Wow! Quite the response to the hypothetical question about whether you would want to know if there is publication in your future and whether that would stop you from writing — 186 comments and counting. One lesson I learned from that post: never play poker with an author, because they will cheat!! The number of people who fudged on the hypothetical was off the charts. I’ll be charitable and chalk that one up to creativity and natural rulebreaking disposition I guess.
I wanted to call your attention to a recent comment by vaqqb, because I think it makes for an interesting point of discussion.
You know, Nathan, this is a more relevant question that it looks, because so much irrational author behavior springs from it. Agonizing over rejection-letter comments, begging for any kind of personalized rejection, putting things through one crit group after another, going into pitch sessions with half-finished novels–all of that because we want someone to tell us straight-up, yes or no, are we any good? Are we ever going to be any good?
Look how many people would stop writing if they couldn’t sell it; or better, look how many people would change the way they spent their time, efforts and presumably money if they knew they couldn’t sell what they wrote.
From our perspective any agent COULD be our seer, with better accuracy than our unpublished crit partners, longsuffering spouses, or moms. Instead they send us fortune-cookie platitudes in a form letter. Where’s our Delphi? Where’s our Simon Cowell? What do we have to do to get an honest “no”?
So why don’t I give people the Simon Cowell treatment and tell people when they are the literary equivalent of Spencer Pratt’s soul?
Before I answer that, let me reluctantly admit that at times it is tempting. When you’ve read twenty queries in a row by people who will almost positively never be published, sometimes this voice in the back of the head wants to tell people to just stop and go and spend some time with their family. And for about 50% of the queries I receive, I think I could probably tell someone with 99% accuracy that they don’t have the chops for mainstream publication.
But I don’t give into that temptation. And here’s why:
#1: It’s just not my place. Who am I to tell someone they shouldn’t follow their dreams? I’m just trying to do my job, which is sell books.
#2: The people who have the least chance tend to be the people who are most hostile to hearing that.
#3: Who knows, anyway?
That last point is somewhat complex, because it’s my job to assess talent and abilities and good from bad, and in my own defense I would say that given that I spend hours every day assessing whether something is good or bad, just as with anything else, I’ve gotten very in tune with quickly and accurately assessing whether something is good. But at the end of the day, I’m just a guy with my own subjective opinions, and someone else might find merit in books that I don’t get. That’s why I specifically say in my queries that someone else may feel differently.
This all comes down to one basic fact about books: there is no Delphi. There are some people who rise above the cacophony of opinions and become bestsellers and award winners, but even those people will have a huge number of detractors. And there are others who most people don’t think are good, but there will be some people who read their work and find meaning and value in it.
Yes, I could tell the truth to people who I think really don’t have a shot, but trust me, they they don’t want to hear it from me. And I’m not the person to tell them.