Friday, October 31, 2008

One Agent's Trash Is Another's Treasure

A reader commenting on one of my posts recently suggested that BookEnds might benefit from a first reader like those that publishers have, saying someone who could “throw out all the worst dreck would save you a lot of valuable time.” And my thought is wouldn’t it be great if it were only that easy. The thing is that like the garbage we throw away or sell at garage sales, one person’s “dreck” is truly another’s treasure. And nothing can prove that point more than the number of times authors are rejected only to later become bestsellers. Does that mean that the agents or editors who rejected that work are idiots? No, not at all, it only means that the right person at the right time can make all the difference.

BookEnds does, in some ways, have readers. We regularly hire interns to help us out throughout the year. In fact, it’s uncommon for us to go even a few months without an intern these days. Not only is it wonderful for us, but most of our interns work for college credit and get a taste of the publishing business besides. In fact, more than a couple have even been in touch to thank us and tell us that the internship they did through BookEnds has pushed them into jobs they love in publishing.

In the end, though, frequently, I still need to be the one to read submissions. Sure, things go out rejected after a reader’s report from the intern or from my assistant, but many times they also require a quick second read from me. Unfortunately, no matter how many times we look into ways to save us time reading, reading is part of the job and one of the most time-intensive pieces of what we do. And sometimes, it’s just something I need to do on my own.



linda hall said...

I used to think that job would be fun, then I started writing and CP'ing and whew, yeah...reading someone else's work is very time consuming. Though there are days when I'm still crazy enough to wonder what it would be like to be more on the business side of writing.

Anonymous said...

I am glad to hear you do your own reading. A few of the other agents I've checked specifically indicated they did not and that concerns me.

Jennifer McKenzie said...

I'd always be wondering what I was missing. LOL.
I wonder if it's difficult to set aside "personal preference" for "market desire".
Like those days when you wake up and you suddenly want a historical romance, but none of the editors are buying.
I often read things that established wisdom says "won't sell".
That's why I admire agents and editors. They have to balance ALL of that--market, good writing, author personality--and then make it happen.
Kudos to you, as always.

Mark Terry said...

Here's an example: I'm currently a judge for a major writing organization's annual award. I have a friend who is a judge for another major writing organization's annual award.

We've discussed the fact that we hate a lot of the books we read. I've noted that a couple years ago I tried to read the winner of the award I'm currently judging and couldn't even finish it.

Was it a bad book?

Absolutely not. It apparently appealed to the judges and because it was a bestseller it apparently appealed to a lot of readers, but I thought it was boring.

And just like these books my friend and I proclaim to hate (or just not find very interesting, which is maybe more accurate), they apparently appeal to someone.

Anonymous said...

Mark Terry has really good comments, I think. Writing is so subjective. I'm trying to slog through a "former" "Oprah" book pick and had to stop. Good Lord, what dreck. The guy's a millionaire, and his works will no doubt be lead and heavily promoted titles from now until eternity but I sure won't bother picking them up.

I know of at least one writer who's agent doesn't read her own clients books, but delegates it to "readers."

green_knight said...

I think one needs to make a distinction between truly bad books (incoherent, *lots* of mistakes, no plot, flat characterisation etc) and the rest. The really bad ones are easy to weed out. Not-quite-there and saleable-but-not-for-us are much harder to identify, and you don't want to leave them to someone without training.

Last but not least there are good books that aren't to an individual's taste, and you don't want *them* thrown out by an overeager slushreader

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

yeah, that makes me paranoid. agents AND reading assistants both can haev different tastes in literature and yeah... i don't want my manuscript to be tossed out by some reading assistant who may not be into reading about post 9-11 racism and interracial relationships, but maybe the AGENT would like it.


Briane P said...

I'm glad to know that the person making the decision on my submission is the person who reads it; I wondered about that.

I'm new to your blog, so sorry if you covered this before, but can you comment on (or point me to a post where you commented on) how far into a submission you read before deciding it is or is not for you?

Anonymous said...

Have there been any really BIG books (Best Sellers) you've passed on?

What were they?

H. L. Dyer said...

Hmmm... so are you saying my Mastermind theory of agent rejections won't work?

Well, there's no sense giving up a good theory just because it isn't true. ;)

Crimogenic said...

I don't know for sure, but I would think that a reading assistant would be aware of the agents likes and dislikes, so he/she wouldn't be likely to throw out something that the 'agent' might be interested in.

Oh goodness my first real word vertification is "prequel", this must be a sign!

Melinda Leigh said...

All I can say is THANKS.

I put a lot of research and thought into selecting agents to query, reading blogs, etc., and trying to specifically select agents to whom I think my voice will appeal.

The very idea that the agents aren't reading the material is depressing.

Bija Andrew Wright said...

I would guess that the efficiency of the first-read process has changed a lot with electronic submissions.

Back in the snail mail days, the pile of submissions would be a heavy pile, and if an agent didn't want to deal with the whole thing, she could call the intern, who would carry the stack over to another desk. There, the intern would send back those that were written in crayon, lick a lot of envelopes, take notes of which manuscripts were rejected and dump a lot of paper into a recycle bin. Then the intern would hand a smaller, more selective pile to the agent for serious consideration.

Now, if an agent wants to farm out the e-queries, the agent has to forward the messages (maybe one by one if there isn't a program that does this) to the intern, keep track of which queries have been forwarded, and check to make sure that no requested content has been forwarded with it. There aren't envelopes to lick or photocopied rejection slips to send. It seems like it would be easier, for the easily culled e-queries (the email equivalent of written in crayon) for the agent to reply with a quick "no thanks" rather than for the agent to forward it to an intern and say, "Can you send a 'no thanks' email to this one?"

Terri Tiffany said...

I'm glad to see you do your own reading too. I'd like to pass this information on to my writers group if I could as we talked about it last time. Many writers felt that all agencies used readers and it was a discouragment to them. Thanks!

Yunaleska said...

To me it makes sense that you do the reading - after all, you're the one who is potentially going to represent the author!

Although having a reader who knows the agent's tastes would also be useful...

Julie Weathers said...

I'm not an agent, so I have no idea how these things work, but I have read several opinions by agents. Most of them talk about how much they appreciate their interns, who do much of the pre-reading. Quite a few commented about how similar their tastes are.

That reassures me.

It seems weeding out the obvious problems would be easy. Writing in crayons, as someone else already said, enclosing panties with the manuscript, enclosing a complete, unsolicited manuscript, a query about a suspense, mystery, epic fantasy with a strong female lead, humorous fictional novel, wait, that's mine, no punctuation, wait, that's Cormac's, should be easy for an intern or reader to spot. Other cases just go back to the subjective eye.

Still, I'm glad Jessica does most of her reading.

valbrussell said...

That was a very candid and diplomatic post. Both qualities are rare in most occupations. In the end it's work, which is either a labor of love or a means to an end.