Why Publishing Guidelines Matter (Except for When They Don’t)

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Writing a novel feels like grueling futility exercise from start to finish.

We knock ourselves out writing a story so it quits ricocheting around in our brains and we can finally allocate our grey matter to something else (like that catchy Justin Bieber song we hate ourselves for knowing the words to).

Then, if we want to dispense our story to the readers who will love it, we have to either…

  1. Scrounge up the resources to self-publish / promote, or…
  2. Meet the implausible guidelines set forth by some publisher with a golden glint in his or her eye.

I mean, I get it.

I totally get that the publisher has a job to do, and that job requires the author to met some rigid guidelines:

  • Your story cannot be too derivative or the publisher could get sued.
  • Your story cannot be too different, because reps don’t know how to sell “different.” “Same” means there’s something to compare it to, and the publisher can capitalize on an audience that already exists.
  • The publishing house wants an author who can follow directions. Any diva author who acts like rules are for other people is going to be a pain in the ass and someone the publisher won’t not want to make time for.
  • Publishing is a business, and book length is a thing. Too many words / pages means the price of printing goes up, and they have to raise the book price in order to make the money back. Too few words / pages, publisher starts two wonder, “What’s the point?”

I really, truly have naught but the utmost sympathy for the publisher.

I also understand that art is only worth what someone will pay for it, and there’s no art like good commerce.

However, if you’re writing a book that doesn’t fit neatly into one genre, it’s easy to feel unappreciated and discouraged.

“I just want to tell the world this cool story the way my characters told it to me,” you grieve after months of fruitless querying. “There’s just no room for misfits on the Barnes and Noble shelves, I guess.”

For what it’s worth, some of the greatest authors in history would not be published today, based on the rules that currently govern the publishing biz. Below, in no particular order of importance, are some of those rules and the books / authors who broke them successfully:

-Keep your word count way, way under 250,000 words. Works equal to or greater than this length will frighten publishers away from your novel and relegate you to Slush Pile Hell for all eternity… Unless your name is Leo Tolstoy, J.R.R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, or Victor Hugo.

Serious authors do not stop at one, great novel… unless that author’s name is Harper Lee (who technically has a sequel to her one great novel as of a few years back, but those who have read it tend to agree that said sequel was to To Kill a Mocking Bird what Return of Jafar was to Aladdin).

Books under 50,000 words long are unsellable…Unless they are, say, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at a paltry 29,966 words or George Orwell’s Animal Farm at a still more meager 28,944 words.

-Happy Endings are mandatory when writing a children’s book… unless that book is The Velveteen Rabbit, Where the Red Fern Grows, or roughly half of the stories bestowed onto us by Hans Christian Andersen.

Don’t bother illustrating your own children’s book. The publisher will want an in-house expert, and you probably suck at it, anyway… Unless your name is Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, or Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Then, the more voo-doo, you do, the better.

-Show don’t tell… unless your name is Jane Austin or Frank L. Baum in which case your plucky female protagonist and you are excused from amending your masterworks to reflect modern writing trends.

– Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly… unless your name is Anne Rice. Then, feel free to use them boldly, proudly, deftly, and literally (yowza! Hurt m’self a little with that last one).

Self-publishing is for authors who are not good enough to be published by traditional means…unless your pen-name is Mark Twain, and the book you are publishing is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

So I guess there are a few things ways to handle your book if that book is one that in un-pigeon-hole-able. You can look for a ballsy publisher who’ll take a chance on your wild card of a novel, you can publish books that sell for a while before doing something you like, or you can self-promote like the proverbial Dickens and say, “To hell with y’all ( because nothing brings the publishers a- running like an author who proves he/she doesn’t need them).”

In any case, if you happen to be an author whose book seems out of place in today’s market, fear not. Tomorrow’s market will be different, and maybe your book will be the convention-defying phenomenon that makes “different” the new “same.”

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