Friday, August 21, 2009

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Today's post is prompted by agent Jennifer Jackson's latest post on livejournal . Someone wrote to her, "If only you would read my book (not just five pages), you would see what a great work it is. After all what do you have to waste but a few hours of your precious time?" But Ms. Jackson read nearly three hundred queries last week. Obviously, she doesn't have a few hours to spare on each of them.

The last few days, I've been gushing over Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games. When amazon first told me I wanted the book, I informed amazon the notion of The Running Man, but with kids, didn't really appeal to me. Furthermore, the reviews sounded somewhat literary and I don't like literary. But then a bunch of folks whose opinions I respect started tweeting about how awesome a book it is, so I gave in and ordered it. The first five pages were okay. At the end of the first chapter, I wasn't thinking, "Gee, everyone on Twitter's insane." But I wasn't in love. I can't say for sure when I fell for the book. I can say that I was up most of the night finishing it.

So, basically, given a query letter and five pages, I would have passed on what turned out to be an incredible book that I absolutely adore.

I could use that to argue publishing types need to learn to read even faster, invent ways to avoid sleep, and hire larger staffs so they can read everything sent to them rather than just glancing at queries, but that would be ridiculous. Instead, I'm going to use it to launch an observation on the effect of burden of proof on reading.

When an industry professional receives a query letter, no matter how fair he tries to be, on some level there's an assumption the book isn't for him. Sure, he'd be thrilled if the book was something he wanted, but the odds simply aren't in favor of it. There are hundreds of other messages in the in-box wanting attention and even if the books represented in each query are outstanding and destined for great success, a single agent or editor can't possibly handle a fraction of them. He wants you to hand him a reason to love this book. He'll give you a chance, he'll work with your letter to try to want your book. But even if you do nothing wrong, the query's getting rejected if you haven't done something very right. Doing anything else simply wouldn't be practical, or fair to the five hundred ninety-nine writers in the queue.

In school, most kids aren't exactly fond of the books required in English class. Hand a book out to a whole room of high schoolers and you'll be treated to a massive groan of teen angst from the assumption the book sucks. Even if it's wrapped so no one can see the cover and nobody knows what book it is. The book might be perfectly enjoyable if encountered in the wild, but in the confines of the classroom it's going to have to be amazingly awesome to possess any hope of winning over anyone other than the future English majors. Even being on a "pick one of the following hundred" list doesn't give it much of a shot.

When a reader buys a book of their own free will, the burden is reversed. Even if we come across a book we've never seen reviews of, we assume it has value or it wouldn't have been printed, particularly if it was printed by a house we're fond of or carried by a store we feel in-tune with. We feel invested in enjoying it because we've paid money for the book, or at least bothered to borrow it. We chose to select the book and want that decision vindicated. So we take it as given that even if it's not immediately obvious, it's a good book, and if we wind up not liking it we feel a need to justify that.

There's a reason the burden of proof is referred to as a burden. It's harder to win a debate when you have it. Books you buy, books your best friend gives you, books the writers of your favorite book blog loved, are all good until proven bad. Required reading is boring until proven entertaining. And a random query is "Sorry, not for me" until proven otherwise.

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