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?
Nathan Bransford says
But something like that could come down to style. I’m guessing what happened is that he didn’t realize it was too similar until he actually read it. He wouldn’t have taken to the time to request it if he already knew it was too similar, and that’s not something you would have known if he simply put it on his website.
Lisa Melts Her Penn says
Hear, Hear, Nathan! Speaking as an editor and a writer both, I agree completely. The description of a thing isn’t really what’s important anyway (though that’s the intro to it), it’s how it comes to life. Thanks.
Marilyn Peake says
Thanks, Haste Yee Back! Here's how you make live links:
First you write:
< a href=
…BUT DON'T LEAVE A SPACE BETWEEN < AND a.
Then you attach the actual link to that, leaving no space after the =.
Then, with no space after the link, you type: >
Then, with no space after that, you put in whatever name you want to appear, e.g. HASTE YEE BACK WEBSITE … Spaces between words in your title are O.K.
Then, with no space after the name, you add: < /a> … BUT WITH NO SPACE AFTER < .
And that's it … I think.
To play devil’s advocate (because that’s my favorite position), I just don’t get the need for an agent to be passionate about anything except the sale and the delivery.
I’m not passionate about most of the content I write in my day job, but I’m damn good at it. No one cares if I have passion or not as long as I get the job done – and get it done better than the other guy who may or may not have more passion for it than me.
I think I would choose skill over passion any day. Passion strokes the ego, but skill puts a check in the bank.
Oh, I don’t know, Nathan. I’ve seriously considered querying you, but you just don’t seem to be interested in my kind of writing.
You say you’re interested in “pretty much everything,” but really, that’s not the impression I get from your blog. I’m basing this on what you say you want on your blog, and in the contests you have for writers (the winners always seem more literary to me), I get the distinct impression that you are way more interested in literary fiction, than in commercial. Are you really interested in “pretty much everything”? Or am I misreading that and what you really want to say is “pretty much anything that is literary fiction”? Or what?
Just curious. Love your blog.
Great post, Nathan. Sometimes we need those little reminders that it’s all about the stories we love to read and write and that the business/publishing aspect is just an aside.
Nathan Bransford says
Particularly with a novel, which has a more uncertain path than nonfiction, if I’m not passionate about it it’s really difficult to effectively sell it, and I think most agents would say the same. So the two are intertwined.
As I’ve said previously though, I’m passionate about selling. There’s no separating the two.
Nathan Bransford says
I’m definitely interested in both literary and commercial fiction, and actually think the contest winners I’ve chosen have had pretty commercial appeal. Conduit went on to sell a crime novel, terryd sold a science fiction novel… and some of the things I represent are decidedly commercial.
Thanks, Nathan, for the quick reply. Thanks for setting me straight on the literary thang…
I say kudos to agents who are willing to keep thier minds open to what they want. To be totally honest, if angents only picked out a genre or two to go with I’d probably be screwed. Really, no one would buy my books because they’re a fantasy series and they don’t sell as well as ‘real life’ stories.
That, and I look at the books I’ve read and the different genres I enjoy and think to myself, “how can you know you like or dislike it if you don’t read it?” Agents probably feel the same way, don’t they?
Nathan Bransford says
Upon further reflection though, I do think you’re right to spot a bit of a literary lean. I do tend to prefer commercial fiction that’s just a bit different. So I guess what I’d say is that my sweet spot is often the intersection of literary and commercial, but I’m open to everything.
This is why I don’t usually bore down into my taste though — I also loved GOSSIP GIRL and have a healthy respect for THE DA VINCI CODE, so you tell me.
So if I rewrite my novel, turning all the characters into monkeys with levitating hats, can I resubmit?
Word verification: actio. It stopped short of actual action!
A polite “pass” tells you nothing. It is meaningless. It could very well be the agent does have a personal problem with ‘gender reversal’ – but it could also mean many many other things.
What it really means… is just move on to another agent… for multitude of potential reasons.
You will find the right agent and the right fit… or you will eventually reevaluate your manuscript.
I think Nathan an author said worry about his query or ms if he hasn’t gotten any bites after twenty-five? I am not sure how literal he was being.
Myra apparently sent her query to 10 agents. Four passed… but what’s really important is six (six!) asked for the full ms.
Don’t worry about the ones that polity said pass… concentrate on working with the ones who are working with you.
D. G. Hudson says
How indeed? If a novel comes to you that crosses genres or redefines them, how can you predict that?
I prefer to query an agent who is open to nearly every type of manuscript, it usually indicates an open mind as well.
Thanks for being specific about not being specific.
Well said, Nathan.
I’d need the opposite of a levitating hat to write a clean manuscript in six months!
Just as an aside, I’ve noticed two writers here commenting on how difficult it is to sell fantasy…
Um, guys? Take a look at the top ten bestsellers. Commercial bestsellers, I mean. There’s a lot of fantasy in the list, if you include urban fantasy, epic fantasy, YA fantasy and sci-fi.
The Twilight series is responsible for 15% of all books sold in the US in 2009. Okay, sure it is urban fantasy, but still… there’s a lot of fantasy doing well out there.
(Just a thought to cheer up all you fantasy writers that think the end is nigh.)
And more on topic…
Thanks for the thought provoking post, Nathan.
I know a lot of writers who follow trends and I actually know a few who have made it work for them. A couple of years back, I had friends writing vampire novels and the like and I was convinced the craze would pass. *sigh* I’m still not going to write a vampire or werewolf story though. Not my thing.
I’m just writing the story I want to write. The nod I give to the market is to try and make the story I want to read as commercially appealing as possible.
Very wise indeed! 😉 I’ll tell you what…I’d query ya! lol
Yes, there’s a market out there for fantasy- particularly urban and ya. Overall however- fantasy is a harder sell than others out there. Especially since self help is on the rise. But no ones complaining… well I’m not complaining. I enjoy the challange and will make it work one way or the other. Just like any other I’ll query to my heart content.
Great to hear! I must admit, I write fantasy myself (the epic kind) and I do think it is just a matter of writing the best work you can.
Best of luck with your work in progress!
Gilbert J. Avila says
Let’s see…Hmmm..Vampires this year, taking old classics and zombie-fying them next year…How did we skip werewolf paranormal romances? AHA! “A lonely Egyptologist finds the ancient sarcophagus of Im-Po-Tent, a priest of Anubis. Pricking her finger on a scarab, a drop of blood falls on the remains and revives him. Can they find a love that will bridge the ages? Find out in “Mummy Dearest,” coming soon to your favorite spinrack.”
Justus M. Bowman says
“I just want to represent great stories that the author is passionate about.”
Great stance and great post. Great!
Haste yee back ;-) says
LOL, thanks for the info. I’ll have to study that. (I wish you could just click and drag whatever it is into the Leave your comment box).
Anyway, I hope you found the interview.
Hey! I can sight in a rifle in three shots however!
Haste yee back 😉
Your comments are all well and good, but with an agent like you who devotes himself to a 24-hour turnaround, I don’t see how you can get people’s hopes up that you truly, truly look at what they are trying to convey. Every writer, and I mean EVERY writer writes from the gut, which includes their blood, sweat and tears. Writing is very personal.
I wish I could sound more “Yay, team!” here like the other comments, but sometimes I think this blog and a lot of other sources over-complicate what we are supposed to be doing. If you like the story, you like it and you will ask for pages, end of story.
From your side of the dais, it’s all well and good with guessing about what’s wanted for the market. From ours, it’s another day in the Shadowlands, hoping to get out from the shade.
Your blog is interesting at times, even though it doesn’t get here until after 4:30 p.m., but advice isn’t as helpful as just doing.
Being persistent is the best thing of all, never forget that, folks.
I thought it was more about what you could sell than what you like? Didn’t you say that recently – maybe in the SuperAgent Contest posts?
I’m probably remembering incorrectly – very common.
Haste – I copy and pasted Marilyn’s instructions to a page on my computer. I just pull it up when I want to link, and follow the instructions. They work.
I read the other thread first, and pasted Marilyn’s instructions there. Please ignore that.
Sex Scenes at Starbucks? Are you around? Could you e-mail me when you have a second? Click my profile, it’s right there. Thanks
Marilyn Peake says
Haste Yee Back,
I found the interview, and it was fascinating. Thank you! Someone in a writers’ group showed me how to make links live, as I was completely baffled. 🙂 Here’s the interview with a live link:
Interview with Agents and Editors
M. K. Clarke says
Hear, hear, Nathan!
Great storytelling never follows or looks for trends; they make them.
Great stuff. Thanks so much.
J. Rupe-Boyd says
My genre is middle school magical realism. Hummm, I wonder? But you did say you were open to anything.
Thought it might be worth mentioning that Nathan isn’t reporting the news, he’s blogging. And he’s on west coast time. So really, I don’t see that having the daily fix turn up at 4:30 p.m. is cause to dock his pay. He gets paid for this, right?
Didn’t Michael Crichton write a book with a transgenic monkey in it? Too bad no one took the hint.
Your blog is useful as ever, Nathan. Thanks for taking the time to enlighten us.
I wonder how much overlap there is between the groups of writers who (1) don’t want agents to tell them what to put in their query letters because it’s just another “hoop” to jump through, and (2) want agents to tell them what kind of books they should write.
You had me helLOST! You’ve piqued a couple of us Lost junkies’ interest. You really ARE a SciFi guy right??? Right??? It’s okay you don’t have to tell us out loud. But we know. 😉
Thanks for a VONDERFUL post.
But I do have a question. 😀
Let’s say hypothetically an aspiring writer isn’t complete with her, I mean HIS, novel. What if HE thought of two really great endings and is in the process of writing numero uno. Should he ever think to write the alternate ending in case the agent would prefer it (the ending could maybe…change the genre…hypothetically)? or would that be considered weak?
Nathan Bransford says
Oh, I’m a major Lostie.
And it’s up to the author to choose the best ending. I know there is one! Even if both are pretty awesome, there can be only one.
Vacuum Queen says
I So agree with all you said here. I get very tired of reading comments on agent blogs where the writers all are begging to know what to write. Who’s doing the writing? If the agents know exactly what they want, they might as well do the writing themselves. 🙂
I mainly wish you repped picture books. I’d love to query you.
Love your blog…I’ve only been reading for a couple of weeks. It’s my newest “can’t miss” blog.
Apparently you are a Highlander fan too. Because that’s the second time in a week you said that. 😉 (I swear Mira stalks you not me…we just hang out at the same bars is all)
Okay well don’t tell me about the last two weeks on LOST. We moved and had to give up the DVR and have yet to get a TiVo so now I need to go to the website to watch. WAH! I’m pretty sure I’m missing someone dying or lying or alternate time-flying! (I’m sorry I’m a bit of a dork sometimes)
And I would have totally rewritten and pitched Star Wars like Hurley too!
Oh and hypothetically there is one ending that seems to be calling to her–eh HIM.
Nathan Bransford says
Well, I said it on a different blog so I claim amnesty.
And the last few weeks of Lost have been pretty spectacular. To say I’m excited about tomorrow night is an understatement.
ANTM and Lost finale on the same night? I believe it was Belinda Carlisle of the Go Gos who said, “Ooh, heaven is a place on earth.”
Marc Vun Kannon says
“How did we skip werewolf paranormal romances?”
I didn’t! That’s my latest MS, the one I need to invent a whole new style of query for.
DANGIT. I HAVE TO GO TO ABC and get updated on LOST now. NOW. NOW. I’ll have to do it in the am when I should be unpacking. Grrr. I’m MISSING SOMETHING!!!
Seriously?? ANTM AND Lost?? Where have you been hiding this info?? I never knew!
Move over Mira.
I don’t suppose you like the…Unusuals by chance? or Fringe?
You’re like…my favoritest agent ever!! lol.
Nathan Bransford says
Whoa… you’re the second person to tell me about the Unusuals. The first was the famous author who I will have an interview with on Thursday.
And that’s what they call a teaser in the TV business.
See! I have things in common with agents and famous authors. That makes me special and important. Now I can go to sleep and dream big things with my big brain.
Now who is this author?? Hmmm…it may come to me in my dream. If I could take a WILD guess… I would say Dan Brown. But that is so wild and it would ruin Thursday if it was him.
But if it is…tell him I said “Whatup!” Oh and his movie is coming out on my B-day. How crazy is that?
And if it isn’t him…then…you should totally interview him. hehe. Okay I’m apparently over tired and need to go to sleep now. Cause I’m rambling.
Actually didn’t want to interrupt.
Marilyn Peake says
I love LOST, but am seriously behind in watching it since discovering BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. Love both shows.
Loved your post!
I once thought I’d write a Harlequin so I read a few (each one was the same as the last) and sent away for their guidelines. Talk about being told what to write! Even down to how the heroine bathed.
I’m not knocking those who do it but I sure couldn’t. I would have been miserable – so hooray to the freedom to write what we want with being published the icing on a delicious cake!
“…more lightness and humor, along with darker narratives…”
Yay, I’m on the right track!
Nathan, would a manuscript filled with a lot of profanity (nowhere near Stephen King, mind you) be a turn-off to the average agent, or is it something that would be perfectly acceptable in a book aimed for the adult market? It is a fantasy/sci-fi, and typically, they are a bit clean.
I have to say that I fully enjoy this blog, but it does consume more of my time than it should. I’m probably losing my job in a couple of months, though… is it bad that I’m actually a little excited, since I will have more time to write?! Sigh, paying the bills, that’s another story…
Well, I must say that when I complete my novel (which will be the end of this year or so), I plan to send Nathan the first query because he says
“Query me first.”
and because he’s great at telling us this stuff.
I expect him to pass on my novel, of course, because I don’t see him really liking my genre/story. But just in case it’s something that he likes, I’ll query him first.
Cuz Nathan is just awesome.
T. Anne says
Cool, my new YA is all about levitating hats. I suppose we’re a great fit now. The full is in the mail.
This is why your blog is the first one I go to each day – you keep nailing the very things that have been passing through my mind. I worried whether you had any interest in my genre.
I also honestly believe I see one trend coming in the next few years. I hope it won’t hurt to mention that in my query (once I am done editing!) to you.
Jen C says
All this LOST talk makes me so happy. After writing, LOST is my favourite subject. I even spell it in ALL CAPS because it’s far too important to have just one captialisation.
LOST LOST LOST LOST LOST… wait, what was the blog about again?