Mantra of the gatekeepers: You can’t lose when you say no.
October 21, 2013
Did you ever sit back and wonder why in the world it was so difficult to find an agent or a publisher?
I’m sure that we have all followed the same path. I researched agents and knew exactly the genre that each represented. I read article after article on how to write an effective query letter. I read submission guidelines and faithfully followed them.
As a rule, nothing.
Well, in reality, I have produced books for such publishing houses as Berkeley, Paperjacks, Knightbridge, and Random House. But New York constantly plays musical chairs. The editor who loved one book was always gone by the time I was ready to publish the next one, and he or she had moved on to a house that had absolutely no interest in my particular genre. In the big cities, there are too many one-way streets, and they all have detours that, more or less, wind up at the same dead end.
But here is the major problem.
Agents and publishers have too many twenty-four-year old gatekeepers, fresh out of college, boys and girls who had never written a book, and they have been given one job and one major task.
Say no. It’s easy. It’s simple. Can’t go wrong by saying no.
If a gatekeeper happens to say yes, and the book bombs, the gatekeeper is blamed, and after a few too many bombs, the young gatekeeper is back on the streets, which is a lonely and a hungry place to be.
Say yes, and you may lose your position.
Say no, and you have a job forever.
The no guts, no glory days are over.
Besides, too often, I know from experience, the gatekeepers are far too young to have any perspective on the past. History for them is nothing more than curriculum on a college campus.
A decade or so ago, my writing partner and I had sold a mini-series to CBS and made-for-television movies to both CBS and NBC. All were period pieces.
Frank Q. Dobbs and I were sitting around one weekend, discussing that final and fateful showdown at the OK Corral between Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the Clanton gang.
Holiday had been a fascinating character.
He was a dentist.
He was a gentleman.
He was a gunfighter.
He led a fascinating life.
But beyond the OK Corral, no one knew anything about him.
We came up with a great premise and hook for a screenplay: A man’s life should not shaped, defined, or remembered solely for a scant thirteen seconds in his existence.
Frank, who lived in Los Angeles, took the idea to a production studio. He was a great pitchman. He could make you laugh or cry or leave your nerve endings raw and tangled with a tale guaranteed to keep you in suspense.
Here was his pitch. “Let’s do the untold story of Doc Holliday,” he said.
“He fought the most famous gun battle of all,” Frank said.
“Sounds intriguing,” the young production editor said. “Where did it take place?”
“The OK Corral.”
“Great. Love the name.” The young editor frowned. “What’s the hook?” he asked.
“Doc Holliday had a life before the gunfight and a life after the final shots were fired,” Frank said. “Yet he’s only remembered for those thirteen seconds at the OK Corral. It’s a shame that man’s entire life is defined by thirteen seconds.”
“Great concept,” the editor said. “Love the hook. Get me a treatment as fast as you can? Can you get it back to me by Monday.”
“I can,” Frank said. Frank could promise anything.
He knew I would be writing the treatment.
Two days. Twenty pages. The Old West lived again.
Frank walked in early Monday morning with the treatment. The young editor told him. “I’ll read it tonight. Let’s plan on having lunch tomorrow. I’m excited about it. And you’re right, Frank.”
“It’s a real tragedy for a man to be defined by a mere thirteen seconds in his life.”
He grinned. Frank grinned. He was still in grinning when he called me. “It’s a cinch,” he said.
“Nothing’s a cinch,” I said.
“I could read him,” Frank said. “We’ve got him hooked this time.”
So I hoped. So I prayed.
It was a short lunch.
“Well, what do you think?” Frank asked as he sat down.
The young editor, the gatekeeper, glanced away. “We can’t do it,” he said.
“I’d be afraid to take the story into the studio.”
“I thought you liked the premise.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
The young gatekeeper sighed, shoved the treatment across the table, and said, “It’s a Western. We don’t do Westerns.”
And that may be the biggest problem facing so many writers. The agents, the editors, the gatekeepers are all so young that their perspective only goes back as far as the first Gulf War. Vietnam is history. World War II is ancient history. The Beatles are oldies but goodies. The Great Depression can be cured by Dr. Phil. The OK Corral is right there with the Roman Coliseum. We should find more Christians to feed the poor, starving lions. And thanks for sending us your query, but at this time we are not representing or publishing your genre.
Name your own genre.
The gatekeeper smiles.
Life is grand.