Monday, October 22, 2012

On Contests and subjectivity: Hook Line and Sinker Stats



I love contests.

No really, I LOVE contests.

In fact, at one point, I’d entered so many contests that I didn’t even know where I’d entered all my contests. I got a somewhat annoyed email from someone saying I’d won a contest and had never emailed them back. Whoops.

But those were the “win an ARC” kind, not the PUT YOUR MANUSCRIPT IN FRONT OF AN AGENT!!!!! kind. I think you can see the difference for me. So I entered a contest last week, and I didn’t make it past round one. While obsessing, I read through all the entries in my category and ranked them. If you’re wondering this isn’t to be rude or cruel, it’s to get a handle on something really important: subjectivity.

And let’s face it, subjectivity plays a HUGE part in the whole publishing journey. Need more convincing? Fine, do you like Twilight? If you post that in the comments it’ll be an even 50% for people who love it and people who hate it. I think I might be the only person in the world who has less passionate opinion of the book. My point is simple: Twilight made a ton of money. A ton. It sold millions of copies and spawned a huge movie franchise that’s poised to smash a bunch of records. No matter how you feel about the book, you have to admit, someone made some money on that book. And that’s one of the ingredients.

Now imagine if Stephanie Meyer had received 14 rejection letters, decided she was never going to make it and stopped querying that book to write the next. It’s easy to look back and say, “that would be a bone-headed move.” But in the thick of it, imagine how crushing those 14 letters could have been. Especially if she’d been querying in batches, sent out five at a time, waited for those to trickle in, then sent out another 5. She could have been querying for months with nothing but no. Ouch.

And yeah, we’ve all been there, and that’s why I love contests. They feel like a backstage pass at wildly popular concert. Maybe you’ll get the lead singer’s autograph.

Or maybe not.

That’s the downside of contests: we get excited and forget how subjective it is. I know we all want to be the query contest beauty queen, but when we don’t make it to the next round, or get a single request, or don't get picked to play in the Baker's Dozen, well, that hurts. So it’s time to remember two things:

Thing one: these things are SO SUBJECTIVE it kills. What if one of the judges is a magic realism fan, and you’ve got an urban fantasy with magic wielding faeries? Yeah, you’re gonna have a hard time getting past that judge. What if you’ve written a portal story that’s beautifully conceived and everyone loves it, but the judge just read a trite portal story that gutted the take off and botched the landing? Yeah, that story isn’t advancing either.

Thing two: I know I’ve said this before, but we writers really aren’t looking to win a popularity contest with the agent hunt. We are looking for one (un, 1, agent in the singular) who gets our book on a profound level. I know that if only one agent takes the bait, it seems like the prospects of landing a publishing deal seem slim, but it’s possible that all those other agents looked at your book and thought “that’s cute, but I don’t have time for that today.” Seriously, just because they don’t rep it, or don’t want to rep it, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t buy it. All you need is one agent to love it.

And without further ado, proof. I said I read through all the entries for MG Hook, Line, and Sinker and I ranked them, so here’s how my picks stacked up against the judges.

When I read entries for a contest, I rank them into Yes, maybe yes, maybe no, and No. Both the “yes” and “no” votes are emphatic. That means for a no, there’s pretty much no way I’d read it, based either on concept, or writing. For a Yes, I’m really excited to read. Then there’s the maybe category. I split the maybes into yes and no because there’s usually some reluctance to drop entries into the emphatic category, but let’s face it, sometimes there's a problem with an entry. Like maybe the concept was awesome sauce, but the writing a little awkward. That’s a maybe, and the yes or no sub-tag has everything to do with the severity of the flaw (crummy concept with spectacular writing: maybe yes, for instance).

Right, and here they are.

In my initial read through, I have 10 yeses, 11 maybe-yeses, 8 maybe-no, and 9-no. I’m sure those of you good at math are wondering where that last entry is, since 39 people entered. I don’t judge my own because I’m biased about it.

Of those who advanced to the next round (twenty total), 7 were my original yeses, 7 were maybe-yeses, 3 maybe-nos, and 3 nos. Yeah, three nos made it to round two. Advancing to the final round (with agents!) 5 yes, 5 maybe-yes, 2 maybe-no, and 2 no.

So yeah, five of my original ten yeses didn’t make it to the final round. That's half. Half of the books I would have picked up based on the blurb to read the first chapter in a store didn't get to the agent round. That’s how subjective this whole publishing thing is.

As always, good luck to the winners! I hope everyone meets their perfect agent match between now and Wednesday!

p.s. I have way more stats, like genre and gender, and if people are really interested, I'll post those too, but people are probably a little bored with looking at data sets. 

18 comments:

  1. This post is SO TRUE. I judged for GUTGAA this year and so much of it is personal preference. ESPECIALLY when it comes to those 'on the fence' ones. The writing is pretty good, the concept is pretty interesting, so which do I choose? The ones I would read.

    And that is different for everyone.

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    1. The on the fence ones are why I have the two categories. If the goal is to weed out the field, I do that really well, but I sometimes want to throw more into my yes bucket than is reasonable. Hence the maybe field.

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  2. I've never had good luck with contests. Weirdly enough I've had better luck with cold querying.

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    1. Yeah, I have interesting luck all around. Sometimes, I think query is the way for me, but I get so much great feedback from contests, I can't imagine not entering them.

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  3. I did the GUTGAA pitch round and I made it through round one with flying colors and got on agent request, but it wasn't an agent I was interested in, becasue I knew she wouldn't like my story. And guess what, she didn't like it! The funny thing was all of the judges LOVED my query, but the agents didn't. Subjective? I think so. Great post!

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    1. Yeah, I just checked through and of my five Yeses that made it to the final round, 4 of them got requests, so Yay. And even one of my No got a request, so I throw my hands up in the air and say "There's no accounting for taste." On the other hand, that means that someone out there should absolutely love my stuff too.

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  4. This is SO true! Personal taste is huge. And then when you put an agent in the mix you add publishing companies choices. Because that's the thing. And agent may love your story but they also know and pay attention to what the editors are asking for. What they will publish and what they will reject. And the publishers "try" to know what we the reader will buy. Which goes back to personal taste. Haha. Isn't this industry nifty.

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    1. Oh man, I think there's more than a little bit of luck that goes into the draw. Otherwise nothing would get published. (p.s. I have my fingers crossed for you!!!)

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  5. The stats prove your point definitively. I love contests too - for me, the hard part is seeing entry as equal to everyone else's and not giving up before I've even sent the story out :-)

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    1. I find myself reading through the rules for new contests every day. It's like a bad addiction for me. Sort of like this.

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  6. Agreed. I often don't like a few of the entries that go through to second and third rounds. Very dissapointing sometimes, but that's life.

    I however am done with contests for a while. They are awesome, but after a while I think you need a break from them. I really need a break.

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    1. Yeah, the key is to go through and read ALL of the entries. What I find is that it makes me much more able to see the flaws in mine.

      Though, that isn't always a good thing. I've made a lot of revisions based on something I learned from a contest...

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  7. It is definitely personal taste. Good luck to all the yeses.

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    1. Oh, they're finding out tonight... And yeah, I totally wish them luck. We could all use some, and right now I feel a little bit like Reptevia.

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  8. I've been having somewhat more luck with contests recently (including two behind-the-scenes partial requests from agents). It all depends on what kind of contest it is, who's judging, and which agents may be lurking. Sometimes I think the odds are stacked against me since I write historical, not a very trendy genre at the moment, and I write straight, serious historical, not Gossip Girl in period clothes like The Luxe. By now I'm used to being in a very small minority of historical writers, and in an even smaller minority of entrants who write in third-person omniscient.

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    1. That sounds very exciting! I've had some luck (squandered on a manuscript not quite ready), but I enter everything for two reasons: connections with other authors, and feedback. I'm a complete masochist when it comes to feedback. I want more more more.

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  9. i love this! the subjectivity of writing was a big reason i didnt like english class in school. we had to write what the teacher wanted to hear!

    the whole industry is based on what sells to the majority & agents are looking for that based on their preferences & trends & sales...

    i found that the query needs to make the book sound exciting, with limited background & details. the back covers of books are great examples of how to entice an agent...

    excellent data analysis!

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  10. Yup, subjectivity. Interesting--your selections vs those that moved on. I had the same experience in a contest a few months ago. All the selections to move on were "artsy", whereas I took a comedy angle. I suppose the judge wasn't so much into laughing. *shrugs* What can you do? I liked my piece, and that's all that really matters.

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