Tuesday, February 16, 2010

in which being kind is *soooooo* inefficient

Ever since starting at Venerable McPulitzer, INTERN has noticed a new kind of missive clucking around among the queries and proposals that clutter the inbox. Humble and self-effacing, this gentle creature would not presume to ask Venerable McPulitzer to actually publish anything little ole it has penned—no, it would faint at the thought.

Rather, this mildly-worded inquiry asks only for advice.

Like so:

Dear distinguished editor:

I just started writing a month ago after taking a very inspiring workshop at the public library, and my internet boyfriend says I have quite a talent for the postmodern sonnet sequence. I am new to publishing and am just beginning to explore the possibilities of seeing my work in print.

Would you please read the enclosed poems and discuss with me their merits and the best strategy for getting them published? Naturally, I would be thrilled if you deemed them worthy of your house, but at this stage I am mostly seeking advice. I will stop by your office next Tuesday at lunchtime, at which time we can discuss the potential of my work

This kind of e-mail goes straight to the interns, who (cold and unhelpful as it is) often reply with a copy-and-pasted “SUBMISSIONS GUIDELINES” and generic sign-off.

Inquiries like this make INTERN’s heart twinge because they are often from little old ladies (or their little old internet boyfriends) who genuinely just want a kind, knowledgeable human to give them some honest advice. (sometimes, of course, these kinds of letters come from people who secretly think the Editor her/himself is going to read their postmodern sonnet sequence, be blown away, and write them a contract on the spot. But INTERN likes to believe most people are sincere.)

Either way, it results in bad feelings all around, because a publishing house is not in the business of giving out free writing advice, and drafting a kind and tactful personal reply to these letters takes about twenty times as long as turning down a normal query. So instead, the form SUBMISSIONS GUIDELINES e-mail gets sent, and Venny McPulitzer looks like a jerk.

Publishers don't like responding to this kind of e-mail because:

a) It Will Only Encourage Them

b) It Takes Valuable Time

c) It Will Only Encourage Them


d) It Will Only Encourage Them

In a brighter world, every publisher would have a Bureau of Oddball Letters staffed by some kind of saint who spends all day writing heartfelt personal responses to every lost soul seeking free advice.

Until then, INTERN must heartily discourage anyone from asking advice from a publisher, ever. There are books for that, and you just make the interns feel like jerks.


  1. I wonder if you could outsource that. I mean, there are likely enough people willing to do three or four a week that you could keep up with the influx. The trick is just finding those people, especially the ones who would do it for free. This might take longer, but it would hardly take more time on the publisher's part. All the interns would have to do is check who's next up on the Oddball Rotation and send it there way to deal with. That, and making sure your B of OL has enough official letterheads to print their letters on. (It has to look official.)

    In fact, if you always send a little form letter asking that these people from now on send a $20 processing fee for each request for advice, and if your Bureau is doing it for free (and, trust me, with the Internet, there will always be people willing to write letters to little old ladies for free), you could actually generate revenue from it.

  2. You could send them a link to your blog.

  3. Time on task to compose an indifferent response, eight seconds.

    Time on task to compose a heartfelt reponse, eight minutes.

    Time saved on task daily by doing neither, eight hours.

    Kharmic debts created all around, infinite.

    It seems there's a lot of brutal reality to go around in all walks of a literary life.

  4. The is a very kind and lovely world you've imagined with your Bureau of Oddball Letters. I like it. Perhaps Christian H. is on to something re: a way making it work. And, thank you for your blog full of free advice on everything from publishing to dumpster diving. I like it, too.

  5. Completely off topic: is the INTERN on Twitter? Would love to receive daily tweets as I'm sure the INTERN is far too busy to update blog every single day.

  6. I once worked for a large chain of bookstores. Once or twice a year, I would get a call from a little old lady (or her little old internet boyfriend) asking if we published books and then, when told that we didn't (a fact that invariably surprised them), they'd ask how to get published.


    And I always came up against the efficienct/kindness conundrum, which was even more difficult when I had them bleating down the phone.

  7. *Sigh* Someday those letters will cease for you, INTERN. And hopefully soon. Keep on keepin' on! :-)

    Word verification: "brabisl" ...I think I take that for heartburn...

  8. Refer them to a handful of the myriads of writers communities out there and we'll take care of them.

  9. Maybe you could write an “Introduction to Getting Published” letter that says "Venerable McPulitzer does not offer tips or critiques, but if you are seeking information on publishing, we recommend the following sources of information."

    And then list a half dozen sites where people can learn about publishing, ask questions, and post their work. Absolute Write and Writer’s Digest's "101 Best Websites for Writers" would be more than enough to get them on their way.

    It might not encourage them as much as they wanted, but it will educate them and connect them with people in the same situation. (And also lead to more internet boyfriends, which can only be a good thing.)

  10. I was thinking the same as @maine character - could the kiss-off letter not include a few links? With standard "no responsibility" language, of course.

  11. That was my Grandma's letter! No wonder she's taken to the bottle again.

    heheheeh (Sorry. I couldn't resist).

  12. There could be real money in setting up a Bureau of Oddball Letters call center that allowed publishing companies to outsource all of their quirky customers to a pool of third-party minimum wage slave English grad students (at least it's related to their major) who spend their days crafting benevolent letdowns and their nights quietly worrying that their own work isn't really any better.

  13. I'm with Maine Character here too. You need a new form letter that is basically Pub 101, or a link to Pub 101. "Publishers do C, Agents do B, and there are online communities that do A. Kindly go back and start at A."

  14. It reminds me of when someone calls into the studio asking for something other than what I do - then they try and schmoose their way in with me.

    Not gonna happen, peeps.

  15. Maybe you could point them to a writer's site that will give them all that information free. Absolute Write does that.

    Incidently, back when I was a green, teenaged newbie, I wrote a letter to a few Vennie McP's for a little picture book I had. The response wasn't the kind that made me want to use the MS to light a cigarette, it was an actual letter that told me the usual steps for getting something published. Maybe you could write up something similar.

  16. Perhaps send back the form letter along with an invoice for the time you had to spend responding to their materials.

  17. Sadly, the people who could most benefit from your advice are the ones who would never think to educate themselves by reading this blog.

    Great post, nonetheless!


  18. Perhaps direct them to the poetry section of their local Barns & Noble (if they can find the poetry volumes, tucked away back there next to the bathrooms, behind the Computer Science section with all its helpful books on C++ programming and whatnot) to do a little research on what major houses even publish poetry books anymore. I'm guessing that unless your name is The Restless Ghost of Dylan Thomas, the answer is almost none.

  19. I get the feeling that Venerable McPulitzer might someday, and in all seriousness, ask you to sell your soul to the devil.

    Not that you'd acquiesce, of course. But the hunch remains.

  20. Andrew: brilliant idea. INTERN would gladly spend a summer working at such a call center.

    mae-mae: that was in "intern contract"...you know, that contract interns have to sign in blood....wait, INTERN never mentioned that???

  21. In lieu of outsourcing, I'd have to back maine character. But call centers cost money, which I think is what we want to avoid. Stamps cost hardly more than wage slaves.

  22. Sounds like we need a Publishing Santa and an army of volunteers to answer the letters.

  23. So, are we still on for Tuesday at lunchtime, no?

  24. RB Lindberg: Unfortunately, INTERN can't tweet or write blog posts during the daytime right now, because her workstation at Venny McP is set up in such a way that she has no computer privacy, and it would be The End if anyone at V. McP found her out.

    Hence evening posts and the sporadic posting schedule!

  25. Love this site! I shall promptly send you my almost, kinda, sorta finished WIP and expect no answer. Singing: 'It's a beautiful day on the neighborhood.'

  26. And yet sadly, said person is unlikely to be reading a blog like this. But then, Google doesn’t discriminate, so I just don’t get it. I really don’t.

  27. I would be thrilled if agents could see it in their hearts to at least REPLY (i.e. acknowledge receipt - even a standard NO would do) to a seriously researched and crafted query letter sent in strict compliance to their specified submissions guidelines. Most can't be bothered in my experience. So much for time saved and karmic debt. To conduct business that way on a regular basis would seem to me to be a receipt for disaster and I hope my karmic piggy bank isn't adversely effected when I wish them just that.

  28. YES. I am also publishing intern, and I got one of these the other day. Although my impression was that it came from someone who should have known better. Agh.

  29. Intern, didja know that you are linked on Nathan's blog as part of his Friday wrap-up? So you are getting a lot of new visitors.

  30. Just wanted to say that I found out about your blog from Lee Wind's challenge thingy and you are hilarious! I hope that if you have aspirations to write fiction, you pursue them. Keep on rocking--WRITER needs a laugh during the daytime hours.