Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Not Right for My List

As an aspiring author, I will frequently hear "Not right for my list," or "the characters weren't compelling to me." What do you as an agent do if an author you've signed writes a second book that doesn't resonate with you? How do you pitch that book to publishers?

I think the important thing to remember is that these phrases you're hearing are form letter phrases. It's the wording agents have honed over the years because it's vague enough not to open ourselves to back-and-forth communication and yet truthful because there's something about this book that isn't right for our list. Maybe it was your voice, maybe it was the genre, maybe it was simply the story.

When an agent signs an author, usually there's a meeting of minds (doesn't that sound grand). In other words, usually the agent feels passionate enough about the author's voice and the general direction of the author's writing to want this author on her list and everything else this author might bring to the table. This is why it's so important that you sign with an agent who sees clients as a long-term endeavor and not just a book-by-book project.

I think the fear that authors have that an agent will love the first book but nothing after that is overblown. Sure it can happen, and I'm sure many have horror stories of it happening, but for the most part I think once an agent feels passion for an author's work, they feel passion about that author in general.



Angie Ledbetter said...

Nice post. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a GPS available for navigating the literary world?

Colin Smith said...

I've read that agents will often discuss what other projects the author is working on when s/he makes that initial Call. During that conversation, I'm sure the agent will recommend projects that s/he is particularly excited about, or suggest possible career directions. This is one way an author can get a feel for whether the agent is a good fit (and vice versa) before anything is signed.

Cyn Bagley said...

I get the "not right for my list" a lot. So thank you for letting me know what it meant in publisher speak.

Yours, Cyn

L. D. Nash said...

I kind of felt those responses were part of a more personalized form letter.

I've gotten a few myself.


Stephen Kozeniewski said...

I'm fascinated by Angie's comment, not least of all because there's a guard shack where I work. If you follow the GPS (which erroneously tells you to turn right and bypass the guards), they lock down the facility and give you a ticket. If you use common sense and look at the signs and turn left, you get in just fine. There's a metaphor in there somewhere, but I'll be damned if I can find it.

Elissa M said...


People want a magic formula rather than have to think for themselves.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Magic formulas would make things easier, but probably remove a lot of the satisfaction from the result.

I'd imagine that in any good author/client relationship, there's at least some discussion while the novel is being written, and any major issues the agent has would be brought up well before the author turns in the manuscript. (OR I hope it would be that way; I'd like my future agent to be somewhat involved in my process, even if it's just so I can say, "Does this sound like too much?" about some weird idea.) I've read many times on blogs like these that the agent/author relationship is almost like a marriage, so a good agent should approach it with a "for better or worse" attitude and not run right away if they hit a small rough patch and don't like one book in what they otherwise hope to be a long career.

Thinking as a reader, there definitely have been some authors I generally like who put out a book I didn't care for much. Did I abandon them? Not because of one book. I always waited for the next book to see if that one was just a fluke or if the appeal had really deteriorated. I think most reasonable agents know that the same could happen with their clients.