good sources you use to help your writing ability? (i.e language, correct spelling & punctuation etc.)

  6. BL Storrie on August 12, 2015 at 11:08 am

    I love your work Shawn, thank you. It has changed my career hopes.

    I think, though, that the best way to become a back list bestseller is really just to get on the curriculum of a university English course.

    Bang. Thousands of copies, every semester. Forever. Because teachers won’t change what they teach. (Nothing new under the sun.) So it skews the results when you compare one of those books to new books.

    Thanks for your insightful and constant effort for artists everywhere. I LOVE The Story Grid!

  7. CJ Zahner on January 14, 2021 at 5:10 am

    Interesting. Even five years later.

    Came across while searching First Reads, which with Amazon Prime’s First Reads has new meaning.

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