Thursday, January 08, 2009

An Agent's Taste

Before going into today's post, I want to quickly alert you to a blog I was asked to do an interview on, Talking with Tim. I do a lot of interviews and rarely do I link to them, but in this case the questions were really different from what I usually get and I think Tim is creating an interesting site.

Okay, on to today's topic.

When replying to submissions, agents rely on their own personal tastes to decide whether to represent something. This is only fair, and if I were an agent I would probably do the same thing. However, I have to wonder, to what extent are agents' personal tastes relevant to the tastes of readers? Fourteen agents passed on "Twilight" before one made the deal of his or her life. That means that almost 95% of agents queried made what is probably the biggest business mistake of their careers based on their own personal tastes.

The vast majority of agents (at least those that are AAR members) seem to be women over forty, which represents a small and not the most influential segment of fiction readers. Even among romance readers, women 35 – 54 represent only 27% of readers (statistics as of 2003, maybe a bit dated).

Then of course there is the amount of material that agents read in the course of their careers…I don’t have statistics, but I’d wager that it’s significantly more than even the most avid readers. The more one reads, the more tastes change.

For every super-successful new author, there is a stack of agent rejections. JK Rowling, the world’s first billion-dollar author, was rejected by nine publishers (I don’t have statistics on agents, but one can only assume). "The Princess Diaries" by Meg Cabot, another super-successful multi-volume series, was rejected by every agent in Manhattan. I could go on, but I trust my point has been made.

One has to wonder…is there a better way? Should agents perhaps outsource manuscript evaluations to a rotating staff of consultants whose tastes reflect that of actual readers?

This is a really great question and the reader used so many good examples that I had to quote the entire question. Now keep in mind, I do not know for sure if this reader’s statistics are correct. In other words, I don’t know the submission/rejection statistics of any of the authors he’s cited, but I do think we can all agree that there are many incredibly successful authors out there and most of them have been rejected by one agent or another. Heck, I have rejected a few authors who became bestsellers. On the other hand, I have a few bestsellers of my own and I know that other agents rejected their work.

Does that mean that we all need second readers or base our decisions entirely on personal taste? Not at all. Entire publishing houses, with five to ten editors reading the manuscript, have rejected bestsellers. In fact, I have one New York Times bestselling author whose bestselling book was rejected by a number of agents and who had at least five other publishers reject the book. Frequently agencies and publishers have others read the work in-house. The truth is that there is so much more to making a decision than personal interest. Number one I need to know the marketing potential of the book and how that relates to me. I might see wonderful potential in a book, I might even love it, but if it’s not an area I’m comfortable with I might not be able to do for that book what another agent with more experience in that genre could do. The same holds true with editors. I have no idea how much some of the bestsellers you cited were edited, but I have seen enough work by editors to know that many times a book that was published is not the same work that was delivered. Another editor might not have helped create that bestseller.

What I think all readers need to know is that what one agent and one editor could do for a book another might not. In other words, just because a book was a bestseller doesn’t mean it would be a bestseller had it landed in the hands of another agent or another publishing house. Part of what makes that happen is the publisher’s enthusiasm and vision for the book. Another publisher might have had another vision (a different cover, a different marketing strategy, a different position on the list, etc).

As for your comment about most agents being women over 40, you made that very well without offending me, but it reminds me of a conference I attended years ago, a time when I was offended. In the middle of my workshop a very angry older gentleman raised his hand to ask how he could ever expect to get his book published when all the editors in publishing where nothing but young girls. Well, I’m not a young girl and I’m not a woman over 40 and I’m not offended to be called either. I am offended that the implication is that because we are of a certain demographic we only have the vision for a certain type of book. Publishing is made up of men and women of all ages, all interests and all backgrounds, professionals who know their own limitations and what they can do to make a book sell. Here’s my question to you: Do you want a chiropractor operating on your child’s tonsils? Do you want a dentist removing your gallbladder? These doctors got into the fields they are practicing because of a personal interest in that field in the exact same way I got into romance, mystery, thrillers, fantasy, women’s fiction, and nonfiction. I have a personal interest in these areas. I don’t have a personal interest in children’s books or memoirs. I read them, I enjoy them, but I don’t have a desire to study and learn more about them. In other words, I don’t want to specialize in them.

Frankly, I think the system works. I think there is a lot about publishing that needs to change, but I’m not sure the agent-editor-author relationship is one of them. One agent cannot and should not represent every bestselling book. It takes a publishing village to create the reading choices we have and rejection is part of the game for all of us. Every single agent and editor out there worth her salt has rejected a book that she later kicked herself for, every single agent and editor has rejected a book she later patted herself on the back for. The trick is that those same agents or editors have also snapped up books that became bestsellers and that they’ve been very proud of.



Angie Ledbetter said...

Very good overview of the agenting process. Thank you.

Carolyn V. said...

Loved today's post! I agree about the taste of an agent. I've been looking at agents and reading the books they have represented to see if they are similar to my book. I've had to cross some off my list. So sad :( But I've added some too. Whoo hoo!

Kimber Li said...

Great questions and answers.

I do think it would be in every agent and editor's own best interest to spend time with the target readership (interacting with real human beings) for the books they hope to represent/edit. Sales numbers of New Releases do not reflect the tastes of readers who gave up and went to the library instead. Sure, sales might be made, but a lot more sales might be made if only the varied tastes of real readers are taken into account.

I read about industry professionals trying to guess what readers want and I'm flabberghasted. Why don't they just ASK?

Anonymous said...

I'd like to know where these reader stats in the question come from. I found an NPR article from 2007 that says that men represent only 20% of the fiction market.
The blog Book Publishing News
described the average female book buyer as:
Age: 45
Annual Household Income: $88,525
Educational Background:Bachelor's Degree
Where She Lives: A Large City
Family & Professional Situation: Married, works outside the home and a member of at least one professional, social or service organization.
This woman buys 28 books a year.
When surveyed, 45% of this demographic said they plan to write a book someday. LOL!

Anonymous said...

Great post. I am a 40 year old woman writing women's fiction. I have an agent now who is in her late forties/early fifties. I'd always assumed my ms. would appeal to younger women because it deals a lot with getting pregnant, but when I received two agent offers, both were women in that late forties/early fifties age range. Both commented that what drew them to the novel was the characters, not necessarily the pregnancy aspect of the novel. I did send the ms. to a male agents who represent women's fiction, but none of them were interested in reading it, and I think some of that was the topic.

Anonymous said...

The most revelatory part of your post, I think, is how a book is 'morphed' from the original manuscript to final published work. The implication, of course, is that often (?) a raw manuscript is molded by working with first the agent and then the editor and in collaboration from there to the cover and marketing. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

If no one else but my dentist was available to take my gallbladder out and my only other option was dying, then


Take a chance on that manuscript you really like! Branch out! don't pass up another JK Rowling! Don't stress out your authors, so that they give up!

Don't make them spend time on the business end of the deal, rather than writing!

There was nothing else out there like HP when JK Rowling sent her work out. It was too detailed! Someone took the chance of their life and won! AND WITH THAT I'LL BE SUBMITTING TO YOU TOMORROW! HAHA!

Anonymous said...

I can see why the demographic would be a bit disconcerting, but as Jessica points out, that's shorting the ability of the agent just a bit.

Thanks for the pos.

Jean Wogaman said...

Do you ever find yourself in a situation in which a prospective client's manuscript may not be exactly your cup of tea but you can immediately think of five editors who would love it? Would you offer representation in such an instance?

Anonymous said...

I'm responding to Kimber An's question about why industry professionals do not ask readers what they want. First, I'm a market research analyst for a global company. Yes, publishers could (and some do) conduct surveys or focus groups and learn that some segments of the population prefer historical romance while others read YA stories involving vampires. However, this would not tell them what readers really want. Because what we all want is a compelling story, which varies because of different tastes. I make a living doing primary research, and I can tell you that all the statistics in the world cannot explain a phenomenon such as Twilight. It doesn't explain why my daughter, who rarely reads, gobbled up all 4 of those books in one week. It doesn't explain why I, the over 40 mom, bought a Young Adult. Actually, I read the Preface when all the hoopla about the movie started. I got goosebumps when I read the first line. From that one page, I knew, knew this book was different. Yes, the conflict was riveting on that first page, but that alone did not explain my reaction. I've yawned over similar setups in romantic suspense novels. No, the reason I bought Twilight on the spot and could not put it down is something no researcher can measure. It is the author's voice and her ability to tell a great story that drew me and hordes of other fans into her story world. I imagine it is that experience that agents and editors are looking for in a book. The bottom line is that marketing your book is a subjective process. Just because one agent or editor rejects it doesn't necessarily mean it won't appeal to another agent or editor.

Dennis said...

So very true. Our agent, thankfully, understood his own limits in regard to humor books to send our proposal to several colleagues to review before sending to editors. Long story of how we ended up together, but what we write (mainly what Dennis writes) isn't what our agent normally handles. At the same time, we match up in so many areas that the relationship is working beautifully. It's kinda weird, actually.

Love the blog and loved Talking to Tim.

Jennifer & Dennis

Christine Fletcher said...

If agents and editors all loved the books that would go on to become bestsellers, publishing would be limited to a narrow range of vision indeed. Diversity of taste among publishing professionals creates the diversity of books on the shelf (good thing for us readers). It also gives hope to those trying to get published. You don't need everyone to fall in love with your book; one agent and one publisher will do nicely.

To Anon 9:48, if your dentist took out your gallbladder, you might live, but chances are you'd be a botched mess. Same if someone who didn't believe in your book took it on anyway. This is what Jessica meant when she said that a bestseller in one agent/editor's hands would not be a bestseller in another's. The book might get published...but if it doesn't find its readership it'll disappear in three months. All your hard work down the tubes, and good luck getting published again.

BTW, published authors do spend time learning the business. That's a big reason why they get published--they take the time to figure out how things work.

About Me said...

Very nice post, eye-opening information about the author/agent/publisher involvement with books. As a newie, I really appreciate these glimpses into the business side of publishing.

Kristan said...

What a great question and what a great answer.

Thanks to both you and the reader who emailed.

Anonymous said...

I learn something new every time I come to your blog. Thanks for that in-depth look at the publishing world. Makes me understand it a little better.

Anonymous said...


I find it very hard to believe that all published authors went out and studied the market before they they were published. It is easy to believe that afterwards their eyes were opened to the market. As for the dentist comment, you missed the point, and it was the same point you made in the beginning of your comment:
"If agents and editors all loved the books that would go on to become bestsellers, publishing would be limited to a narrow range of vision indeed." Studying the market tends to make a person write the same things that have already been published. Jessica may have a certain genre that she normally publishes and loves, but if someone has written something totally different, someone had to take a chance, why would it not be you?
PS a botched mess possibly, but your still not dead, and you still have hope. Who knows, that dentist may have been born to be a surgeon!

Angela Ackerman said...

Thank you for taking the time to answer this person's question. It really gives us a deeper insight as to the factors of acceptance and rejection.

I would be interested to know if you have ever come across a ms that you loved but was beyond what you normally rep, and yet you chose to take the author on anyway because of the good feeling you had about it.

Kate Douglas said...

The first thing Jessica's post reminds of me is what I've been preaching for years--if you are a writer who wants to publish, NEVER QUIT! Just because one editor or agent, or many editors or agents, reject you, does not mean that you don't have what it takes to be successful. It might just mean you haven't found the right match for your work. Keep writing, keep submitting and keep learning your craft. The right match is out there--you just have to find each other.

Anonymous said...

Hi! I'm Meg Cabot's agent and wanted to clarify your comment about Meg's first YA novel. THE PRINCESS DIARIES wasn't rejected by every agent in New York City. I was already Meg's agent when she wrote it and had worked with her on launching her career with her historical romances. I loved THE PRINCESS DIARIES immediately. We did encounter MANY rejections from editors, though. Thanks!
Laura Langlie

Michelle D. Argyle said...

I enjoyed this post a lot. It has answered many of my questions. Thank you!

Nice to see other agents on here! *looks up*

Anonymous said...

If a person is supposed to have his gallbladder removed but doesn't, that's not something that will cause him to die. I was supposed to have mine out three years ago and haven't done it yet. If you eat too much fatty food, you'll have severe pains in your gallbladder occasionally, but it's certainly not fatal. However, having a dentist--someone who isn't a surgeon--attempt to take our your gallbladder? Now that is much more likely to be fatal. I mean, does a dentist even know what a gall bladder looks like? What if the dentist takes out a vital organ instead? I just...I'm sorry, but that whole comparison was screwed up in a million ways.

And I'm not even sure what the point was. You said that Rowling's agent took the chance of her life and won? How was it the chance of her life? That agent didn't do anything different by taking Rowling on than she did with any other author she took a chance on. You only say she took the chance of her life because now we all know how successful Rowling became.

Anonymous said...

"While I don’t think I used the term until recently, I first became aware of what’s now called Urban Fantasy back in my early days of publishing in the early 1990’s when I was introduced to Laurel K Hamilton. As you might know, I didn’t add Urban Fantasy to my area of interest until very recently and primarily that came about because I received a submission that I absolutely fell in love with and offered to represent. Well I wasn’t alone since the author had a number of terrific agents vying for her business. In the end she chose to go with someone else, but since her book was a cross between Fantasy and Romance (and while sold as a romance, eventually published as fantasy) I realized I was missing out on a whole segment of the market by not asking for fantasy and urban fantasy submissions. I’m also reading a lot more urban fantasy now then I ever did which just goes to show how an agent’s tastes, like those of a reader, can change. The irony of all of this is that I was actually the assistant to a SF/Fantasy editor for years. It just took me this long to catch up."

I believe by Jessica's own words, she just became a surgeon.

Deborah K. White said...

I think writers start questioning the system when they get frustrated with how unpredictable the publishing industry is. So much depends on personal tastes, and it can be very hard not knowing if you have a potential best-seller that's being rejected by an agent because of personal tastes or if your novel sucks and you just can't see it. I went through my phase of questioning the need to find an agent that "loves" my work. Now, even though I still don't have an agent, I've come to realize how subjective the industry is--and that it should be. There's no getting around that not everyone likes the same books.

Anita said...


Thank you for your encouraging words!!!

H. L. Dyer said...

I think of the "missed bestseller" argument along the lines of an old romance.

I expect if your ex wound up someone's dream husband, you might feel some twinges of regret, but you'd also know that what works in that couple's relationship might not have worked as well for you.

Anonymous said...

Couple things.

The demographics may be correct on who are buying books (45y old women) but did it note what they were buying? Maybe they were purchasing children's books for their children, books for gifts to friends, and/or gifts for their spouse, parent, etc. They may be purchasing 28 books a year but I don't know many women that read more than two books a month. My guess is they are buying ALL genres.

AS for gallbladder surgery, some dentists have surgical training on the mouth and know their way around anesthetics (also can Rx drugs). Hopefully they took anatomy to know where the gallbladder is. While I would NOT want one operating on me, I have to play devil's advocate and say I would much rather a dentist taking out my gallbladder (yes gallbladder cancer IS fatal so leaving it in would KILL the person) than a med student who plans to specialize in Gastroenterology or Oncology but has yet to perform surgery and has no idea how to use anaesthetics.

Anonymous said...


The Harry Potter books were much longer than an normal book aimed at it's age group. No one would touch them for a long time because of it. Someone finally gave it a shot.

The gallbladder was used mainly because it was Jessica's comparison. There are instances where not having a gallbladder removed can be fatal. Your's is not one. A bursting gallbladder is similiar to a bursting appendix.

While a dentist does not have the same medical training as a doctor they do have similiar, and I would much rather have a dentist take out my gullbladder than let's say an taxi driver.
Let's face it, book agents can change their minds about what they represent, and no one is going to die because of it.

Kimber Li said...

Vicky, actually, you're doing exactly what I suggest. You're figuring it out because you're in there with your daughter and you're picking the books up yourself for your own pleasure.

Instead of just looking at sales numbers.

Keep up the good work! The world needs you!

Anonymous said...

Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series is always mentioned as the epitome of YA romance, and everyone wonders how any agent or editor could possibly pass on it. Well, I know I'm in the minority, but Twilight was a DNF, for me. I found it dull and repetitive--and that is in its finished state. I can easily see how carefully an agent must select the book s/he represents. I know I would've missed the boat on this one!

Kimber Li said...

Twilight is totally NOT my cup of tea either, but I can see why it had such wide appeal. I'm a blogging book reviewer. I interact with readers all the time. I'm not sure I could repeat the same magic as a writer though. I can't write within the confines of genre/subgenre to save my life.

Heidi Willis said...

I think this is the best answer I have read as to why agents don't necessarily kick themselves when they pass on a book that later sells well.

I've seen friends get agents on a good story with good writing, and through the guidance of that agents turn those manuscripts into outstanding writing. Another agent might not have done that.

Debbie said...

As a book reviewer, I'll agree that a person's taste plays a large role that you just can't get around. I've been given books to review that other reviewers have loved, but I honestly can't find anything nice to say about. Like agents, I'll stop reading a book if I don't like a book after the first 50-60 pages. I've learned things won't get better if they aren't improving by then.

Knowing how I feel when reading a book I don't like (even if the writing is technically competent), I don't see that anything good can come from forcing an agent to take on something that may become popular but she doesn't enjoy reading.

I also don't think it's fair to assume a certain demographic will automatically like or dislike certain books. True, I don't like all books in every genre and I like certain genres better than others, but I've enjoyed books from pretty much every genre. Just because two agents share certain physical statistics doesn't mean both will like the same genre or series within a genre.

Lorra said...

Driving my niece around the unplowed, unsalted streets of northeast Ohio (an MD with two years surgical experience, she's in town to look for a new residency) I asked her the best way to choose a surgeon if you needed a procedure.

Her answer: The surgeon who does the most procedures like the one you're contemplating is, hands down, the one you want.

She did qualify that statement. If the surgeon is inflexible about learning new techniques (niece contends all surgery will be robotic within a few years), then choose the doc who does the next largest number of procedures.

Assuming you have a choice, does that philosophy apply to literary agents as well? Hmm. Good question.

Unknown said...

Wow, Jessica, great post and answer. Thanks for putting it in perspective.

Anonymous said...

Let's say genres = human body parts
Now let's for every human body part there is a doctor that specializes in it. (There wouldn't be very many doctors available for each part, but that's beside the point.) Now let's say humans start evolving we gain new body parts, and lose others. Some of the doctors would need to evolove also or be left without a job. Some doctors wouldn't evolve they would stick with what they knew (that is assuming their body part wasn't one human's didn't have any more, but the few that evolved would be in higher demand than the ones who did not. Now back to books, agents, and publishers; evolution is continuous. Someone has to recognize the change, and take on the new and different stuff. Kimbre/Ann maybe it's time to stop classifying and setting categories, limiting ourselves by sticking to one thing. Maybe the next genre will revolve about what you've written. And the agent that evolves will be the one that took the chance of a lifetime and won!

Robena Grant said...

Interesting post, and comments. Also enjoyed the Talking With Tim interview. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

The writing industry is a wide and varied as the human race. And it's all the tastes of agents, editor, publishing houses and finally the buying public. That's what makes it so incredibly fascinating and frustrating. When I originally queried agents, one responded almost immediately and said something along the lines of "to sell to NY you need to write damn fine prose and it's not here. this won't sell." Ouch. Two days later I had requests for representation from two agents and this ms that "would not sell to NY"...sold to NY three months later.
See? totally subjective...

The Son of Christ: The New Millennium said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Stacia said...

Isn't the fact that those books got published after all proof that the system isn't that bad, though?

It may not be perfect but nothing is.

Chris Redding said...

The fascinating thing I find about publishing is that there is no market research.
My husband is in the fragrance business. If Bath and Body Works wants a new fragrance, they will test panel several fragrances before they market anything.
I would imagine market research would bump up the cost of a book, so maybe I'm not advocating it, but how can you put out a product whose success or failure is based on the consumer's taste without asking the consumer's advice?

Julie Dao said...

This post was amazingly informative. I read "Twilight" and I think that I honestly would have been one of the agents who passed on it. I can see both viewpoints and, not being very savvy about the business, don't know exactly where I stand. But I believe that every book, given the perseverance of its author, has a niche somewhere in the world. It sounds to me like it all boils down to luck - will your manuscript be the one that gets published after being passed on 10 times or 100 times? What if you stop trying after 10 times and the 11th try would have been successful?

Anonymous said...

Reply to Chris Redding's post. I'm the market research analyst. (FYI: I work for a Fortune 500 computer MFR, but I started out in consumer research). A few years ago, I asked a publicist whether or not romance publishers do research. She told me that most of them have shoe-string budgets, although I believe Harlequin does/has done research. Since your husband is knowledgeable about firms doing testing panels for fragrances, he may be aware that primary research is expensive. Depending on the type of methodology and geographies (costs increase substantially with translations), the costs can vary. Costs can range from $40K to well over half a million. There are some unusual new methodologies that try to delve deeper into a consumer's *experience* with products and services that might work for books. The idea is to capture a respondent's experience with a brand. Think of those iPOD commercials with the silhouette of someone dancing while rocking out with their iPOD (BTW, I don't work for Apple). Very effective. But, I imagine many publishers find the cost of research prohibitive (especially in this economic climate).

Anonymous said...

I've noticed that now that Twilight and its sister novels are mega-hits with editors and readers, that many agents, especially those who blog, have mentioned that they are now reading them. I find this interesting and weirdly disengenous. And I wonder if they would have read the manuscripts had they come across their desks. Probably not.

So why bother reading them now?

It's not like there aren't fresh manuscripts with unique premises to read. WHY do agents read the latest hot tomes, then say they want something different? Aren't agents looking for something other than Twilight-look-alikes? Personally, I doubt it. I think very many want Twilight, Harry Potter, Inkheart, etc. and that's okay, but I wish agents were honest about this part of the business and what they're really looking for from new authors.

Nayuleska said...

Thank you for this - it has made a very interesting lunch time read!

Anonymous said...

I'm laughing at the dissing the Twilight books are getting here. Please remember they weren't written for adults...the market is and was YA teen girls. And Ms. Meyer hit that target dead on with the series. I am a sixty-plus male who writes thrillers. I enjoyed sci-fi as a youth as well so my tastes don't necessarily run along YA teen girl novels. But my daughter (14 at the time and not much of a reader) devoured them. She insisted I drop what I was reading and read the first book. Reluctantly, I did. I think it was slow, and all the angst, etc. that Bella dwells on, and especially the sacharine infatuation with Edward was off-putting for me, but the narrative drive was compelling. The characterization was interesting and the story arc held my interest despite (in my mind) its shortcomings. By the time I read the last book (yep, I read'em all) I think Ms. Meyer produced a solidly well-written and entertaining series. Millions give or take bought the series. At the end of the day that's a pretty impressive recommendation.

Michael Edelson said...

This was my question, and thank you very much for answering. Since you mentioned it was a great question...have I earned a partial or even query critique by chance? :)

Back to reality...

The statistics about who rejected what were taken from interviews with the authors and related articles. The statistics about reader demographics, which were specific to Romance novels, came from a study by one of the major publishers done in 2003.

According to her interview, Stephenie Meyer sent out 15 query letters, 14 of which were rejected. People here mentioned that having read Twilight they would have passed on it, but judging by guidelines, most of those 14 agents did not read a word of it. In my opinion, that is the biggest problem with the process. I don't like Twilight, and no query letter would have aroused my interest in it, but after reading the first few pages (which took all of five minutes) I can see how brilliantly the novel is engineered to appeal to teens. Ditto Harry Potter, which I also can't stand. I would have snapped these books up despite not liking them. It's a business, after all.

The other aspect of the question was about changing tastes. As I am trying to get published, I've been reading with a much more critical eye lately. I picked up a book I read--and loved--two years ago and read it again. I found many problems with it, such as juvenile dialogue, unrealistic plot elements, etc. I didn't like it at all--a book I loved the first time I read it. My tastes changed, because I was no longer reading for enjoyment. Yet the readers, the end users of this business, do read for fun. That book had a tremendous impact on my life, and it would have been a shame if I had not read it because of these perceived “problems”.

Writers get frustrated, I believe, not only because the materialization of our hopes and dreams are left to the whims of so few, but because those few read with different eyes than our prospective readers, and because those few rarely actually read our writing before deciding to reject us. As evidenced by the fact that most if not all writers have to work so hard to write a good pitch, assuming they ever can, writing pitches and writing novels are two different skill sets.

You asked me if I wanted a chiropractor to operate on my child’s tonsils. The answer is no, but I don’t want my performance evaluation at work to be judged based on my juggling skills either.

Thank you for answering my question, it was a joy to see at least some of my “writing” finally published by an agent. :)

lucidkim said...

Nathan Bransford's blog has this to say about market research and publishing:

..."So sure, some more market research would probably be nice -- information is always good. Publishers might be able to respond more quickly to trends, and readers might have their tastes more accurately responded to. They might be able to more effectively focus marketing campaigns and take some of the guesswork out of which books get a big push.

But let's not forget this is art we're talking about. It's subjective. An industry that markets a subjective product is always going to be based on hunches and guesses. Market research could tell you that people want a dog memoir, but it's not going to give you MARLEY AND ME. It could tell you that people like fantasy, but it's not going to give you HARRY POTTER. At the end of the day, science might make publishers more efficient, but the formula that makes a book a bestseller will always be a mystery."

Dal Jeanis said...

I'm not sure that I know of any competent writers who don't do market research. But in writing it's generally referred to as "crit groups" or "beta readers". And a smart writer makes sure that s/he includes beta readers who are avid readers, not writers.

Anon 11:33 Regarding "Twilight", I didn't see any "dissing". I saw several people politely stating that the books didn't work for them, which is a fair comment.

Anon 1:05 Any writer who wants to be successful should study as many successful works as s/he can. You assess which techniques the blockbuster writer uses, decode any new techniques if possible, and add them to your toolbox. Never stop learning.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure the William Goldman quote applies just as well to books.

From *Adventures in the Screen Trade* -- "the single most important fact, perhaps, of the entire movie industry is that 'nobody knows anything'. If there is a Roman numeral I to this book, that's it.... Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one."

Anonymous said...

If the system works than why is there such a lack of diversity. How many romance novels featuring black characters get a chance in the literary mainstream? So much of minority fiction is about their history of oppression (ie slave narratives) and it seems to me it's because that's what our culture (predominantly white) wants from them.

You could argue that black writers just aren't writing the stuff, but I don't need statistics to say that's short-sighted. So many minority writers end up in very small publishers with no agent if though there work is just a good as the books published by major publishers.

Lars said...

A little late here, but a great post. 'Nobody knows nuthin' of course.'

I'm just starting the query round-a-bout and I must admit I'm shocked at what actually gets taken up (and published) by certain agents. Small books with hardly a chance of selling more that a few tens of thousands.

The real high-concept manuscripts with a difference seem to be somewhat too daunting for some agents -- and publishers I suspect.

Twilight and Harry are bound to be repeated.

And the other frustrating thing is agent 'annoyances.' Why would an agent possibly worry about whether someone read an agent's blog, or researched their bio, or put a word count in or not, or started a query with a question? Or even thanked them ;-), or not. And so on.

Just check out the darn work for goodness sake. No wonder great things get missed. (No, not queried you.)