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.
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.
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 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.