Monday, August 20, 2007

Publishing: A Business or Personal Preferences?

In my blog post on Getting Your Work in the Right Hands, a commenter asked the following:

Aren't agents in the business of finding books that will make them money; sussing out what will appeal to the end user? Are editors like agents, i.e. do they choose books based on their personal likes, dislikes and phobias? Seems to me, that would constitute a very bad business model. Since agents are the conduit for getting a product to market, one would hope they would choose the products they feel are most likely to sell, setting aside their personal foibles as much as possible.

And I didn’t think you were being argumentative at all, but asking reasonable questions that any writer should want to know the answers to. You are just asking me how the heck this business makes any sense. Let me start by saying that it doesn’t.

And that’s the real trick of publishing, or any entertainment business. Choosing what should be published is a little bit about finding books that are most likely to sell and a little bit about personal preferences. Agents and editors are in the business to make money for themselves and their companies, and yes, making money means finding those projects that will sell. But the biggest thing agents and editors have learned to rely on, and what makes an agent or editor successful, is her own instincts, which is why we specialize. But I understand what you’re getting at. You’re looking at the narrower picture here. It’s not about why an agent represents romance and not science fiction. The question is how an agent can reject a work simply because she has a phobia of cats and the characters in the book she’s considering are shape-shifting cats? Easy. I receive hundreds of submissions every week, as do most agents, and part of my job is to weed through those and find the books that I not only think I can sell but those books I’m excited to sell. Almost every week I reject something that I know will sell but that I do not feel I have the passion to sell. Does that mean the book will never be published or that down the line I’ll regret not offering representation? No, not at all. It means that I’m not the right advocate for that book. Ask any agent or editor and they will all say that at one time or another they rejected a book that later became a success. Keep in mind, though, that part of becoming a success is having the right team and perfect timing. Just because a book is successful with one agent or one house doesn’t mean another house or agent could have done as well with it. Of course, it doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have either.

There are a lot of really great books being written every single day, and by turning down one because of a fear, phobia, or dislike is not going to hurt my business, or any other agent’s business. It’s also not going to hurt that writer’s career. If a book is publishable, marketable, and has all of those things the public wants to see, it will be published. It doesn’t mean, however, that every agent would have wanted to take the plunge, or every editor would have made an offer. We all have limited resources. I can only successfully represent so many clients, and editors and publishers can only publish so many books a year, and if I'm choosing between two titles that are equally good and will probably be equally successful I will probably bow to my personal preferences and choose the book I like personally.

Keep in mind that personal preferences play into every aspect of this business. Good writing, a great plot, and strong characterization are all somewhat subjective. We’ve all read books that friends, family, and even reviewers have adored, books that publishers spent thousands to market and sell because they saw the book and author as the next big thing but that we couldn’t even get past page 50 on.

So yes, personal preferences can play a role in why an agent or editor makes a decision. However, those preferences are usually a bit stronger than the examples I used. I really can’t imagine anyone rejecting a book that has a dog in it just because they hate or are afraid of dogs (of course, I can’t imagine anyone hating dogs). And usually those preferences are somewhat subconscious. Rather than an agent reading the query and thinking, “I dislike that, I won’t read it,” the dislike comes through while reading and the agent simply loses her enthusiasm or enjoyment for the book.

Agents and editors are successful partly because they have good instincts as to what works and what doesn’t, and for all of us, personal preferences do play into those instincts.



Anonymous said...

These words do ring true for a lot of us. Be it publishers, editors, agents - It's a numbers game:

Anonymous said...

Jessica - This was my comment and I appreciate you addressing it with intelligent answers that help me understand how subjectivity can affect a project.

My first novel encompasses subject matter that is difficult for a lot of agents. I'm pretty sure I have more rejections, at the query level, than there are agents. Many have sent a form letter while others have taken the time to include a comment indicating they can't handle the subject matter.

But then, I have had a fair share of agents requesting partials or fulls. One agent, who read a full, adored the book, telling me I was a great writer (Yeah, whatever!) -- that was the good news -- the bad news: he ultimately rejected the novel because he felt it wouldn't pass the profit/loss test of big publishers. (He did, however, invite me to submit future projects.)

Of course, other agents who have read the full, told me, more or less, that I sucked as a writer, and being Irish, I tend to believe them because I do so love to beat up on myself.

Anyhow, thank you for your explanation.

JDuncan said...

Anon, if you got a request for a full that failed because of marketabililty, you should feel good about that. Yeah it's a rejection which is no fun, but it does mean your writing is likely there, and it's just a matter of time. Write another book better than the last and keep trying. So few folks get requests for fulls. You're doing something right. Good luck with your writing!

Kris Fletcher said...

So which is harder to turn down; one you love that you know isn't marketable, or one that's totally marketable but just doesn't sing for you?

Alli said...

Jessica, this was a fabulous post - thanks for the honesty. Anon, thank you for asking this question - good luck with future work. It sounds like you're on the write track (and I've Irish ancestory so I get the whole beating yourself up business!).
Authors write books about subject matter that interests them, so why would it be any different for an agent/editor not to let their personal preferences creep in when it comes time to make a decision on a piece of work? Time and time again I've heard agents and editors say they've passed on fabulous work, just because they haven't had that passion for it.
When I worked in sales it was always easier to sell the products/services I felt passionate about - so I can't understand why it would be any different in publishing.

Anonymous said...

jduncan and Alli - Thanks for the encouragement. Funny thing is, it's pouring down rain here and just last night I questioned why I'm continuing to write at all, questioning why I can't just stop.

But that's my pessimistic response each time I get a NO on a full. Just got one two weeks ago that said the narrative needed to be stronger for a first time novelist. (Does that mean vets don't have to write as well?) So, being a sysophystic, massochistic writer (Is that redundant?), I set about revising the full manuscript. I did find stuff that needed fixing, but most of it was as good as I could make it which probably isn't saying much.

I would have given up on the manuscript altogether except I still have requested material out there.

The good news: I have completed the first rewrite of a second novel which, at the very least, will appeal at the query level to agents since it is a biomedical thriller. (Actually, I really enjoyed researching and writing it and I plan to stay with that genre until I find a cure for the writing addiction.)

Thanks again, Jessica for answering my questions and commentors for your encouragement.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I would rather have an agent who is excited about my writing, enjoys my writing, rather than an agent who represents me because she thinks my book will sell.

There are enough agents out there, that you can find several (at least) who read x type of book.
If you sent out your book to enough agents who represent your genre and get rejects, realize that they are the 'first reader.' If these agents don't get excited about it, an editor probably won't either, and probably even less likely a regular reader would.

I think too often writers feel the sting of rejection and can't see WHY their book is not being picked up for representation. They blame it on the agents who only want to represent 'books they like' rather than books that sell. Uh, I hate to tell you this, but if NONE of these agents like your book, it probably wouldn't sell very well.

Anonymous said...

PS to Anon 12:14 - Uh, thanks for your kind words, but I don't disagree with rejecting agents. I just don't know what to do to fix it other than choose a genre with a (probable) larger reading audience. (I have received some very positive, enthusiastic comments. But the only offers have been from two different agents, a year apart, to submit future material.)

Alli said...

Anon 12.14... I understand what you're saying about some writers not getting their books picked up, but I still believe (and have heard many times from industry professionals) that luck can come into play. If you're trying to sell a book at the tailend of a "trend", when the market is absolutely saturated, there's a good chance you won't sell - regardless of how well the book is written.
A rejection isn't always about a badly written book - there are so many reasons for an R - and a lot of the reasons are not because your writing sucks.
Original Anon - keep at it. If you write for the love of it, it will show in your writing and that will capture the attention of the right person when the time is right.

Kate Douglas said...

Jessica, this is such an important post, and it's something I tell writers who are looking for an agent. If you can't find someone to represent you who is as enthusiastic about your story as you are, then you need to keep searching. So much of this business is luck and timing--but if an agent loves the project she's put in front of an editor, hopefully that same enthusiasm will catch the editor on fire as well.

Laurie said...

Jessica, thanks for addressing this persistent question for those of us who're looking to query agents. Understanding the subjectivity of the business and the need to keep going if you believe in your own work, is crucial, in my view, to an author's success. After all, Clive Cussler was told for years that his "Dirk Pitt" books were "non-starters". And what a fabulous career he's had!

Kristin said...

I'm not sure if anonymous was really saying that a book sucks if it doesn't get picked up. At least, I hope not.

Even the writer says that the book was a subject that was 'difficult' for a lot of agents and that, in the end, it wasn't marketable. So, his/her question for Jessica was kind of strange. If you know it wasn't a marketable book why are you asking about taste playing into an agent's choice to represent a novel?

It would be much different if the novel were at the tail-end of a trend in a saturated market but was very well-written, as one commenter mentioned. Then, yes, the agent is looking more at the market than selecting a book solely b/c he/she 'likes' it. Perhaps, if an agent were so moved, he/she might even ask to see something else by this author.

I just think the question the person asked doesn't match the reality of the was an unmarketable book in the end and so taste really is not at issue here.

Julie Rowe said...

Jessica, could you tell us some of your personal likes and dislikes? Is there subject matter you won't represent? Is there something you haven't seen, but would love to get your hands on?

Travis Erwin said...

Great post. You shed some light on something I have always been curious about.

Anonymous said...

Originally, when I commented on Jessica's blog, I was playing devil's advocate as a result of several comments made by agents on their blogs that seemed contrary to good business practices.

One that pops to mind was by Miss Snark's. She stated that she could never represent a novel about child abuse because she would never be able to look her priest in the eye again. (Not her exact words.)

Moral arguments aside, I wondered if she were allowing her emotions to cloud her sense as a business woman.

Let me offer an example of my thinking: Suppose an agent was a staunch Catholic and she received a manuscript from Dan Brown entitled The Da Vinci Code, and that she had not been clued in that it was a smack at the Catholic Church. Now her policy is that she will never represent something that belittles her religious beliefs.

Now, for the sake of argument, let's assume she recognizes that the book is going to be huge; it will make her career and she can, finally, move out of Brooklyn.What to do; what to do?

A savvy business person signs the author and, because the agent is a terrific salesperson, takes the project to publishers with the greatest enthusiasm, smiling through her tears.

An emotional person, who isn't much of a business person -- perhaps she likes living in Red Hook -- turns the project down.

Yes, I understand there are some things so abhorrent, the agent must reject them just as some attorneys can't bring themselves to defend clients accused of horrific crimes.

That being said, are we writers being invited to form a business relationship or join a sorority? (By the way, I'm female, so this isn't an attempt to bash women. I'm as emotional as the next girl.)

I know from her comment that Jessica understood where I was coming from. I just wanted to understand the business of publishing. Because I am a scientist by training, it bothers me when something doesn't make sense. But Jessica's well thought out answer helped a lot.

As for my first novel, the agent who took the time to do a rough guesstimate of profit/loss (he used to work on the publishing end of things), didn't tell me there was NO market. He merely said that the market wasn't big enough for major publishers to take it on. (Most of his clients are heavy hitters, demanding very nice advances. But he was accepting queries so I figured, why not?)

Tim said...

Why on earth would anyone want to move out of Brooklyn???

Talk about improbable plots!

Aimless Writer said...

When you do reject a book that has potential do you leave the author a little note? "good book, just not for me"?
I know you are busy but do you ever leave notes on the work? If so, what prompts you to do that?
Speaking of dogs, I've reincarnated a woman as a chihuahua...wanna read?

Andrew said...

Anonymous 4:23: The thing is, when you talk about a book like The Da Vinci Code you might assume that its blockbuster success was obviously preordained. And maybe so in a supernatural sense, but in a real business sense, I don't think so. There are plenty of well-written books that only do moderately well. There are only a few that become phenomenal success stories. And I don't believe that anyone without a working crystal ball can say, definitively, "This will be HUGE." Someone with good reading taste can say, "I'm sure this will be published, but not by me," but can't predict that something's going to be huge like Dan Brown.

A huge success like Dan Brown comes about because the right people were in the right place in the right time. I believe that if he'd gone with an agent who wasn't nuts about the book, or with a publisher who wasn't sure how to market it, or with an editor who didn't know how to guide him, it wouldn't have been the runaway success it was. There would have been some other book to fill its place, and we'd all be none the wiser.

And there are probably some agents who turned Mr. Brown down before, who may be sighing about the amount of money they could have made if they'd only loved the book a little more, or if they hadn't been so keen on their religious faith. But still, they're doing okay. They could be richer, but instead, they get to work with authors who write books they love.

Anonymous said...

As a prospective client, how does one tell the difference (during The Call) between an agent who loves the book because it's right up her alley vs. an agent who loves the book because she just knows she can sell it? (assuming the book is a genre the agent represents)

thanks, if anyone cares to weigh in.

Laurie said...

Hi Jessica,
Would you give your readers some specifics on what your own personal preferences are? I know your website has a blurb with your photo, but I'd be interested to know what specifically you look for that makes a book tingle for you! Thanks very much!