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Agent rambling

Elsewhere on LJ, someone I've met in person has just finished a novel that they feels is hard to define. Names left off, because I actually want to say a few things about this that I feel are of interest in general, and didn't ask if I could be specific.

First, I've read some of the author's published short fiction, and I consider it quite good and tonally consistent, which is sometimes hard to achieve when starting out. Novels are a different beast than short stories, but it's for novels that agents are usually found; short fiction is almost never (but not never) represented unless it's a collection.

In this case, the author feels that work is a cross-genre work; that it defies easy categorization. The author's inclination at this point is to try to find an agent first, because an agent will better be able to market a book whose market is not clear to the author. We were at the store at the time that the author mentioned this, and they were on break, so there was no in depth discussion.

In passing, I made my usual face at a suggestion that strikes me as not quite right (and I apologize if this was either intimidating or seemed ill-tempered; I was thinking, and my thinking face is often … well. Ask andpuff). I suggested that if there was no easily identifiable market for the book, it would be a difficult sell to agents. But on reflection, that's not the whole of the difficulty.

I would, in this author's position, do a couple of things. First: I would ask my first readers for two types of input. The first, of course, about the work itself. But the second, about identifying books that are similar in nature or tone that they've read before. It's often very difficult to be objective about one's first novel, especially when one isn't thinking about a market when one starts writing it. I know of where I speak <rueful g>.

The comment I made in the store about agents stems from a couple of things.

Allow me to digress at this point. Agents start out the same way that any of us do. Green, and underpaid. They often "apprentice" to other agents before they build up a client list and head out on their own. Sometimes they don't head out on their own, but they still have to build that list; in that, they're not unlike editors. An agent's clout -- like an editor's -- depends on the strength of her list. The more bestsellers, or sure sellers they have on that list, the more clout they have. When they're just starting out, they start out with new authors, and they have a lot of hope, idealism and belief. They also, like the rest of us, have bills to pay. As they get better at what they do, they often find they have a particular strength or set of strengths in recognizing a particular type of talent/book, and this is why many agents end up specializing in specific genres. But a new agent hasn't got a lot of clout, and therefore, they can't make editors sit up, take notice, or return phone calls at blinding speeds. They can submit novels to publishing houses that will not consider unagented submissions, but if that's all they can do for you, it's a risk that you take.

You pay the agent. The agent is your employee. This is true. But it is also true that a top notch agent will often pass on authors with previous track records or publishing histories. For an agent, it's the early books that are often the most work; there are always exceptional stories, but for the most part, the first novels don't earn large advances, and the agent has to do more work to place the books. More work for less money. As an agent gathers experience with various editors, and a much more certain sense of the editorial tastes of the editors they've successfully dealt with, they begin to lack time. If your book is something that's already going to be a hard sell, unless they love it to death (and this does happen), they might feel they have to pass on it.

There are so many books and articles and internet information sources about what an agent is supposed to do for you that I won't attempt to summarize them all here. What I will say is this: The Agent is in business for herself, just as the publisher is in business for themselves. The bottom line drives a business. There are always compromises that are made, and sometimes, some of those will be about you. Knowing the market for your book is important -- both for you and your agent. What an agent will bring to the table is contacts. What an agent will also bring to the table is prior history. If you can sell your first novel without an agent, there's demonstrably a market for it. The very best scenario is that you do your agent research, find a house for your book, and then call the agent of your choice and ask them if they would care to read and negotiate the offer for the book.

This is the end of that digression. The reason that you want to know your market, in as much as you can, the reason that you want to be able to say "this is like Nina Kiriki Hoffman or Charles de Lint, or etc.," is not actually for the sake of getting an agent to take the book on. It's because you need that information in order to set about choosing an agent who's proven themselves in their handling of books that are to some approximation similar to yours.

There are many agents who specialize in sub-genres. Some are very good with mysteries, some are good with SF/F, some are good with romance; some are good with all of these things, and some are actively bad with some of them. As in, tell an NYT bestseller that her books are crap, bad.

When you're trying to find an agent, you want one who knows your field, and who can handle -- who has a proven track record handling -- the type of books that you write.

I realize that, from the perspective of many years, this is far easier for me to say than seems reasonable, but it's not just from my experience that I speak; a lot of writers will talk privately about their (often former) agents and their incompatibilities with them. It's actively hard to find an agent who is good if you don't know what it is you want them to sell. Or rather, it's hard to evaluate an agent's worth to your career in the long term without a sense of at least that.

If you can't look at your book and say it's like another published author's work, and if it's cross-genre, make a column list for each genre, and then bullet those things in the work that fit each genre.

If, for instance, the work is a contemporary work that has fantasy elements, there are many authors who do that successfully, and sell. There has to be a reason why your book isn't one of those. If it's a romance/fantasy cross, that's becoming a genre of its own. I can't, offhand, think of a cross-genre book that would have difficulty being presented in a marketable way unless it's a Western/something cross <g>. If it's contemporary in tone, but with subtle supernatural elements that are entirely emotional and relevant to the interior character, think SHADOW OF ASHLAND. If it's a sports book with ghosts, think SHOELESS JOE. Etc.

But do as much of this work as you can, because the pay-off will then be finding the right agent for the work.

Comments

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
(Anonymous)
Aug. 14th, 2004 02:23 am (UTC)
I would suspect that the movie industry is a whole 'nother monster from agenting a book.


domy
robling_t
Aug. 14th, 2004 03:04 am (UTC)
I can't, offhand, think of a cross-genre book that would have difficulty being presented in a marketable way unless it's a Western/something cross

Aww, crap, 'cause that's what mine is {LOL}. (Well, actually, not entirely, it's got a vaguely Wild-West feel to me but it's an overlay to the fantasy structure.) I've been having a terrible time filling in that "this manuscript is like X" part of my query letters because I keep bumping up against "...well, yeah, but then they'd be expecting it to also be Y, and it really isn't". So ought I to look harder for similiarities, or work on pitching to the differences?
lnhammer
Aug. 14th, 2004 07:37 am (UTC)
So is it similar to Mark Sumner's Devil's Tower & sequel?

---L.
msagara
Aug. 15th, 2004 10:45 am (UTC)
Ritual disclaimer: I'm not an agent.

But... in if I were in your shoes, I'd pitch it as a fantasy if that's essentially what it is. I'd let the agent decide for herself that is that a Wild-West feel (if it did, to her). You don't need a High Concept marketing pitch for novels. It helps if you can get at what you feel you've accomplished, and in a short, pithy way.

robling_t
Aug. 16th, 2004 01:10 am (UTC)
Yeah, it's that "short, pithy way" that's the kicker...
kristine_smith
Aug. 14th, 2004 06:45 am (UTC)
> But it is also true that a top notch agent will often pass on authors with previous track records or publishing histories.

Did you mean "with", or "without"?
msagara
Aug. 14th, 2004 09:24 am (UTC)
But it is also true that a top notch agent will often pass on authors with previous track records or publishing histories.

Did you mean "with", or "without"?


Actually, I meant with previous track records. It's sort of a tricky thing. Short sales and the buzz of those can produce someone like Ted Chiang, who I can't imagine would be passed by. But demonstrably poor novel sales for a single novel title or two, without the right project in hand, can be a big strike against an author.
kristine_smith
Aug. 14th, 2004 03:24 pm (UTC)
Yea. Too tired to offer up any further comment.
janni
Aug. 14th, 2004 03:26 pm (UTC)
I think finding an agent, editor, even writer's group that are sympathetic to and "get" the sort of thing you're trying to do is really important (and probably roughly in that order).

It also takes some confidence that one knows what one is doing oneself. :-) Because when we start writing, we're so aware of the fact that if someone says "this doesn't work" responding with "you just don't get it" is more often a sign one is a bad writer than not--it's up to us at writers to make people get it after all.

And yet there comes a point where one has reached a level where one has to be able to say that sometimes when people don't get it it's your fault as a writer; but sometimes it's that what you're doing is sideways of what the reader is doing/looking for.

And yet if what you're doing is sideways of what enough readers are looking for, you get into trouble all over again.

But learning the difference between "this doesn't work" and "this isn't this particular person's type of story" can be really hard, and in some cases there still isn't a clear answer.

It's the whole when to listen to other people, when to listen to yourself, question. Ignoring either has perils.
robling_t
Aug. 16th, 2004 01:20 am (UTC)
sometimes when people don't get it it's your fault as a writer; but sometimes it's that what you're doing is sideways of what the reader is doing/looking for.

I think that's a big part of my own manuscript's problem right there: I wrote the book I wasn't finding out there on the shelves. (Which is to say in my case, genre-ish fantasy that "takes itself seriously" in the respect of believing itself to be just as legitimate a form as "mainstream" writing, but not going all the way into overblown Literary-ness.) So I'd think that other quality issues being equal, there'd be a niche for it, in that I couldn't be the only one out here who wasn't finding what they wanted out in the marketplace, but there's always that sneaking suspicion that I'm just a Weird Person, y'know? (It'll be interesting to see how Potter and the LotR films will end up reshaping people's perceptions of the genre down the line, too, not that I can wait that long.)
msagara
Aug. 16th, 2004 07:37 am (UTC)
I wrote the book I wasn't finding out there on the shelves. (Which is to say in my case, genre-ish fantasy that "takes itself seriously" in the respect of believing itself to be just as legitimate a form as "mainstream" writing, but not going all the way into overblown Literary-ness.)

Errr?

I think you need to expand on this a bit. Or maybe explain it in words that make sense to me <wry g>. There are without question fantasy novels that take the genre dead, dead seriously as a literary form in its own right (China Mieville comes instantly to mind and Won't Go Away; Guy Gavriel Kay, there are certainly others).

In this case, perhaps a different question is appropriate: What's the difference between an author who takes their work seriously and a work that takes itself seriously, given that a work is capable of that much intent?

robling_t
Aug. 17th, 2004 02:45 am (UTC)
I think you need to expand on this a bit. Or maybe explain it in words that make sense to me .

:) I went over and pontificated about it in my own LJ just now and I'm not sure if I'm getting any clearer on it or just tying myself in knots...

There are without question fantasy novels that take the genre dead, dead seriously as a literary form in its own right (China Mieville comes instantly to mind and Won't Go Away

Yeah, and that "Won't Go Away" part is kind of what I was trying to get at by that; granted my reading in the past decade or so has been limited to whatever my local libraries consider worthy of enshrining in their collections (which I suppose is in itself some measure of where the market's at, in that they're trying to acquire the books that they feel will circulate the most), but I haven't been seeing much middle ground between the "one from column A, one from column B" stuff that leaves one wondering if we've actually checked this one out already, and the writers like Mieville who are an acquired taste in the extreme.

In this case, perhaps a different question is appropriate: What's the difference between an author who takes their work seriously and a work that takes itself seriously, given that a work is capable of that much intent?

I would say that a work that takes itself seriously is one that believes in its premise to the degree that the reader could begin to question whether things could be any other way. For example, consider how with some film productions the viewer can't quite get past the sense that the characters are actors in costumes, not real people living in their version of the "real world"; genrefic is prone to that same sort of "nudge nudge, wink wink, isn't this a fun game we're playing" lack of conviction about what it's doing in these funny clothes. I guess what I'm saying is that for me to successfully suspend disbelief, first I have to have a sense that the actors/characters aren't anything but that -- that this guy isn't going to take off that coat when the curtain goes down and return to his day-job bagging groceries at my Jewel.

Now, the author taking themself seriously is another matter altogether, and it's entirely possible to believe wholeheartedly in the legitimacy of your project as a literary endeavor and yet not manage to pull off having your world believe in itself. I've read works that scream, "I am Literature" to the point where I just want to smack the author and tell them to get on with telling the story, dammit.

Oo, okay, I've just thought of an example of what I'm trying to get at: have you read Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw? Of my recent reading that springs out as an illustration of taking a premise that could go wrong in so many ways and making it believe itself to the point where the reader says, "of course, it's like that". The post I reference above also mentions David Sosnowski's Vamped, which interestingly enough is over in the mainstream section, and it's another good example of the work taking itself seriously in a way that straightforward genrefic doesn't always; it starts from a position of this is the way the world is, statement, as opposed to Once upon a time, or, what if?, which can weaken that sense of looking in upon a world that's equally valid, just not where you happen to be. (Which is the primary strength of so-called mainstream fiction when it works, IE that it gets to say "this (fictional) world must be valid because it resembles the world that you know is a valid world, QED".)


-- Darn it, I've lost the thread again because "something" keeps darting out from under the fridge. :( I'll come back to this when I'm not distracted, if we haven't all forgotten what we were on about by then...
msagara
Aug. 16th, 2004 09:39 am (UTC)
Adding: Writing the book that you -aren't- finding out there on the shelves is what motivates many, many writers who go on to be published.
The funny thing for me is that I can't often tell those authors from the ones who are writing for entirely different reasons when I pick up their books.
I don't have a strong sense of comparison to other work when I write, fwiw. I know what I'm trying to do, I have a 95% certainty of what its constraints are (fantasy isn't suddenly going to sprout SF elements), etc. But it's the emotional structure and the story that are important, and the strength of those are independent -- as I'm writing -- from whether or not the story is new, different, original, etc.

This may make me a writer who doesn't take this seriously in some fashion or another, because I'm not exactly certain (in case this wasn't clear) what you mean. I work in service to the story compulsively. I try to edit the story when it's finally a manuscript in service to the theoretical reader. I try to aim the revised, finished work at the theoretical market, if there is one for it. I read a lot in order to get a sense of how the market is evolving.

* ETA the italics in the above sentence, sorry for lack of earlier clarity.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )