A question came to me recently asking why I might enjoy reading a particular genre, like, for example, memoirs, but have no interest in representing it, or at least don’t list it as a genre I represent? The reader also wanted more clarification on why I wouldn’t want to represent all the genres I enjoy reading.
Like many readers I vary my tastes regularly. For example, just off the top of my head, recent reads include Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Dark Lover by JR Ward, Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas, Every Which Way But Dead by Kim Harrison, and What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman. Some of these I loved instantly and others I didn’t care for, but finished so I could get a feel for what readers were talking about. In all cases I could see why readers were attracted to the book whether I felt the same level of affection for it or not.
While I took pleasure in reading all of the books, I’m not necessarily drawn to all of the genres in the same way I am to those genres I represent. Nothing makes me happier than commercial fiction. I never tire of sitting down to read romances, mysteries, women’s fiction, thrillers, and fantasy. Memoirs and literary works, however, take more effort for me. They are not, for lack of better phrasing, necessarily in my comfort zone. They don’t come naturally to me.
So while I read a variety of books in all genres and enjoy them all (some of my favorite books and writers are actually memoirists) I don’t necessarily have a love of the genre in the same way I do with those genres I represent. I also think that as an agent I have to specialize in some way. I can’t try to represent everything and be successful at it. I need to find those things I have a special affinity for and that I can do the best work with.
Luckily for all of us, age, life experiences, and life in general can alter the way we read and the way we work, and what’s really great about my job is that because I represent one thing now it doesn’t mean I can’t represent another later. I’m always on the lookout for something new and exciting and will never rule out the possibility that someday the perfect memoir or literary work will grab my attention and I’ll know that I’m the right agent for it. But for now I need to focus on what I feel I can do best for my authors, and I do commercial fiction really well.
Although I write SF, I regularly read outside of it.
I enjoy history for its own sake and as part of my research. I also read other fiction and non-fiction.
If all you read is the genre you write in (or represent), then you will have a very narrow view of things.
Your reading list looks like a section of my bookclub's list.
I think agents read outside of what they represent for the same reason writers read outside of what they write: Just because you like reading it doesn't mean you're the best person to represent/write it.
I love reading literary works, but sadly, I'm just not deep enough to write at that level. So, it's the commercial stuff for me, and I'm fine with that. I don't try to force what doesn't come naturally to me, and I'm glad agents are the same way.
I agree with you that, as an agent, it's important to specialize in certain genres. From a selfish standpoint, it also helps us writers to determine who to query. I'm with you as well on the reading front - I'm in the middle of Dreams from my Father by our wonderful, new president; Kate, the biography of Katherine Hepburn; and Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner. And I'd put them all aside in a heartbeat if Ann Rule comes out with a new True Crime book or Chelsea Handler writes another humorous memoir.
Hah! My word ver is: alist!!
I think the thing that makes us LOVE a book or a genre is that we connect to it on some level. Sort of the way we make friends with people...we tend to hang around those with whom we can make a connection. I have read many books that I didn't connect to and I still appreciate them for one reason or another, but the ones that I connected to have a special place on my bookshelf and in my heart.
I think you've made a wise business decision. It's one thing to enjoy a book. It's quite another to stake your career and reputation on a book's broader appeal. People make wiser decision when in their comfort zone, where their knowledge is extensive and like-minded friends and associates are plentiful. Of course, with time and age, our comfort zone changes or broadens as you alluded to.
I read a stream of books outside the mystery genre; however, writing mysteries is within my current comfort zone.
Confucius say; man who fly airplane upside-down bound to have crack up.
I think too often those starting out in the business feel all authors and all agents are interchangeable, or that a "professional" author should be able to write anything or a "professional" agent should be able to represent anything.
The beauty of the business is finding that perfect match -- the individual tastes and compatibility that lift a good book and give it a great opportunity.
If I read a lot outside of the genre(s) I tend to write, it wouldn't make sense for me not to expect my agent to do the same. For example, I love historicals but can't (more like don't) write them because I always want to incorporate some aspect that would go against the time period. (At least I have alternative history and alternate universe things I can write...) Writing straight historicals is not in my comfort zone.
I like looking at it from a specialist angle. You may not represent this genre or that, but you're very good with and passionate for other genres. Play up the strengths so that the things you don't represent can't be mistaken for weaknesses.
I sometimes think writers who complain about agents not representing everything are actually complaining the agent doesn't represent that writer's genre.
It's related to writers who don't take "no" for an answer. "How can you judge my entire novel on just a query letter/first five pages/first three chapters?" "If you just read my novel, you'll change your mind about alien abduction memoirs."
Jessica, great post. This makes perfect sense--since I find it true for when I'm critiquing as well. I CAN critique any genre--I'm pretty well-read and many things about good writing are common across the board. On the other hand, I feel happiest and strongest in my critiques when I'm working in one of the genres I most love--kids and YA books, mysteries, and more mainstream novels.
On that other note, though, I'd love to recommend a great memoir to you that I read recently--Brian Copeland's NOT A GENUINE BLACK MAN. Excellent writing, as well as a fascinating story, I thought.
Commercial fiction, yay! Mine has a literary twist, but I'm assuming your okay with that. ;)
Everyone has exceptions to their own rules, like you said. But I would imagine the some of the best agent/writer relationships are based on whether or not the two people would be in the same book club.
Very cool post, thanks!
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