Very closely related to the hoop jumping complaint about the query process is the lament that agents often have vague guidelines about what they’re looking for. Thus, an author may have to waste time querying agents who may not be a proper fit because they inadvertently send something that just happened to not be up that particular agent’s alley.
Let me first say that some agents are wonderfully specific about what they’re looking for. They can tell you their preferences right down to the general plot points.
I am not this way. I never know what I’m going to like until I’ve seen it, and thus, am open to queries for pretty much anything.
But let’s set that aside for a moment and pretend that I am obsessively following Publishers Marketplace and looking at what is selling and could tell you precisely what I wanted to acquire, down to the genre and spirit of the book. Let’s say you write that book in six months. Let’s say it takes a couple of months to sell. Let’s then say it takes a year to come out (because it will). That’s still a minimum of a year and a half from idea to publication.
Who in the heck knows what’s going to be popular a year and a half from now?? We could all be wearing levitating hats by then. (See my other trend watching admonition here).
Trying to time the market based on what’s hot right now is kind of like trying to drive down a highway while looking through a rearview mirror. By the time you see something it’s already too late.
If you’re even going to try and time the market the only thing you can do is lick your finger and hold it up in the air to see which way the cultural winds are blowing. Think a couple of moves ahead, and take your best guess about where the world will be in a couple of years. Or crash land yourself on the island on Lost. Either way.
And, again hypothetically, let’s say I could spell out precisely what I wanted, right down to the shade of your protagonist’s eyes. Is this really a world you’d want to write in? Even if I were more specific in genre and plot terms, wouldn’t you rather write in a publishing world where we’re not dictating to you that you should write what everyone else is writing?
Admittedly, there are times when a story misses the cultural mark by just a couple of years, and stories that might have worked in 2005 don’t work in 2009. The culture is always shifting.
But the great stories are not timely: they’re timeless.
I can’t tell you what to write, and I can’t tell you in advance what I’m going to like. Just pour your heart into telling a great story that you want to tell, and let the gods of culture and publishing take care of the rest. I just want to represent great stories that the author is passionate about. Isn’t that the way it should be?
The best books start trends, not follow them.
I’d also like to add that I don’t think agents who tell the world on their blogs what publishers are looking for are expecting authors to then go out and write in those genres. If you have a manuscript in that genre, great, but if it’s not yet written, then by the time it is the publishers will have moved on to something else.
The Journalizer says
I respect your laissez-faire attitude.
Oh wow. So after re-reading my posts from last night I’ve decided. You know those little breathalizer thingies they put on peoples’ cars that have had a DUI so that they wont start if they blow and have alcohol on their breath? Well they need to have something on your computer for that (alcohol), to measure how much sleep you’ve had, and to see how angry you are. If you register the slightest bit elevated – the computer shuts off so you can’t blog or comment when you’re being a babbling idiot. 🙂
Why in the world would ever tell Dan Brown “Whatup” is beyond me. YIKES. I would say “Hello” and then shift my eyes downward while I poke my toe in the floor sheepishly.
Mira – I’m not sure what you said but an interruption would have been fine! I’m sure it is something to do with my comment! 😉
Marilyn – I tried to get into BG but somewhere along the line I got over it. LOST has always been with me though. 🙂
Jen C – We’re kindred sisters. 🙂
Like right now. I’m pretty sure the computer shouldn’t be on because I’m stupidly tired from getting no sleep last night but yet here I am…probably rambling again. …yep.
But now for a shameless plug: I just posted my chapter one of my wip to my blog if anyone wants to read (with contest!). I’ll refrain from using a linky link. 🙂
Melissa Mcinerney says
I get it, I GET IT! Very good post, very good comments. Now I see that it’s as hard as girls flying through hoops (did anyone notice the poor thing hit her head but the men were too busy congratulating themselves to notice?).
I think what people are really upset about is that a query letter is so different from a ms that there’s a lot of slippage between what you can derive from the letter and what might be in the ms.
If you like metaphors, there is some overlap between surgical skill and ability to do housework, but I can’t think of too many surgeons I know who would like to have their salary determined by the quality and efficiency of their housekeeping. A friend of mine calls it “mission drift.”
Haste yee back ;-) says
Marilyn, Mira and anyone else interested… there's more interview. go to —
Now, in the search box write, Jeff Kleinman, Folio.
Scroll down until you see, Q&A Ferris, Kathleen Kent, Gina Ochsner, Jeff Kleinman, Folio
(I liked this interview even more, especially after they'd consumed several bottles of wine)!
hope you find it. I'll work on linkin'
Haste yee back 😉
I agree with most of what you said, but I have three thoughts which I think clarify the issue somewhat:
1. If publishers don’t follow trends, why was there a huge explosion of YA fantasy after Harry Potter? Why is half the shelf now vampire/werewolf/zombie romances? I’m sure the slush piles are inundated with copycats — but I still see those copycats being published, because that’s what’s “hot” right now. Of course, it creates a vicious cycle when that’s what’s selling because that’s what publishers are pushing the most and the hardest…
2. I’m not interested in just pouring my heart into a great story; I’m interested in actually being able to sell it. So just telling the author to write whatever isn’t sufficient; I want to know what you think you can sell. Yes, great stories are timeliness, but not every story is a great story, and yet they still get published and make scratch. Not every great author writes a great story every time out, either.
3. The flip side of this is that if you truly didn’t judge until you’d read it, you’d read all submissions. You’d read manuscripts regardless of queries, and you’d read several chapters before deciding, not just 10 pages. But since agents don’t have time for this, authors are forced to resort to trying to determine what you like and to provide that in as straightforward and upfront manner as possible in order to get your attention.
Hey there Nathan, Literary girl here again…so my next question is this: if you received the first chapter of the Da Vinci code, not knowing what you know now, would you have said, “Wow. This is going to be huge?” Or would you say, wow. “Fell in a heap? How does one man fall in a heap?”
You’ve said before that it’s all about the writing. As much as I respect Mr. Brown, writing is not his biggest strength. No slight to him intended, but come on.
My point is, I guess, is it really all about the writing? Or could it be all about the story? And the writing, too?
I don’t envy your job at all. To sift through that many QLs and then try to pick which ones will get a publisher must be daunting. No wonder you drink!
Nice response, Nathan, and I totally see many of your points. But I still see other legitimate ways of looking at this issue from an author’s point of view.
For starters, we would have a guide to glean from. We may not write exactly what an agent says they would like (and in some cases LOVE to see, as whimsical as the idea may be) but we might catch a tone, a pulse, something to draw from. When it’s nothing at all–when we have no feeling for the persons who hold our professional fates in their hands–we don’t know who we’re dealing with and we can’t channel any infinite number of shifts a sentient author can make to give an an agent something they will love to get behind.
Conversely, we might include some comparatively unimportant element that turns an agent off. I remember the “funny” anecdote given by one agent (not sure who) who explained how you might be unlucky to send out a great query for your book about a dog, and the agent you’ve sent your letter to just had their dog pee on their new Persian rug. Um…yuk yuk. Of course, this is an exaggerated example, but I’m sure it isn’t too difficult to find a more “real-world” one that applies.
And I agree that it’s unwise to try and guess trends to the extreme, but if we try and we’re wrong, we’re just back to where we started anyway so what’s the difference, right? But if we’re right, or close, and/or we give an agent something they would love to read at least at the outset, we’ve got that much more advantage in the marketplace plus an agent who may become really stoked about a project. That counts for more than trends in my mind, anyway. It’s passion that quite often ignites trends.
So I suppose an agent can be 100% reactive and let it flow in, handling umpteen queries about stuff he or she would never like or could never get behind (because they’re reacting to a query and not a full story anyhow) or they can set some loose guidelines, reveal subtle instincts or convey sudden, gut feelings to their submission requirements and possibly find an exciting match. Nothing that exists at the moment has to stop, but there might be someone out there who has written or was thinking about writing something that can “fill the void”, as it were.
I guess the question is, “why not?” Ideally, it’s a suggestion that could possibly build a better funnel for publishing professionals who might be able to more efficiently concentrate on their niche of the marketplace and therefore free up some time and resources for newer voices. It really comes down to greater communication, and I can’t see how that could negatively alter anyone’s position.
Nathan Bransford says
Well said, and I think it shows how the most important thing is to query widely and to be yourself. I passed on a book that went on to be pretty big because the author made a joke in the query that didn’t resonate with me. I probably wouldn’t have been the right agent for that project, even if it was worthy.
And I really don’t know useful the information you’re asking for would really be. Even when you know an agent backwards and forwards it’s nearly impossible to predict if they’re going to be the most enthusiastic advocate for your work.
I personally wouldn’t want to pin down my interests too strictly. Yeah, I tend to gravitate toward projects with both literary and commercial appeal. But I might really love a book that is purely commercial or purely literary simply because I connect with it. If I specified my interests too directly I might miss out on it.
The only thing to do is to query widely and see who is connecting with your work, and the only thing I can do is an agent is ask to see almost everything. Yeah, this means that I get way more queries than I would if I were more narrowly focused, but I’d rather see too much than miss something.
Nathan Bransford says
There are definitely trends, and yes, publishers will follow them. But bear in mind that they’re picking among projects that are already finished. So it’s not that they went out and told authors to write something like HARRY POTTER, it’s just that the authors who happened to have been writing something similar might get a boost.
And then there are longterm trends like vampires, which have had quite a run. But even there, publishers aren’t really looking for something exactly like TWILIGHT. They’re looking for something fresh and original.
You write: “I’m not interested in just pouring my heart into a great story; I’m interested in actually being able to sell it.” These two things are inseparable. I don’t think you’ll be able to sell it unless you’ve poured your heart into it. You need to pour yourself into a book in order to make it good enough to sell.
Nathan Bransford says
Yeah, I think I would kept reading after the first chapter of THE DA VINCI CODE. Is it perhaps the most technically precise or literary writing? No. But he tells a gripping story, the pacing was fantastic,
Keep in mind too that in order to become THE DA VINCI CODE there was an entire house of publishing professionals at Doubleday, from the editorial side to the sales and marketing side, who all believed it was going to be huge. They all saw the loose manuscript pages and said, “We should get behind this, it could be huge.”
Whether it’s about “story” or “writing” depends a lot on the particular project. To make a very generalized point, in commercial writing the style tends to be more in the plotting and characters rather than in the prose, whereas with literary writing the prose itself tends to be unique and stylistic.
So for THE DA VINCI CODE it didn’t really matter that it wasn’t the greatest prose in the world. What matters in suspense is the storytelling.
Good point on being enthusiastic about the work. I can sell like hell if I believe in the product but if I don’t I feel slimy trying to con someone into sinking their money into it. Agents sell your product. Why anyone would want one who doesn’t gel with the work you’ve produced is perplexing. An interesting question: Would a best seller picked up by an agent who loved it be a trade paperback if it was picked up by someone who just thought it might sell okay?
To the writers: if you are lucky enough to pump out a sellable product on demand then pick a franchise or a genre, get their checklist, and go for it. Sounds stable but not very fun. Otherwise, don’t quit your day job until you land your bestseller and just enjoy writing. Some of it is just dumb blind luck and there’s no way around it. Query widely to pre screened agents and you up your luck.
Thanks, Nathan. Good stuff.
Laurel, can you explain what you mean by “checklists” and “pre-screening”. I’m assuming the first one is just researching agents that rep specific genres. What’s the second one about, exactly?
Me? I want the levitating hat. Those of us who are vertically challenged could use it SO many ways…
Cool, thanks for the link Haste Ye Back
So, I found the second word. For the book I’m writing for Nathan. I had the first word: The.
It’s a pretty good first word, but I don’t think Nathan will represent me on just that.
But how do I find a second word? Call me bonkers (some people do) but how do I know what to write? I need input. So, I decided, in the spirit of this post, to poll people and ask them what my second word should be.
I hit up a random selection of the population, and asked them. Here were the top three contenders for the second word of my novel:
In terms of the second choice, I was deeply concerned about potential sexual connotations. But my sample assured me there weren’t any, so we can all relax.
More than half of my sample said number 3. Of course, not everyone would say that asking 5 people is statistically significant, especially when 3 of them chose “bug-off”, but unless they show me statistics on that, I’m ignoring those spoilsports.
(Besides, I didn’t actually ask anyone anything, I’m making this whole thing up. But I figure this is what people would say, so close enough.)
Anyway, obviously, I can’t go with ‘bug-off’ or bonkers. Those are a verb and an adjective. In case you didn’t know, ‘The’ needs to be followed by a noun.
Ostrich-pickle it is.
No, pre-screening was researching agents. Everybody posting here seems to totally get that they need to do that but it’s a little overwhelming trying to guess what an agent might actually like, especially in a query letter, so we all want a secret handshake or something. A formula for what they want would be super, right? But you write from the formula and the story is flat so they still don’t like it and then what?
Checklist was in reference to some of the brands out there, like Harlequin, where they have very specific guidelines about what they want. I don’t read straight romance and suspect I would be terrible at trying to write it since straining bodices make me giggle. But if you want very specific information on what to write that seems to be the way to go. I bet some of the franchises out there have some formulaic suggestions, too. I’m thinking of the Star Wars and Star Trek books, but I don’t really know.
Otherwise, you just have to write what you’re good at, send it to the people your research tells you would be the most likely to like it, and buy a lottery ticket.
Sorry if I was unclear. I’ve been in sales a long time, though, and every kind of sales success story has a combination of work and luck. A little scary, but there it is.
Thanks so much, Laurel. That’s much clearer and I appreciate you taking the time to explain it.
And I agree with the downside of being issued formulas. What I would love, though, is to be given something close to a formula–a rough outline with setting and several character sketches–and be told to run with it, break it, bring “me” into it.
When I first started writing, I was all about extending my stories and themes as far away as possible from what I’d seen, in many ways to discover and/or generate my own “style”. Back in the day, that was what was the most important thing: zigging when the rest of the literary world was zagging. Not so much, anymore, it seems, but that’s another song.
Then, as I wrote and wrote and wrote, I found my “voice” and discovered my instincts for storytelling, which became my “style”. Now, I relish strict parameters because it’s a rewarding challenge to set my stories apart by my individuality. It’s the small things, now. It’s my dialog, my turn of phrase, and the depth of character and theme I can wring out in a measured space.
So even if I was told to write from a specific outline, it would have “Scott” in it. In fact, it couldn’t be any other way at this point, and that’s what I love the most about writing. It’s a bit like how different Hollywood directors can tell the same story but in completely different ways.
Okay, that’s all. I just referred to myself in the third person and that’s a good cue to quit. 🙂
Bloggers get paid???? Hmmm…never heard that before.
Apparently being on west coast time means servers work at different times. Being that I’m also on west coast time, I have to read this blog at the worst time of the day or the day after. I would unsubscribe if it were that big of an issue to me.
I happen to find most of Nathan’s information interesting. I’d use the word helpful if I were published. I’ll change that word when I am.
Nathan, I’m sure this blog is very fun for you and you definitely have a fan club here. I find your insider information interesting, but just like everything else, it’s all guesswork. For you, EDUCATED guesswork. What you like someone else won’t. It’s a matter of who the agent is and timeliness of the material. Timelessness is helpful, but only if the agent can see it.
At least that has been my experience. Sure would be helpful if agents would open their minds more. When it’s new and fresh, which mine is, agents should be thinking of that reality and know they are the ones who can help it be big or not. That’s how marketing works. You know you’ll have the cooperation of the writer in the marketing when the team goal is global domination. Why leave any stone unturned? Plan on learning new languages so your book tour is less confusing while you sign away in Thailand.
Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina says
I found this advice so reassuring. Thanks for the reminder.
I get where you are coming from. Some of the funnest assignments I ever had came with the strictest guidelines. They seem impossible but when you get going it forces more creativity.
Why would anybody write anything less than what s/he is passionate about writing. . Don’t gauge the market, Write what’s in your heart.
That’s why I included the word “just” when I made my statement. I can pour my heart into lots of projects; that doesn’t mean they’ll sell. Agents can help if they say they’re tired of vegetarian dragons or vampire romances so I don’t pour my heart into one of those.
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