It is usually said by someone who is not progressing as quickly as they would like in their career. It applies to writing for publication as much—or more so—as in other endeavors. You’ve heard it often: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
It may sound cynical. It may be discouraging. You may not want to believe it. But it’s true.
To some, of course, that means everyone else gets the breaks. Chelsea Clinton’s books (yes, she has published more than one) may be works of genius, but everyone knows she wouldn’t have stood a chance if her name were Chelsea Gunderschmutz. The same goes for Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush, the daughters and granddaughters of former presidents who wrote a book about, well, being sisters.
So those of us who aspire to and work at being writers and authors but don’t know anyone powerful or famous should just give up, right?
The cynic can feel perfectly justified in saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
But so can the optimist. Because the same general sentiment can be expressed like this: “Christian publishing, like the rest of life, is all about relationships.”
That is one of the many reasons I attend as many writers’ conferences as I can, and why I encourage writers, both aspiring and accomplished, to do so. There, an aspiring writer will meet other aspiring writers, as well as authors, agents, and editors—and many of those will become friends. Some will become close friends, and lifelong friends. And some of those people may someday teach, inspire, and even open doors that you never would have imagined opening to you.
Back when the dinosaurs were still dying out, I was assigned a roommate at a writers’ conference. Dennis and I hit it off immediately, and stayed up talking words, books, and movies (well, him mostly) until 3 a.m. We’ve been fast friends ever since, and he still does most of the talking. But over the years he has also introduced me to many other friends and invited me repeatedly to teach courses in his professional writing program.
Many years ago, I met an editor named Steve at a writers’ conference. We became friends (I was willing to overlook his flaws). He later became an agent, and still later became my agent. And still later, I became an agent in his literary agency.
A few years ago, I was renewing fellowship with my friends Michelle and Edie at a writer’s conference when one or both of them told me of an online job opening for a blogger. They recommended me to the editor (I think), and I got the job. A paying job. For actual money.
So go ahead. Tut-tut and say, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” if you like. But writers, agents, editors, and publishers happen to like working with people they know, trust, and like—which is why “Christian publishing, like the rest of life, is all about relationships.”
My father often said, “Wherever you go, somebody will know somebody who knows you. So behave yourself.”
Dad was right. And so are you, Bob. Relationships matter.
Damon J. Gray
Shirlee, you’re such a gem!
The difference in Christian publishing versus other endeavors is the level of support and encouragement offered by “who you know.” Just yesterday a new friend and I realized we both needed a prayer group specifically for our writing ministry. As a result, I’ve already had six women praying for my specific concern. What a joy to work in ministry with so many!
Geez, Louise. 4:40 am? I didn’t even know there was such a thing!
And you’re right, Janine. My friend Doc Hensley (like how I drop names?) likes to say of faculty at Christian writers conferences, “we train our competition.” Because it is about God’s kingdom, not our own.
I agree with the four a.m. respondents, and you, Bob.
Sharon, I almost spit out my coffee from reading your response. You’re awesome! Word to the wise—don’t drink coffee and read over blog post comments on The Steve Laube Agency blog. 😉 You’ll either choke or die from laughing.
Tisha, I just wear a large bib so I can keep drinking the coffee while reading. To each his own.
Well. There went the second cup of coffee. Thanks, Bob. You’d think I’d get it by now after reading all these comments … 😉 [insert large grin and head shake here]
Response to Tisha M. I don’t drink much coffee, and my hot tea was cold by the time I read Bob’s post and the 4 a.m. responders. I wasn’t up at 4 a.m., at least not today! How about you? There’s something wrong with the clock on this post, at least if you live in the Midwest!
Sharon, agreed. When I posted my first response, I actually posted an hour later than what the posting time said. It may be a difference between EST and CST across the blog post lines?
So true! I met most of the special people in my writing life at conferences. St. Louis 2014 was my first Christian conference and, while there, I met the man who became my first agent and a young woman with a weird dream. She’d just finished a masters in technical writing and was looking for a job editing fiction—her passion in life. We exchanged cards but didn’t talk much after the conference. A year and a half later, I got an email from her saying she’d been working for Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas and had just been promoted to managing editor of one of their newest imprints. Apparently she’d been following me on social media since we’d met, loved everything about my online presence, and was dying to see my proposal. Two weeks later she requested the full manuscript, and in four days my agent had an offer. We were just talking last night about how far we’ve come in a short period of time. We love our story. Meet people. Write your story 🙂
That’s a wonderful story, Patricia. I met some great writer-friends at ACFW 2016 and we’re fast friends and look forward to our once-a-year meeting. On to a few more conferences, and I’ve included editors and agents and publishers to the friends list of “whos.” It really is great, isn’t it?
Bob, your blog posts always encourage me to keep at it and always teach me how to keep at it. As for “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” I first heard that when I was a writing intern at Answers Magazine. AiG had just opened their zip lines and the staff had first dibs before it was opened to the public. Now being a mite skeered (yes, that is how I want to use that word) of heights, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to try zip lining. But Dan, one of the board members, told me to just give him the word and he could put me on the list, since I was an intern and not an employee. Honestly, the only *scary* part about zip lining is that initial moment right before you jump off the platform and squeal for dear life. The rest is as easy as flying—attached to a harness. And just think, had I not known a key “who,” I would never be able to say I went zip lining for the first time at AiG before the public had a chance. And from then on, I’ve always made it a point to meet people—“who” people. 🙂
This underscores the importance of focusing on relationships first, and yourself second. If we pay attention to people throughout our lives, are kind, considerate, helpful and honest in our dealings with them, chances are extremely good that we will someday, somehow, reap those benefits in our professional lives. Not that’s the reason we are kind, etc., of course.
As a professional freelancer, I’ve spoken with young, wannabe freelance writers, who want to know the secret to the modest success I’ve had in building a freelance career. Every single job I’ve had has been because someone either recommended me for the project or I worked with the person previously.
While that can be discouraging for young newbies, I encourage them to jot down all the people they know and start sending inquiring emails with a short resume of their skills and interest–not to bug them, but to inform them of their availability to write, edit, etc.
Bottom line: Relationships matter, and focusing on the relationship is much more productive than focusing on an end result.
True, Sarah. I could say (and have said) much the same. Now, one of the most fun things I do is recommend and refer people to others.
I have two recent, sort of funny connection stories. I’ve written a book about loving someone through the struggles of depression and anxiety called On the Loving End of Crazy. (not published yet) Every semester, I tell my students about it. I hope by connecting in that way to open some opportunities for discussion about some of the stresses they face. This semester, a student who struggles with anxiety and depression asked to read the book. I said sure and printed him a copy. Now, every week, he gives me what he calls his “editing report.” He’s not even earning an A in the class, but every week, he gives me his “editing report.” I pray for grace to learn from it!
Last week, an excited colleague told me that she’d met a successful blogger who could help me earn money by blogging and put me in touch with right people–they could help me find a publisher.
Of course, I immediately contacted the woman and learned her “successful” blog has five followers. MIne has 38 (not that I’m comparing.)
I really appreciate blogs like this one that provide opportunities to learn about that publishing world and connect via Internet. Thanks for writing.
Thanks Bob, and to everyone else who posted. It all sounds so obvious, and yet I realized I sort of “forgot” about it. There are so many moving pieces with writing, getting published, marketing, and then starting the process all over again with each new project. And then there’s that thing called Life, which tends to throw its weight around and interrupt that process at any given moment. As a result, I’m writing, but I haven’t been “getting out there” during the past few years. I think I’ll sign up for a writer’s conference today. All the best to everyone! 🙂
I’m with you, Kim. That thing called Life can be sort of bossy. After reading this post, I realized I better work a little harder at elbowing Life and asking for a little more space to stretch out. 🙂 Best wishes for your conference!
You’re welcome! 😉
Mark Alan Leslie
So the takeaway is something about dinosaurs named Gunderschmutz?
Don’t be silly, Mark. Dinosaurs pre-date the name Gunderschmutz. Not by mutz, but still…
Katelyn S. Bolds
I love this. It’s so true, and I can just picture you and Dr. Hensley’s first sleepover party. I think the important thing is not to get cynical about it. Don’t look at building relationships as just a way to get ahead. Rather, look at how you can inspire and help others in the industry and you’ll soon find yourself a critical part of the puzzle.
Oooh, I love that, Katelyn!! It doesn’t hurt to promote others at all, does it? In fact, it’s really fun to get excited about what others are doing!
Katelyn, you would know, wouldn’t you? He still reminds me often of that conversation, primarily because I was wrong (and he was right) in one minuscule detail, and he’s never let me forget it.
That was my first lesson in “Don’t go up against Doc Hensley’s memory for scenes, dialogue, detail. Ever.”
Damon J. Gray
… and it takes TIME. It is unrealistic to believe that because we said, “hello” in passing at a conference that the relationship is now in place. Relationship is the foundation for the process, and foundations are not built quickly.
I have been watching a construction project that I pass twice a day. For two months, the backhoes, dozers, rollers, and graders have been moving over the lot, and appearing to accomplish next to nothing. But rest assured, once they complete their foundation laying, that store will spring up with breathtaking speed.
Build relationships. Lay the foundation with great care and patience.
Well, to be fair, Damon, those guys are paid by the hour.
I know Jesus. I’m good with that.
Your post rings so very true to me. By God’s grace I met one of “the” authors in my genre at ACFW this past September. We happened to sit next to each other in the hallway, waiting for the next session of the day, and started talking. It was my first conference and I was nervous. She shared about her early conference experiences, and passed on some genuine advice. Since then, we’ve kept in touch and she’s now secured as a potential endorser for my book. I also met another best-selling author at that conference I had long been “fangirling” on social media over. She’s also happily agreed to potentially endorse me. I’d thought God was sending me to that conference for one reason, when it turns out it was for a completely different one.
Sami A. Abrams
I have met some amazing people at the conferences I’ve attended. Many have become great friends and have coached me from a distance. Thanks for the reminder to continue building relationships and the power behind it.
Thx for the tip! I was wondering what to do! I’ll be going back to ACFW again! The friendships I made there have kept me going. We support each other, mentor each other, pray for each other. The only downside is they’re from southern states, and when this New Yorker gets around them I start talking in a southern accent all weekend long which can be slightly annoying, y’all.
Extremely encouraging! Thank You!
This blog has played a vital role in my “who you know,” Bob. I met my superb critique partner, who’s won a few awards for her writing, right here. Finally meeting face-to-face at last year’s ACFW conference was the highlight of the meeting.
I found my cover designer by looking at covers in my genre and picking a designer whose work impressed me. That was Roseanna White. She can take a dozen photos of bodies, heads, arms, clothing, weapons, and scenery and make a cover image that looks like the Romans had invented color photography. Her blog on how she made the first one still brings people to my website.
I didn’t know when I picked her as cover designer that she was a best-selling historical novelist herself. She gave me a priceless gift when she asked her own street team if they would like to review my debut novel. One of those folks, who beta-reads for several published authors, has become my alpha beta-reader.
So Roseanna is way up there on my “thrilled to know” list. She’s pure delight to work with on covers, and she opened a door I might still be shoving against without her.
A good word. Thanks, Bob.
With all the ups and downs the writing business brings, we who inhabit this world need relationships. Through them we discover people who will cheer for us, encourage and read our work at 2am. (Yes Bob, it’s a real thing!)
Bob writes truth. I first attended St. Davids Christian Writers’ Conference in 2012 and I not only met some amazing writers and teachers, but have also received a tremendous amount of encouragement and help since then.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
Bob, your words are so true! I have had rejections of my Suddenly Single manuscripts that said, “We love Sheri’s writing and her stories are great. But nobody knows who she is.” I am still working on that!
I agree it’s not what but who you know. I started out in radio and have enjoyed a career also involving television and writing in newspapers, magazines and online.
Many of these came about from knowing someone who introduced me to someone else but a lot of it has also come from the old cold call or email.
My first radio job came about from a cold call!
That said my attitude is that I might not know you but after we speak on the phone or email, now I do know you! Not necessarily well, but I do know you and you do know me!
Emory Rhea Raxter
I thought, as an unknown, if I worked hard on the front-end to produce and self-publish several works, my way would then be paved. After all, what Agent/Publisher wouldn’t snap up a writer who first proved themselves via Amazon, Kindle and B & N On-Line?
Emory Rhea Raxter
* By the Light of The Foxfire
* By the Light of The Bird House
* Five Years of Indigo
CHILDREN’S BOOK by AUNT PRESENT
* The Vampire’s Wife
Thank You for the forum.
Emory Rhea Raxter
It’s not what you know;
It’s not who you know;
It’s what you know about who you know–ha, ha, ha!
Len, that’s it!! You nailed it! 😀
Len, are you sure it’s not: who knows what you know about who you know?
I attended a retreat last year that was like the compass that set my writing journey straight. I met a few nice people who have connected with me and have given me great feedback on my writing (I do the same for them!).
Our success is not based on ourselves at all. Knowing this causes us to be selfless in our approach to success. We must look to God to bring the right people into our lives, and we must trust in those around us to help us meet our goals. What a humbling thought!
Very inspiring to this aspiring writer. Thank you.
I only have two, but that’s a three thumbs up post!
Where’s the like button?
First, I’m impressed that you could listen to Doc for a whole night. He talks faster than I can hear. 😉
Second, I’ve attended six writers conferences, and they are the only reason I kept writing and am published today. However, they are fast becoming unaffordable. Since attending my first in 2009, the price has almost doubled while incomes have pretty much flat-lined in many parts of the country. I think we need to do more to make conferences affordable.
I’m a day late, but not a dollar short, thankfully.
Finally, in 2017, it began to dawn on me that a writing career isn’t any different from my old career, in which opportunities opened when people got to know me and my work. (Not that I was all that, but I tried to build a credible professional reputation over the years.)
So, here a little, there a little, as everyone here has indicated, and eventually, we might find our way to some pretty lofty heights. As Rebekah reminded us, “A man’s gift maketh room for him, and bringeth him before great men.” That verse and this one, “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men,” were dear to me in my former professional life, and they’re becoming dear to me in this new profession.
As always, thanks, Bob & company.
Rebecca M. McLafferty
This post does put things into perspective, also in regard to marketing and the joys of writing Christian fiction. One of the most exhilarating things about my writing process is the camaraderie and unselfish eagerness to help one another. Knowing that we’re sisters and brothers in Christ makes all the difference, a beautiful and strong foundation on which to form friendships and associations.
The ability to understand (even a little) about others’ schedules and responsibilities reminds me that I am one of many, but part of the plan.
Blessings to you.
Lisa L Kibler
This is our tribe. It’s better than good to know as many others as possible. I met my writing soul sister last year at Blue Ridge. I’d not change the true “knowing”” for a lifetime of nebulous “friends” on social media.