Sunday, November 7, 2010

An Agent's Take on Some Common Writers' Frustrations

There are an incredible number of resources for writers. Googling alone will show that. Regardless, there are a few concerns I’ve seen popping up over and over again:

The Synopsis
The Book Genre
Book or Manuscript?

Some of my favorite resources to start with:

-Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents
-The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

In terms of the synopsis, it should never be over two pages long, single spaced. The biggest reason agents request this is to see where the plot is going. It’s not considered a sample of your writing; it’s considered a sample of your plotting ability. Can you describe your plot in two pages? Will the book hold together? In other words, don’t stress so much about how it’s written; worry about whether or not it shows the true nature of your book (and includes the ending!). When I turn to a synopsis, it means that I liked the sample of writing (my personal preference is to see if the book hooks me first, and then turn to the synopsis), and I want to make sure the plot isn’t going to suddenly go from chick lit to time-traveling alternate-history paranormal suspense; I want to see what I’d be getting into if I requested more. That’s it.

And regardless of what an author may think, I’m not going to throw away a submission if it’s been called a paranormal suspense and it’s really a romantic paranormal suspense. My job, as an agent, is to know which editor to send this to; an author’s job is to know which agent to send it to. If you can get the basic elements of your novel into a sentence (i.e., it’s an historical novel with supernatural mystery elements), that’s all you should need to find an agent to submit to (look for someone who works with supernatural, or mystery, and, if historical, if they have anything remotely similar to what your book is about on their list). And in fact, many agents blend genres; they don’t have to pigeon-hole themselves in quite the same way that editors do.

There are many sites that give a basic breakdown of genre; here are some of the more confusing ones:

-Commercial – it’s written to appeal to as broad an audience as possible

-Literary – Character-driven. The plot is secondary to the development of the characters; it is more about how it is written, the art of writing, than plot

-Mainstream – genre or literary fiction that sells well. (Like Stephen King – he’s technically genre, but sells to readers outside of that genre as well; his books have the ability to attract readers who wouldn’t normally read horror)

-Genre Fiction – more emphasis on plot than on fine writing and character development, appeals to fans of the genre but not to a wider audience (romance, thriller, etc)

-Upmarket – a combination of commercial and literary; can appeal to both audiences

-Mass-Market – the smallest paperback, what genre fiction is usually published in (romances, mysteries, thrillers)

-Trade Paper – the 15.00 paperback

And of course, if all else fails, you can always search on Amazon for a book you think is similar to yours, and see how they classify it.

Even if you do get your manuscript into the hands of the perfect agent, it’s not a guarantee of representation. Agents have to have passion and enthusiasm for a project in order to sell it. Rejection IS NOT PERSONAL; it’s business. I’ve rejected many manuscripts I thought were wonderful, but just didn’t “click” with me. It’s so incredibly subjective; the best advice is to take what you can from a rejection, and move on. Always think of the WHY, not the WHAT. Meaning, don’t focus on the rejection; focus on WHY it was rejected. Did you query the wrong agent? Do you need to work more on characterization? There’s always a reason someone reacts the way they do; try and focus on that reason instead of the reaction. It’ll help to gain constructive feedback from even the word “no.”

In the end, it may just be that self-publishing is a route for you. Here’s how you know: if your book is so regional or so niche that it won’t appeal to a wider audience. Or: you’ve written a non-fiction book and will use the self-published version to build a platform of 1,000 books a month for 12 months, proving there’s an audience for your book.

For fiction, self-publishing is usually not the best option; in most cases, it will serve as a handicap. Because even if you sell 5,000 copies of that fiction novel out of the back of your car…those are dismal numbers to any book buyer. Once you self-pub, you get an ISBN; publishers and book buyers WILL use that ISBN to look up sales numbers. And since self-published books are never sold in chains, where most of the numbers come from (BookScan)…it’s going to look even more dismal. Publishers will pay money for a book equal to the amount of copies they can expect book sellers to buy. If book sellers are seeing no demand for a book…they won’t buy. Period. But if you just want a few copies to share with loved ones, by all means, self-pub away.

A book is a book is a book. Yes, technically, it’s still a manuscript until it’s published; but in my opinion, if you write a book, it’s a book; a publishing contract only means someone wants to pay money to promote it widely, because they think they’ll make money on it. So don’t try and sell yourself short; even Webster’s says: “a written OR printed work of fiction or nonfiction.”


  1. Yay! I'm so glad I wrote a BOOK and not just a manuscript. I wasn't sure if I had yet earned the right to call it such. Thank you!

    Book book book!!!


    P. S.: When can we call ourselves "novelists" and "authors"?

  2. That was extremely helpful.
    Thank you :)

  3. Looking at the "why" is great advice. And I loved the A book is a book is a book! Loved it. :)

  4. This is fantastic, thank you. The synopsis is the one element of the materials to send an agent that still freaks me out because I haven't come across enough info about it to form a solid image. This is hugely helpful. I'd only just discovered that the synopsis doesn't have to be brilliant and compelling the way the query and pages do--it doesn't have to have the voice and style the rest of your materials does.

    This has been a huge help. Thanks.

  5. This was really great. So nice to have the big picture broken down to better understand it.:)

  6. Thanks, that's a nice summary of several questions I've had.

  7. Thanks for the insights on self-pub. There are lots of opinions on that subject, unfortunately some are less than helpful.

  8. What a great post. Thank you for such great information!

  9. I've just finished my synopsis — only 9 drafts! — and it follows your guidelines, with one exception. Other agent's blogs suggest that a synopsis should be two pages, single spaced. You suggest two pages, double spaced.

    So... if I was to query you to you, I'd either have to get out my shears, or use the world's tiniest font? :-)

    Well, I guess 10 drafts is a nice round number. :-)

  10. Hi Richard - UGH, you are right! It is 2 pages single spaced. I will fix that! Thanks!

  11. Genres can be the tricky part, at least for me, especially if there might one or two different types mixed in there. And I couldn't find out if the synopsis was double or single, have read both, so thank you for the clarification!!

  12. Great information here - thanks so much for clarifying. It's always nice to hear that rejections can come even for books that you like or are well written, just because it didn't click with you. I have that happen as a reader as well and can totally understand, so thanks for summing it up so succinctly!

  13. Hi Natalie! Thanks for clarifying some of the more obscure terms - I think terms like "upmarket" can be incredibly vague. Thanks for the clarity.
    PS Please stop by my blog when you get a chance - I've give n you a blogging award!

  14. Thank you for your blog and I am one of those books that you've rejected,hopefully in the pile that was good just not for you.
    I am 100% taking your advice and searching for the why, and your note was specific enough that I think I've got it.
    As my book started out at a bohemic 175,000 words cut down to 100K I understand my pacing problem and won't bother you further with it.
    However; I have two more behind it, that was the first and will start to query you now with them. Not giving up on the first just gonna work on poor lopped head Sorra some more.
    Thanks for being genuine and approachable.

  15. thank you for your advise!

  16. Any tips on how to have a successfull experience with the e-book market?