Thursday, October 04, 2007

Pitching Projects of Not-Yet-Clients

I’ve been asked and I’ve seen many message board posts on whether or not agents pitch projects before even offering representation, and the answer is yes, sort of. As an agent I can only do my very best if I know exactly what the market wants and needs, and sometimes that means calling an editor or two to feel them out first. Does that mean I know for sure whether a project can sell or will sell? No, it only means that I know the potential for the project at one or two houses.

This is not something I do with every project, but only something I do if I have concerns about marketability. For example, if I have a cozy mystery submission that I like but question whether or not the hook has been done (meaning someone has already published this brilliant “cooking with grass” cozy mystery series), I am very likely to call one of my editor contacts to see whether or not they’ve already tried this or have this concept on their list. Why would I do this? Since there are so few publishers selling cozies right now it gives the author and me both a better chance if we know what we’re up against right away. It also gives me the edge as an agent over an unagented author. Part of why an agent can be so important is that she has the ability to feel things out before you waste your time to write the book. While this is difficult for unpublished or unagented authors, it’s definitely a plus for agented authors. More times than I can count I’ve called editors to feel them out about the market in general or a particular project before I even get the author to start writing. This way we can decide better whether or not we want to spend time on it.

Keep in mind that calling an editor to feel her out about a project does not mean I’m "pitching" the project. The editor is usually very aware that this is a conversation about a potential project and never do I give out the exact title or author name. And never, ever, ever would I actually send anything to an editor without having talked to the author first. So if an editor says no, does this automatically mean I say no as well? No. In some cases I have talked to the author and explained that the hook isn’t viable, but asked if there are other ideas or ways to spin the proposal to make it more marketable. In fact I have more than one client who became a client this very way.

More important, though, does this hurt your chances of selling the book? Not at all. It only gives me an idea of how I feel about repping it. Another agent might have other contacts that are more enthusiastic about the idea or she might be braver than I. In other words, it might not matter to her that Cozy House already has that book because she’s happy to send it to Almost Cozy House and Mysteries R Us House instead. Or she might know something about Cozy House that I don’t. Maybe they want two series on “Eating Grass.”

Being an agent means having a number of resources at my fingertips and yes, some of those resources are editors.



Jenny said...

Dear Mr. Melville,

Sorry, Herm, but all the editors I've checked out tell me there is no market for a 250,000 word book about whale fishing. Been done! How about something shorter about hunting mountain lions?


A love story set amidst feuding families is so last year! Plus the English audience doesn't want stories set in Italy. How about a love triangle set in Scotland?

Dear Miss Austen,

Sad to say, I have to pass on the manuscript of Mansfield Park. No one is buying clergymen heroes and your heroine isn't sympathetic. Have you thought of making him a vampire and sexing her up a bit? That might make it more salable.

Anonymous said...

Jenny ... your comments? PERFECT

Anonymous said...

I weighed in on the Absolute Write site against agents who send projects to editors before they have signed with a client. I just wanted to say that I think what Jessica is describing here is completely different. It makes perfect sense to me that an agent would want to feel an editor out about his or her interest in a particular topic.


Anonymous said...

LOL, Jenny!

It isn't the hook, it's the execution. Too bad agents don't understand that. I'm still laughing about the fact that they think they're helping clients by brainstorming with them.

Laura said...

Good lord. You'd think from the number of negative comments I've seen in this blog over the last several days that people didn't understand that this is a business. If you want to write with no consideration for anything at all but the art, then you're right. Whether or not an agent can sale a book isn't a consideration. Neither is making a living off your writing.

Personally, such actions would make me even more confident that the agent was trying everything she could to make sure the I got the best deal possible. Then again, I'd like to write for the money.

getitwritten_guy said...

Jenny - - Great comments.

Personally, if an agent asked for a full (or even partial) from me, I'd certainly expect them to do exactly what you describe here.

Testing the waters a little on a very informal basis is a time-honored tradition in just about every business.

Tammie said...

Not sure I get Jenny's comment. ?

Being in a situation where the agent has a partial and I clearly stated in my query that a particular editor has a full to review - I can understand this happening.

I mean you want an agent who has connections. It would not bother me to know that yes the agent prior to talking to me would somehow discuss it with the editor that has already shown interest.

While I write for the love of writing I am not killing myself to go thru the process of selling it if I didn't want to write for the money as well and to do so I'd hope that agent and editors connect and discuss.

I would think it more unrealistic to think that they don't or wouldn't do that.

poor mouse said...

If you want to write with no consideration for anything at all but the art, then you're right.... Neither is making a living off your writing.

I'm a storyteller. I write because I just have to get down the stories in my head and I want to share them with the world. It has nothing to do with trying to create "art." But I also want to tell my stories, not stories that have been told a thousand times already in minutely different ways. Yes, I could write a paranormal romance about a werewolf and a werelion (or, better yet, a wererat and a werefalcon...hmmm, that might actually be fun...), but I don't like to read paranormal romances. Why would I want to spend hundreds of hours writing them? Quite seriously, I wouldn't be willing to do that even for a million bucks. (Though that wererat/falcon idea is growing on me...) Call me an unrealistic, spoiled brat, but I'd prefer to write stories that I love, even if that means I'll never be published. However, I don't think that's going to be the case. After all, no one knows what a new trend will be before some author bucks the current trends and writes that grand, new story that captures the world's attention.

Anonymous said...

It's my impression that the publishing business may have changed in the 200 years since Jane Austen was published.

But who's to say that this new way of doing business would stifle future classics? You're not giving publishing professionals enough credit. Sounds like sour grapes to me.

Kim Lionetti said...

I think some of the commenters are oversimplifying Jessica's post.

You're incorrect to think this means we would never take on a book before "testing the waters." We offer representation to our authors because we fall in love with their writing, their characters and their storytelling. Not all of our successes have been "easy sells" in terms of current marketing trends, but some areas of the business are more commercially "hook"driven than others. As publishing professionals with years of experience, we recognize this and so we make use of our resources.

To imply otherwise oversimplifies our skills as agents and underestimates the publishing industry as a whole.

Anonymous said...

When I had several agents who wanted to rep my novel, I interviewed them all. One question I asked was, "Do you have editors/publishers in mind for this novel?"

The agent I signed with said no, not yet, but she loved the novel and would have no problem selling it.

She was correct.

Laura said...

Poor Mouse, I'm not saying that you shouldn't write what you love at all. In fact, I can't imagine setting out to write a story, putting all that effort into it, if you didn't love it. My objection is to the idea that somehow the publishing professionals - whether they be agents or editors - are WRONG for trying to make sure that a story is marketable before taking it on. That just sounds naive to me. There are people that write what they love, but write it in such a way so as to make it marketable. They do this because it is their wish to not just write, but to have what they write published and sold to a wider audience. While I'm certain that every last one of these authors will tell you that their biggest consideration is for the art, for the story, I'm just as certain that they'll also tell you that they're still concerned about their ability to SELL the book. I don't understand why so many people make that sound like a bad thing. That doesn't make them sellouts. It makes them professionals. The same should be said about agents. They're not selling out the art for the contract. They're trying to make sure that the two things go hand in hand.

At least, that's the way I see it all. But I'm still an unpublished wannabe, so take it with a grain of salt. ;)

Christie Craig said...

Interesting post.

I think because writing is a passion, we often start to look at things on an emotional level. And unfortunately emotions and business are not always a good mix.

How many of you have been approached by people wanting you to write their story? Of course, they aren’t going to pay you, but when you sale it and become famous, they will of course give you part of their millions?

Hmm…Would you be wrong to check the market to see if “said” story even had any appeal? If you had an editor who liked your work, would you be wrong to call them and ask their opinion about the possiblity of selling the story in question?

As a freelance writer I was constantly being approached by people wanting me to write their stories. I learned the hard way that I should never take on a story before I checked to see the piece had marketability.

I don't see agents asking around to see if your project is marketable is any different than used car salesman checking the going price on certain cars before he makes that buy. Or a real estate investor doing a check on the market to see how your home's style, size and location is selling before he purchases your house.

It’s business. This isn’t to say that the agent couldn’t be wrong. Writing is subjective. We all have heard the stories of how many agents turned down the best sellers. But plainly put, agenting is an investment business. And smart business people know what they are investing in. Blind fate is a beautiful thing, but it seldom goes over well in business.

Christie Craig

Aimless Writer said...

I would think this is just another way agents "network" and keep their finger on the pulse of publishing.
Hey, here's something from left field! What do you think? I would assume they have a network set up to test the waters such as giving editors they know a call.
Works for me.

Cindy Procter-King said...

Wow, that was very interesting, Jessica. I had no idea agents might do that. Thanks for sharing.

Faye Hughes said...

Great post, Jessica. I've always thought that one of the hardest lessons for a writer of commercial fiction to learn is the difference between writing well and writing a marketable story.


Anonymous said...

I find this post reassuring because I think it points toward one of the reasons that an agent might hang on to one's query, partial, or full for a while (meaning other than the material just sitting in a TBR pile).

thanks for sharing this--it's something I figured happened but it's good to know for sure.

poor mouse said...

Laura, yes, I agree that an author should try to make their novels something that can sale. That only makes sense if you ever want to be published, and I've certainly attempted to do that with my own novel. Sorry I misunderstood you.

As to Jessica's post, an agent checking to see if there's any interest before taking on a client on doesn't bother me. We want our agent to be savy, after all, so why ask them to be dunces when evaluating if they should take us on?

Anonymous said...

Laura (11:01), Christie Craig and Poor Mouse:

An agent SELLS your work. They do not "sale" your work.

Nice distinctive error. Which two of you are the sock puppets?

Faye Hughes said...

I don't know Poor Mouse or Laura (11:01) but I do know Christie Craig. She's a multi-published, multi-award winning author of fiction and non-fiction, as well as a photographer. She has nearly 3,000 national magazine credits, two non-fiction books (one she wrote with me), several essays in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and four novels on her resume.

She's also dyslexic, a fact she writes about with great humor and pathos.

An interesting thing about the dyslexia...sometimes Christie flips the words around in a sentence (think Yoda speak) or she uses the wrong word altogether. Frankly, I'm in awe of her talent and perservance.


Christie Craig said...

Anonymous, caught me. About my spelling errors and typos, I mean. However, I have a hard enough time just being me, and I'm not even going to try to be someone else.

And considering that there is an anonymous button, it would seem that this would be the easiest way a person could post numerous opinions and become a sock puppet.

I'm totally in awe of writers who can write perfect copy and avoid ever making a mistake. So give yourself a good pat on the back. I've told everyone, I'm a storyteller, and every day I work at becoming a better writer and struggle to get those stories on paper. Thank goodness for spell check, and for writing partners who put in my missing words.

I'm going to take a gamble here and say that the “nice distinctive error” you pointed out, isn't so distinctive. And Laura and Poor Mouse…you are among good company.

Christie Craig

Michael S. Hugh said...

First, Thank you very much for taking the time to provide us with your insights on this blig.

I have been queity reading and absorbing your sound advice, but am still puzzled about the editor's preferences and the marketability of a novel.

The four or five editors I have net never seem to be able to answer the question "what's selling now?" and provide generalities.

I suspect that the way the industry works is that a specific type or genre is pushed until it loses its wheels and then editors go hunting through the sales figures to see what is actually selling.

Please don't take that as a criticism - I think it's being responsive to trends - no one really seems to know what the buying public is looking for - I think that it comes from floating a myriad of books and ascertaining which book is the best bait.

Anyway, wonderful post - please don't stop whatever you do