I saw a mini-blowup on Twitter last week that arose because a publishing professional had the temerity to suggest that anyone seeking publication should be very well read.
Apparently this is still a controversial opinion in some circles!
Look. If you don’t read books, no one is going to take away your laptop and lock you up to stop you from writing a book. You’re welcome to do what you wish with your time. I also think it’s fine to temporarily suspend reading new books within your genre of choice as you try to hone your own voice. Temporarily.
There are very few ironclad rules in writing and publishing, but this is one of them: you can’t be a good writer if you don’t read. Period. Full stop. I will not be taking questions.
You’re welcome to write! You’re even welcome to try your hand seeking publication. Your odds of success are just going to be abysmal.
When I was an agent, some of the easiest rejections were when people tipped me off that they weren’t well-read.
Don’t make these mistakes:
“No one has ever written anything like this before”
Sometimes authors try to impress an agent with their work’s originality and suggest that no one has ever written anything like what they’ve written.
This became almost like a fun at-work parlor game. Whenever someone suggested their book was completely unlike anything that’s ever done before, I would quickly try to name at least three books published within the last ten years that were similar.
Chances are you haven’t written something completely unlike anything that’s been written before. And that’s okay!
Besmirching other books on the market
In a spirit of false camaraderie, sometimes authors will suggest that the agent is probably tired of reading whole subgenres of books or, worse, suggest that everything being published these days is crap.
If you think everything published these days is bad you definitely aren’t reading very much.
And, oh by the way, you’re also insulting that agent’s hard work in the process. If you think everything is crap, what about the agent’s clients?
Imagine that your new book is like a startup and an agent is like your first investor. Now imagine trying to pitch an investor on a new business idea because it worked great for IBM in the 1950s. That’s what it sounds like to an agent when you anchor to books that were published a long time ago.
The world has changed since those classic books were published. Yes, classics are classics for a reason, it’s great to take bits and pieces from them like CEOs get nuggets from Jack Welch, but books need to appeal to today’s readership.
It’s okay to include a throwback comp or two, but make sure at least one of your comps was written/produced and successful in the past five years.
You have to read in order to write
The most successful authors are the ones who treat publishing like their second (or even first) career. And like any other job that means staying abreast of the competition, working extremely hard at your craft, and keeping up with your chosen industry.
If you just want to write purely as a hobby, have at it! I’m not judging. But if you want to publish: read like there’s no tomorrow.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel (now available in audio) and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: Interieur Burg Kreuzenstein, Bibliothek by Franz Poledne