I’ve been writing for most of my life, so I can’t count the number of times I’ve had somebody tell me in a lofty voice that I would never be able to make it in publishing because the only way to break into publishing is to “know” somebody. It’s a myth that, like many of us I’m sure, I’ve run into again and again—this idea that publishing is a massive conspiracy of well-connected people who close ranks against any newbies and allow only people they deem worthy to be published.
(As a Mormon, my favorite iteration of the one that blew up the internet many years ago, in which some people posited that there was a “Mormon YA Mafia”—composed of people like Shannon Hale and Stephenie Meyer—controlling who was successful at publishing YA. Yeah, guys, I’m 100% sure that’s not true.)
This has always bothered me because it just seemed so patently false, and it’s bothered me even more this year as I and so many of my Pitch Wars friends have signed with agents—agents, I might add, whom few or none of us knew before we signed with them.
To see if my theory (there is no secret cabal of publishing gatekeepers; you are not less likely to be published because you’re not well-connected in publishing) held true, I decided to take a poll of writers who are or have previously been agented or published. It was a short and sweet poll, with only a small handful of questions designed to tease out whether or not the majority of writers who took it did, in fact, manage to get their agent/editor through means nepotistic.
The answer, unsurprisingly, is a resounding NO.
Of the people who responded to my poll, 48 (67%)—by far the vast majority of responders—found their agent/editor the old-fashioned way: through the slushpile (i.e., sending lots and lots of queries). The next biggest category was people who found their agent/editor through a contest, with 15 (20%)—though a lot of my network of writers were met through online contests, so it’s entirely possible that number is a little higher than in the population at large. Of all the writers who took my survey, only 6 (7%) met their agent through a client or other referral, and only 2 (3%) knew their agent before they signed with him/her.
Likewise, most writers didn’t consider themselves well-connected in publishing before they started trying to get published—only 8 (11%) had previous publishing connections.
And the kicker: Of the 72 who responded to my survey, fully 62 (86%) of writers said that they did not connect with their agent/editor through any previous publishing connections. Yep—the vast majority of us began our careers as absolute nobodys.
(And on a mostly-unrelated but further encouraging note, the majority of responders in my survey—23%—didn’t sign with their agent until after 2 or more years of querying.)
This has been mostly true in my experience, as well. While, ironically enough, I’m pretty sure I did get an offer from the agent I signed with because she also reps a friend of mine—only because my agent was so swamped with queries that I’m pretty sure she would never have seen my offer nudge if my friend hadn’t prompted her to search for my nudge e-mail in her inbox!—I also had offers from nine other agents on that manuscript, none of which came through nepotistic means. About half of those offers were from the #DVPit contest on Twitter, and the other half were through regular old-fashioned querying. In fact, the two agents with probably the biggest name recognition both offered just based on a query they’d pulled out of the slush pile.
Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule. And obviously, people who already have big-name notoriety—like Hollywood celebs—tend to get much, much larger advances than us ordinary human beings. (But not even always—there are plenty of stories of debut authors nobody had ever heard of before who were given seven-figure advances.) But if you’ve always dreamed of being traditionally published and been intimidated by the idea that you know nobody, take heart: You stand a great chance! In fact, I’d say that probably the BEST thing you could do for your chances at publication are find a few really solid critique partners to help your writing grow to the point it needs to be at for publication.
So go forth and query… and don’t worry too much about that mythical YA Mafia.