One of the most amazing things about this writing life is the connections it builds between authors, writers, and readers everywhere. My world feels like one of those maps with pushpins sprouting up all over. It’s heart-warming, enriching, and exciting–something I’m grateful for every day.
Recently, an emerging writer has shared some questions and ideas as he seeks a home for his novel of hope, loss, and inspiration. It’s been interesting for me to correspond with someone who is entering the biz at a time when multiple paths are available for getting your work out there. No more is it a given that you will query and query and query, until your fingers bleed, or you give up, or you finally break through.
This increased complexity is both liberating and confusing, and I hope that the Q&A between Derek and myself may clarify things and/or trigger a dialog of the sort Suspense Your Disbelief readers are so great at having. So with no further ado, Derek, please take it away.
Derek McFadden: Recently, I was directed to a website where an agent was giving advice. I’ve been querying for a while with no luck, and have been considering self-publishing as an alternative. Perhaps I could gain some insight from this agent. I that said that I think my novel is outside of a particular genre. Genre bending, if you will. Her response was: “Perhaps the fact that you’re not sure which genre your book is in turns some agents off. Whenever I read a question like yours, I think, Does the author understand the market they’re writing for?”
As a writer, should I find a genre and write to that market? Or should my focus be to write the best book I can? Shouldn’t an agent want fresh and new [material]? Even if this involves changing his or her expectations a bit?
Why do writers become writers in the first place? Because they love to write and create. Place constantly shifting market trends as the path for an author to get his or her foot in the door, and you might drive a writer crazy.
Jenny Milchman: Sometimes agents will say something like, “This is too hard to market” because it seems better than saying, “Hey, I just didn’t like this.” (And keep in mind that this take is always subjective, the opinion of just one person, unless you keep hearing the same thing over and over again). I think this contributes to a resentment on the part of writers much as you’re expressing:
Why would they want *another* stale vampire love story? The answer is: They don’t. It’s just a shorthand of sorts.
Another thing to consider is that agents need to sell books and editors need to buy books that will sell. That doesn’t mean writing to trends–and any real agent or editor is far too wise to believe you should do this. By the time a manuscript is written, edited, and published, any trend bubble will likely have popped a long time ago. But it does mean they’re looking for books that fit into established, albeit broad, parameters. Romance readers read voraciously and they have certain expectations. Same for mystery readers and the other genres. Literary fiction can be a catch-all category, but even here conventions apply. For instance, the writing and characters are given the most attention.
Now does this mean some gems will be missed? Definitely. That’s why every so often there’s a sleeper that was turned down everywhere and surprises everyone. But as a rough strategy the above works.
Once you venture into self-publishing, things change. There is less money to be spent up front and thus much less risk. Put something totally different up and see if it has the potential to take off, or simply attract the few, loyal readers such an unusual animal can’t help but draw when the playing field encompasses millions. When there’s not a lot of money at stake, the so-called long tail can come into play. Agents and editors can’t hang out in the long tail because their model depends on large numbers. That’s one of the liberating things about self-publishing.
DMF: Here’s the funny thing about me. If an agent doesn’t like my book, I wish they’d just flat-out say that, and maybe take a sentence or two to tell me why. Instead of, “I didn’t connect with this story,” say, “I didn’t like this because…” Why not?
JM: The reason agents don’t explain why is because doing so requires specific analysis. Agents, as we all know, are overwhelmingly busy. They don’t have the time to think why they didn’t like something, much less put it in terms that will be helpful and comprehensible to the (rightfully) invested author. The other reason I’ve heard agents give for not doing this is because offering feedback, however minimal, often invites rebuttal or argument from the author, whereas a generic reply (i.e., a form) doesn’t.
DMF: I’m leaning away from self-publishing because I just don’t think I alone can generate a large number of readers. Really, when you get down to it, what are the chances of hitting it big?
JM: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say your (or anyone’s) chances of making it big in traditional or self-publishing are almost exactly the same. To put a number on that–basically zero. Historically—and consistently—about 200 authors made a living off their fiction. E publishing has already made that number rise. Midlist authors are able to pay the light bill, the mortgage, and discretionary expenses with income from formerly out of print books or from new works they’ve decided to e-publish. But make it big? Stephen King kind of big? Very few get that lucky. Even with talent, there’s a lot of luck involved. But the Big 6 aren’t going to find that many Stephens, James or Janets, either. More than on the indie field? Possibly—that remains to be seen. But there just aren’t that many people who write what a huge number of people love—and there never have been.
DMF: As an author, I am experienced. As a query-er, I am not. I freely admit this, because I think the query may be the wall that’s up in front of me right now.
JM: Getting the query right is definitely crucial—you’re smart to separate out the two writing challenges. The template for a query that I used myself went like this:
- An introductory sentence explaining why I was querying this particular agent. I began querying in the bad old days before email. When you’re sending snail mail letters—or worse, FedEx, as I was green and stupid enough to do, as if anything in this business ever moves fast—you make sure you’re targeting agents intelligently, or try to. I recommend against email blasts. Find agents who rep authors you love or who are actively looking for work similar to yours (which brings us back to the start of this discussion).
- A pitch paragraph, set off from the rest of the letter/query, and in bold font. The pitch should read like the flap copy of novels like yours. Pick up books you admire and read their flaps (or Amazon product descriptions) aloud. Writing the pitch can be harder than writing the whole novel, I think. If you are struggling with it, a bare bones approach is to boil your novel down to five sentences: one for the beginning, 1/3 turning point, middle, 2/3 turning point, end. These sentences will be the skeleton of your pitch. Add a little flesh to turn it into flap copy and you’re good to go. (This is also an excellent exercise to gain a rough sense of how the structure of your novel is working).
- Any credentials you have that are relevant to your being an author. These could include your professional background if you’re a lawyer and you wrote a legal thriller; or it could be publication credits you’ve amassed. Just make sure anything you include isn’t “small potatoes.” It’s better in this industry to be new and undiscovered than around the block several times. A query’s purpose is to paint your book—and you—in the best possible colors.
- A pleasant sign off whereby you offer a partial or full manuscript upon request.
Thanks so much for sharing your process so far, D. Whether you continue to pursue traditional publishing, or swim off into uncharted waters, I know you’ve written a meaningful book that will draw readers. I wish you the best of everything with it—I know you’ll be sharing your Made It Moment here one day.