Friday, February 06, 2009

What Agents Read

In my post on An Agent’s Taste a reader made a comment that I started to respond to, and then I thought later that more people could benefit from it, so I created this post instead.

To either refresh your memory or bring it to your attention if you don’t read the comments, the reader 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 disingenuous. 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.

Agents are reading Twilight, read other hit novels, and just plain read for a number of reasons, the biggest probably being that it’s for their own enjoyment. I read books all the time that I probably would have rejected as an agent, or have no interest in representing, but it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the book. For agents who represent that genre or aren’t reading strictly for pleasure, they are probably reading for market research.

Just like readers, there is no way agents and editors can read every book that’s published, but when something becomes a hit and much talked about, not just by the publishing community, we want to know why. It’s important for us to read these books to gain a better understanding of what is grabbing readers. For me, reading published books also helps my editing skills. I will often pick up tidbits like what’s working for a character or a plot or not working and learn to hone my own editing skills.

You should also know that there are a number of books I read now that I would never read in manuscript form or never have requested had they crossed my desk. Some aren’t my taste, some are genres I’m not interested in agenting, even if I do like to read, and some were published or sold years ago and at the time it definitely didn’t fit my style.

I appreciate your questions, but wish you trusted agents a little more. It’s going to be awfully difficult to work with one when you trust them so little. Just because we read what’s hot in the market doesn’t mean we don’t want something different.



Anonymous said...

I have to say I've never run into a problem with agents not wanting to read my work. Some things I write are mainstream, some aren't. I've often found the things that aren't seem to get the better reception. I have been agented in the past, so not all agents are looking for the same thing.

Also why would anyone believe that an agent only wants the same thing? Maybe some are like that, though honestly I'd be surprised, if you're always following the lead you're not gonna have a very sucessful career. Since you used twilight as an example then let me say this, Stephanie Meyer sent her book out to something like 10 agents, 1 accepted her. That means that 1 decided to accept something completely different than the standard YA novel (excluding HP for length).

I think the point is, write a good book and an agent will likely follow.

Richard Mabry said...

I hope your last words aren't lost on the readers of this blog: "... wish you trusted agents a little more. It’s going to be awfully difficult to work with one when you trust them so little."
The relationship between agent and author should be entered into very carefully, based on many things, one of which is mutual trust. I know you've touched on this in the past, but maybe it's worth emphasizing.

Inkpot said...

There seems to be so much anger and hostility against agents out there that it is great to have a blog like this which shows that agents are - gasp! - human too and also like to read. Isn't that why people become writers (and agents) in the first place, because they love stories and reading?

Anyway, thanks for this post and the blog in general. :)

Anonymous said...

I apologize, Jessica, but I don't know how you do it, I really don't. I so admire you continuing to blog, and to be so gracious and generous, in the face of some of the unbelievably rude and snotty emails you've received. Sour grapes are never attractive; I for one am so tired of seeing them.

To the person who made that writers find agents every day, with new mss and new ideas. It happened to me. It happened to lots of writers I know. My book isn't a rip-off of anything. My query had something like a 60% request rate. I had five fulls out when I received an offer of representation.

IT HAPPENS. EVERY DAY. It could happen to you, too, especially if you stop sitting around nursing childish grudges and conspiracy theories and focus on your work.

I'm sorry for sounding harsh, but really, that message insulted not just every agent out there, but every writer out there who is represented and has sold books to NY.

Debbie Schubert said...

Jessica, I'm amazed at the fact that you (and other agents) find time for "pleasure reading" with the number of queries, partials and fulls that fill your days. I also think it's refreshing that you read books outside of your favored genres. As far as Twilight, etc. is concerned, from an agent's perspective it's important to know what's selling and to figure out why. I'd say the same is true from a writer's perspective, but I'm just too damn busy writing!;-)

Mark Terry said...

I've noted with interest that an awful lot of bestsellers I've either read interviews of or actually met and/or interviewed myself seem to have a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the other books on the bestseller lists. It's their competition, I'm sure, but it's also an interest in what's actually gaining the largest audiences.

So I'm always mildly surprised when I hear aspiring writers slamming bestselling novelists. Obviously they're doing something right and reaching a lot of people. Wouldn't you want to see if you can figure out what that is?

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...


That's an interesting point and brings to mind Stephen King's comments recently about certain writers not being good and others he thinks are good writers. What he points out though is that even those he says aren't good writers are still successful. As publishing professionals aren't we at all curious why that happens? Why these people, despite being weak writers, resonate with the public?


B.E. Sanderson said...

This attitude stymies the heck out of me. If the commenter simply looked at this from a business standpoint, they'd see they're way off base. Of course agents read bestsellers in genres they don't represent--just like writers should be reading everything they can fit into their schedules--they have to be informed about the business they've chosen to work in. It's a shame this commenter couldn't see past his own frustration and grasp the concept. In the long, knowing the market can only help sales.

Suzan Harden said...


Thanks for bring up exactly what I've been thinking. I worked in a bookstore at the time The DaVinci Code resided at the top of the NYT list. It amazed me how many people, including my own co-workers, dissed poor Dan without actually reading the book, yet it flew off the shelves.

Curious, I bought a copy and finished it an afternoon. I learned a lot about pacing from Mr. Brown for which I owe him a great deal of thanks.

The best sellers are obviously doing something right, or they wouldn't be at the top of the lists.

Anonymous said...

I thought the answer was obvous. It would be in the best interest to know what is popular in your business, and if you hear of a good book, like to read, your going to read it anyway.

Anonymous said...

If I may answer your question Jessica...

I don't think the average reader worries about misplaced commas, run on sentences, if a writer uses too many adverbs or whether they have a liking for passive over active voice. Readers read, for the pure and simple enjoyment of it. They don't care if the plot has been done to death, or if one character is a paper cut out, all they care about is did the story grab me.

I love writing and love reading, but I've got to say..being a writer has in some ways lessened my enjoyment of reading because I can't help noticing flaws and thinking about how I might have done it differently.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering why you might enjoy a particular genre for your own reading pleasure but have no interest in representing that genre? I would think that enjoying a particular genre would be just what an agent would want to rep. That as a reader and enjoyer of that genre you have more insight into how to sell those types of books. Or did I misunderstand what you wrote?

Spy Scribbler said...

Not to quote Stephen King again, but we are all products of our time and culture. If books are going to resonate with a huge, "bestseller" audience, then they have to reflect the life and times of the author in some sort of way.

All art, from Stephanie Meyer to Margaret Atwood, is history.

Thank God agents read Twilight.

nightsmusic said...

Six months or so ago, you requested a partial from me. At the time, you wrote me a very nice letter saying that ultimately, you didn't fall in love with the story enough to represent it. And I think that's the main point.

We all read. Agents are no exception. But I have several things I've read that are so-so and though the voice might be good or the plot good, it didn't grab me enough to recommend it to others. Some books, I almost throw at people to read and have even bought them a copy.

Same with the manuscripts you either accept or reject. If you don't adore the story, I can't very well expect you to be the best agent for my novel. There's nothing wrong with that at all. It's nothing personal. Better an honest agent than one who says 'sure' and then let's it sit because their heart just isn't in it.

Anonymous said...

ANON 9:49

That happened to me also. My editor is the same way, along with my family. And you are right I read for pure pleasure before. The people in the business are the fastest to point out your flaws, and I am one of them. You seen that emeil where all the letters are transposed, that is how a virgin reader sees, and therefore it's obvious the story is the impotant part.

PS It iklls me ot se my miskaes atfer I'm dneo typing and cna't undo tehm.

Anonymous said...


Someone else pointed out your statement about not representing what you normally read, and I realize there are some genres that would never get represented possibly, but it does seem like it would be hard to do.

Kate Douglas said...

As an author, I read constantly. Not only to familiarize myself with current trends and styles, but because I was an avid reader long before I became a published author. I imagine agents read for the same reasons--both business and pleasure. I read out of my genre all the time--I have absolutely no interest in attempting to write those books, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy a chance to visit that world. We all take our own baggage with us when we read a story, no matter what the genre, the quality, etc. What makes a book special to me might totally turn off another reader, which is why it's wonderful there are so many authors/books/genres to choose from. There's something out there for everyone. And Richard Mabry is right--trust is the most important aspect of the entire relationship between the agent and the author, and it's the one thing that's not covered in the contract. It's either there or it's not.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I would hope my agent reads bestsellers, especially by new(er) authors. Agents need an understanding of what resonates with people. Why IS Twilight (as an example) so successful? And as an agent, how can they use that knowledge with their clients.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

I want to clarify that I do represent all genres in the areas I usually read, but will explain in another post why I sometimes read books outside of the genres I represent.

Thanks for filling yet another day of blog posts for me ;)


P.S. Oddly my word verification is leeryme? Should I be worried?

Debbie Schubert said...

That just means, "query me" in Icelandic. No need to worry.

Kristin Laughtin said...

It makes sense to me that agents would read these books just to keep up with market trends. It's a good way to keep up with what's selling well and why. And I'd want my agent to know the market somewhat so that he/she could tell me if my book is just another title that would get lost in a market that was becoming oversaturated (although, in theory, I would write something that's not the same as everything else out there, and that would have something unique to draw people in).

Then there's the fact that agents were readers before anything else. Why wouldn't they want to read books that are seemingly enjoyable to a large demographic?

Lorelei Armstrong said...

I find it very helpful to hear what agents read and enjoy. It helps me to figure out which agents I won't query!

Joan said...

Major lurker here.

They don't care if the plot has been done to death, or if one character is a paper cut out, all they care about is did the story grab me.

I kind of looked askance at this. Yes, there are certain "plots" that are done over and over BUT without a unique take on that plot and characters who are NOT paper cut outs (ESPECIALLY characters) the story isn't going to grab me or any other reader.

And yes, once you begin to write you begin to read differently...and I believe this makes me a better writer!

Anonymous said...

When I worked in retail, I often went around to our competition and checked out what they were doing, what was on sale, and talked to their staff about anything new that was coming up.

That's just market research, it happens in every industry and makes extremely good business sense.

Vacuum Queen said...

I have to say that I think it's funny to hear writers complain about wanting to know what they should write. As if they could write a hit sci fi novel, even if they've never written one, simply because that's what the agent wants. Whenever I hear this complaint, I imagine a "writer" sitting at home waiting at their desk for a call from an agent with an idea to write about.

Writers should write what comes from within...or what they're good at. If they're good writers, they'll have a better chance of being noticed by an agent regardless of the topic.

Kimber Li said...

Well, I think it's obvious the ladies at BookEnds are professionals.

The trouble is there's some sort of disconnect and I think the business model people are talking about only reinforces it. We read and hear agents and editors saying they want something new and different all the time, but then we go read about the new deals and the New and Upcoming Releases and see a LOT of bestseller knock-offs. So, if it's true agents and editors want something new and different, there must be a disconnect between what they say and what we see.

I, for one, would like to believe my stories stand a chance, even though there aren't any blood-sucking dead guys in them. However, the evidence does not support it.

Perhaps, it would be helpful to post about why aspiring authors should continue to write what they love despite the trends they see.

T. M. Hunter said...

Perhaps, it would be helpful to post about why aspiring authors should continue to write what they love despite the trends they see.

My guess...when people write what they love, it shows. Vice versa if you're just writing toward a trend (not to mention that the trend may be dead by the time an author finishes that particular manuscript)

Mary said...

Agents might become narrow-minded if they read only the genres they represent and took no interest in the wider market.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad so many agents turned featuring a marysue with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. I think it is important for agents to respect the authors they represent, because they would then be more passionate about selling the book. If agents see no literary merit in a manuscript then they shouldn't have to represnt it simply because it has commercial appeal.

I am utterly baffled by twilight's success. I don't actually know anyone who likes it. Possibly because my friends and I are too old. We're 20.