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On Getting an Agent

I originally posted this to my blog, but it was suggested to me that this might be of interest to the general FFF crowd. So here goes:

BookEnds Literary Agency recently did a fascinating series of posts about why an agent might turn down work they think is good and/or saleable. It started when agent Jessica Faust shared a story from the trenches: She requested a partial from an author, and before she had the chance to get to it, he'd received another author of representation. He contacted her to tell her about the other offer and gave her a chance to read the full manuscript and make her own offer. She read the manuscript and passed.

This story set off a bit of a storm in the comments section of the post.

Some writers wondered what was keeping authors from just lying and saying they had offers in order to rush an agent's response and encourage the response to be yes. I suppose I should not be surprised that this thought enters into people minds. One Harlequin editor told me that they have spreadsheets where they track what they actually request because so many things come in with "requested" on them that aren't.

My thought is that writers might be overestimating the propensity of agents to pile on. Just because there is another offer, doesn't mean they're going to want the book too. Other commenters in the thread brought up the problem that happens when the agent catches you in your lie. If they do. And agent Kim Lionetti drops in to point out something even more likely:

"If an author tells me they have an offer and I like the book, but feel it needs quite a bit of work, I'll oftentimes just pass, figuring that there isn't time to see revisions. If the author weren't waiting with an offer on the table, then I may be inclined to offer very specific feedback and hope to see it resubmitted."

Then, a clearly frustrated aspiring author says that he hates this response, that if an agent likes it, he or she should take it. This writer has apparently gotten a few "great, but not for me" rejections, which he likens to being told "you've won the lotto, but I think someone else should be the one to give you millions of dollars."

Another responder gives what, to me, is a far more accurate metaphor: "you're nice, but I'm just not that into you." And then Kim comes back with an entire post on the subject.

"Why would an agent ever want to go into a new partnership with an author feeling at a disadvantage? The publishing industry is tough enough as it is. When I take on a new project, I want to feel supremely confident in my ability to sell it. Time spent worrying over a project Im not sure I was the right advocate for could be used finding another perfect fit. And theres a ton of perfect fit manuscripts out there for me, just as there are a lot of agents out there that could be your perfect fit if not with this project, then your next."

Both posts and the threads that follow are worth a peek.

I've said it before, but I also believe that this is something that is really tough for a writer facing heaps of rejection letters and no agent offers to swallow:

When you have the right book, finding an agent is a relatively straightforward process.

A few days of research on what agents would be best for your type of book, an afternoon spent crafting a really bang-up query letter, and, oh, yeah. However many months or years it takes to write an incredible, can't-say-no novel. That's what it takes.

I know that's hard to believe. But it's true. There are no tricks. Finding an agent is not hard. It's writing the great book that's hard. So what's actually hard about finding an agent is finding an agent with the wrong book. That's nigh unto impossible. Here's another take on the same story (complete with the author being scammed a bit first by signing with a bad agent for the wrong book -- or the right book in the wrong version) by Jeaniene Frost. Luckily, it's got a happy ending!

I wrote four books and found an agent with the fifth. The fourth book, I sent out 21 submission packages and received 18 rejections and three full requests (one of which turned into a rejection). I had not yet received the other two answers when I began querying my fifth book. With my fifth book, I sent out four submission packages, got four requests, and three offers before I even sent the fourth agent (the only one who was looking for hardcopy) her requested pages. The difference is that the fourth book was problematic. The fifth book sold in a two book deal, at auction, a week and a half after it went out.

Yes, there are the occasional miracle stories about how no one saw the fabulous book's glories for what they were. They are nice stories. They are also far more rare than agents who see potential in a book that doesn't actually sell. Both are far less common than books that don't get agents because they don't have potential.

I've assembled a Venn diagram, for which the values of "good" and "bad" pertain only to their potential on the marketplace, and not on any actual assessment of literary merit:


Clearly this is not to scale. If it were, the red part would be WAY WAY bigger, since it encompasses books that span the entire Slushkiller spectrum, from functionally illiterate to "meh" to "just not for us right now". But think of it like those not--to-scale diagrams of the solar system. Good books would be an invisible Pluto planetoid next to the Jupiter of bad books.

So yes, some good books are not visible to agents. And some bad books (remember, "bad" in this scenario means "will not sell" -- and sometimes THAT only means "in this marketplace") find representation. (In fact, the "bad books that find representation" part of the diagram might even be a bit bigger than shown.) But if you do have a good book, chances are overwhelmingly good that you'll find an agent. If you don't, chances are overwhelmingly bad.

Might I have found an agent for MS #4? Possibly. (Actually, probably. I received a phone call a few weeks after my sale from one of the agents who had the full of MS #4. I figured, since she'd told me she'd called me by X date and this was more than a month later, that she'd passed, so I hadn't bothered to contact her to tell her I'd signed elsewhere. I do not know if she was calling to offer representation or revision suggestions.) But I think that, if I had, the book would likely have languished in that top part of the purple circle.

Still, that would be okay. I have plenty of friends who signed with an agent for a book that didn't sell, but then wrote the agent a book that the agent could and did sell.

However, looking at this diagram, you can see why it's ALWAYS a better choice to write a new book than it is to keep pounding your head against the submissions wall with a book that's just not happening. The next book you write could be THE book, the one that isn't a fight to get representation for at all.


( 29 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 20th, 2009 04:52 am (UTC)
Hmmm ... I agree on the don't lie part, and I definitely agree on the writing-a-good-book-is-the hardest part (something that gets forgotten far too often in these discussions), but I'm not convinced that simply having the right book means finding an agent is necessarily straightforward or easy.

Because just like with editors, when looking for agents, for every perfect fit there can be dozens of not-quite-right-for-me fits (on both the author and the agent sides), and even a wonderfully written, quite saleable book can take a bit of trial and error to find an agent (and especially to find the right agent), depending.
Feb. 20th, 2009 12:58 pm (UTC)
Yes, that.

And there are infinite weird variations on this theme. The first draft of my debut novel got as far as acquisitions at the first (big) publisher I sent it to, but after that I got nothing but rejections (mostly form rejections, at that, and very few requests for a full) from agents and editors until 2007.

During that time I could have given up on that particular book and tried to write something else, but I believed so much in the story even if it wasn't quite there yet that I kept revising and rewriting it until it sold.

Admittedly, though, getting such a positive reception from an editor the first time out was a major factor in that decision to persist -- if nobody on a professional level had taken serious interest in it, I probably would have given up much sooner.

Possibly a factor in all of this is whether you find writing new books more enjoyable and easy than revising old ones? Me, I would far rather revise a book--even if it means stripping it down to the bones and totally reworking it--than write the first draft of a new one any day.
Feb. 20th, 2009 01:10 pm (UTC)
But I think that falls more into the situation Jeaniene was describing in her post. Her book, originally, was a red book. She was getting nothing but form rejections. When she finally sat down and revised it as her gut and critiquers were telling her, it turned blue and she snagged agent offers right away.

I think "writing a new book that is the right book" and "cutting a book down tot eh bones and completely reworking it" fall under the same category. Either way, you are creating soemthing new and saleable.

RJ, what happened when you revised it? How did you get an agent?
Feb. 20th, 2009 02:18 pm (UTC)
I think "writing a new book that is the right book" and "cutting a book down tot eh bones and completely reworking it" fall under the same category. Either way, you are creating soemthing new and saleable.

That's true, and a good point. And it definitely wasn't until I learned to really revise -- that is, reworking the book's structure and focus, as opposed to merely polishing up the prose and dialogue -- that it started to attract serious interest.

I got my agent through a rather roundabout method -- I was doing uncontracted revisions for an editor who was interested in the book but felt it wasn't there yet, and she gave me a referral to an agent she knew. That particular agent "liked but didn't love" the project, but she referred me to another agent who DID love it, and shortly after that the book sold. (Not to the editor who'd helped me -- her boss decided to pass -- but to another publisher entirely. Such is the nature of this crazy business.)
Feb. 20th, 2009 02:32 pm (UTC)
That actually doesn't sound too roundabout to me. Editor referral is a pretty common method of getting agents -- ESPECIALLY in non fiction.
Feb. 20th, 2009 02:04 pm (UTC)
And I had one book that got rejected by 16 houses before it sold, and it was persistence, not significant revision (because after thinking about it I decided the book was working) that found it a home.

For that matter, my current book was passed on by several agents with no hesitation whatsoever--and then the agent who took the book on (who happened to be one of my top choices) was someone who had been doin this longer and was probably taking on clients more selectively than most of those who passed.

It just really isn't this black and white. I've read excellent books by colleagues who were struggling to find an agent or editor, too. It's not at all uncommon.

Edited at 2009-02-20 02:04 pm (UTC)
Feb. 20th, 2009 02:10 pm (UTC)
Well, it's not black and white. It's blue and red and purple. ;-) And I'm not talking about "excellent" books in terms of literary merit. This is all about the market. And there ARE those blue books. there's a whole sliver of them.

Yes, everyone gets rejections. But that doesn't mean that finding an agent isn't a straightforward process. You said yourself that you got an offer from one of your top choices. That seems pretty darn straightforward to me. Top choice, offer.
Feb. 20th, 2009 02:27 pm (UTC)
Well, except that that offer took six months from when I first queried, while I piled up rejections that made it look very much like this wasn't a marketable book in the meantime.

And it would only take one step sideways, somehow not having included this one agent in my list of agents to query for whatever reason, for it to look very like I'd written an unsaleable book instead.
Feb. 20th, 2009 01:05 pm (UTC)
I think that may be a factor of the search quality (like googling "plumber" rather than asking neighbors or a consumer site for recommendations). Alternately, the "quite good, quite saleable" book might be one of those that falls into the "blue" area of the diagram or on the liminal purple edge.

It happens. A friend of mine had one such "blue" book. She tried every agent in the book, and finally signed up with one for a different book, one that turned out to be a "red/purple" -- it never sold. The agent tried for years to sell the first book, but it was tricky in terms of placement. Everyone loved it, no one knew where to put it. (Note: this is why some of the "bad" books aren't necessarily bad.) When they finally found a way to do it, it came out and hit the NYT list.

However, stories like this are just as rare as the diagram would show. The vast majority of folks I know with agents didn't have to fight or perform tricks. They just queried an agent with a good book, and things progressed naturally.

To continue with the plumber metaphor, I think shopping for an agent with a good book on your hands is far more like looking for a contractor for your house (you'll find someone, you just want to make it a good someone) rather than this "winning the lottery" metaphor it's often portrayed as.

The odds against finding an agent seem insurmountable when you see query stats on agent blogs like "read 225 queries this week, requested 2 manuscripts." If you follow the old adage of 90% of everything is crap, 202 of those queries were no good. Of the remaining 23, some might have been wrongly queried (sending a picture book to an adult fiction agent, for example), some might not be that agent's cup of tea but be requested by other agents who were queried, etc.
Feb. 20th, 2009 02:24 pm (UTC)
The other factor here--though it's not the only factor--is genre. It's easy to forget that right now, urban fantasy in its various forms happens to be one of the better selling genres out there, so demand is high. I suspect if you went out and talked to a group of writers writing epic fantasy for adults, or picture books of any sort, say, you'd get a very different take, one in which failing to find an agent or editor is far more common.

It's easy to respond to that by saying that means one needs to write something more to market to get that "right" book--but even aside from the fact that we all have genres we bring more and less to (even if historical multi-generational family sagas were hot right now, I wouldn't be the right one to write them), there's the fact that the market changes. By the time you write that supposedly more marketable book, the market may well have moved on.

I'm sure at various times there have been quite a few horror writers, and middle grade paperback series writers, and non-paranormal chicklit writers who thought they were doing the sensible thing in writing for those markets instead of supposedly less commercial ones, only to be left holding extremely hard to sell books when the market moved on.

Heck, I have the rejection letters from people passing on my YA fantasy projects because YA fantasy is such a hard genre to sell in. Had I given up to write the right books instead of the wrong ones I would have done my career a grave disservice over the long term, and there would have been no guarantees over the short term.

Hmm, and I seem to have enough to say here that I ought to pull it out into a separate post, so will do so, while trying to be clear that we probably do agree on the big thing, which is that most books that don't sell don't sell because they're poorly written--but I think the books for which its more complicated are actually pretty numerous, if smaller, too.
Feb. 20th, 2009 02:42 pm (UTC)
Well, my book that sold was not an urban fantasy. It was a chick lit, and it was as the chick lit market was dying. I actually had a much harder time selling my YA fantasy -- and that was as a published auhor, when YA fantasy was super hot, and I had an agent, and etc. etc.

Does that change my mind? No, if anything, it confirms it. There was clearly something about my book that made people go "huh?" It could have been the POV (which was actually changed after acquisition, so perhaps if it had been submitted under that POV, it would have been a "bluer" version), or it could have been the fact that "killer unicorns" don't fall into the established "fangs fur fey" categories that an editor was necessarily looking for.

But it did eventually sell, and well, and at auction, even if it was a harder sale than my chick lit had been.

I make no attempt here, either, to define what is "marketable". Just because someone THINKS they are doing the "sensible" thing in writing for a particular market doesn't mean they actually HAVE written a blue book, in terms of quality or in terms of what the market ACTUALLY is.

This isn't necessarily about urban fantasy. Most of my writer friends (from whom I've gleaned the stories on which I have based my points) don't even write urban fantasy, or anything related to it. They do write lit fic or memoir or children's books or contemp romance or women's fiction or chick lit or etc. And I originally heard the aphorism from a mystery writer.

I think we're going to have to agree to disagree on this point. It's cool that your experience falls into the blue or liminal purple of the diagram. I think that's pretty rare, as the diagram shows. Yes, people writing in unmarketable genres are going to have a harder time -- they have a red book. It could be the best red book in the world, it's still red. that's why there's no "quality" statement here.

My friend, the one on the NYT list? Her red book was red because it was a 600k romance. When an editor figured out she could turn it into a 4 book fantasy series, it went from being one red book to four blue ones. See?

Feb. 20th, 2009 03:03 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think the agree-to-disagree territory has to do with just how large the blue area is--I definitely agree that it's smaller than the red area by quite a bit, but I'd still make it much larger than in the diagram.

(And, heh, we may be using different definitions for straightforward, too, but that's probably beside the point. :-))

Edited at 2009-02-20 03:04 pm (UTC)
Feb. 20th, 2009 03:06 pm (UTC)
Note to me: proofread posts before posting...

Nice post, Diana. I've been following most of those conversations on the BookEnds blog, as well, and I'm glad those ladies keep it up.

When you've written the "right book," (or blue book, to follow the analogy) whether or not getting an agent for it is easy or complicated is a somewhat circular argument--the destination is the same. It got an agent, and that, for many writers, is the only thing that matters.

My own path was somewhat crooked. TDTD was the seventh book I'd written and the third I'd queried. The first garnered lots of form rejections and one partial. The second received a handful of partial and full requests over the course of a year or so. I really thought this one was my blue book--it had gotten some good feedback from an author, it was something still sort of new in UF. I had one queried agent refer me to an agent friend of hers, saying she thought this friend would be interested. Squee time! I queried Referred Agent, who requested the first 100 pages. I thought this was it! It'll be a full, then representation, then....it was rejected with some nice comments and an invitation to query other projects if I didn't sign with this one. *sigh* Hopes crushed. In a way, it spurred me to write something new, which became TDTD.

The last rejection on book two came as I was gearing up to query TDTD. I sent out nine queries, and within six weeks I had four rejections and four requests for material. One of the four requests came from Referred Agent, who asked for a full. RA emailed the Friday before Memorial Day weekend and said although she was passing, she had an agent friend she'd like to send it to. I said okay. That Tuesday I received an email from Second Referred Agent offering me representation. I signed (after contacting the other agents with material, obviously), and we sold at auction two months later.

I'm still not convinced that book two was a red book. Maybe I would have eventually signed with it. I'll never know, but I haven't given up on revising it. My path to getting an agent wasn't a straight line (my agent, I'm embarrassed to admit, wasn't even on my to-query list), but straight or crooked, the result is what matters.
Feb. 20th, 2009 03:24 pm (UTC)
That story is so similar to mine it's eerie!

My agent had actually seen three of my books when she signed me for the third. With the first one, she'd been referred after I'd won a contest and gotten a request from an editor (since it was a new line at harlequin starting up, everyone involved figured it would be a pretty quick sale and that I should get some representation, stat).

Well, both the editor and the agent passed, but the agent said she'd be interested in seeing my next project. Which was book #4. Which she requested but hadn't actually made a decision on when I wrote her and said, "Forget that book. Try THIS book."

She offered within the hour.
Feb. 20th, 2009 03:25 pm (UTC)
Also, it may be "roundabout" in the sense that you didn't even query the agent you have, but it's a bit like calling a plumber and them saying "oh, I'm booked up, but here's the number of a colleague..."
Feb. 20th, 2009 05:44 pm (UTC)
My writing group calls it the beam of sunlight. You have to provide all the rest -- the amazing book, with a clear position in the market, etc. -- but the beam of sunlight is still out of your hands. As a control freak, I hate the idea but it seems to play out that way more often than not.
Feb. 21st, 2009 10:22 pm (UTC)
Interesting discussion. I'm not sure I'd thought of getting an agent this way before, most likely since this sounds far more neat and tidy than my experiences. I really wish there was some way to tell when your book is "the one" (or "blue," as you call it) and good enough to be snatched up. The only sure-fire way seems to be actually getting published and, in retrospect, saying, "I knew it was meant to be." Because I thought it was "meant to be" for my debut novel for a long, long time, even after mountains of rejections and frustratingly close calls. Should I have stopped because things didn't "progress naturally"? Or did I get lucky through sheer perseverance, unlike the hypothetical majority of successful authors? What I want to see: an actual survey involving a statistically significant number of published, agented authors and how many rejections vs. offers they got per book. I suspect a large number of authors who didn't have it so easy keep quiet, as there is an obvious stigma attached to rejection, whereas those who had a straightforward path feel fine about sharing.

Feb. 21st, 2009 11:18 pm (UTC)
I have to agree with Karen. It makes it seem as if you are saying the "right" book will be a breeze to get an agent, and if its not easy its not the right book.

Two of my very good friends just got agents-- both BIG name agents-- and each of them had betwen 20 and 50 rejections...

Edited at 2009-02-21 11:19 pm (UTC)
Feb. 22nd, 2009 02:21 am (UTC)
It makes it seem as if you are saying the "right" book will be a breeze to get an agent, and if its not easy its not the right book.

Au contraire! This is not a direct case, it's a probability one. The right book is a breeze to get an agent, in most cases. High probability. The wrong book has a very low probability of finding an agent. The right book also has a very low probability of NOT finding an agent.

Look at it this way: Most car accidents happen within five miles of your house. This does not mean that you are safer if you never drive home.

Make more sense now?

Mandy, you're a perfect example of what I say in my comment to Ravelda. You're one of those fun stories that we all beg to hear, because it's so twisty and entertaining, filled with close calls, crushing defeats, and soaring heights of majesty. FAR more interesting than the common, mundane one of simply querying, getting an agent, and placing the book.
Feb. 22nd, 2009 01:50 am (UTC)
I suspect a large number of authors who didn't have it so easy keep quiet, as there is an obvious stigma attached to rejection, whereas those who had a straightforward path feel fine about sharing.

All evidence to the contrary, at least in this thread!

Yes, there are outliers, but they are not as many as one might think. If anything, I think it is the opposite -- those people who have miraculous "how I got published" stories are far more likely to talk about it than most authors I know who simply queried agents, got offers, and proceeded from there. Most writers I know don't have these marvelous fantastic sale stories, just as most people don't have some great story about how they met their partners. We like the ones that are meet cute. those are the ones we beg to hear, not "oh, we met in a bar/in a class in college/at work." And yet, MOST spouses meet at work.

I disagree with the whole "hindsight is 20-20" premise, also. Like you, I was always thinking whatever manuscript I was working on was "the one." A while back, I remember reading on some aspiring writer's blog that after hearing an agent say that it was, on average, her clients' fourth manuscript that she signed/sold, that they wanted to just rush through the first three and skip to writing their fourth book. That made me laugh. It's the same situation here. This isn't something that is meant to be clear to the aspiring author's eye. I state right up front that it's something that's very hard to believe. Doesn't make it untrue, however. And the more writers I know, the more long term career writers, the more true it seems to be.
Feb. 22nd, 2009 04:05 am (UTC)
It's not that I don't believe you because these are hard things to comprehend, but that I find it hard to talk about what is "true" in the publishing business, particularly without hard statistical evidence to back up any claims. Yes, there is an average that one agent usually sells her clients' fourth manuscript, but why would a fourth manuscript, on average, be inherently "better" or "ready to be published"? Who can make these subjective judgments?

You might say, "Oh, that's obvious. The agent or editor. They know when something's ready to be published." But I argue that this is highly subjective. Many times, the author simply doesn't click with an agent or editor. True, the writer may need to revise more or even shelve the novel, but I also remember many close calls of mine where I just didn't find the right person who loved my book until, finally, I did. Does that mean my book isn't as "good," because it wasn't hugely popular right off the bat? I'm afraid that implication springs to mind when I read your argument.

For what it's worth, my fourth novel was the one that became my debut sale. But what would be the point of even writing the first three if I didn't think each one of them was good in its own way and deserved to be published? Even if I knew I probably needed to improve my writing and grow as a writer, the growing wasn't going to happen if I wasn't trying.

How does this mindset help those writers who are still struggling to be published? I'm not sure it would have helped me if someone told me, "Give up. It's not happening easily enough. Go write a better book, and see if that's going to work." On the contrary, I would have been more than a little frustrated and discouraged.

One last thing: you refer to Mandy's journey to publication as one "that we all beg to hear, because it's so twisty and entertaining, filled with close calls, crushing defeats, and soaring heights of majesty." I had a very twisty journey myself, but I don't like to talk about it for fear of gossip and assumptions. Everybody likes to hear about the sale, not necessarily the painful back story.
Feb. 22nd, 2009 01:41 pm (UTC)
I'm afraid I'm not really following you. It was the agent who made this observation, based on the statistical data of her own client base. She looked at her clients and said, "Hey, you know what's interesting? Most of my clients made their first sale with their fourth completed manuscript." It doesn't make that fourth book inherently better. It makes it, statistically, based on her own significant sample size of her clients, the one that sold.

That's why it's amusing to hear an aspiring writer's response of "oh, well, let me rush through the first three, so I can get to the 'good' fourth one." That's not how it works. You have to, like you said, believe that all those others are your best work possible, and work on them hard and polish them up, and learn the ropes that you can then apply to this statistically significant "fourth manuscript."

I find that not only interesting, but also that it coincides with years of reading the RWA "first sale" column, where they list how many manuscripts each debut writer completed before they sold, as well as the experiences of most of my writer friends. But it's not the point of my post.

This is actually a great article on a similar subject. It's about how there are skills you learn writing books that you can only apply to future books, that you can't apply in revisions, to books you've already written.

I don't find this mindset discouraging at all. I first heard this advice about the agent search (as well as read the above-linked article) when I was an aspiring author. My game plan was, and still remains, that I write a book, and I give it it's best chance on the marketplace: I revise it to the best of my ability, I submit it to the best of my ability (or, now, my agent does) and if it doesn't sell, I retire it and move on to the next shiny project. I did this for four books. The fifth one sold very easily. The next time I took a book on the market (book nine), was more of a struggle, as I describe upthread, but only in comparison to the massively "easy" sale of my debut. To the point that most writers wouldn't call it a struggle at all. Just as most comments here discussing the "roundabout" way that their editors referred them to an agent or an agent referred them to another are also, in the scheme of things, not really roundabout.

How it is discouraging to move onto a new project, one that, as Anne Shirley might say, "has no mistakes in it?" I find it very freeing. My career is not one book. My career is many books, a whole series of books, book after book after book. If not this book, then the next book. I feel no shame whatsoever having books that have not and will not sell, and I believe I get better all the time. (I'm even participating in a festival panel next month where I'll be reading snippets of my early unpublished work -- the idea is that any writer will feel better after hearing how bad published authors once were!)

Discouraging, to me, is people beating their heads against the wall for years with the same damn project that's never going to work, and, thus, developing the idea that agents are IMPOSSIBLE to snag, and that it's all such a racket, and you have to KNOW someone, and whatever other mythology that gets passed around like gospel among people who don't know much about the writing industry. This is the point of my post. That the gossip is not true. That in the vast majority of cases, it's really NOT that hard to find an agent.
Feb. 22nd, 2009 05:21 pm (UTC)
For me, reading that last sentence is almost like a slap in the face. Because I've been agent-seeking for years -- and I do write a new book once I've given the previous book a fighting chance. (I won't tell you how many books I've written) -- granted, I don't write urban fantasy. I think perhaps many of your statistics (that you've seen amongst your friends) could be true for urban fantasy (and even chick lit) in the current and recent market. But for the rest of us who write outside those genres, finding an agent is NOT easy. I know a number of other writers who have found an editor first and then gone on to sign with an agent -- and many others who, like me, have had ridiculous amounts of positive feedback but no offers. Therefore, I'd say that in the vast majority of cases amongst the writers *I* know, finding an agent is actually quite challenging.
Feb. 22nd, 2009 08:08 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry if you thought I was being offensive, robinellen. But I think a lot of people are reading a qualitative statement into what I clearly mark as a non-qualitative definition.

Yes most definitely if you are writing in a tough market (horror, perhaps, or glitz, or family saga), you're going to find yourself in the red circle despite the fact that your book is, in terms of quality, bluer than blue. This is why I'm not making a qualitative statement.

Almost every chick lit writer I know is either out of business or working in a more marketable genre. They could have the funniest, sweetest, most wonderful chick lit in the world. Still red. It sucks. It sucks horribly. It sucks for horror writers, it sucks for glitz writers, it sucks for my friend C, who wrote the most amazingly kickass revolutionary war historical romance in the whole world, and won every contest, and all the editors who judged those contests ADMITTED it was the best book ever, but that they could NOT, could NOT acquire it, because the P&Ls don't work out for Rev War romances. It was Red.

Some writers change genres (I'm a member of NINC, and when I first joined it was an eye opening experience to see all the career writers, the long term members who had written in 5 genres with 3 pseudonyms over 20 years), some writers are only called to write what they write, marketable or no. And more power to them. I for one wish that a lot of it would be published. I would love to see Rev War romances. Gilded Age romances (outside the Luxe, which I love. More please!). Keep fighting the good fight.
Feb. 22nd, 2009 06:45 pm (UTC)
"That in the vast majority of cases, it's really NOT that hard to find an agent."

I very much disagree with this assumption because it implies that easy = better. If you are defining better as "a book with more potential to be published," as you seem to be, then this is a circular (and rather obvious) argument: if you write a book that isn't good/ready to be published, write a better one and it will be published easily. Doesn't say much about *how* to make the book better, though you call upon the statistic that, if one works hard and keeps improving, most likely one's fourth manuscript will sell. Really, your argument seems to hinge on this statistic to support the claim that "it's ALWAYS a better choice to write a new book," but I'd really like to see a broader, deeper analysis before I'm convinced.

Perhaps this is encouraging. But not to those who have already come frustratingly close with manuscripts one through three, or who are far past number four and want to know why they still aren't "good" enough. Perhaps this only encourages those who had a massively easy time, and can look back with confidence at their path to publication and feel certain that they wrote a really "good" book. I'm wondering who you are directing this advice toward, and what you expect people to do.

I believe there are no publishing truths. Your game plan worked for you. That does not mean it will help all or most other writers. That said, I respect your opinion and appreciate you taking the time to enter into a debate with me. I'm now going to bow out, as I should be working on my own writing.
Feb. 22nd, 2009 07:38 pm (UTC)
I think I'd prefer it if you stopped insisting that I'm implying something that I've stated several times I am not. What you are reading into my post and what I'm actually saying appear to be entirely different entities.

For the third time, I am not saying that AT ALL. I am creating a probability chart. Of course I'm not talking about "how" to make the book better. That's not a subject for this post. I talk about craft and such, at length, elsewhere.

And I *did* come "frustratingly close" several times.

Who am I directing this advice towards? I shall repeat what I said above: those people who beat their heads against the walls for years with the same tired manuscript. those people whose "nos" have led them to believe wild, unsubstantiated claims that "agents don't take on new writers" or "you need to know someone" or whatever other tired myth circling the internet. Those claims, false and bizarre and easily disproven they might be (i think most of my agent's clients were unpublished when she took them on), are for some strange reason far easier for the frustrated aspiring writer to believe than the truth: with the right book, getting an agent is actually a relatively straightforward process.

Again, as I said above, I found this advice *very* encouraging as an unpublished writer. As a frustrated writer who was trying to fix a book (#3) for the third time with an editor and was not seeing eye to eye, it was actually quite encouraging to me to hear that I could put it aside, work on something new, and not bleed from the eyes for one book. That my career would be many books, and there was no shame in moving on to a new one. That a new one could open all kinds of doors for me. I'm sorry that this does not seem "encouraging" to you. I'm not entirely sure why that is, however.
Feb. 22nd, 2009 08:24 pm (UTC)
I see where you're coming from, and do think that's valid advice for writers who are obsessively revising one book. I just wanted to mention complicating factors for how "easy" it might be to get an agent. My apologies if my argument offended you in any way.
Feb. 23rd, 2009 02:14 pm (UTC)
I'd say about ... maybe a third? ... of the published writers I know right now don't have agents. (Five years ago we took a show-of-hands at a conference for published writers I was at and it was half, but I think that's gone down a little as houses become less open to unagented work and so it becomes harder to sell same.) The fact that so many books can not click with an agent but click with an editor is one of the things that tells me that what a "right" book is is not at all clear cut.

It's probably less common that that, but still not at all rare to find an agent with a book that in retrospect one decides wasn't a "right" book, too.

There are more books out there that don't sell for a reason than books out there that ought to sell but don't. But beyond that, I think it's really really hard to generalize careers, because there are so many different paths.
Feb. 22nd, 2009 01:41 pm (UTC)
Does that mean my book isn't as "good," because it wasn't hugely popular right off the bat? I'm afraid that implication springs to mind when I read your argument.

I am sorry that you took it that way, but it's not even remotely the point I'm trying to make. Read my response to Mandy, who makes this same false assumption. If car accidents are more likely to happen 5 miles from your house, that does NOT mean you should never drive home! If you look at my diagram, there is a nice little blue crescent there, and I already made these points up thread with another blue crescent dweller. Seriously, good for you guys. You are still in the minority.

Also, I think people DO like to hear the painful backstory -- especially when it ends as Mandy's did, in a sale. Everyone loves an underdog story. The hundreds of comments and dozens of links to Mandy's triumphant post on the subject bear that out. My own experience was nothing like hers, but I was certainly moved. (This should not, in any way, be construed as me thinking you should share, btw.) Folks like it better when dreams are either achieved by luck (which is why Stephenie Meyer is always characterized as a housewife who one day woke up from a dream and -- surprise!-- wrote a book), or after long struggle (which is why JK Rowling can't escape her 'welfare mom writing in a coffee shop' image). The straightforward story, alas, doesn't make good copy.

I certainly wouldn't write a book about it.
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