Readers versus Publishers?


Are readers and agents looking for different things?

The rule of thumb when submitting to an agent, or straight to a publisher, is that to even be accepted the manuscript must be perfect. No errors and perfect grammar, pacing, characterization, plot, setting, etc. It seems story comes second to mad language skillz.

Or so I've heard. I've never actually gotten beyond the arduous query process. You know, the part where you have to write a better query letter than novel. I was never much good at getting noticed by the pretty girls people who mattered.

Publishers want something original, they don't want to see the same old thing. That's something else I've heard at various times. But they don't practice what they preach. It's apparently easier to publish something that has already proven to sell, than it is to publish something “original”. Original is code for “this is not the readers' comfort zone”.

Agents, but more so publishers, take few chances. Once in a while they will, but only  once in a while. And the marketing department must okay it. The marketing department must okay everything!

So to attract the attention of an agent or publisher it helps to A) know someone inside the business; B) write a phenomenal query letter; C) write what they know will sell.

But what about readers? What do readers want/expect/hope for?

Perfection seems to work for agents and publishers, but readers don't seem to care. I mean, if Amanda Hocking can be a big hit among readers, you know they're not holding writers up to the same standard as an agent or editor would.

Readers are more likely to take a risk on something original because they're only paying a few dollars to do so, instead of the thousands needed for a publisher to fund a single book. There is little risk for readers to step outside of their comfort zones for one book.

Furthermore, readers aren't paid to edit, but pay to enjoy reading. They expect enjoyment, so they tend to want to enjoy what's before them. Unless the book is terrible, most readers won't care one way or the other if it's not the best writing  they've ever read. They're less concerned with they're/their/there than “Does Mary find the killer before it's too late?”

Granted, Amanda Hocking doesn't write like she just crawled out of second grade, but I doubt she'd have gotten published if she hadn't first proven herself as an indie author. So readers obviously expect the writing to be legible. But they don't seem to expect, or even want, what publishers and agents want.

Whatever magic involved in the success of a self-published author isn't quite the same magic involved in the success of a traditionally published author. Agents and editors look at the writing from a professional/market point of view, but it's there their  market. It's not yours or mine (assuming you're not an agent or acquisition editor). Readers focus on something else.

But what? What is more important to the self-published author than being perfect? What can possibly be better than months checking and rechecking a manuscript for errors in spelling and character development?

Story.

Story is often overlooked in our grammar-intensive writing culture, but story really is the most important thing. The prose has to be well written, but it doesn't have to be perfect. You don't have to aspire to be the next Stephen King. Readers don't seem to be paying attention to style so much as story.

Story is where it's at!

Story is what an agent or editor will look at and say, “This won't sell,” while a reader looks at the same story and says, “Dude, I've got to tell my friend about this!” 

After all, it's not the reader's job to care how well it's written. Most readers really only care if Mary found the killer before it was too late.

For self-publishers hawking fiction, it's far better to be a story teller than a grammarian.

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21 Responses to Readers versus Publishers?

  1. I'd have to agree, I get very different feedback from straight up readers. They don't care so much about typos or grammatical errors, they just want to know what happens next!

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    1. Those are the people I want to meet :)

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  2. Personally, I am a stickler for grammar, but, I agree - if the story isn't good, no amount of editing or corrections will make it better in the telling.
    Very informative and interesting post!

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    1. Me too, Martha. I'm a "grammarian", lol. But most people aren't...

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  3. Thank god you said that mate you have seen my grammar! When I read and I do an awful lot there. Could be millions of. Grammar errors would not matter to me.

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    1. You're a fine example of reading through typos because the story is too damn interesting to put down :D

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  4. As a reader I care about story first, although typos and grammatical errors, can be a distraction. I've read plenty of books that in the end were "perfect" but the story left something to be desired.

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    1. For me personally, I can handle a few typos if the story is good enough. But yeah, I've read some stellar writing that didn't have much in the way of storytelling. Ugh.

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  5. Well written, RJ. In my own self-published opus there are around twelve typos and one wrong date- puzzled how that got by me as I did my research and fund the correct date. You and people who have commented are right: it is the story that matters in the end.

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    1. Plus, with self-published writers we can always go back in and fix mistakes. Nothing is set in stone!

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  6. I think good grammar and a well-built story go hand in hand. As a reader, if I notice too many misspellings or incorrect uses of tense and other grammatical errors, it takes me right out of the story and suspension of disbelief is ruined.

    We all make mistakes so if one or two slip by I can forgive it. But words/stories deserve our respect and if we want to capture our readers attention we should do all we can to make the experience of reading our work a good one.

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    1. Good points, Tameka. We've got to show we care about our work. Any story riddled with spelling errors and bad characterizations are going to act as a signal that the writer doesn't care. That's a poison.

      But we should focus on story even more than we focus on grammar. I'd rather settle for well written instead of perfect if it meant focusing more on making a great story.

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  7. I couldn't agree more! I think some people think when they see posts like this that self published authors don't care about grammar and spelling but we do! Serious writers certainly care about these things before they hit the publish button

    But perfect grammar and spelling never takes the place of a good story. I can overlook mistakes if the story is good.

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    1. I love your point of view, Victoria. I'm with you!

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  8. As simply a reader I can tell you for me it is the story content, and how well that is put forth that keeps me reading. Grammar and spelling are important, but I read for the story.

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  9. J.R., I get you. The story is paramount. At the same time, there are writer-readers who shudder at poor grammar and wouldn’t think twice about discrediting the storyteller if the writing is poorly crafted. The more professional the storyteller, the more likely s/he is to succeed across the board.
    Nowadays, the writer’s market is more accessible, since Indie publishing has boomed, but a well-crafted story, to me, is always superior to lackadaisical and careless writing.
    There’s much debate these days about Indie publishing vs. conventional. I’m still a bit on the fence with this. I see the pros and cons with both. Convince me that one is better than the other ;-)

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    1. I think the more serious an author is about his work, and the more he respects the reader, the better edited the work will be.

      I don't think one publishing type is better than the other. It depends on the writer, her situation, her goals, her personality, etc. One writer would be smart to, and another would be smart not to. It's very subjective and personal.

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  10. Great post! As I already answered on FB, but to sum it up, in general it does matter to edit at least basic things like spelling to show the writer does care enough to proof-read. However, if there is no great story there, no amount of editing will help it to survive! Take care!

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  11. I'm not a native English speaker, and I don't care about the bindings of grammar either! (worst.. I can read English far better than my native language, and that's the language I do all the reading in) The story, the essence and the setting is the only thing I seem to care! So many different people use the language in so many ways, changing through ages... So I just overlook! lol...and I loved the "..the pretty girls... oops sorry.. people who mattered" part... Do they allow such a thing in conventional publishing?

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  12. I think of grammar as the thing you fix after you have written a brilliant story, but it IS terribly important. The great thing about grammar is that you can hire somebody/get an OCD friend to proof your grammar, and your friend will be thrilled to help if the story is good. The easiest thing of all is to build perfect grammar into your brain so that you couldn't make a mistake if you tried and all you (and your OCD friend) have to worry about is the typos.
    Note: Commas are the root of all evil. I'm not sure there is a human alive who can actually apply every single comma rule correctly in the first draft. Every time I internalize a new comma rule, I discover one I've been using wrong for forty years.

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