This is where the crux of my argument comes in, which is as follows: the publishing world, at least in my estimation, works just like any kind of corporation, any kind of workplace. In other words, landing a book deal is no different than landing the job of your dreams. So a lot of the same skills that apply in the job hunt should be transferable to getting published.
What’s the top piece of advice for those on the job market? Make use of any and all contacts. Anyone, be it a friend, neighbor, family member, former boss, people you’ve worked with on a project, is a contact. Ask advice, get feedback, meet with your contacts on occasion, follow up and above all, be professional. And don’t abuse your contact base either, because they are people with valuable time who don’t like to be hit up sporadically because you want something.
What gets you an interview? A CV or resume that is polished and stands out, but doesn’t stand out too much. Throw in something extra like a letter of reference or two. What gets an agent to read the first 50 pages? A kickass query letter that is polished and stands out, but doesn’t oversell the product, and maybe some choice blurbs from the right people from your contact base.
This may or may not be good advice for those seeking entry to the "book industry"--I assume it is--but that it might be accurate is itself enough to make me want to boycott every piece of product to roll off of its assembly line. (If I did that, I know I'd miss a number of actually good books, but if by taking what I can from this assembly line I was only helping to perpetuate it, I'd almost rather do without them.) I understand that book publishing is a business, but it has always been among the least business-like of businesses. If it really was "only a business," only a way to amass capital for owners and stockholders, then almost no "literary" fiction would ever get published, since very little of it ever contributes to the financial stockpile. A truly efficient business would publish only what it considered to be potentially profitable, the more blockbusterish the better. If book publishing had always followed a sound business plan, only Clancy and Grisham and company would be available in your neighborhood bookstore.
So surely book publishing doesn't really work "just like any kind of corporation." I fear that descriptions like this only encourage people to think of it as such, only reinforces the behavior inside the book business that has created a situation in which many perfectly good writers see it as a "closed shop"--closed to all but the insiders who think they know how to make a buck. If we concede that publishing books ought to be a busness like any other, the current trends taking it in that direction will only accelerate. I've recently been reminded by a writer whom I respect that there are people in and around the book "industry" who do care about good writing and only want to facilitate getting such writing into the hands of readers. I don't doubt it. But if book publishers finally do become "just like any kind of corporation," these people will become as obsolete as the books on whose behalf they now advocate.
And I've been involved in job searches, from both sides, and I think I know what contacts and connections amount to. A "connection" means the fix is in, the "merits" of the candidate (or the book) no longer count for much, greasing the wheels that move the system becomes the end and not the means. Unless, of course, you're competing with someone with even better connections. (This happened to me once. I was able to become one of two finalists for a position mostly because of a connection I had to the inside, but lost the job to someone whose connections were tighter.) Besides, if you succeed in getting the job or getting your book published through contacts with people who may or may not know anything substantial about you or your work, what's the accomplishment? Your work still hasn't been acknowledged for what it may be worth.
"What gets an agent to read the first 50 pages?" How about 50 pages that are good? Agents don't have time to sit around and read 50 pages of a manuscript? They have to be queried and blurbed? They have to be sold on the manuscript based on activities that have nothing to do with the manuscript beyond hyping it? Then what are agents for? It's a pretty sad state of affairs when editors can't edit and agents can't facilitate because they can't find the time to read. Or want to avoid it if they can.
None of this is meant to be critical of Sarah individually. I know she believes she's only trying to do some good for the writers she encounters who are in distress because they don't know how to negotiate the book business. And Sarah's real love is crime fiction, perhaps a field of publishing in which the behavior she advises seems less exceptionable. At the same time, I find it hard to believe that the great crime writers of the past, among them Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, would have been willing to jump through all of the hoops the publishing world now dangles in front of writers and would-be writers. Most of them, in fact, settled for publication in the pulpiest of magazines and the most obscure presses, in the off-chance their work might still attract readers sympathetic to what they were trying to do with it. And indeed in the long run that work continues to attract readers, even more than such writers could probably have imagined, partly because they managed to maintain their literary integrity despite the vagaries of the book business.
Perhaps the most dispiriting comment in Sarah's post is this:
If you get turned down by a job you want, it sucks—believe me, it does—but there are all sorts of reasons which may or may not have anything to do with your ability to do the job. But it’s nothing personal. When it comes to a book, yes, it’s your baby, you’ve slaved all your life, you want the rest of the world to love it—and you—as well. But if the book is turned down, well guess what: it sucks, oh yes, but there are all sorts of reasons which may or may not have anything to do with your abilities as a writer. And those reasons, too, aren’t usually personal ones.
The reasons likely are not personal, but I confess I find it almost incomprehensible that good work could be refused for reasons that "may not have anything to do with your abilities as a writer," even though I know that good work is rejected because of various and sundry "editorial" decisions. Not everyone can be published, at least not immediately, there are indeed constraints on time and money, sometimes fiction submitted for publication (both to book publishers and to magazines) ought to be rejected, and judgments about such things are always unavoidably subjective. But how often are good writers rejected because more time and effort needs to be expended on writers whose work just isn't as good, but is more clearly commerical, or more appropriately "connected"? To accept such a thing as simply part of doing business might be necessary, but it's a dubious business, nevertheless.