Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Am I Missing Something Good

Do you ever wonder if you miss out on a really great book because the pitch is so-so?

I was reading the one about the revenge comment here and you were asking what makes it unique, which isn't unreasonable, but it's a little bit like:

An obsessed whaling captain drives his crew to destruction in revenge for a fishing accident that took his leg.

You can make the same comments about Moby Dick, but it doesn't really change that a 3-sentence pitch doesn't take into account the things that generally make books wonderful--characterization, unique setting, writer's voice, etc.

This question appeared in the comments of one of my pitch critiques and it’s a great one. Up until recently BookEnds was one of the few agencies to accept unsolicited proposal packages. This meant that anyone could send us the first three chapters and a synopsis of their book without querying first. We stopped this for a number of reasons. The first was that we found it was a huge waste of paper. We were rejecting 99% of those submissions and recycling, but still killing trees. We also found that we were rejecting a lot of them based on a read of the query letter and a read of only one or two pages, and in some cases based on the query alone. When all was said and done we discovered that 99% of the time we were really just rejecting on query letter alone. Now we are probably requesting 1-3% of all email queries we receive (about 100 a week) and still rejecting 99% of those, but saving a lot of trees.

The truth is that the query, and pitch, of course, is representative of the work. Often I will have concerns that something isn’t going to work, but request it anyway. Usually I’m right. And yes, I suppose I’ve missed out on a thing or two. But do you really read the first few chapters of every book you touch before deciding what to buy? You know, you might be missing out on some good books. The same holds true for agents. Every agent is going to admit that she missed out on a book or two simply because she didn’t get it. Of course, I can’t represent every single book. I can only represent those that grab me, those I believe in, and those I can market.
In my experience, if you can’t succinctly explain your story in a paragraph or two, and make it enticing to the reader, it’s very likely the book itself needs a lot of work.

Oh, and if Moby-Dick were pitched to me, I would not request it and I would not regret it. It’s not a book I believe would sell in today’s market.



Julie Weathers said...


I know probably more than most, and at least as well as many, how frustrating the first sentence, first paragraph, first page, pitch, query and synopsis obsession is. It's not something I do well. I'm getting better, but I'm still not competent.

Somehow this reminds me of a scene from Night Court, when Harry's crazy father grins and says, "But I'm getting better."

Anyway, it's a painful process for many of us to get to the point we have all our ducks in a row. I often bury my face in a pillow and whimper, "I just want to tell my story."

The problem is all of us can tell our stories. No one is stopping us. However, if we want other people to listen to our stories, we have to catch their attention. Then we have to seduce them with word pictures and promises of pleasures undreamed.

All of the workshops, contests, forums, offering practice and critiques get us closer to that seduction. This is the way the world is. We can rail about how unfair it is or we can adapt and improve.

Am I disappointed when people don't like what I do? Yes. I'm disappointed with myself for not being able to learn this lesson. However, I'm patient and bullheaded, so I have faith I will arrive.

Anonymous said...

But Moby Dick does sell in today's market! You can buy a copy in any major bookstore, and online, plus it's still required reading in a lot of schools.

Diana said...

But Moby Dick does sell in today's market! You can buy a copy in any major bookstore, and online, plus it's still required reading in a lot of schools.

But how many people would seek it out if they didn't have to read it for a class? If the book just came out on the market and was stuck in the "recent releases" section in a bookstore, how well would it do?

Anonymous said...

The fact that Moby Dick is in every major bookstore in America--always in stock, 24/7--can be attributed to more than it simply being perrenial classroom material. Students pick it up at the college bookstores, used, for that purpose. The reason you can buy it brand new at Barnes & Noble on any given day is because it's one of those Ultimate Backlist books. A 'classic', I think they call that. These classics continue to sell because they still resonate today.

That being said, would it sell today if it were introduced by an unknown writer? Well, it'd have to be classified as a Historical, for one thing, since...wait I was gonna say people don't hunt whales anymore but I guess they do--Japan does. So I don't know- it might do well even if it were released today.

Unknown said...

First: Moby Dick sucks. There, I said it.

Second: Thank you, Jessica, for reminding us all that WE'RE critical readers, too! How many books have I put back on the shelf because I didn't like the back cover copy, or the first page didn't grab my attention or even...gasp!...the cover wasn't good? Plenty. I may even be more critical than at least keep trucking through the queries and pitches, while I just leave the bookstore and go to a movie instead. Your example totally made your point clear to me--thank you--and it has stressed how important a good query is once more. This is a business, and we have to treat it as such.

Aimlesswriter said...

There's an old joke among writers that says you have to hit the right agent, on the right day where they feel good, haven't fought with their spouse, didn't get caught in traffic, etc. Finding the right agent at the right time. Is it true? Wouldn't it be true for almost any proposal, in any venue? If someone's in a bad mood it's less likely they will like anything. (Remember I did say this was an "old joke":)Probably meant to make us poor prepubs feel worthy.)

I don't believe Moby Dick would sell today. First it is not PC and its voice wouldn't come across as fresh and new.

Remember the smart*ss who sent out Jane Austin under another name and all the agents rejected her? Not because the writing was so bad but probably because it was not right for the present market. These agents may not have recognized Austin but they did see it wasn't fitting into today's market.

Shaun Carney said...

Sometimes, you need to put a story on the shelf until the market is ready for it. Even Stephen King said he shelved "The Gunslinger," book 1 of The Dark Tower series, for about 20 years. Of course, he sold a lot of book in those 20 years. I say take a lesson from him, move on to a new project, and wait for the market to be ready.


Chris Redding said...

There will always be ones that got away.
We can't go through life worrying about what didn't happen. We should rejoice or cry over what did happen.
word verification icbowg
I am a dog in a foreing language?

Mark Terry said...

A few general questions, just curious about opinions.

1. What do you think when your agent moves to a different country? Can he/she still be an effective agent?

2. What do you think of an agent who is constantly losing communications you send he/she, such as synopses, pitches and occasionally manuscripts?

3. What do you think of an agent who decides to sit on a manuscript to wait and see if a movie producer will option it before marketing it to publishers?

Just wondering.

Cher Gorman said...

Aimless Writer said "There's an old joke among writers that says you have to hit the right agent, on the right day where they feel good..."

I think that is true to a point. Back when I first started writing and the rejections came so fast and furious they set my mailbox on fire, I used to rationalize them in that way. I'd think, "They probably found out that morning that their spouse was having an affair, their son was on drugs, their sixteen year old daughter was pregnant. Then on the way to work they got a speeding ticket. Once they got to the office, their boss called them in and read them the riot act. So all of this happened by the time they sat down at their desk and there was my story in front of them. I figured they had to take their frustrations out on somebody and my story happened to be convenient and available.

I say that with tongue in cheek of course. I don't really believe that editors and agents do that. But I did wonder...

In regard to Moby Dick, I don't think it would catch an editor or agent's eye in todays market either. I think it's selling today because it's required reading and maybe there are a few people who are curious because they've seen the movie with Gregory Peck. Or maybe they have the list of the 100 greatest books ever written and they want to read them all before they die.

I'm very glad I don't have to read it.


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Must stick up for poor Melville's Moby-Dick. Never had to read it for school, but read it for fun a few months back. Loved it. Evocative, powerful storytelling which captured intimately a timultious era. The reason it would not be published today is because fiction has been dumbed down. The book's lack of modern-day political correctness makes it a museum piece, granted, but a good storyteller is a good storyteller, and Herman Melville was one. Unfortunately, and perhaps ironically, he was never commercially or critically successful in his lifetime. So, don't be jealous of his now "classic" status. He knew the angst of the failed writer.

dernjg said...

Lets not forget: Moby Dick didn't sell in it's own day. Wasn't until after Melville was dead did it sell.
Maybe it was because you can't pitch it that well?

ryan field said...

I agree with you about Moby Dick. The only thing I ever liked about it was the title.

Anonymous said...

I've been a lurker here for several months. I just wanted to say that I gave this blog an award. I appreciate all the great tips I've learned about writing on this blog. The pitch critiques have been especially interesting to read, even if I didn't submit one to be critiqued. So thanks for all your work!

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Cripes, don't feel bad for only requesting queries that catch your interest. That's your job!

John Arkwright said...

I reread the back cover to the first book in George R. R. Martin's hugely popular Songs of Fire and Ice series. I guess George's name sold it, because the back cover does not promise anything unique.

I think new authors need to write the pitch first, then write the book.

Julie Weathers said...
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Anonymous said...

It's also worth considering that Moby Dick was Melville's sixth book. Editors will take risks with bankable authors, just like readers will, so it's certainly easier to get a hookless book published after you've published a few hooks, especially if those have garnered you fans who can't wait to see what you're doing next. So, if you have a mind to write an ethereal indescribable voice-based epic, maybe you should first write something that sells.

Anonymous said...

Geez, is Moby Dick really "hookless"? C'mon!

"An embattled sea captain hellbent on destruction leads his crew on a perilous voyage of revenge."

An action-adventure tale complete at 456,000 words, Moby Dick affords readers an intimate glimpse of the whaling industry in 19th century America.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I just had to touch up the Mody Dick pitch a bit:

"An embattled sea captain hellbent on destruction leads his mutinous crew on a perilous voyage of revenge."

A character driven action-adventure tale complete at 456,000 words, Moby Dick affords readers an intimate glimpse of America's nineteenth century whaling industry.

[Actually, it's probably not bad practice to write pitches for books you've read that aren't your own--and then read the actual jacket copy or promotional blurbs after to see how yours compares].

Loren DeShon said...

I....just.....can't.....resist....... commenting on the thread-jacking topic of Moby Dick.

Over the years I've read classics just because they are classics so I could find out what all the fuss is about. Some I've not been cared for (Don Quixote, A Tale of Two Cities), some I've been underwhelmed by (The Sun Also Rises) and some leave me staggered (Anna Karenina, Les Miserables).

Moby Dick staggers me - it's monumental, overwhelming and magnificent. It could also use a good editor - who needs a monograph on cetacean biology in the middle of a novel?

What struck me most about all the comments here was "I'm glad I don't have to read it." Ouch. Could you maybe..........give it a try?

Would an agent take it on today? I certainly hope so. One of the things repeatedly mentioned by agents blogging about pitches and queries is that it's not just the hook but it is also the voice. If an author with a marvelous, unique voice can communicate that in the pitch then that is a big part of catching an agent's attention.

So, if Melville queried agents today for Moby Dick surely at least one out there would respond to the voice if not the hook - and convince an editor to buy it, and the editor would convince their house to promote it, and the literary public would discover it.

I'd like to think so.

Anonymous said...

Over the span of my writing years I have tried most of the suggestions Wanda mentions. Specifically, the Daily Ramblings is fantastic, and (for me, at least) repairs many areas. Strengthening personal voice and overall style is top on the list, as well as keeping the diligence in motion. A good analogy might be the advice I once received on how to handle a vehicle on ice—release the gas pedal, tap the brakes once, then keep the tires rolling. And, most importantly, “Don’t Panic.”

When writer’s block hits and you find yourself staring at a blank screen and the only proof there’s life on your planet is the incessant blinking cursor…Don’t panic. Ease off the accelerator, and just do whatever it takes to keep your mind rolling steadfast. Write a grocery list if you have to. Write daydreams or nightmares, or what I lovingly call “thought scraps,” which could be anything from pieces of dialogue belonging to characters I have yet to develop, to things deep and philosophical. Ponderings. Anything. But every day—whether I feel like it or not.

My old exercise trainer told me it takes 21 days of consistency to create a habit. A writer friend of mine call this exercising the mind.

So if you can hang on and keep plugging away, eventually you fit back into your comfy writer’s thoughts, ready to go for another good run.

jjdebenedictis said...

The last ten chapters of Moby Dick are pretty darned good, just in case you didn't get all the way through the boring 125 chapters that come before it.

John Arkwright:
A Song of Ice and Fire might have sold well based on word-of-mouth. I picked the first book up because of friends who couldn't find words ecstatic enough to describe the series.

Anonymous said...

>>Oh, and if Moby-Dick were pitched to me, I would not request it and I would not regret it. It’s not a book I believe would sell in today’s market.

That's what I hate about those "tests" where a struggling author decides to vindicate themselves by sending agents a bunch of sample chapters of a classic novel then yelling "Ah-ha!" when it gets rejected. They never seen to take into account agent tastes or the differences between the current market and the one the "classic" sold on. It's a seriously flawed "exposure" from the very beginning.

Julie Weathers said...
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Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

1) Do I read the first few pages of every book I buy. Yes. I would be foolish not to. The "jacket" material is written to sell me a book and gives me no REAL insight into what I will find inside. When will people learn that the ability to write a query letter has no real bearing on whether a person can write a novel? Let me say that again. The ability to write a query has no bearing on the ability to write a novel. Being able to write a newspaper article or ad copy or even a short story does not prove that an individual can write a good book. Likewise, not being able to write a "good" query does not mean an individual cannot write a good book.

2) If you walked into a car lot and asked the salesperson to show you a mini van, because you want to buy a mini van, because you like them, and the salesperson said, "No thanks. I only sell sports cars. That's all I like. All I 'believe' in." You would think they were an idiot and start looking for a good salesman. You might even head for the next sales lot. You would most definately NOT expect them to have a nice penthouse overlooking the Hudson River. Why? Because they suck as a salesperson. I don't like mini vans or SUV's and I wouldn't buy one but lots of people in the world do. Whether or not you like horror or mystery or whatever genre should have no bearing on whether or not you represent the author. The quality of the writing should be the determining factor.

Agents who only rep books they "like", they "believe in", and who make their decisions about what they’ll look at based on a single query letter are bad salespeople and bad agents. And they're running the publishing world into the ground trying to sell the books they like. Agents should sign writers based on the quality of the writing of the book and not on their personal tastes.

Anonymous said...

I'm in a discussion group that has been tackling Moby Dick nearly chapter by chapter for the last two years. This is not a class but a group of thoughtful individuals from all walks of life who carve out time from their responsibilities to read and understand a book not because it was assigned but because it still speaks to our age and issues. More than a few mainstream articles have been written comparing a certain president with Ahab, for example. The sections dealing with out-of-control capitalism are as pertinent as ever. It asks living questions about racism, and it really all is about seeking a meaning for life.

Anonymous said...

Learning to hone a strong pitch/query letter is part of the skill set a writer must develop in order to make a living in this business. It's one of my least favorite parts of the process. However, I do agree with you -- if I can't sum it up in a paragraph, or, better yet, a logline that makes the reader want more -- I don't know the material well enough to query/submit and it needs a heck of a lot more work.

BEFORE I start the query process, I like to have the manuscript, the query letter, the logline, the one paragraph summary, the synopsis, and the outline in the best shape I can -- and I can feel it in my gut when it's the best I can make it. That way, whatever's requested can go out in the return mail or email.

It's much more efficient than re-inventing the pitch wheel for every query on the project (though the letter is tweaked to the individual). And, when I'm that thorough before I start, I get a much more positive response.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 11:59

I have to admit that I don't see your logic. If you want an agent that doesn't "like" or "believe in" your material, then I think you have a unique perspective on the business. For the record, we generally "like" and "believe in" quality writing.

I understand that it can be frustrating to hear that agents make most of their decisions based on a query letter or a couple of pages. But it's the nature of the business. If we considered full manuscripts from every submission, we'd have to close up shop very quickly. It's just not an efficient or plausible way to work. The sheer volume of material we receive now is tough to keep a handle on. In order to supply the clients we already like and believe in with our time and service, it's necessary to have an efficient screening process for possible future clients.