On the Frustration of the Friend of a Friend

There is a phenomenon in publishing which seems, to the perpetrators, nothing but a harmless request, a simple favor, and something of a delight to all parties. To the people on the other end, it is dreaded, horrible, and impossible to explain why without sounding like an asshole. So I’m taking one for the team and I’m going to explain once and for all why we hate getting manuscripts from that friend of a friend.

Every editor and agent has experienced this: an aunt’s neighbor/a piano teacher’s sister/the gardener’s tax attorney, has written a book for kids. Because writing for kids is perceived as being easy, and besides, how hard can it be to get a book for three-year olds published? It seems like nothing to ask a professional to take a look at the manuscript. Why wouldn’t we? It will only take a minute, and it’s probably lovely. A dentist who wants to educate kids about dental health with a funny little tooth character? Why not send it to the vice president at Penguin? I’m sure she has time.

The thing is, I want all the authors to succeed. But I can’t help an author succeed unless they are willing to work as hard as I am. Books for kids aren’t something that are jotted off and sent to a publisher and then magically turned into books. Children’s book authors spend years studying the craft, joining writing groups, attending conferences, getting feedback, revising, scrapping projects entirely and starting over again and again. And so, when a person has not respected the long process, or thinks they can do all of that in one afternoon while the kids are napping, it’s insulting to our entire industry. And then to be asked to take it seriously is lemon juice on the cut.

I know many a publishing pro who has lied about her job at parties. My mother isn’t allowed to tell strangers what I do for a living because she forwarded one too many things my way. Cut off. But it’s hard to know whether something might have legs or not, right? What if this really is the next Seuss incarnate? Better safe than sorry, right? Mmm, not really. You have good sense. You have eyes. You like a good book. You can probably tell if something is truly clever or whether it is going to be a time-and-soul suck for a very busy human.

But reading a picture book only takes a few minutes, doesn’t it? Yeah, kind of. But ask a person in publishing when they might have a few minutes, and they will likely tell you “March”. And it’s not just reading. It’s reading, and really considering, and formulating a thoughtful response that won’t offend either the author or the friend who forwarded. It takes time, and the right mindset, and that combo is sometimes hard to come by.

So consider this a PSA. If you really want to help your boyfriend’s grandmother’s manicurist, consider referring them to the SCBWI, an international organization dedicated to helping amateur writers gain professional status. Or, if you’re in a bit of a fouler mood, you can send them this post.

Or you can consider this approach: “No, I didn’t say editor. I said she’s a MATADOR.”

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14 comments

  1. Claribel Ortega · December 9, 2015

    Reblogged this on Rad/Dom.

    Like

  2. JanetReid · December 9, 2015

    1. I love the title of your blog.
    2. Matador. Perfect.
    3. This post is required reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pat Zietlow Miller · December 9, 2015

    This happens to authors too. A former co-worker’s cousin’s wife has this manuscript. Your agent only considers manuscripts by referrals. Could you send it to her? Or, if not her, your editor? To the person asking it seems like such a harmless request. Just send it on. But you read it and know it’s not nearly ready, and if you send it your reputation with your agent and editor will not benefit. Yet if you refuse you look unhelpful for not doing one simple thing that would only take a minute or two. I’ve implemented pretty much a blanket “no” approach. I won’t even read it. Sigh.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Carmela Martino · December 10, 2015

    Screenwriters deal with this too. There’s a great essay on the subject by Josh Olson, if you can ignore his use of vulgar language: http://www.villagevoice.com/news/i-will-not-read-your-fucking-script-6704899

    Like

  5. Philip Nel · December 10, 2015

    Thank you for this. I’m an English professor who writes books about children’s books, and yet I too get these queries. I’ve even had total strangers call me on my office phone, seeking publishing advice, describing their children’s book. Or send me their children’s book manuscripts in the mail. It’s a bit baffling.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Julie Hedlund · December 10, 2015

    Your last sentence is the best thing I’ve read all month!

    Like

  7. kpsimmon · December 10, 2015

    This happens to publicists in the publishing arena (and I’m sure in other arenas) as well. I, too, had to explain to my mother and other relatives that I cannot just “read that novel quickly” and give them advice on what they should do next. Or who they should go to next. Or how they should self-publish that book next. Or anything next.

    Like

  8. Julie Griffin (@redjasperjulie) · December 10, 2015

    Excellent article. Really enjoyed it. Appreciate the advice, Matador.

    Like

  9. Melissa Manlove · December 10, 2015

    Thank you for this, Heather! Many people don’t realize just how MANY people are in the exact same place– wanting a few minutes of our time. SCBWI’s membership is 22,000. Children’s publishers get thousands of manuscript submissions every year. That adds up to a lot of ‘a few minutes’.

    Like

  10. Virginia Law Manning · December 10, 2015

    I think offering the advice “join SCBWI,” is wonderful. Honestly, this will help the author far more than a one-time critique because SCBWI can help the writer acquire the skills and build a support system for the long term. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” If it’s worth your investment, maybe you should create a ‘business card’ for these situations. The business card could give the SCBWI contact info and maybe a line of encouragement.

    Like

  11. Jeannie Mobley · December 11, 2015

    Wait–you’re a matador???

    Great post! So true. Will be bookmarking this for future inquiries.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. jesseklausmeier · December 11, 2015

    I love you. That is all.

    Like

  13. deborahunderwood · December 12, 2015

    I was just going to say this, too! Thanks, Pat. (Another problem is the “my cousin is going to be in your city and wants to pick your brain about the picture book she wrote last week; can you just have lunch with her and give her some advice?” maneuver.)

    Olé!

    Like

  14. alisonmcghee · December 21, 2015

    Oh my Lord, this is the life of a writer too. Along with, “Can I use your name if I send my picture book to your agent?” (What am I supposed to say in response? I haven’t even read the thing!) True story: A dog park acquaintance a few years ago, a business exec (of course) to me: “I have a great idea for a children’s book. How do I sell it?” Me: “What’s the idea?” Her (in hushed tones, as if it’s proprietary information): “The idea is that children live in a world that’s too materialistic.” Me: “. . . ” Thank you for this fabulous post!

    Like

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