Friday, February 22, 2008

Am I Believing in Something Bad?

In my post on Am I Missing Something Good?, there was a comment by Anonymous 11:59 that I wanted to point out to readers and ask your advice on. Since the comment was made the day after the original post I suspect many of you may have missed it. Rather than quote Anonymous directly, I’ll paraphrase and let you read the comment for yourself. I also want to note that Kim did comment and had a brilliant answer, but again, I felt strongly enough about Anonymous’s accusations that I felt I should comment as well. I also wanted others to see what people are saying.

What Anonymous essentially said, or maybe accused me of, is that because I choose, and most agents choose, to represent only those books they “like” or “believe in,” we are bad salespeople. In addition, making a decision based on a single query shows that we are also bad agents. And, it’s because of us that the publishing industry is being run into the ground (which I didn’t know was happening).

An interesting theory, but one I heartily disagree with. However, maybe my world is too insular. Maybe all writers feel this way. Maybe you all think that agents should represent everything that’s well written, even if they don’t have the contacts or knowledge of the genre. Maybe I should represent children’s picture books simply because they’re well written, despite the fact that I don’t know the first thing about what makes a children’s book successful, marketable, or enjoyable for children.

Let me address one issue first, and that’s the issue of selling something we like or believe in. I believe that most people who choose to work in sales prefer to sell something they like or believe in. I know a real estate agent, for example, who never in a million years would sell cars. Cars aren’t his passion, homes are. The truth, though, is that liking or believing in something is only part of what goes into an agent’s decision process. Yes, we have to like the book and yes we have to believe in the book, but we also have to feel that it’s marketable to publishers as well as readers, we have to feel that the plotting is strong, the characterization good, and the writing has to be terrific, and those last three things are all subjective and come down to my belief that the writing, characterization, and plotting are good. And not all editors, agents, or readers will agree with me. That’s why I need to believe in this book and believe that I can find the editors and readers who will feel the same way I do. Because if no one feels that way, the book will not sell.

What I’m saying is that the difference between selling cars and selling books is that what makes a book good is subjective. A car has a concrete value that can be judged against all other cars. A book does not. I don’t just sell my books to editors who are looking to buy books. I sell my books to editors looking to buy books in a specific genre and with a specific voice, because whether we like it or not, we all buy books because we like them and believe that they are good and enjoyable. We buy cars because we need cars. We might pick the color or the features because we want them, but in the end it’s more of a need-based item than simply want-based.

So yes, in order to successfully sell books I need to have a solid understanding of the market and of what makes a good book, and I need to believe in it and love it. Because honestly, with the way publishing pays, I don’t think any of us would be in it otherwise.

As to the second point, judging a book based on a query letter. I think I addressed this in my original post, but I’ll address it again since I don’t think Anonymous read very carefully. I judge material based on query letters because I know I can. If you write your own query letter and you’ve written your own book I should get a sense of voice from that one page. If you’ve written a strong pitch I should also get a sense for the market the book is aimed for, or the marketability of the book. And if you’ve written your own query letter I should get a sense for how strong your writing is. I do base my decisions on the writing, but writing isn’t everything. Not to readers, not to agents, not to editors. It takes a lot more than good writing to make a query letter and a book.

But what about readers? Would you all simply prefer that agents take on whomever they choose and whatever book they choose because the writing is good? Or would you want an agent who believes in your work, likes your work, and specializes so that she understands the genre and the market? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this because, believe it or not, I get this a lot.