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Gatekeepers

January 30, 2008

Almost every writer I know, myself included, dreads the part of the writing process where you have to put together the submission materials: The query letter, the logline, the one paragraph summary, the synopsis, and the outline.

There’s the school of thought some writers attend for self-comfort that chants, “We’re creative; we think differently; it’s hard to write these materials.”

Too darned bad.

Yes, it’s hard. I belong to the cadre (which includes many publishing professionals) who believes if you don’t know your material well enough to sum it up in a sentence, it’s not polished enough to send out.

Writers need to remember many things when building a career. One of them is that success in this business is just as much about skills as it as about creativity. Part of your job as a writer is to learn correct spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and a variety of story-telling techniques. As your skills mature, then you can explore new avenues of style and technique, but they are choices based in a solid foundation, not mistakes or carelessness. There’s an enormous quality difference between the work of a storyteller who breaks new ground in structure and style and one without the foundation who’s winging along “because I feel like it.”

The skills required to put together a solid query package also require mastery of structure and style. It’s a chance for the writer to make a wonderful first impression. It’s a chance for the writer to show off, in the best possible way, that, not only has the writer honed his storytelling craft, but the skills required to build a solid, long-lasting career are also in place. The writer’s taken the time to research the market and craft the best and tightest materials possible to help the people on the other side of the table – editors, publishers, marketing people – make a success of the book.

When you create professional, polished materials for your query package, it will actually get to the person in the organization who makes the decisions. And that is because it will have made it past the gatekeepers.

Gatekeepers are important in business. Everyone thinks they have the best and brightest idea in the universe and, because they are so unique, should get individual attention RIGHT NOW. No single individual can meet those demands. So assistants are hired. Gatekeepers.

How well you deal with gatekeepers has a great deal to do with how well you structure your career. I’ve been a gatekeeper, and, believe me, the ones who took the time to learn the craft, to send materials in the format that we needed to get the proposal through the various editorial and marketing meetings, who bothered to learn the names of the assistants and take the time to be pleasant in everything from phone conversations to chance meetings in the hallway – those were the ones who landed the contracts and usually sold the most books. Not because they kissed ass and people fell all over themselves to please them; because they understood this is a business as much as a calling, and they made sure we had the materials we needed to make the book as successful as possible.

Gatekeepers open most of the mail. They read the letters. They decide what goes to the boss, and what they can handle on their own. Handling a letter on their own means that, if they can tell right off the bat that a project isn’t right for the house (usually because the writer hasn’t bothered to research what that particular editor or house actually publishes), a rejection letter goes out. If it’s on the verge, it’ll go into the general slush pile until someone can get around to reading it. Few houses can afford to keep a reading staff on payroll. The publisher I worked for, and several of the publishers with whom I’ve worked, had a central slush pile in one of the gatekeepers’ offices; whenever someone on staff who enjoyed/was assigned to reading had time, they signed out a piece, took it home, read it, and did a report, which decided whether or not a rejection letter went out or anyone else ever looked at it. Reading doesn’t happen during office hours; readers take the material to read on the train, on weekends, on vacation. Slush piles can sit around for months. Authors already contracted to the house or submitted through specific contacts are read first. It’s only when those submissions run out that anyone can even approach the slush pile. There’s always too much to be read and too few hours in a week.

If the letter/submission materials are polished, professional, and follow guidelines, the gatekeeper takes it into the boss and talks about it; if the gatekeeper is really excited, that person asks to be the first reader. If the manuscript fulfills the promise of the submission package, a positive reader report is given. Sometimes, this means another gatekeeper is assigned for a second read; sometimes it means the boss takes a look.

Suppose three letters come in. Writer A sends a handwritten, scrawled note on a page ripped out of a spiral notebook. The note is full of misspellings, talks mostly about how unique and break-through the book is, and how it’s sure to be a best-seller, and rambles on about how no one understands the writer or good writing. Writer B sends in a one-page query letter with a creative logline, a paragraph of information that leaves the reader wanting more, and it’s within the realm of what the house covers. Writer C sends a carefully typed letter, two to three pages long, with lots of detail about the piece, market research, etc., explaining that the material is not usually what the house handles, but, in this case, Writer C thinks that they should make an exception in this case.

In most scenarios, Writer A will get a form rejection. Writer B will probably be asked for a partial. Writer C’s fate will depend on the interests of the particular gatekeeper and the type of day the person’s having: If there’s room, time, and the letter is intriguing enough, and the topic hot enough in the market, Writer C might (20% chance) be asked to send a partial, but it won’t be first in line for reading. It’s more likely that Writer C will also receive a rejection; had the material been honed a little more carefully and cut and sent to a house that specializes in Writer C’s topic, Writer C might get a bite. Writer B’s work may still get rejected for a myriad of reasons (too much in that particular area this season, the book doesn’t fulfill the promise of the query package, etc.), but at least Writer B has the strongest chance of having the work actually read.

Many gatekeepers are the future agents, editors, and publishers with whom writers will work. They want to fall in love with every piece of material that lands on the desk, and are disappointed when it doesn’t happen. If you can make a gatekeeper fall in love with your work, you have a much better chance of acceptance. Gatekeepers have long memories. Today’s gatekeeper is tomorrow’s junior editor, who might contact you from a different office and ask if you’ve got something new to read. Remember, no matter how talented you are, there are at least a thousand other writers lined up behind you who are just as talented. If they’ve taken the time to learn and hone their craft, they will gain entry, while you’re left outside.

A writer who says, “I can’t do this; it’s not the way my mind works” is lying to himself (herself) and all the rest of us. What the person really means is, “I can’t be bothered to learn.” Anyone can learn how to put together good submission materials. It takes time, it takes perseverance, and a lot of frustration. It’s hard and it’s work. It’s also necessary.

Again, we always come back to: How badly do you want this?

And only you can answer.

–Devon Ellington

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