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.