Monday, November 15, 2010

Rules in Publishing

This is going to be a rant, unless I can reel myself in.

Frequently enough I reject or give my opinions on someone’s work, things like I didn’t find the character likeable enough or had a hard time understanding the world you’ve created, or the story didn’t feel like the genre you’re targeting, and all too frequently the author comes back with something along the lines of, “Well, that’s because I don’t write the typical Alpha hero or Beta heroine or I don’t write the formula plot blah, blah, blah.”

Do you really think I’m so narrow-minded as an agent that I don’t understand books unless they follow certain formulas or rules? Tell me how I could possibly have any success if that were the case.

When an agent tells you that something isn’t working, it’s typically not because you’ve decided to break whatever rules you think exist in this business, it’s because it’s not working. A character not being likeable enough usually means that readers didn’t like her. Now, sure it’s possible another reader might have another opinion, but it’s also possible that in your attempt to make her tough and damaged you’ve made her unlikeable.


Jessica

65 comments:

A. Grey said...

That was far from a rant, just laying out the facts :)

And as someone who's been rejected (although not by you) I can proudly say that I simply believed the agent when they told me whatever they told me was the reason for rejection. And yes one of those was a 'frankly, you're heroine isn't likeable enough to be marketable'. I took that as valuable input and altered my character for the better :)

wry wryter said...

Whoa…back up the truck !

As a third party observer I see something very interesting going on here. Both author and agent have been poked with a pencil where it hurts.

Author…how dare you tell me my character is unlikable, she’s been rattling around in my head for months…well actually years. You narrow minded so and so…

Agent…how dare you tell me I don’t understand books, they are my life, I am a success you narrow minded so and so…

Both…don’t tell me how to do my job you narrow minded, blah, blah, blah…

Ms Trite says: Oft’ times when you poke people with a pencil the ‘point’ you’re trying to make breaks.

M.A.Leslie said...

I don't disagree with you and I think that authors should take constructive criticism and use it to their advantage. I am finding though that the characters that get created are like people I know. Maybe even more so than people I know, because I know their inner most hopes and dreams. I can see in their minds and feel everything they feel. I love most of them and I can honestly say that I have created a antagonist that I loath. I guess what I am trying to say in too many words is, writers look at it like you’re cutting on our loved one. And putting the passion in the story and the characters is an integral part, but you have to be able to grow as a writer and not be so overly sensitive. Trust that the people that are the experts will lead you down the right path.

Philangelus said...

One of the first things I've had to tell anyone I critique or anyone in any critique group I've ever been in, or when I was working my way through school as a writing tutor, was "Do not defend your manuscript."

Unless you plan to stand over the shoulder of everyone reading your book and explain to them what you meant to write, you'd be better off just writing what you meant to write. I hate it when I tell someone "This isn't working" and she comes back with five minutes explaining to me why it should work, why I'm too stupid to understand the great art she was striving to achieve, and how unenlightened I must be (and, I'd note, everyone else).

In one of my writing classes in college, the professor imposed a "cone of silence" on the person whose story was being critiqued in order to prevent exactly this because while defending, we're not listening.

Rant away! It's absolutely true.

Khanada said...

The "delete" button must be a very good friend of yours, Jessica.

Yes, they probably do think you just "don't get it", but that's because THEY don't get it. Sure, it's possible that this story just didn't work for you and could work for someone else. But the author's defensive response gives me the feeling they should take another look at their work. A professional would just move on, either tweaking their ms if they agreed or leaving it as is if they didn't.

Please continue to give opinions in your rejections when you think it's warranted, Jessica. They DO help. If someone doesn't want to accept your comments, that's their problem, not yours.

Anne Gallagher said...

I'd give my left arm to hear an agent saying what doesn't work. At least I know she's looked at the writing and taken the time to form an opinion instead of just rejecting.

Teri said...

If a writer can't take that kind of constructive criticism, they're in the wrong business. This kind of response tells me they are not looking to write the best possible book. They're merely looking to be told how smart and fabulous they are. To which I say, "Yeah. Good luck with that."

Anonymous said...

I see this as a *learning curve* all aspiring authors go through in order to attain publication.

They're no more stupid or mean-spirited than a baby learning to walk who falls down and cries in frustration. Like that baby, the thing to do is

Try Again.

And again.

again.

again.

again.

Cry if you need to, but keep on *learning* the craft and *trying.*

GhostFolk.com said...

Rules of Publishing: Mondays are for squishing ants. :-)

susancolebank said...

As a published author and college English instructor, I internally laugh at anyone who gets their panties in a bunch over their writing.

As I tell my critique group and my students--if you have to sit next to the reader telling them that what you're writing is off-formula or why the unlikeable heroine really is likable--that means you haven't done a good job with your writing. Since the writer isn't sold along with the book, you better make sure your writing/thinking/reasoning is 100% apparent on the page.

-S.

Anonymous said...

i agree with anne in that it is great to receive feedback. doesn't matter to me if it is good or bad as long as it's constructive.

you rejected by ms with a standard form rejection, okay the ms wasn't for you i could take it, but there was a tiny part of me that did want to know what it was that turned you off. after all how am i to improve my story and make it the best it can be if not for feedback? i hesitated to contact you and ask this question (honestly i did) as i appreciate how busy you are, but i really wanted to know. so i contacted you and i have to say you were very gracious and told me the ms was too convoluted. i appreciated it because i needed to hear it (and it went on to get me a great agent).

Mike said...

I think we're talking about two different subjects here. One is whether or not a given reader buys into a story (subjective). The second subject is whether or not a set of common-sense rules exists in publishing. I believe they exist and as a writer you have complete control over whether or not you break them. And you break them at your peril -- that is to say, if you want to earn a living as a novelist, you have to provide something publishers can sell and consumers want to read. That's the first rule. So if in the process of writing your book your characters take you into realms you never thought they would, where these unwritten rules start to snap, you'll probably have marketablity and/or credulity issues. Other examples: The likeable protagonist is a big one, especially if you want to start a franchise. Knowing who will buy your book and aiming in their direction, or better still crossing demographics to lure in more readers (Potter, Hunger Games, where YA crosses age borders). Subject matter or even word count stays within genre norms. Avoiding elements that a given readership won't relate to (Tom Clancy military detail in a supernatural romance, for example, even if a key character is in the military). Or maybe your story embraces too many potential "turn offs" (too violent, sexual, political, religious, etc), or not have enough of something a genre requires (supernatural elements, romance, forensic detail, whatever readers love about a genre). Chances are if you aren't mindful of these things, you won't sell your book because all of these so-called rules swing you back to the first subject -- subjectivity -- and agents and/or editors won't be seduced by your story because it won't ring the bell for what type of book they need in a given area. And we certainly know that virtually every book needs to fit in a given area. Of course this stuff is never fun to talk about. Creative fields in reality -- when you talk marketability and consumer-friendliness, etc -- lose their sexiness when you realize that you can't just let your creation go where it wants/needs to go because even if it's one hundred percent where it honestly needs to go as a narrative, you could lose the reader. Whereas if you adhere to certain rules, maybe you won't lose your reader and you'll sell your book. Art and commerce, always a lively debate!

Anonymous said...

You may both be right. You don't know the writer, the writer doesn't know you. You're both making assumptions and you're both being awfully protective of your credibility and authority in your separate parts of this business.

It's all subjective.

And that's why it's sometimes best to just send a form decline.

Christopher S. Ledbetter said...

Every person who reads a manuscript that isn't theirs, is casting it through their own spyglass. Every reader, from beta readers to editors to agents, brings their own subjectivities. And in the case of editors and agents, they not only run the manuscript through their overt subjetivities of what they *like* to read, but also their covert subjectivities (disguised as objectivity) of what they think will sell, based upon their vast experience in the industry.

Sometimes writers really do need to improve their works. I think making a character likeable is running the most subjective route. Some readers need to like a character, some don't. But works can always be improved.

But I also think some editors and agents get in their own way, looking for the sure thing. They look so hard for the sure thing, that they miss the sure thing.

Lord of the Flies was declared “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull” by an early reader. It was rejected by 20 publishers before selling 14.5 million copies

Anne Frank's diary was described by one editor thusly, "The girl doesn't, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the 'curiosity' level." How's that for someone not liking the character. Of course it was also rejected by 15 other publishers.

JK Rowling's Philosopher's Stone was rejected by nearly a dozen publishers including Penguin and Harper Collins. No doubt, they feel justified in their rejections.

Certainly authors and editors/ agents have work to do on both sides of the table. So, I have two final comments.

1) If a writer believes in his or her book/ character, wait until someone can see what you see. You'll both be the better for it.

2)Agents, please offer constructive comments whenever possible. An author's "defense" is knee-jerk. But, if there really is a glaring problem to be pointed out, then the author will grow because you took the time to illuminate it.

Thanks.

Anonymous said...

This really does fall into the category of authors learning to deal with criticism...in a broad sense.

The worst criticism is often a good thing most authors don't recognize. In other words, there's nothing more boring than a book on amazon three star ratings all the way down the line (snooze). Usually, the books with a balance of one star and five stars that are the best.

Sorry if this sounds more author oriented than agent oriented, but criticism is something all authors need to learn how to deal with if they are going to maintain their sanity.

Remus Shepherd said...

Do you really think I’m so narrow-minded as an agent that I don’t understand books unless they follow certain formulas or rules?

I don't think the complaint is that you're too narrow-minded to understand the book. I think the complaint is that you're too narrow-minded to take a chance that the book might be a hit despite the supposed flaw you've noticed.

For example, what I'm hearing in your post is that books with unlikable characters are never published, no matter how brilliant the book may be otherwise. I know that's an untrue generalization, but it points out the problem. Published books follow certain formulas. Agents are scared of books that step outside those rules, even if breaking a rule is necessary for the story the author wants to write. An author who wants to tell a story about how an unlikable protagonist redeems herself is facing an uphill battle against the preconceptions of agents who demand first and foremost that the main character must be likable.

And yes, I've tried to sell such a novel, although not to you. :)

Teri said...

As a reader, how many hours will I spend with a character I don't like? That would be zero. If an agent -- or any experienced, thoughtful, respectful reader that I trust -- tells me something's not working, I am damned well going to thicken up my skin think about it.

Anonymous said...

Anne,

I hope that you would not give your left arm for any such thing.

I used to think that if I could just get one book published by a major publisher I could die content. Now that I've had several, I know it's not that simple. There isn't any Arrival, there isn't any moment when you've achieved your goal as a writer. Ultimately writing itself is the goal, and sometimes you wonder if any of the sacrifices you've made for writing are really worth it.

Certainly a left arm wouldn't be.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

I see this conversation: "Your character just didn't grab me: she's not likeable, etcetcetc" vs "I just don't write the typical etcetcetc" as a lack of communication, not a real argument that can become a productive learning experience.

The Agent has been hard-trained to be objective, and to develop a subjective response to what will be popular with a very clearly defined market.

The Agent is all about marketing to a broad enough readership that the Agent's cut will make the Agent a living.

The writer is all about stirring heart-strings that are in tune with the writer's own.

The Agent is saying "give me something popular" and the Writer is saying "Make THIS popular, not that."

The Agent knows where to find the market, and how to recognize what that market is already hungry to devour.

The Writer has no clue where to find a market. The writer feels (not thinks) that the things she reads from a particular market that she ALMOST likes mean that the market will welcome her work because it corrects the flaws in the market's taste.

The two aren't talking about the same thing, so they don't communicate.

I blog about writing craft (from a professional mass market writer's point of view) with practical step-by-step break-downs of how to imagine the story-idea and then shape and craft that idea to fit a market before ever setting a word down in electrons.

It's what the writer does before "having" the idea that causes this non-argument conversation over a completed manuscript.

I've taught writing for more than 20 years and had many successful students finally "get it" and take off.

My blog post last week was another in a long series on Worldbuilding, and Nov. 16, 2010 (I post on Tuesdays on a co-blog) will be step-wise instructions on what I call "Information Feed" (techniques to avoid the expository lump which is often the cause of the "didn't grab me" and "not likeable" reaction).

http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2010/11/worldbuilding-with-fire-and-ice-part.html

Anonymous's comment on "learning curve" is just exactly true. Coordination is gained by practice! I try to supply something to hold onto while you practice creating a Mass Market product.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
http://jacquelinelichtenberg.com

Anonymous said...

There should be a warning with this post that reads: "If you're in a bad mood and you feel like having an agent for breakfast, please don't read this."

And I'm in a good mood today :)

Josin L. McQuein said...

That's the danger of email and instant insults. You can fire off a reply as quick as hitting "reply".

People who send out things like that are the reason so many agents don't even send rejections anymore. That way there's nothing to reply to.

And what planet is that guy on that he thinks "alpha hero / beta heroine" is the "norm". Go to the library and read a few recent books. They don't all follow that pattern.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

@Remus Shepherd
I don't think the Agent-Response is about "unlikeable character" (even when that's what the Agent has to say) but about "likeability that isn't broadly appealing enough to suit the market I can reach."

As far as selling a book about a truly unlikeable character (who does or does not "redeem" him/herself), the writer must have a huge track-record of sales on other titles, a developed following the writer can count on to buy a book and finish reading it, because in other books the writer delivered the goods.

EXAMPLE: Marion Zimmer Bradley's TWO TO CONQUER about a rapist.

Books are one market, but film is expensive and so needs an even broader market. To learn how to present an unlikeable character in an appealing light, read Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! series.

"Save The Cat" is the first action you see the character performing - an act that suggests the character's redeeming feature without nailing it on the head. Immediately, you relate to the character, then find out about the flaws. Snyder teaches exactly how to do this.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Likeability is all about SHOW DON'T TELL - or as I said in my previous post here, about INFORMATION FEED.

What you illustrate first, what you illustrate second, etc. -- the way you intro a character is what counts. Expository lumps, non-artistically chosen actions can make a loveable character icky.

And it's also about Worldbuilding - how you illustrate the world the character functions within, the contrast between internal and external worlds and how you choose point of view.

All these craft techniques have to be mastered and interwoven, orchestrated with ease of performance before you can tell the story of a really unlikeable character to a broad enough audience for an Agent to make a living off their cut.

But most beginning writers are actually telling the tale of a truly likeable character who seems unlikeable because of failure of technique and craft.

That's why they argue back "You just don't understand" -- the beginning writer doesn't understand that the words they have presented don't say what they imagine in their minds.

As Anonymous said, it's a baby learning to walk, clumsy and tumble-bump at first, then smoother.

Agents aren't in the business of teaching writing craft. Don't expect anything more than "the main character just isn't likeable" as a response.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
http://jacquelinelichtenberg.com

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

Sorry, I forgot to click the box to get an email on subsequent comments. Now I'll listen to the convo!

Anonymous said...

For a rant, pretty pitiful.

When a writer gets comments, they need to shut up - except for a sincere "Thank you." no matter what is said.

Although I consider it to be a separate topic, I agree with 'wry writer' that agents (and I would add, editors) typically don't welcome or take criticism too well themselves (though it isn't my perception that they generally ask for it or want it).

Regarding 'subjectivity', helloooo. These opinions are subjective, but they aren't reckless or made without reason. In this corner, with a record of 78-10-15, with 35 knockouts, at a trim and taut 102 pounds, we have Experienced Professional. (Cue wild cheers, stamping feet. [Maybe not.]) And in this corner. with a record of 1-0-10, at a bloated-as-their-manuscript 250 pounds, we have Would-be Novelist. (Cue derisive laughter, jeers.)

Whoa! Stop the fight now! I think we can see how this ends.

Anonymous said...

Part of me wants to say, "Oh, for God's sake agents, PLEASE do stop your whining and grow the heck up." and the other part of me says, "Thanks for the insight, it's always good to know what/how agents are thinking or reacting to what we write, do, or say."

But honestly...

Anonymous said...

Writing a 'black-hat' hero, a bad guy readers wind up pulling for, is a tough thing to do. Study Terrence Lore Smith's books. He did it superbly.

Anonymous said...

As my grandmother would say: What a shit-storm! Jesus. Somebody just say "Uncle" already.

Anonymous said...

And we wonder why agents send form rejections.

AmyAshley said...

Having been on the author end of criticism I didn't want to hear, I understand the heat. I think it best if an author responds with, "How can I improve this, in your opinion?" but that isn't always easy to say.

Jessica, you have the DUTY to spot the flaws. You also have the decency to point them out. It's unfortunate that you get razed for it. I don't blame you for being upset. At the same time, it's still subjective, and there's always the offer to the author to submit it to another agent if they don't care for your feelings about it. Someone else might love their abrasive character. Of course, from your end, THAT isn't easy to say in the heat of the moment either.

Yucky Monday! Hopefully the next thing you read and the next bit of correspondence is brighter.

Laura Maylene said...

It sounds like you are reacting to the type of writer who either 1) can't take or acknowledge criticism 2) lacks the self control to refrain from immediately blasting back a defensive response or 3) isn't able to shrug it off when she sees the agent clearly doesn't "get" the work. (If that's the case, that agent wouldn't be a good fit for the book anyway, hmm?)

It must be frustrating to deal with this kind of response, but on the other hand, I doubt there's anything you can say to change their minds and convince them your criticism isn't totally off base. They will believe what they want to believe.

I guess you could just reply with a link to this post going forward, though. :)

Kaitlyne said...

I've had a lot of people tell me that the reason I get rejected is because agents are just looking for formulaic crap or something that rips off whatever is popular at the time.

I actually get rather annoyed whenever I hear the sentiment. I tend to think that if I'm being rejected it's either because my work wasn't good enough or because it just isn't for someone, but when people try to comfort me about rejections I always get the same comments.

I think there are a lot of people out there who really believe that the majority of books published aren't any good and that their books is better because it's the one standout in a crowd of mediocre crap. Granted, they're kind of making the rest of us look bad, and that's irritating even if we're not the ones directly having to deal with it as you are.

Anonymous said...

Why reel yourself in? If you want to rant, what the heck, let loose with both barrels and have at it. You're entitled. Plus it's healthy to vent now and again. Especially, as you intimate, someone really ticked you off. Let it loose. Sometimes you just gotta get it off your chest. Actually, I found your rant rather restrained. What I'd really like to see is one unleashed and reel-free.

pezibc said...

Maybe if enough writers tell you "You just don't get it." you will finally get it. Why, we're just trying to help - and offering our rightgeous, bitchin' manuscripts to help you land the monster deal. Honestly babe, we are growing weary of waiting for you to catch up. We're happy to give you a second chance, an opportunity to recognize the brilliance, but you've got to get serious or we might move on.

Anonymous said...

Likeable and unlikeable are both really, really subjective. There are people who love Bella and Nora. I hate them and think they're two-dimensional and in need of personality transplants. There are people who love Felicity Worthington. I don't. All that means is that I find them unlikeable, that doesn't mean that they ARE unlikeable because clearly people like them.

The same is true for you. You can find a character unlikeable. For you, they ARe unlikeable. But that doesn't mean everyone will feel that way.

Heidi Willis said...

so true.

This summer my critique group said my character was unlikeable. I wanted to say, "But she's damaged, and rebellious, and hardened by life." But none of that mattered if still no one wanted to spend their precious time with her.

I changed her. The plot is still the same. The story, however, is completely different.

Danielle La Paglia said...

I'd call that a mini-rant if anything. :) I understand why agents don't like to give feedback because it's a two-edged sword. Writers (myself included) say we want to know why you passed on us, but many can't handle the truth.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

Anonymous:

"Likeable" is not subjective in the terminology used in commercial markets. It's a technical term, jargon or code.

They don't mean whether "everybody" or even "anybody" will like a character.

They mean whether enough diverse people would like that character to make the product commercially viable. It's not personal, it's business (yeah, real bad taste in the mouth).

An Editor or Agent is trained the hard way (punishment and reward shocks) to recognize what has the broad commercial profile to make enough money to make it profitable FOR THE AGENT -- calculated on effort-to-return ratio, or Return On Investment (ROI in investing).

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
http://jacquelinelichtenberg.com

LadyGenette said...

I know I am guilty of being blind to my own flaws as a writer. I hope I never hassle an agent because of my own shortcomings.

My dearest wish (and there are probably writers/agents/editors who will agree) is that science will invent a Common Sense injection (though, not a vaccine--television already took care of that).

Amber Green said...

Oooh, it's awfully dark and gloomy up there.

There now, you see how wrong people can be? That there is what you might call the doorway to a place of enchantment...

Too many aspiring authors show the reader reason after reason not to read before they show any hint of a reason to read. Then they want to bully the reader up the chimney. It don't work that way.

jjdebenedictis said...

It's a pretty human reaction to want to blame others for your own failures. When a writer says, "You just don't get it," they're doing exactly that--trying to protect their ego by blaming someone else for the fact the writing didn't connect with the reader.

However, owning your failure is a necessary first step to improvement. You have to comprehend that something is not perfect before you become capable of making it better.

Learning hurts, but you'll never rise above the level you're at now unless you accept feedback. Take it on the chin, everyone.

wry wryter said...

Oh my, we’re all taking ourselves a bit to seriously today.
Here’s my ‘part two’ comment.

Once a writer figures out what the hell it is agents, publishers, editors, and readers want they have weathered many a rejection storm. For a writer to get pissed at an agent because ‘said’ agent doesn’t get the gist of the character, or whatever…that writer is either inexperienced or soooo… famous he or she feels they have a right to tell the agent to pound sand.
Really Jessica…you criticized someone’s work, does it really matter to you what they think? You are not in the business to make friends you are in the business to…what is it that you do…oh…represent and present.
That’s it babe.

To the writer…your inexperience is showing. You don’t like what someone says about your efforts…two words…move on.
I love Mondays.

Saturday Writers said...

I love it when you cause a ruckus.

Judith Leger said...

Me, too!

Anonymous said...

As someone who is currently in the query process, let me add my two cents. I appreciate feedback and will not be ungrateful when an agent takes the time to clarify why they said no.

Rebecca Stroud said...

Two words: Lisbeth Salander

Ended up loving the crap out of that dysfunctional, mean & nasty little person...and she was obviously highly marketable.

Personally - be it from an agent's or author's viewpoint - I think it's all subjective.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

Anonymous:

My point is that the Agent doesn't know -- and it isn't their job to know -- why they can't market a given property.

"The character isn't likeable" is a response that could mean "fix the point of view" -- but the Agent isn't required to know if that would work or what it would take you to make it work.

If the Agent gives you a clue, take it to a professional writer (not just a published writer, but someone who knows how to teach what they've learned) and find out what to do to fix that problem.

Chances are good you don't have to change the character, just the place where you start Chapter One.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
http://jacquelinelichtenberg.com

wry wryter said...

JJbene...
you are beyond correct..owning failure is the first step to success...it means we're paying attention to more then ourselves.

M Clement Hall said...

It's "above and beyond..." to give a meaningful explanation for a rejection, and reasonable people would be grateful. But then there aren't too many of them.
I hope you will be kind enough to continue to give your explanations, despite the unkindness of man's ingratitude.

Teri said...

I just thought I'd check back in to see what transpired during the day. Ha! So many panties in a wad, so little time! Thanks, Jessica, for stirring the Monday pot. :-)

Layla Fiske said...

Jessica,

I love your blogs. They're so entertaining and stimulating and educational. I love the way they get everybody riled up and thinking about the good, the bad, and the ugly.

You go girl!!

Anonymous said...

I wish ALL agents would give us feedback like that! It took TWO years of polite rejections until finally an editor hit the nail on the head. Now I know what's wrong and am revising like crazy. Telling a writer "I didn't fall in love" is a waste of time.

I hope to find an editor turned-agent--what a big help and time-saver. PLEASE keep telling it like it is--we're listening!

Kate Douglas said...

The only rule to remember in writing is that there are no rules.

If there were, I wouldn't be published, because I break just about all of them!

Lucy said...

@ Saturday Writers

Quote: "I love it when you cause a ruckus."

The sad part is, she doesn't actually have to do anything. A blog post of five words that reads "I don't rep space monkeys," will instantly generate the following response:

5 people who agree that space monkeys don't actually constitute a genre in fiction.

14 people who agree that Jessica should rep whatever she wants, and if space monkeys aren't on the list, that's ok.

2 people who wish Jessica did rep space monkeys, as that's what they're writing.

1 person up in arms against Jessica's racist denigration of space monkeys.

3 people who are fed up with all the rules about space monkeys, but continue to visit the blog anyway.

1 person to explain that publishing these days is too narrow-minded to take a chance on space monkeys, and that's why there aren't any good books published.

1 person who skims the post and fires back in defense of NASA.

1 patient response from Jessica, reiterating that she really doesn't have anything against space monkeys, it's just a personal taste, and she can't sell what she doesn't love.

And....

1 snarky response from somebody who wishes the insanity would just stop (me).

There, did I miss anyone?

rashid1891 said...

Memphis Knit Mafia Need holiday gifts? We are having a fundraiser and will make hats, neck warmers, cowls, muffs, and fingerless mitts for your holiday gift needs! Contact us for custom orders and photos to come!! Please tell us if you are interested
it is very interesting story

Christopher S. Ledbetter said...

@ LUCY... LMAO!!

@ Anonymous... This quote "I wish ALL agents would give us feedback like that! It took TWO years of polite rejections until finally an editor hit the nail on the head. Now I know what's wrong and am revising like crazy. Telling a writer "I didn't fall in love" is a waste of time."
I second this motion!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous:

"Likeable" is not subjective in the terminology used in commercial markets. It's a technical term, jargon or code.

They don't mean whether "everybody" or even "anybody" will like a character.

They mean whether enough diverse people would like that character to make the product commercially viable. It's not personal, it's business (yeah, real bad taste in the mouth).

An Editor or Agent is trained the hard way (punishment and reward shocks) to recognize what has the broad commercial profile to make enough money to make it profitable FOR THE AGENT -- calculated on effort-to-return ratio, or Return On Investment (ROI in investing).


I've never read of an agent thinking or saying that they disliked a character, a book's plot, an author's world building or the entire concept of a book, but taking it on anyway because it was commercially viable and they had no plans to ask for revisions. I know some agents will take on something they feel needs work, but they ask the author to revise.

Likeable refers to the characters or other factors. Jessica said that a tough and damaged protagonist could just be unlikeable. She didn't say that there's no market for a tough and damaged protagonist. There is. I read a rave review about a book with one such protagonist not long ago. There are books with characters who are out-and-out barely-if-at-all sympathetic bitches, and some people love them while others don't. Likeable does not mean commercially viable. IT means likeable.

I once read on a literary agent's blog that she hated a particular well-known book. She told authors not to query her if their books were like this particular book. She said she didn't care how well it sold, she didn't like it and that was that. Given that books very similar to that one continue to sell extremely well and others are still finding representation, I think it's safe to say that when an agent says likeablie, they mean whether or not they, as human beings, like the work. Otherwise, that other agent would have been happy to take on clone books because they are clearly highly commercially viable. Some agents might use the two terms interchangeably, but that doesn't mean all do. It's not fair to make a general statement that all agents mean one thing. I know that not all do because I've seen them draw that line.

What makes something ommercially viable is also subjective. Books have been rejected because agents or editors thought they wouldn't sell or wouldn't sell well and then those same books have gone on to be megabestsellers. Books that seemed like sure things have flopped bigtime. I know this because I've seen agents and editors say as much.

Jessica and other agents have said that they've passed on something because they didn't connect with some aspect of it, but they are certain it will sell. Agents have said that they've passed for that reason, have been certain it would sell, and then seen the deal, thus proving that they were right. They've passed, bot based on commercial viability, but their own personal taste.

Even in this post, Jessica doesn't say another reading might think a tough and damaged character is commercially viable. She says another reader might like what she doesn't. Even if she meant commercial viability, she's saying herself that it's subjective.

Most of publishing is subjective. That includes likeability and commercial viability, which I see as two different things. You are, of course, free to see them as the same, but either way agents still make choices based on their own taste and how they think the ever-changing, difficult-to-predict market will swing, not based on something they know for an absolute fact because in the publishing world that's damn near impossible. That, in my opinion, makes them both subjective.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

Anonymous:

Oh, you're totally correct that Agents choose to represent a title or an author on the basis of a gut-response. Editor's too.

And that response part is subjective, but trained by reward/punishment experience.

But because of those innate traits, Editors and Agents gravitate toward markets and serve readerships with similar emotional responses. You can trust the successful ones with your life.

As for vastly popular works about really repugnant characters -- as I said in previous notes on this thread, it isn't the innate quality of the fictional character that makes it marketable. It is the author's choice of techniques for presenting that character to a specific readership/viewership that creates the marketability.

Once you get it written, then you have to find the Agent who has to find the Editor who can reach the market the item will "hit" with.

It's a huge, complicated problem, and to date nobody has made a science out of it. Each step is an Art.

Commerciality is not subjective, but Art is. Art is entirely subjective.

SphinxnihpS of Aker-Ruti said...

This post reminds me of something I read in Kim Lavine's Mommy Millionaire. She was dealing with a graphic designer, but as a writer I found the situation highly relevant. She said that creative people see their work as an extension of themselves and being critical of their work is like being critical of them. Sounds like a liability--but perhaps it is the best way to write. Because if you don't risk anything, you don't gain anything.

From this post, it sounds like agents take the negative replies from the rejected authors to heart too, just in a different way.

For people on either side of the publishing divide, I don't think it ever gets easier. All you can do is work that much harder on finding something that works.

Jodi and her fiction blog.

Anonymous said...

But because of those innate traits, Editors and Agents gravitate toward markets and serve readerships with similar emotional responses. You can trust the successful ones with your life.

If something has to be trained, it's not innate. And I think saying you can trust them with your life is going really far.

You said it yourself. They only reach those with similiar interests. If Jodi Reamer is just publishing stuff exactly like Twilight, she's not going to be someone with whom I want to work because I hate Twilight. So she's not reaching me. But those who work with authors I like and represent books I like are.

Jodi thought, and was correct in thinking, that Twlight was commercial enough to sell well. It would be stupid to say that it didn't. But what about all the other agents who rejected it? Did they not see the commerciality of it? Were they wrong in thinking it wasn't commercial, if that was the basis for their rejection? Clearly. But that just proves my point that what people think will be commercial is subjective.

Reading something and deciding it's commercial is just not objective. At least, not totally. People bring their own thoughts and feelings toward everything they read, and that will influence their decisions. It can't not.

So I think we'll just have to agree to disagree. You think an individual deciding what is commercial is objective. I don't. And that's okay.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

Anonymous:

Just to clarify, no I do not think that an "indiividual" deciding what is commercial is objective.

I'm trying to make the point that each Agent/Editor/Publisher/Book wholesaler/book retailer "channel" is serving a "market" - and that's a concept that maybe you and I don't have in common.

"Market" means people who want more of whatever. It's a "place" -- a group - a connected, contiguous thing like "Market Day" in a "Market Square" in a village.

Each week farmers bring produce to this Square in the city, and ranchers bring meat to that square, and weavers are over here and soap makers over there.

Today we have "supermarkets" - where all kinds of stuff is under one roof, and "flea markets" where individuals bring one-of-a-kind stuff to sell or recycle.

"Market" is a technical term these days, but it's a concept that has to be learned.

A natural born "marketer" has to be trained -- just because you have an innate talent doesn't mean you can do the job.

Likewise in Art - or acting or anything else people have talent for -- it takes both talent and training, and sometimes in addition to that it takes education (which is different from training).

If say, TWILIGHT, is rejected by one Agent because it's "hokey" it will be accepted by another because it's seminal YA.

A rejection means the Agent doesn't know how to reach the market for that product. The Agent feels that their market would regard this product as having say, an unlikeable character.

Why does the Agent feel that way? Because they've found that characters they like sell well to this market. (Most Agents can fee4 many distinct markets, but not all.)

If an Agent doesn't respond viscerally to a story, they very likely won't know a market where they can sell it.

That's what Agents do for a living -- they sort the avalanche of product we produce into streams flowing to specific markets, and they do that sort by gut-reaction.

But it's not random, or they don't stay in business long.

Once you find the market-channel for what you write, and get the training to fit your product into that market channel, you'll get what publishers call sell-through.

Even a casual comment from an Agent rejecting your work can clue you in to where your product belongs and how to fit it to market specifications -- or perhaps make you decide that your product needs to make a NEW market.

That's what's happening in the Indie publisher and E-book self-publishing marketplace right now. And it's happening fast.

Romance has been leading the pack, and it's something to behold!

New markets are opening up all around, gathering, agreeing to gather again, grow, become more voracious.

Blogger-reviewers and discussion groups are forging the way.

Find (or make) a Market, and write-write-write.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
http://jacquelinelichtenberg.com

E. Martin said...

"But it's not random, or they don't stay in business long."

This is a non sequitur. It's perfectly possible to stay in business making awful decisions, if the demand is organic and the supply is oligopolistic.

Considering the psychological need for narrative, publishing certainly qualifies on the former criterion, and considering how reliant on "networking" the biz tends to be, there is certainly an oligopolistic element to publishing supply.

The real test of professionalism in such an environment is not in whether an agent and his/her buddy list can stay in business by offering readers what they can't comfortably do without.

The only valid test is in the business fruits of one's decisions. When a book one pushes tanks, that means something. When a book one rejects (as Harry Potter was rejected, for example) goes on to succeed, that also means something. These are professional failures. As agents are quick to point out when writers complain about commercialism, this is a business and the metrics we use to judge success and failure should reflect that.

The idea that agents should react as consumers do, by selecting what they like rather than what they can rationally judge to key into consumer needs/demands, is a complete abdication of even the pretense of professionalism.

A professional chef would never get away with only making his/her own favorite dish, so why do agents think this sort of self-oriented behavior is professionalism? A professional agent seeks products other people will buy, not products they would buy.

And, if an agent can't get beyond his or her own preferences to accurately identify what others like but they dislike ... well, good luck buying holiday presents.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

E. Martin: (I've got to break this comment into several parts)

Oh, yes, I agree! I've been represented by Agents and sold to Editors who have that "beyond personal taste" level of professionalism and learned how they do it from the inside.

I've rewritten to Editorial spec from people like that, and won awards because of it.

And as you point out, as the business climate shifts, those who can't make that leap beyond totally personal taste will leave the business.

The biz is all about who you know, who's friends with whom. Friendship happens because of subjective elements in common (or contrast.)

But from the beginning writer's point of view, not knowing "who knows who" and "who is friends with whom" just taking a shot in the dark and getting back "well, I can't represent this because the character is unlikeable" -- the beginning writer who isn't inside the social loop in Manhattan has no way to parse that problem or understand what to do next.

As Anonymous pointed out, it's a very complex and complicated and obscure and mysterious and confusing situation.

At some point, you can only explain it by saying "it's subjective."

But really, it's BOTH as you say.

MORE...

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

...more -- There are properties of the manuscript that are objective, and properties of the manuscript that are subjective, and properties of the Agent or Editor that are objective and properties of the Agent or Editor that are subjective.

And each of those 4 categories can be teased apart, broken down, analyzed and factored into dozens of separate processes.

Being successful in this biz is very much like driving a car or Dancing With The Stars, playing Championship golf, or perhaps winning a Martial Arts Tourney. It's small-muscle coordination run by the subconscious or autonomic nervous system -- it's what you do that you don't know that you're doing.

Success is all about coordinating all those disparate elements smoothly. The economy, the mood of the various audience fragments, the price of paper in China and the taxes on warehoused copies of a book (yes, books in warehouse are taxed).

But the beginning writer hearing "this character is not likeable" simply does not KNOW what that means.

I've had hundreds of experiences that have taught me what that means, and decades in the profession knowing professionals at every level. I try to break down these "buzz word" phrases that Agents and Editors emit into a form a writer with their head and emotions in a character's story can actually use to sell their product.

To that end, I've been blogging at aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com talking basically to Science Fiction Romance and Paranormal Romance writers, but really also to any writer with a story to tell about what to do inside your head with this information.

more...

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

...more
What to learn, where to learn it, how to practice using it, and why bother -- all to answer the ultimate question, "Why did my manuscript get rejected?" or worse, "Why did my published Mass Market Paperback not sell?" or "Why did I get rave reviews and still not sell well enough to get another contract?"

One big lesson that came to me was sitting on a big plane, in that huge center row, surrounded by professional writers, editors, and sitting next to an Agent who was reading a manuscript she'd whimsically accepted from an unpublished stranger at a convention we were returning from.

She read a few pages, flipped to the middle, sat forward and intensely flipped to the END - looked up glassy eyed, and went, "Wow, this is going to sell big time." She was right. (It was a vampire novel before they were popular - a genuine horror-genre item, not "good vampire," and right now I don't recall the title but the title got changed anyway.)

I asked, "May I see?" She handed me a few pages. I read. I didn't see it, I didn't like the character. She explained. (it was a 5 hour flight) The people around us agreed. Discussion was all about market.

I memorized that explanation and worked on it for years. I have come to understand. I am trying to show people what I learned.

One of those lessons is in my blog post this week, http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2010/11/information-feed-tricks-and-tips-for.html

It's a huge long post and part 1 of a series. It refers back to previous posts on information feed and worldbuilding.

All of these little craft techniques are ingredients in that final response "the character grabbed me" -- "the character is really hard-boiled, tough, seedy, gritty, disgusting but I loved him!"

Romance often uses the repellent guy as the Romantic Lead, and answers the question, "What does she see in him?" I tackled that here:

http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2009/08/what-does-she-see-in-him.html

One of my co-bloggers (this is a blog of 7 well published writers) wrote an entry on this topic:

http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2010/02/irredeemable-hero-material.html

So you see, this typical Agent comment, "the character isn't likeable" is the sum and substance of what I've been discussing for about 3 years, one post a week.

I can't even approach it in these little comments, and I'm sure the readers of this blog are tired of it by now.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
http://jacquelinelichtenberg.com

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to make the point that each Agent/Editor/Publisher/Book wholesaler/book retailer "channel" is serving a "market" - and that's a concept that maybe you and I don't have in common.

"Market" means people who want more of whatever. It's a "place" -- a group - a connected, contiguous thing like "Market Day" in a "Market Square" in a village.

Each week farmers bring produce to this Square in the city, and ranchers bring meat to that square, and weavers are over here and soap makers over there.

Today we have "supermarkets" - where all kinds of stuff is under one roof, and "flea markets" where individuals bring one-of-a-kind stuff to sell or recycle.

"Market" is a technical term these days, but it's a concept that has to be learned.

A natural born "marketer" has to be trained -- just because you have an innate talent doesn't mean you can do the job.

Likewise in Art - or acting or anything else people have talent for -- it takes both talent and training, and sometimes in addition to that it takes education (which is different from training).

If say, TWILIGHT, is rejected by one Agent because it's "hokey" it will be accepted by another because it's seminal YA.

A rejection means the Agent doesn't know how to reach the market for that product. The Agent feels that their market would regard this product as having say, an unlikeable character.

Why does the Agent feel that way? Because they've found that characters they like sell well to this market. (Most Agents can fee4 many distinct markets, but not all.)

If an Agent doesn't respond viscerally to a story, they very likely won't know a market where they can sell it.

That's what Agents do for a living -- they sort the avalanche of product we produce into streams flowing to specific markets, and they do that sort by gut-reaction.


I think we're talking about two different things. First, I don't think predicting what groups of people want to read is innately anything.

Second, no one, no matter the training or experience, can make a prediction about the market that is 100% foolproof. The way you defined markets came across condescending to me, as if I have no idea what you mean. My opinion hasn't changed regarding the subjectivity of likeability and the subjectivity of the opinion of what will reach the market.

Books have come out of nowhere to reach a particuliar market and then some. No one gets it right every time and no one can say that a character they don't like absolutely will not appeal to a target audience. All they can say is they don't THINK it will. Agents and editors alike say that themselves.

Agents, as a group, cannot objectively decide what is commercial or what will appeal to a given market because that is always, always changing. What people bought last year is no indicator of what they will be into next year. They can watch the trends, but all it takes is one success to change them in what can seem like an instant. Therefore, they have to go with their gut. And that's subjective.

Rejections don't always mean that an agent doesn't know how to reach particular market. Agents do not reject only because they don't know how to sell to certain people. They reject based on their personal feelings about the work as well. Probably more often than just because the market is not their market.

This debate is starting to feel circular and I don't think either of us is really getting what the other is trying to say. I am willing to say that you opinon is valid to you and anyone who agrees with you, but I don't agree with you and my opinion is just as valid. It seems pointless to me for the both of us to keep saying the same information in different ways if it's having no real effect.