Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Listening to Signs

This post is really going to be a short vent, so bare with me.

Just recently I received a nonfiction proposal with an amazing title and a terrific new take on what’s been a fairly well published topic. But I really liked what this author had to say and she had the platform to back herself up. Before making a decision on representation, though, I needed to do some research. I studied Publisher’s Marketplace to see what had been recently sold in this area and how long it had been since books on this subject had been sold. I wanted to get a sense of when the real rise of this subject matter had been and whether or not publishers were currently feeling inundated or might be ready for a new title. I also reviewed the more popular and the most successful books on the subject to see how my proposal was different and how it would stand out in what is almost always a crowded market. And of course I discussed the project with my colleagues to see what they thought.

After doing all of this I decided that I was armed and dangerous and ready to make an offer. In fact, I was very excited about the proposal. The author had great credentials and the title and concept were absolutely brilliant. Most important, though, while I didn’t think it would be an easy sell, I knew that by doing some tweaking on the proposal and making some minor adjustments, the author and I could create something that would definitely be a hit.

So I picked up the phone and grabbed the proposal for the phone number. It wasn’t there. In fact, except for an SASE, there was nothing on the proposal to indicate how I should reach the author. No phone number, no email, no web site. Nothing. Now what? Do I send an SASE with an offer? Do I Google the author and try to hunt her down? Or is this a sign from someone that maybe this is going to be too much work and I should just use that SASE for a rejection? Do you know I actually debated this one? I don’t think of myself as a spiritual person or as someone who believes in signs, but I think I might be. I know when I told Kim and Jacky, they both had the same reaction I did. Both of them wondered too if maybe it was a sign.

But I persevered. I hunted through Google and 411.com and finally in some obscure article somewhere I found her email address. I sent off an email explaining that I loved the proposal and really hoped to talk further with her about it. No word. The entire day went by and I heard nothing. Okay . . . maybe it’s an old address, the article was about five years old. Or maybe, just maybe, it was a sign.

I own a Pit Bull, and many will tell you that dog owners are a lot like their dogs. When I get that bone I refuse to let go, so the next morning I did another quick Google search, and this time I came up with the phone number of her practice. Bingo! I called and left a message and finally, that afternoon, she called me back. Only to let me know that the book proposal had already been sent to about 40 publishers and rejected by almost everyone. Now she claimed to have interest from a publisher and didn’t need an agent. She didn’t think there was anything else I could do. Okay . . . so why, less than three weeks earlier, had she sent me her dang proposal?

I guess next time I’ll pay closer attention to the signs.



Anonymous said...

"Bare" with you?

You go first.

Mark Terry said...

in what is almost always a crowded market

I'm just wondering if this phrase has ever NOT been used to describe the publishing marketplace by people in the business. I've been hearing it for 20 or 25 years and if some of Lawrence Block's earlier writing columns are an indication, publishers and editors and agents have been saying the same thing pretty much since the 1950s (or since the 10 Commandments were inscribed--"10! Why do we need 10? We were perfectly fine with 5! It's crowded enough here as it is! Who needs 10?"

So I'm wondering--has anyone ever said, "Yes, there's a real need for hard-boiled mysteries (romances, fill-in-the-blank)."

Or is "it's a crowded market" just an attitude everybody in publishing uses to justify rejection? It is, after all, an industry built on the expection of a "no" response.

Unknown said...

I cant believe anyone would do that...after trying so hard for five years to attract an agent, and this person is so shamelessly shallow about the whole process?! You should be grateful that it worked out well (for you) in the end!!

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

LOL Good call anonymous. That's what I get for not properly proofing my posts and for not using a good editor.

Mark: Actually there have been plenty of times when the phrase was not used, they are just very short lived. Just two or three short years ago I had publishers knocking down my door for erotic romance. That lasted less than a year before it became a crowded market.


Maria Zannini said...

>>I own a Pit Bull, and many will tell you that dog owners are a lot like their dogs.

Now I know why I liked your style so much. LOL.

Bummer about this author. But karma has a way of visiting those with bad manners. I'm betting the publisher will take her for a ride if she waltzes in without representation.
Her call. Her loss.

Anonymous said...

The writer is shortsighted and you're better off without, but this brings up an interesting question: would you reccommend that writers submit to publishers directly (presumably an offer would prove salability) or do you prefer manuscripts that haven't been rejected already?

Aimlesswriter said...

The first word that came to me was "mean" (not you, the author). Why would she send it if she already made the rounds with it? She definitely wasted your time and for what?
Second word? Unprofessional.

I have a pit-greyhound mix. She charges at you like she'll rip you apart, once she gets close-she runs and hides. Brave but to a point. What does that say about me? lol

Julie Weathers said...


I've been known to do things that might make a person wonder if my brain is on leave, but not putting contact information in a query? Yeah, I think I would have been attacked by the Morning Star virus and turned into a zombie for that to happen. I have to restrain myself to keep from putting my information in florescent glitter.

Yeah, I believe in signs too, but I have a rather tenacious persnality about some things. Sometimes I think something is a test to see how bad I want it.

I think you passed the test, if that was it.

Agents are for more than submitting manuscripts. Her not realizing that tells you something.

Sorry, about the frustrations.

Now Bill Engvall's Here's Your Sign gig is running through my mind towards that author.


Vikki said...

It sounds like that author was a) completely unfamiliar with the basic query process, and b) she was frustrated and at the end of her rope, willing to take any offer that came along. In both instances, I think she loses.

But my brain is simply unable to comprehend how she didn't have contact information on her query. I have to hold myself back from putting my neighbor's number, my mom's number, my neighbor's mom's number, and the number to the nearest Starbucks. ANY book, website or fifth person on the street will tell you to put any all pertinent contact info on your query. Phone number, cell number, email, web site, blog, the address to the little online cam at your doggy daycare - every possible way to get a hold of you!

The way I see it, one should always work under the assumption that the agent will read the query, fall out of their chair, get up, grab for the phone and start dialing frantically (after screaming, "It's the one! I've found the one!" at the top of their lungs.)

Anonymous said...


Okay, I love this post! Of course, I'm a big believer in signs. Before I sold my first book, I had asked the universe to send me a sign. Show me balloons, I said, if I'm going to sell this book. And, yep, I saw them everywhere the day before I sold. So...like Pavlov's dogs, when I see balloons now, I think I'm selling a book, or that good chit is coming. I've even gotten my writing partner for my non-fiction into the act. Every time she sees a balloon somewhere, she calls and says, "Faye, I saw balloons! Good chit is coming!"

And it almost always does, too.


Anonymous said...

I'm not surprised at her behavior. I'm currently editing a book for a man who is too impatient to 'wait for NY.' He thinks it is too slow and that is non-fiction book must get in the market NOW. So, he is going the self-pub route.

I felt badly for him. I thought, if I could only convince him to submit it to a few good agents, maybe he would see how much better it would be to go that route. And since I've been doing the agent-search thing for awhile now, I'd have a lot of good advice to give and could even do some research for him.

But he's convinced he can do better. He has the idea that if he doesn't get the book out now, someone else will beat him to it.

Sadly, he doesn't realize that even if his book is out first, before everyone else gets the idea, his market will be so small...and it will be an uphill battle. Which means another writer with more foresight could go the traditional route, publish a similar book, and make a lot more money...even well after his book was self-published.

There's really not a lot you can do for someone who wants instant gratification like that. No patience. No understanding of the industry. They probably wouldn't do well even with representation.

Christie Craig said...


Great post. Hmm...you do remind me of a Pit Bull. I've got a black lab mixed with cocker. I'm always in a good mood, but also always have an attitude going.

And I'm a big believer in signs. I think the woman missed out.

Thanks for the chuckle.


Anonymous said...

"Yeah, I believe in signs too, but I have a rather tenacious persnality about some things. Sometimes I think something is a test to see how bad I want it."

I completely agree with you, Julie.

Bizarre behavior is definitely a sign to be cautious, and not putting any contact information in their submission is very bizarre.

Rachel Glass said...

That's pretty bad. I can't believe anyone would submit something they had labored on so diligently, and not provide contact information.

That is extremely bizarre. And sad. . .

Kate Douglas said...

LOL...I believe in signs. I also believe in karma...what goes around really DOES come around. Hang in there, and next time listen to your gut.

Karen Duvall said...

Mark, it's so funny you should bring up the "crowded market" thing. I talked about this on a writers' forum just the other day because this same sentiment had come up.

In the eighties (before I was writing), editors and literary agents attended writers conferences, mostly romance writers' conferences, begging for manuscripts. That's right, begging. I found this hard to believe, too, when a multi-published friend whose been writing romance for the past thirty years told me about this. But it's true. Books were really hot back then, especially romance, but there weren't many writers writing it at the time. The computer had yet to become a household word. Now that everyone and her brother has a computer, everyone whoever thought about writing a book is finally doing it. Do you think if typewriters were the only tool writers had that the market would be so crowded now? Ha!

Karen Duvall said...

I think that subconsciously, this author didn't want representation. That's why she didn't include her contact info. On the spur of the moment, because she'd already been turned down by every publisher out there, she zapped off a proposal to Jessica without thinking it through. Having an agent is not what she wanted to begin with. Then when she found a publisher actually willing to work with her, she mentally kicked Jessica to the curb and all focus turned completely on herself without regard for anyone else.

I usually have a sixth sense about these things. I'm sure I'm right about this one.

Anonymous said...

I've got a border collie/ retriever mix. Does that mean I'm friendly, but completely lose my mind when I decide I want to chase something?

I know it doesn't mean I like running, LOL

Mark Terry said...

As a matter of fact, I have thought--often--that everybody who can type suddenly decided they were writers once they got the hang of Microsoft Word (or back in the day, WordPerfect).

In a way, word processing has made it possible for anybody who's semi-literate to write a novel (or think they can).

Anonymous said...

What is you take on a writer letting you know that they've been offered a publishing deal from a small house, with an advance, before you've responded to their query? Would you be inclined to offer representation if you also thought the work had merit (maybe you'd already requested a partial), or does the fact that a deal already exist that you didn't initialize turn you off?

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the non-fic querier had an attitude of, "I'm not going to wait to hear from agents. If they can sell it before I can, then great, but I'm going straight to the publishers too, and whoever sells it first, sells it first." Or maybe she went straight to the pubs some time ago, wasn't getting any responses, and so THEN decided she needed an agent, but it was too alte, and after querying agents the pub rejects started rolling in.

Anonymous said...

Don't take this personally, but a lot of people like your non-fic querier look down upon "middlemen" or "gatekeepers" and will try to get around them wherever possible. They want the publishers, not you, and give you attention only to the extent they think you can work for them.

Diana Peterfreund said...

would you reccommend that writers submit to publishers directly (presumably an offer would prove salability) or do you prefer manuscripts that haven't been rejected already?

Green_Knight, usually agents prefer that you submit to them first. They tend to know the market better, and would know which editor may have a hankering for a story like that. When you submit on your own to publishers, you get shoved in a slush pile, with very little choice as to which editor reads your manuscript. You probably have it rejected by an intern (what no doubt happened to this woman), and you may have pitched it improperly (sending to the wrong imprint, playing up the wrong aspects of the novel, etc.). Or maybe you sent it to an imprint that would not bid against another imprint in their conglomerate, but another imprint would have been a much better fit.

If your book is rejected everywhere, there's nothing an agent can do. It's called "shopped out." And if your book has been requested, but is with some random editor, then your potential agent is also stuck negotiating with them, rather than an editor she may like to work with more, or an editor that she knew would really fight for the project in house, gather up a lot of enthusiasm, etc.

Some of an agent's job is to be a matchmaker, and you take that out of the equation when you submit on your own. Try agents first!

Bill Peschel said...

I'd say you dodged a bullet there. Not only was the writer unfamiliar with the agenting process, but she sounds like someone who won't be interested in taking advice. It would take six months of grinding bees with this writer before you'll both throw in the towel.

Linnea said...

Tenacity is always a good thing, even if it doesn't end the way we hope it will. If you're anything like me and had left it alone (I wouldn't either - dog with a bone and all that)you might always wonder if you'd done the right thing and start second guessing your decisions. Now you know and it's final.

Anonymous said...

I love that you went to all that effort to contact the author. That's really nice to know.

I would have said, "forget it... onto the next..."

T. M. Hunter said...

I'm sitting here in the corner, idly wondering if the publisher expressing interest is a certain Maryland company who shall remain nameless in this post...or someone similar.

Anonymous said...

You can be guaraneffingteed you'd have my cell phone number and email address. Later, you'd have my second email address, landline number, pager number, satphone number, and SSB channel number. No wonder I see so many people in the lit biz at the pistol range.

terry said...

Wasn't there some comedian who had a punch line of "here's your sign?" The author deserved that sign.

Unknown said...

It doesn't surprise me.
I recently discovered a web site that containined a lot of rather amusing and well written fictional accounts of a scientist in Victorian times, along with details of a novel written around the same concept and a request by the writer for any publishers interested, to contact him.
In the event I found it impossible to contact the writer ... the email I sent didn't bounce but I never received a reply. The web site was 4 years old. Makes you wonder sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jessica,

I hope it's not to late to ask you a question related to this post.

I'm an aspiring non-fiction author with good credentials and a national platform. An acquisitions editor for the major publisher of self-help books in my area "discovered" me last week and asked me if I was interested in writing a book for the publisher.

The title the editor suggested is just what I was working toward, so I'm going to pursue.

Should I look for an agent now? Or work directly with the editor?

I'd like to build a longterm writing career, and have a proposal almost ready to go for a different book in the same broad area, but with a different focus/promise.

Should I be contacting agents now, about both projects? Or just the one I have an interested publisher for? Or get that book in progress and then seek an agent?

Thanks for any advice!