My blog last week, On Being an Aging Children’s Writer, generated many responses both on my website and beyond it. Some of those responses were about the trials—and more often the fears—surrounding aging. Some of us are convinced we’re being written off by young editors who choose to be surrounded only by the same. But eventually the conversation moved on to center around a single word, quiet.
I had said in my blog that my agent, Rubin Pfeffer, often warns me, gently, that a manuscript might be “too quiet.” Many of you wrote to say you are being told the same. A discussion of what quiet means and a defense of quiet books followed.
I have my own thoughts about “quiet” and “too quiet,” but I decided to go to the source—at least my own personal source—of the word, Rubin. And he gave me the gracious gift of responding fully and deeply to my request for amplification.
Here are Rubin’s words:
“Quiet” is relative. And “Quiet” needs to be taken in a myriad of ways and meanings. It’s about context. And largely the context is marketability.
Marketability from an agent’s point of view.
Marketability from an editor’s point of view.
Marketability from an imprint’s point of view.
Marketability from a publisher’s point of view.
Marketability from a sales person’s point of view.
Marketability from a bookseller’s point of view.
All of these contexts and more.
Let’s get a couple of points made and out of the way first—
Quiet books are fine, great even. Quiet books are read and adored. Quiet books sell, have always sold, and will continue to be sold.
Second point—you, MDB, are not perceived as “Quiet ” or as an “Aging Writer” by booksellers, publishers, or anyone else on the publishing food chain. Those words don’t define you or categorize you. You are relevant. You are admired. And you are attractive to all. You sell, you deliver, you receive starred reviews, and you inspire.
And sometimes you write “quiet” manuscripts. Sometimes they sell and will become prominent, wonderful books. Sometimes these manuscripts don’t sell. I’d take your odds any day.
That out of the way, let’s quickly separate quiet manuscripts from quiet books. I think that’s what we’re really talking about. Does the manuscript have the requisite forces to make it through the numerous gates of acquisition so that it may enter the pearly gates of a publishing house and have all the attendants of editorial, marketing, sales, design, and production to transform it from manuscript to book?
That question is where we begin to really hear the term “Quiet.” And “Quiet” is code for any number and degree of meanings.
Here are just a few “Quiets” that might be painless to hear: “lovely, but not quite what we’re looking for,” “ lovely, but doesn’t fit our current editorial objectives,” “unfortunately, not what we’re able to get into the big accounts and box stores,” “We are aiming our publishing in a more commercial direction.”
Here are a few versions of “Quiet” that might be painful to hear: ”lacks freshness,” “old fashioned,” “Not for today’s readers,” “ a bit dull,” “subject matter is tired,” “won’t hold readers’ attention,” “too institutional,” “will get lost.”
Here are a few that might be actionable to address: “pacing is slow,”
“lacks action,” “lacks surprise,” “needs stronger voice,” “language and dialect not current,” “needs stronger characters,” “needs to be more reflective of today’s world.”
Editors, like agents, have many submissions to deal with. “Quiet” may be THE handle that is least offensive to say –and yet covers a swath of meanings from legitimately quiet in its writing to just plain “Quiet” in terms of sales opportunities.
Quiet should not be taken as code for aging or irrelevant. Quiet generally means that the manuscript may not be marketable enough for any number of reasons. Likewise, Quiet will be seen as a powerful component of a powerfully written book. (And MDB, you know this as you have a few wonderful examples of quiet, powerful manuscripts that have been signed up and are in the pearly gates of publishing houses.)
It takes one editor to see what a dozen other editors may not see in a quiet manuscript and to bring out all the noise and promise it offers, guided by the editor, the art director, illustrator, and marketers.
Thank you, Rubin, for the gift of your very professional insight. I suspect the next step is for each one of us writers to figure out what “quiet” means when it’s offered up to us.