Covers and Credits (like D&D only it stings more when your characters die)

I just wrote this in regards to a question about queries and not having any professional writing credits:

It’s always incredibly difficult to land an agent. But the writing credits issue has very little to do with it. I know that’s something that’s very hard to believe when you’re first starting out (I certainly had enough trouble getting it into my head) but credits have almost zero impact on acceptances. 99.9999 percent of the time the story gets accepted or doesn’t based on its own merits and the current needs of the editor or agent and nothing else really matters. The only exception to that is if you’re at the stage in your career where your name sells lots of copies all by itself and that’s only true of a very small portion of the folks at the top of the field.

What a writing credit does is tell the editor or agent that you’ve done this successfully in the past, which has the effect of resorting your place in the submissions stack. I still get rejected by editors all the time–far more often than I got accepted in fact. I just get rejected much faster than the new writer because when I send something in I go to very close to the top of the stack of things to get looked at. Considering the pace of publishing, that’s a distinct advantage because it means I can get my work in front of more editors faster, which in turn means that I’m more likely to find the right editor for a piece sooner, but it’s an advantage of time-to-response, nothing more. Every pro that I know gets rejections, and mostly lots more than they get acceptances.

Okay, that’s the bad news. The good news is twofold.

First, agents don’t expect to see a whole lot of submissions with credits listed on them. The period in time when a writer is most likely to be looking for an agent is when they are at the beginning of their career and they have no writing credits. Any agent who is actively taking slush is expecting that the vast majority of what they see is going to come in with no credits attached to it and is expecting to make decisions based on the query and the writing. That’s just how things work at the beginning of careers, so don’t sweat it. Really.

…yeah, I know. My saying that isn’t going to make a lick of difference in the worries department when you’re looking at the query and trying to figure out how to make it look better. But try to keep it in mind anyway.

Second, and this is the part that’s really really hard to internalize. The agent/editor is on your side. The only people in the whole world who want you to succeed more than the agent or editor does are members of your immediate family. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s not. Most agents and editors don’t make a whole lot of money and they work horrible hours. They’re in the business for the same reason that writers are. They love books with a passion that’s very close to unhealthy. There is nothing that makes an agent or editor happier than pulling a book out of the slush, starting to read, and not being able to stop. Every agent or editor I’ve ever heard talk about finding those gems in the slush pile just lights up. There’s actually a thread about it on Making Light right now.

One final note. I started in short stories. The cover letter that I sent with the WebMage short story which started my career was built on top of a blank that Steve Brust showed me when I was starting out. It looked pretty bare and I was nervous about it, but the story sold, and here I am. Here’s the letter minus my no longer valid contact info:

<Address line 1
Address line 2
phone number
email addy
July 21, 1998>*

George Scithers,
Editor, Weird Tales
123 Crooked Lane,
King of Prussia, PA 19406-2570

Dear George Scithers:

I am enclosing the Contemporary Fantasy short story WebMage for your consideration. I hope that you enjoy it.

Please write or call if you have any questions.


Kelly McCullough

That’s it. Really, don’t sweat the credits. At the beginning of the game they just don’t matter.

*portion within <> was top right rather than top left

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog April 21 2009, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)