Write something that people want to buy

I've had a couple of variations of this conversation recently, so I thought I'd make a general comment...

I reckon literary agents get very hard done by, especially when it comes to harsh comments about what they choose to represent, or not, as the case may be.

Ability to sell an author's book to the publisher is a huge issue! People forget that agents have mortgages to pay and children to feed. They'll be homeless with hungry children crying for food if they don't sell their clients' books.

Certainly we must all write the book that's in us -- we could hardly write someone else's book -- but it has to be within the envelope of what other people want to read, which is what the big stores will stock, which is what the stores will order from the publishers, which is what the publishers will buy from the agents, which is what the agents will offer to represent.

If I were a literary agent, I'd be a whole lot more ruthless and demanding than the bunch doing the job now. (And the Publishing Gods preserve me from such a fate.)

If you were an agent, and your next meal depended on selling the books you chose to represent, then what would you do?


16 comments:

Carrie said...

"People forget that agents have mortgages to pay and children to feed. They'll be homeless with hungry children crying for food if they don't sell their clients' books."

I get that. The fact that they have concise guidelines on what they are looking for on their website reinforces that. Good point Gary.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Excellent point, Gary. As much as I'd love to novel set in Alaska, there's not a huge market for the setting. And if a story is set in Alaska, the setting often becomes the story.

That's why rejections to query letters don't bother me- if an agent doesn't have connections to an editor who may be interested in ancient Egypt, then it's a no-go for both of us.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Carrie! Yep, following the guidelines is a decent start. My basic thought that led me to post is that sometimes it's not enough to write a good book. It's just as important to write a good book that someone else can sell.

(And since my second is with the publisher and I'm expecting an editorial letter any day now, I hope this bland statement doesn't turn around to bite me...)

Gary Corby said...

I'm surprised Stephanie, I would have thought there'd be a market for books set in Alaska.

I think I'd go for a creepy remote town somewhere in the wilds.

Stephanie Thornton said...

There's a market for stories set in Alaska, but they tend to be all about the setting. I can't think of any movies or novels set in Alaska that weren't focused Alaska Natives, the amount of light we get (or don't get in the winter), or the winters. I'm sure there are some out there, but the agents and editors at a writing conference I went to last year agreed that stories set in Alaska would likely only succeed with a small press.

Although I did get a kick out of Stephenie Meyer sending some vampires to Denali since it's a National Park that's completely deserted in the winter and all the animals they'd be feeding on would be hibernating or migrated elsewhere. Who knew there was a vampire den there too?

Lexi said...

I've just blogged on this topic, and I think it's a little more complicated than you make out.

The problem as I see it is that agents try to second-guess what their publisher contacts will want to buy. This is not necessarily the same as what the book-buying public would buy, given the chance.

If I were an agent, I'd go with my gut; I'd be confident that if I loved a book, others would too. This worked for me when I sold my jewellery from a stall in Covent Garden; and it was frustrating, on the few sales trips I made to shops, to have proprietors shake their heads dubiously and refuse to stock items I was selling every Saturday to an enthusiastic public.

They lost out (as was proved by the handful of shops who did very well with my jewellery), so did I, and so did their customers.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Lexi, it seems great minds think simultaneously, if not alike.

You're dead right there's second guessing at every level of the chain, and a lot of it merely recognizes the existence of trends. I gather that right now publishers are trying to find another Stieg Larsson, but I'd be willing to bet the next big thing will be utterly different again. (Maybe Vanuatan Romance? Oh hold on...that's already been done.)

There's a saying in the military that Generals are always ready to fight the last war, never the next.

My impression from agent blogs is that agents do indeed from time to time go with what they love, leavened sensibly with what they think will work.

Do you still make the jewelry?

Gary Corby said...

Stephanie, I confess I find the geocentrism on this a little weird. I know too of British authors who set their stories in the US in the belief they'll sell better. Is it true? I don't know. The logic would obviously never work for me in any case.

Isn't an exotic locale more interesting than one you know? Isn't that why people like historicals?

Lexi said...

I do still make jewellery, but make more silversmithing to commission these days. Partly because my designs were comprehensively ripped off; not something that happened to any other jeweller I know. They'd buy my work, make moulds and mass-produce them cheaply in the Far East. Then import to the UK, each item costing less than I paid just for the casting.

It struck me as ironic that these people had no trouble recognizing the saleability of my designs...

Gary Corby said...

Hi Lexi, that's awful about the jewellery designs being deliberately copied. Can designs be protected like copyright?

scaryazeri said...

I suspect that exotic places sell better right now, as I notice a wave of books written about life, say in India or Afganistan, etc...

I am hoping this interest will shift smoothly towards the ex-Soviet countries, myself! :)

All I will have to do then is actually finish my book and make it decent. :) But agents have to have the hunch about what would sell next. Vampires are done now, Afganistan too. What's next? And finding your agent who is simply lucky to guess in the right direction is basically about luck ( and hard work, of course!) If you are lucky you will find an agent who thinks your location (or vampires or whatever YOUR thing is) would be the next big thing...if they are lucky and they guess it right...if if if...a lot of ifs and a lot of luck! :)

Gary Corby said...

Scary, I'd've thought Baku would be the ideal place for a thriller, full of corruption and sex. Or maybe a story about a local lad who rises to become world chess champion?

Lexi said...

You own the copyright to a design automatically. Unfortunately, copyright infringement comes under civil law, not criminal law.

If somebody steals a ring, the police will get involved. If the same person buys a ring, makes a mould and lots of copies which he then sells, it's not a police matter. You can go and ask him not to do it, which sometimes works, or pay a solicitor to write a letter, which is not cost-effective.

I got very fed up with it.

Meghan said...

Agents are ruthless enough, thank you very much.

I was rejected at a writer's conference this past year not because my pitch wasn't good but because a "male perspective" in history isn't "popular" right now. The first agent I visited was rude enough to roll her eyes and bang her head on the table (no joke) because she was ONLY looking for history from a woman's perspective, but forgot to mention that at panel. I was furious. If I don't even get the chance to make my PITCH how are they going to know my story is good or not? How do they know this won't be the next big thing?

I also know an author that only wrote her vampire/romance books (not Twilight) because she knew they would make money and agents would buy into it. To me, that's terrible. Shouldn't write a story because you love and believe in it? Shouldn't an agent if they really love your story be willing to take a risk?

I AM my audience. I'm writing my book for ME. And I know if I believe in it, there are other people who are going to want to read it too.

You must have a really nice agent/editor btw. Can I have their number? ;)

Gary Corby said...

Hi Meghan,

I am indeed blessed beyond my deserts when it comes to agents and editors.

My agent is the amazing Janet Reid. She likes to hide behind the shark persona, but the awful truth is, she's really nice. And a very, very good agent.

My editors at St Martin's Press are the excellent and also very nice Kathleen Conn and Keith Kahla.

Keith is the editor of Steven Saylor, who's the most successful writer of ancient mysteries ever, and he's the US editor of the popular Lindsey Davis. If you haven't read the Gordianus the Finder mysteries of Saylor, or the Falco stories of Davis, you should totally rush out and get them.

Keith also was the editor of a chap you may have heard of, by the name of Robert Ludlum.

So luckily for me, I have the best of the best on my team!

Gary Corby said...

Just want to add...Kathleen actually suggested, in the early days of when we were thinking about titles, that we go for something with a Ludlum-esque sound to it. Not that there's the slightest correspondence between his paranoid contemporary thrillers and my humorous historical mysteries, but because it would sort of add to the fun. "The Pericles Commission" does indeed have a slight feel to it; to me, anyway.