Thursday, October 30, 2008

What I'm Looking for, the Dangerous Outcome

Years ago when erotic romance first became incredibly popular I remember talking with an author, someone who had been published, but was in a difficult place in her career, about the market. Understandably she was upset and looking for concrete reasons as to why her publisher hadn’t picked her up again and why it was hard to find someone else to take her on. Well, this author’s entire focus seemed to be on what was hot and on what she was hearing about what I was doing. Whenever we talked she would repeatedly say, angrily, that she could not do erotica. That wasn’t her style. No matter how much I tried to assure her that I had interests well beyond erotic romance and that there were plenty of publishers buying things besides erotic romance (in fact, at the time only two publishers were interested in this genre), she wouldn’t hear it. The buzz at RWA that year was all about the erotic market, and since I was one of the agents leading the way at the time I probably wasn’t the right person to talk to.

Well, I’ve found that the same holds true every time I write a "What I’m Looking for" blog post. It seems that no matter how many times I say that I’m looking for new clients in every area on my list, the only submissions I receive are those that fit the topics I highlight. Does everyone else go into hiding or does it just feel like that’s what happens? A few weeks ago I posted a "What I’m Looking For" piece, and when perusing my equeries this weekend all I saw were thrillers and urban fantasy. Interesting, because this weekend I was really in the mood for a historical romance.

Authors often say that they wish agents would get more specific about what they’re looking for. That they like those posts because it gives an inside peek. But there is a reason agents like to keep their areas of interest a little vague, and that’s because moods and interests can change in a heartbeat. The minute I get inundated with thriller proposals, for example, I find I want to switch things up. A weekend of reading thriller proposals can quickly wear me out and put me in the mood for something incredibly different. In this case historical romance.

While some agents specialize in very narrow fields, I think most have variety on their list for a reason. I find it refreshes me to change things up. I love everything I represent, but don’t want to be locked into any one of those areas. Today I’m in the mood for historical romance, tomorrow it might be contemporary women’s fiction, and next weekend it could easily be supernatural paranormal.

Another reason that our lists of represented genres sounds too broad to you—romance, mystery, thriller, fantasy, etc.—is because it really is that broad. I can’t tell you specifically what type of romance I want because it is about voice and writing and I’ll know it when I see it. I also can’t tell you in a written list because the market can turn around that fast. I remember when erotic romance first became trendy, I was talking to one publisher who told me that they weren’t looking for any erotic romance at all. Well, literally two weeks later they not only announced that they were looking for the genre but that they were talking about starting an imprint dedicated to it. Was the editor lying? No, things can change that quickly. So while the rejections are difficult, I would advise you to relish in the broad lists. It gives you more opportunities to discover that one person who might be right for you.



Anonymous said...

In all fairness, I think you should consider there is some lag time for a person writing a book--like, at least a year. So a post by you on what you are looking for doesn't really translate to what you get and when, don't you think? I believe most people write the book they want to write and send it out to several appropriate places.

WendyCinNYC said...

I think it *can* be more telling when an agent lists her favorite authors. Carson McCullers or Jennifer Weiner? EL Doctorow or Neil Gaiman? Or all of the above? Even if the list is varied, often there is something the choices have in common.

linda hall said...

well that stinks for me, I sent you an urban hopefully you haven't read to many by the time you get to mine. :p

but yeah, I'm a lot like you. In my writing life I tend to stick with genres in which I'm comfortable writing, paranormal, gothic, urban fantasy, maybe some contemps...but my reading life is as varied as the baskin robins slogan. I sometimes get so sick of paras, I won't touch the genre for months..instead I'll go in search of a really great historical, or thriller. *shrug* not surprising that an agent would feel the same way.

Which is why I think getting picked up by an agent and editor isn't based solely on skill. If you've read too many urban fantasies and you're just U.F.'d out, then mine comes across your desk, nothing personal...but. Then again, if you've been reading nothing but historicals and you come across mine...well I can only hope you don't get to mine until you're really in the mood to read an urban fantasy. LOL.

great post!

jnantz said...

Anon 8:15 - I don't know that your argument holds up. People write the book they want to, yes. And they often read blogs of agents who don't rep what they write. But if you HAVE written something, and an agent who reps it says on their blog, "I'm looking for [what you've written]", then that agent is bound to be inundated.

Oh and Ms. Faust, now you've done it. You're going to get Historical Romances by the hundreds over the next week. Maybe by the time you've waded through them, you'll be ready for a nice mystery/thriller as a change of pace. I'll just send mine along in a few days....


Kimber An said...

I get all that.

However, isn't it also true that an aspiring author stands the best chance of publication if she writes in a genre/subgenre which is and is projected to be selling well, such as Women's Fiction?

That's what I see as a blogging book reviewer.

The publishing industry takes a financial risk with a debut author. Doubling that risk by publishing a novel by her in an obscure genre/subgenre isn't practical.

'More of the same, but with a fresh twist' is the order of the day. Not 'Fresh & Original.'

Anonymous said...

I hadn't planned on sending my query to Jessica because I didn't think it was her area, but now, hmmm... maybe I will. Anon 8:15 I totally understand your frustration. I'm glad Jessica has this post; it gives some insight on reminding us agents are human, not the gods I keep thinking they are. Jessica is right, maybe we should just send out our stuff, accept the fact it may get rejected because they are not the right agent for it, but, darn it, it just takes so much time.

Anonymous said...

Re: this sentence in Jessica's post:

"... Today I’m in the mood for historical romance, tomorrow it might be contemporary women’s fiction, and next weekend it could easily be supernatural paranormal..."

Yes, this is why querying is so difficult for writers. On top of writing a fabulous book, you are then subjected to the whims of what the agent is in the "mood" for.

There's literally no way of knowing if you're one of fifty writers that just happened to send your women's fiction/urban thriller/clown suspence novel at the same time. Bingo... rejection!

No way to combat this, I'm just sayin'

Keri Ford said...

Do the holidays put ya'll in a mood to read something? You know, thrillers and scary in october, feel good family stories around thanksgiving and so forth?

Ya'll in are in New Jersey so when the snow starts falling do you reach for a winter book to get you in the mood and then come march when your tired of the cold go for a summery set book?

jbstanley said...

Writers shouldn't get bogged down on what's hot at the moment. We should all write what we write well. I fell into this trap once, when chick-lit mysteries were en vogue. I spent two weeks rapidly writing what I envisioned would be a fabulous chick-lit mystery. So what was the problem? First, I'm not the chick-lit type and so neither was my voice. I don't follow trends in fashion, I never wear high heels, and I dry my hair upside-down every morning and haven't used a professional product on it during this decade. The genre just wasn't 'me' and it showed. Jessica passed on the project and advised me to write something I'd be excited about. I did and it sold immediately. The proposal I came up with was totally orginal and totally 'me.' So don't write for an agent, for trends, or for publishers. Write a great, fresh book and someone will want it. Suddenly, it will be just what they were looking for.

Good luck!

Jennifer McKenzie said...

Um, frankly, I don't think my submission fits in any category. LOL.
This is great though, since I know people who AREN'T writing "what you're looking for" do get discouraged.

Juliana Stone said...

jbstanley is correct. Write what you love, polish the crap out of it...make sure it's all shiny and the best that you can do and send it out. At the end of the day that's what this is all about. Trying to get your book in the right hands, AT THE RIGHT TIME. Because a great book will sell, but timing is just as important and with a little bit of'll find that perfect agent who will find that perfect editor.
But it won't happen unless you try, and some for some it will take several weeks, months, name. But for all of you who love writing, you'll keep on, getting on!
Good luck to everyone who's activley subbing!

December/Stacia said...

Lol, the books on my shelves are just as subject to my whims as queries in an agent's Inbox seem to be; I'll pick up something, then halfway through decide I'm in the mood for something lighter or darker, or I'll finish it and want more of the same or something totally different. My shelves are full of historical fiction and non-fiction, thrillers, urban fantasy, historical romance, erotic romance, women's fiction, graphic novels, mysteries... :-)

Good luck to everyone!

Julie Weathers said...

"Interesting, because this weekend I was really in the mood for a historical romance."

Sweet. Have I got a client for you. I just finished Barbara Rogan's workshop with a lady that has a kick butt historical romance. We were discussing agents and queries yesterday.

"Yes, this is why querying is so difficult for writers. On top of writing a fabulous book, you are then subjected to the whims of what the agent is in the "mood" for."

Being in the mood for something doesn't mean what you have sent is an automatic acceptance or rejection. The story still has to grab the agent by the throat.

I went to a writer's conference this past week and submitted my query to a well-known agent's workshop. I got accepted to another workshop that was invitation only based on submitted excerpts. The first agent doesn't even represent epic fantasy. She told me point blank she didn't so I had no intentions of submitting to her. She asked me to submit based on the query in the workshop I skipped.

Umm, yeah, that was embarrassing to have ditched her.

It just goes to prove "query widely" is important.

Rachel Vater and Cricket Freeman both said the same thing. Write what you love and don't worry about trends.

AC said...

I think any insight you give into how you look at queries is helpful--even if it's "you can ignore what I say about what I'm looking for!"

I'm trying to write what I like to read. I figure if I love it, my writing will be that much better. Trying to write to the trends seems like a big gamble with an elusive payoff.

ChristaCarol said...

Some good points, Jessica. I think what happens is a lot of new writer's do their "Research", read up, hear that "so and so" agent represents this, so query them, etc. When it's a new battle field to be trekking through, most new writer's aren't sure they're brave enough to send a query to someone who doesn't specify they're interested "at the moment" for that genre.

Plus, when they read agents repeatedly saying "Don't send me -fillintheblankgenre- because I don't rep it." it definitely gets them discouraged in sending a genre that isn't listed as wanted. Though, what genre an agent reps and what they're currently interested in (and is already listed as a repped genre) is totally different, but I could bet some writer's get confused.

I'll tell ya, there probably isn't a lot of agents in love with epic fantasy at the moment but if fantasy is listed as a genre they rep, and it doesn't say anything against epic or YA (seeing as it could really be done as either) I'm not taking any chances. Sure, it may take some extra effort on my part sending a query to an agent who may not be in the mood for fantasy at the time they received my query. But heck, I'm not taking any chances! I'll take a rejection over not ever knowing the outcome.

Anonymous said...

Jessica: You mean well, but...reading what you want and then what you are in the mood for also produces an unintended consequence in the minds of writers sending queries; i.e. okay, she says she is looking for thrillers, but now she says she got so many thriller queries that she's in the mood for a nice historical romance and when she's inundated with those, who knows what she's in the mood for now? Or tomorrow? Or the day after that? It's a moving target, for sure. So to heck with trying to fill an agent's stated interest, niche, need, etc. Write your book, send the sucker out and have such a kickbutt query and book it don't make a gnat's fig what the agent states she's got a hankerin' for...the query you just sent made her suddenly and delightedly realize this was just what she had in mind all the time...That's the target that never moves..."I'll know it when I see it." And that, after all is said and done is the key. You gotta hit the sucker dead on! And the rest? "Nothin' but buckshot, Bubba, and ever pellet done missin' the target."

Anonymous said...

All I can say is I listen to my agent and deliver. I may not always like everything I'm doing, but I listen, buck up, and try hard to produce. Right now I happen to be working on a four book deal for erotic romance...I'm not going to remain stuck in that genre forever, but my agent got the deal and I'm not going to pass the opportunity by.

Learning to expand and write in different genres only makes what you really love writing about better...I think so anyway.

An trusting your agent's instincts makes the partnership work.

Anonymous said...

PS...I'm the anon above. When I said, "stuck in that genre" I didn't mean to downplay it at all. Or any other genre for that matter.

Linnea said...

I don't think agents are a whole lot different than most other readers. Of course you'll want some variety. I love cozies but I get tired of cozies as a constant diet so turn to thrillers, romances, historicals, whatever suits me at the time. It makes sense, then, to offer representation for a variety of genres.

Diana said...

I imagine that many writers have multiple pieces they're trying to find homes for, some of which have been completed for months or even years.

Perhaps, what you're seeing is that when you talk about something specific in your blog post, your readers think, "Hey! Jessica's interested in urban fantasy, and I have a story that I think is right up her alley. I should send it to her!"

Kate Douglas said...

Anon 1:33, I think you missed the point. When I read Jessica's post, what I get out of it is that what will catch her interest depends more on the voice and the writing than the actual genre. Therefore, the very broad list of what to submit--write a killer book, and it will probably find an agent, not because of the genre, but because of your voice and ability to tell a good story.

NerdSnark said...

See this is what frustrates authors: "Read my submission guidelines to see what I represent. It bugs me when an author don't" then the next day "Try me. You never know".

That sound you heard was a million heads (of writers) exploding.

So the best advice to any author is just send the darn thing and write a darn good query letter.

Good post, Jessica.

Crimogenic said...


At least with posts like this, writers can see that you and the agency have a broad taste in books. That's something to be grateful for in a day when many agents are either closed to new talent, or have vary specific taste.

Anonymous said...

One day an agent will specify that they want to read Speculative fiction, and many writers will fall off their chairs.

La Belle Americaine said...

Honestly, I don't discount an agent's appeal for a certain type of fiction, but I do take into account their client list. For example, if I go to an agency's website and see a lot of books sold in a genre I don't write, and few, if any, in the genre I do write, it leads me to wonder one of three things: 1) if the agency is very selective over acquiring that particular genre/; 2) if they have experience with that particular genre (not to impunge their talent, but some agencies have recently skewed towards paranormal/urban fantasy and/or erotic romance, with little sales in contemporary and historical romance); 3) the agency just doesn't recieve that many submissions from that genre (which could stem from concern #2).

Because of this, I'm curious about how an agency handles their desire to represent a particular genre, but hasn't ever had a list heavy with clients who write those genres.

spyscribbler said...

A historical romance! That's what I'll write for NaNo!


PS: How cool is it that my word verification word is "voidness?" I've never gotten a real word before.

AstonWest said...

Being as an author only gets one chance with an agent on the manuscript they're currently shopping, it makes perfect sense that a writer would wait until an agent says "this is what I'm specifically looking for" compared to the vague lists.

Katrina Stonoff said...

I've never understood why it surprises people that an agent's list is broad. My reading list is broad too -- it's heavily weighted toward women's fiction because that's what I write, but I also read YA, thriller, mystery, romance, non-fiction, literary, etc. etc. etc.

We're bright, complex individuals, agents and writers. Why wouldn't our reading lists reflect that?