Sunday, July 12, 2009

WHY DO GOOD AGENTS TURN DOWN GOOD BOOKS?

Anne Hawkins is an agent with John Hawkins & Associates, which was founded as Paul Reynolds Literary Agency in 1893, and makes it the first literary agency founded in America.

Anne is not only a highly respected, and beloved agent with a list of best-selling authors in her stable. She is a consummate professional with impeccable instincts, a devoted advocate for her authors, but she’s also a blind hoot. It is with great pleasure that I welcome Anne here as my guest on The Kill Zone.

John Ramsey Miller


Why do Agents Turn Down Good Books?

By
Anne Hawkins, Literary Agent
John Hawkins & Associates, Inc.

Rejecting authors’ projects is one of the least pleasant aspects of my job. It’s no fun to feel that I’ve ruined someone’s day, even though I always try to be gentle and courteous. How much nicer it is to call or e-mail and say, “I love what I’ve read. Please send more.”

Of course, the most common reason for rejection is a perceived lack of quality, a natural reaction to a misbegotten query letter or sloppy sample pages. Sometimes, however, I have to turn down projects that are actually quite good. Subjective judgment plays a large role in that sort of decision, but so do other business considerations. Let’s take a look at some of the factors that influence an agent’s choice of books for representation.

PERSONAL TASTE: A literary agent sinks or swims professionally because of her taste in books. This taste impacts the kinds of books she represents (her list), her contacts among editors and publishers, and ultimately her success in the business. Good agents learn to trust their taste and only represent projects that inspire them, because those are the books they’re likely to sell.

Most of us concentrate on the areas we enjoy and where we consequently have the greatest knowledge and expertise. If we don’t “get” it, we don’t handle it. You may be the next Dr. Seuss, but if the agent you query doesn’t fancy children’s books, she’ll almost certainly turn you down.

Authors can minimize this kind of turn-down by researching the kinds of books each agent does represent. Jeff Herman’s GUIDE TO EDITORS, PUBLISHERS, AND LITERARY AGENTS (most recent edition) is the premier print resource, since each listed agent states specifically the sorts of books she does and does not handle. Some of the best on-line resources are the searchable databases on Authorlink.com, Publishers Marketplace.com, and the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) website. Sad to say, certain other writer-friendly sites perpetuate information is that is either out of date or downright wrong. (One has me listed as a top agent for horror fiction, even though I have never represented a single book in the genre.) There is good information on the internet, but do yourself a favor and cross-reference. Don’t rely on any single source.

PASSION: For me to take on a new book by a new author, especially a novel, I simply have to love it. It’s not enough to “like” it or “admire” it or consider it “salable”. We’re talking about real passion here. Even at the very beginning of the submission process, editors can sense when the agent is on fire about a book -- and the feeling is contagious. Chances are, that’s the book the editor will choose to read first. Later on after the sale, down the long, bumpy road to publication, an agent needs this kind of wild enthusiasm to continue to be a strong and persuasive advocate for the author and his work. “Lukewarm” just won’t go the distance.

KNOWLEDGE OF MARKET: An agent needs to keep track of the markets for the kinds of books she represents. This knowledge may be as general as the track record of an entire genre or as specific as one publisher’s immediate needs. In short, agents need to know what’s hot -- what’s not -- and who’s looking for what. Market factors are a huge topic, so here are just a few examples:

Publishing is in the business of selling books, lots of books. If an agent wants to place a book with a major publisher, she has to believe that book has the potential to attract a substantial number of readers. If she judges that its market is too small or too specific, she’ll most likely decline.

The existence of a recent, successfully published book (or books) can make a similar project extremely hard to sell. Even if your book is better, somebody has beaten you to the punch. The concept is no longer “new news.” This is particularly true for non- fiction, but it applies to novels as well. If the market appears saturated with a certain kind of book, an agent will be reluctant to take on a new project in that category, knowing that her chances of placing it are slim.

Sometimes, an agent will know that the market for an entire genre is on the decline, so she’ll be hesitant to take on any book of that sort. At other times, a market will be on an upswing, so she’ll be champing at the bit to land an author in that genre. Historical fiction, for example, was a tough sell for many years. Recently, however, its popularity has surged to the point that agents who wouldn’t have touched the genre five years ago are now actively looking for it.

EDITORIAL CONTACTS: To put it bluntly, if an agent doesn’t know the right editors for a book, she has no business representing it. From time to time, every agent reads a wonderful project that she has no clue how to place. Believe me, she’s doing the author a favor by declining.

Here’s why. As a general rule, an agent can submit a project to a particular publishing imprint once -- and only once. If the original editor declines, it’s very difficult to get another editor at that house to reconsider the book. Obviously, the key is to get the submission into the hands of the right editor the first time around, since you usually don’t get second chances.

SUITABILITY TO GENRE: Some kinds of books have specific conventions as to format, word count, style, content, etc. If a book strays too far, it may be unsalable – no matter how good it is. Of course, authors can cheat this unhappy fate by doing some homework on the particular requirements of their chosen genres.

Mixed genre books are another dicey situation, since an agent or publisher needs to feel that there is a definable market for a particular book. When an agent reads a book that is “kinda mystery, sorta horror, with strong romance and science fiction elements,” she’s going to wonder just who the audience might be. Projects like this have a history of falling through the cracks in the marketplace, so an agent will have to think long and hard about her chances of placing it.

LENGTH: A related subject is the matter of length, or word count. For adult fiction, most books range from around 70,000 to 130,000 words in length. There are exceptions of course, but very short or very long novels can be problematic to sell because of pricing, production, and distribution issues. In the case of books for children and young adults, the length must be appropriate for the targeted age group. There’s a bit more leeway for certain kinds of non-fiction, but even there inappropriate length can be a deal-breaker.

AUTHOR: Generally speaking, an agent takes on an author and his project because she is interested helping him build a long-term career. This is almost invariably true for fiction, where the name of the game is to increase readership over the course of many books. Agents may shy away from a novelist whom they believe to be a “one book wonder” because of the enormous investment of time and energy for only a single book. (This is not necessarily true in non-fiction, where one-off books, such as celebrity biographies, are more common and can be quite profitable.)

It goes without saying that if an agent has reason to suspect that an author might be the “client from hell,” she’ll have to carefully consider whether representation is worth the hassle. Then again, everybody’s different, and what’s poison to one agent may be ambrosia to another.

CREDENTIALS AND/OR PLATFORM: For certain types of non-fiction, an author needs relevant professional or academic credentials. For example, to write a credible diet book, it’s best that the author (or co-author) be a physician or a nutritionist with demonstrated knowledge and experience in the field. Agents know that publishers aren’t likely to go out on a limb with a book that can’t speak with some kind of authority.

“Platform” is a different animal. It’s usually defined as the existing audience that an author can bring to his book. Authors often develop their platforms through such vehicles as speaking engagements, syndicated columns in magazines or newspapers, media exposure, or a very strong internet presence. Platform is essential to selling some kinds of nonfiction. Without it, an agent will surely turn down the project, no matter how good it may be.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST: Weirdly enough, this situation comes up much more frequently than anyone would suppose. If a new author approaches an agent with a project that is uncannily similar to one she’s currently representing, the agent has to turn it down. There’s simply too great a chance for misunderstanding or possible legal action if one author suspects that his agent has discussed his ideas with a competitor. This is the kind of situation that can ruin an agent’s reputation, and no book is worth that.

SUITABILITY FOR AGENT/AGENCY: This is somewhat of an odd-ball issue, but it does happen. Once in a great while, an agent will have to turn down a project simply because representing it could cause hard feelings among her established clients or publishing contacts. To use an extreme and fictitious example, let’s say that an agent does a lot of business in the Christian publishing market. She’d be hard pressed to take on a book with raunchy or irreverent content that would be deeply offensive to the authors and editors with whom she works every day. Most of the time, agents are pretty eclectic in the projects that they choose -- and authors and editors accept that -- but there are some lines that just can’t be crossed.

IN CLOSING: Good books draw rejections for a variety of reasons, and many of these reasons have nothing to do with the quality of the work. I know for a fact that I have has turned down books that other agents subsequently took on and sold. Then again, I’ve had some major successes with books that quite a number of my colleagues had previously rejected. If a book is truly outstanding, it’s only a matter of time until the right agent steps up to the plate and offers to represent it. Don’t give up too soon!

34 comments:

  1. Thank you Anne for a very informatve post.

    I'd like to seek some clarification around personal taste, passion and the business of being an agent.

    My understanding is that an agent with have his/her 'ear to the ground' with editor for what they are looking for. That's networking and what would be expected for a good agent.

    The thing that intigues me is when agents discuss that they need to feel a passion for a book. Don't get me wrong, I admire this position - just doesn't seem logical in a business sense to me.

    Generally, we sway toward a certain type of literature. For example thrillers and crime fiction are my choice of reading rather than fantasy and/or romance. As an agent you would likely have similar favourites as well and hence, submission guidelines.

    If an editor at RH mentioned they were looking for a romance involving a bike shop owner and they had six figures ready to go, would you knock back representation of that'prefect fit' because you were not passionate about it or it wasn't in your favoutie genre?

    So, whee are the lines between a business decision and what you like?

    Cheers,

    JJ

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  2. Interesting topic. I'm going to tweet the info, which I'm sure will be useful to many writers.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  3. Thanks for visiting Anne, and for such a great post. I think it will help lots of authors understand why some good books get turned down. I do think that a lot of it is about 'click' - a book needs to resonate and click with an agent. This probably has more to do with 'voice' in a book than anything else - but I'd like to hear your take on that. Thanks again! Clare

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  4. Thanks so much for stopping by, Anne- this was a truly informative glimpse behind the curtain, and answered a lot of questions about how the agent process works.

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  5. Thanks for a great post, Anne. Very informative. You made it clear that a writer's strategy beyond writing the best book she can is to do her homework before she queries an agent.

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  6. Very informative! Thanks for taking the time to articulate some of these nuances for all of us sweating over our works-in-progress.

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  7. Wonderful post and very enlightening. Thanks so much Anne.

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  8. This is a fabulously informative post and hopefully will give writers a lot of insight into the world of agents.

    Thanks for sharing this.

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  9. Thanks for sharing this. It would be uplifting if an agent could reject with a note saying I really liked it, but can't accept it because...

    Usually, the author is just left feeling rejected.

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  10. Just got back online after getting back from a fun weekend at Thrillerfest, and saw this great post. Anne, thanks so much for sharing your insights. Your point about an agent needing to have passion for a book is very well taken. A manuscript should never be marketed by someone who is merely lukewarm about it.

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  11. Thank you for your transparency Anne. This is one of the most informative posts that I've read on this topic.

    Roberta Matuson
    www.yourhrexperts.com

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  12. Thanks for an honest and eye-opening insider's look at the subject. (Side note: white text against a black background is pretty heavy going for a piece of this length. I persevered because of the quality of comment but the designer should be tapped on the shoulder.)

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  13. These are Anne's answers to your comments and questions:

    First of all, thank you for your kind words. I knew I was addressing a tough topic, and it’s nice to know that my remarks were received in the spirit intended. Several of you raised some very good questions, so I’ll try to answer them as best I can.

    Clare wondered just what makes a particular book “click” with an agent. I think every agent would answer this question differently, but here’s my take. The first thing I evaluate is the concept. If I get that "been there done that" kind of feeling or if it's inappropriate for my list, I pass. If, however, I find the concept original and intriguing, I read on. And that's where the art and craft of writing come in. Wonderful voice, compelling storytelling, characters that jump off the page, a strong, cohesive narrative arc -- these are some of the elements that persuade me to offer representation.

    Joyce said “It would be uplifting if an agent could reject with a note saying, I really liked it but can’t accept it because…’” To tell the truth, I’m reluctant to offer any sort of substantive criticism in a rejection letter. My fear is that the author might take my words too seriously and embark on an ill-considered revision. It’s entirely possible that the project was just fine “as is,” and I was the one who didn’t get it.

    JJ brought up some very interesting points about passion vs. good business sense. He used the example of an editor at a top house looking for a romance novel involving a bike shop owner – and being willing and able to pay handsomely for it. It’s very unlikely that I would run across such a book, since talented, smart romance authors know that I don’t do much work in the genre and would query other agents who do. Then again, I’ve been involved in several situations where an editor wanted a particular kind of book and contacted me to see if I had an author appropriate for the project. It’s always fun to “matchmake”in cases like this. And a number of good, long lasting author-agent-editor relationships have been forged in the process.

    Just to extrapolate a little on JJ’s remarks… I think every agent has succumbed to the temptation to take on a book just because it’s a sure bet, even if it didn’t truly excite her. Unless the project in question is some kind of one-off nonfiction, this is a bad idea, one that comes back to bite the agent’s nether regions in the long run. Being a successful, happy agent is all about career building. I might scrape through and do a competent job with the first book, but then I’m stuck representing an author whose future books aren’t my cup of tea. That takes the fun out of my job, and, frankly, life is too short.

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  14. Though you're certainly not the first agent to espouse the cliche about not being able to represent any ms that you're not "passionate about," but since I'm encountering that delicious platitude here, I'll pose my inevitable response question to you: do you think someone would be able to get away with that kind of thinking in any other profession? Car salesman, I have no doubt, have at one time or other found themselves speaking "passionately" about cars they would never want to own themselves. Waitresses sell the hell out of "specials" they know to be anything but. Can doctors turn away patients they don't find immediately charming? Can aldermen ignore (openly) the concerns of their less resplendent constituents? Probably not. Having a job pretty much implies that there's going to some faking, some acting, some convincing, in service of the larger picture.

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  15. Ted,

    The analogy to car salesmen, waitresses, etc. is relevant in the case of the agent-client relationship because the buyer-seller equation is reversed. The person who queries and agent is in fact the seller, and the agent is the customer, and customers decline to buy cars and order cheeseburgers for all kinds of reasons--all of them legitimate simply because they are the customers.

    It's only after the agent-client relationship is established that the professional analogies (doctor, etc.) kick in. At that point, the agent is in fact your counselor and flag carrier; you are locked together in the common goal to get you the best deal possible for your book. When that time comes, the passion you waited for will pay off big time.

    John Gilstrap
    http://www.johngilstrap.com

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  16. This is extremely informative and helpful. Thank you so much! There were many reasons here that had never occurred to me. For example, conflict of interest, editorial contracts. Very interesting, and it really takes the sting out of things.

    I do wish there was a way for an agent to tell an author some of this though. Somehow it seems like it would be helpful and avoid losing potentially good authors if they knew, for example, that you had turned down their work due to a conflict of interest, rather than not liking it. A standard rejection might discourage someone, and possibly even stop that author from querying you in the future. But you might, in fact, consider a different piece of work from them.

    Anyway, very helpful. Thank you.

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  17. And now for a more difficult topic. The one about passion.

    John, I have to say that your perspective that the author is the seller is sort of funny to me. Actually, the author is the product and the agent is the buyer. Authors are placed in the position of seller, and well, begger, because there is such a shortage of agents.

    This shortage of agents allows the industry as a whole to say that agents only have to sell something they feel passionately about. They can get away with it, basically.

    It really bothers me, because it means that agents are determining, based on their personal taste, what books get to readers.

    It's wrong. It's just wrong. And I don't mean as the idea that a salesman should be able to sell any product. I mean ethically. It's wrong ethically. An agent's personal taste should have absolutely nothing to do with what books go to the public.

    I say this even though I sincerely like many agents very much. But that stance, to my mind anyway, is unethical.

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  18. Oh. You know, it strikes me that was a fairly intense thing to say.

    Well, I do want to say, as a whole, the agents I know are wonderful people. They seem to be ethical, intelligent, kind and decent.

    So, please know that I'm talking about an industry stance, not individual agents.

    I also could be wrong. But that's my perspective today.

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  19. Immensely refreshing to see the real quandaries agents face beyond just 'clicking' with a manuscript in question. Thanks for the choice words to keep pinned to the wall when the letters come round.

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  20. Mira - I hear what you're saying - it doesn't seem fair does it? Why should agents get to decide what the public reads? I think that's why agents always say "don't give up" (if your project is truly exceptional that is). Eventually you'll find someone as passionate about your work as you are.

    On the other hand it makes complete sense for agents to want passion in a project. If you don't love a book then why would you want to represent it? Especially with all the work that goes into publishing it? I wouldn't want to work with an agent that didn't feel the same tingly excitement about my novel that I did.

    I guess what I'm saying is passion is good - it just shouldn't be agents only determining factor in accepting a project - and I don't think it is.

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  21. I think it is so interesting to hear - from the horse's mouth as it were - that the emphasis is now on authors to really sell themselves...there has always been this myth that writers are creators up on a cloud and that agents are the salespersons, I'm really pleased you have dispelled this myth Anne. There has definitely been a shift in publishing I feel: it is no longer enough to market a book separate from an author - the author is as much a commodity, it seems, as the book. Following on, I suppose, from what has happened in the art world, where artists are better known than their work often times.
    Incidentally, I've had my book turned down by two agents who didn't love it! I'm ok with that. I want the agent to love my work and bust a gut to sell it, and I'll take care of selling me!

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  22. Hi Steph, nice to see you over here. :-)

    Well, I want to avoid the argument about whether agents have to feel passion in order to represent a book, (they don't) because I'm going in a different direction. I'm talking ethics here. Not fairness either, but ethics.

    I believe agents should select books based on non-personal criteria:

    a. is the book good?
    b. will the public want to read the book (i.e. will the book sell.)

    If agents also want to represent books they especially like, well okay, if they must, but that should be a small sideline. The primary book an agent should represent is a book they have chosen on more objective criteria than personal taste.

    It's almost impossible to get personal taste out of the mix, but agents should be actively trying to do so.

    I'm not only talking ethics but sales. Choosing books based on an agent's personal taste is risky. The public may not agree.

    And Steph, there are only about 300agents in the U.S. from what I've heard. So, you could easily have a great book, that the public would love, and never get an agent to bite.

    Which, in my view, represents a flawed system, and has ethical concerns such as the one I'm discussing.

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  23. Mira, you wrote:

    I believe agents should select books based on non-personal criteria:

    a. is the book good?
    b. will the public want to read the book (i.e. will the book sell.)

    If agents also want to represent books they especially like, well okay, if they must, but that should be a small sideline. The primary book an agent should represent is a book they have chosen on more objective criteria than personal taste.

    This confuses me, Mira. You seem to be presuming an objective standard for "good book." If I am a literary agent who happens not to like science fiction, I will be ill-prepared to judge it's absolute value. All I'll be able to say is whether or not it appealed to me. The standard is entirely *subjective.*

    The entire entertainment industry is subjective. It's the entertainer's job (in this case the writer) to wow the agent--and subsequently, the publisher--with their talent. It is not the agent's obligation to forgive weaknesses or divine the future.

    It's been my observation that over time, with perseverance, talent will out. Personally, I was rejected by 27 agents before I found one to take me on. Most writers have a similar story. That said, my "first" novel was actually the fourth one that I'd written. I knew in my heart of hearts that those first three were not of professional quality, so I never tried to market them.

    It seems to me that the overarching ethical obligatin of any agent is to take on only those clients for whom they perceive themselves to be a passionate advocate. Thoracic surgeons shouldn't do corneal transplants, corporate lawyers should try murder cases, and literary agents shouldn't represent clients to whom they are not a good match.

    John Gilstrap
    http://www.johngilstrap.com

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  24. Hey Mira -

    Doesn't the question "is a book good" warrant a subjective answer?

    John went into all the details explaining how and why subjectivity comes into play, and I agree with him.

    So maybe there's only 300 agents, but according to the New York Times:

    a new book of fiction is published in the United States every 30 minutes. Even if you don't count the titles published through print-on-demand and other fee-charging, vanity-press-type outfits, the total still comes to 10,000 books a year -- or one book published every hour or so. And that's just the fiction.

    With those numbers I don't think the system is flawed. Hard to break into, yes. Unethical, no.

    Note - that wasn't the point of the NYT article. It was more of a sobering reminder.You can check it out here: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/18/books/the-last-word-how-many-books-are-too-many.html

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  25. John,

    I appreciate your argument that writing is a subjective business. I don't disagree with that. But I do think there are some standards that you can use to judge the quality of a book. I believe that is why most agents have degrees in English. It's presumed that they have been trained to assess the quality of literature. That is part of what qualifies them to be agent - rather than they were just lucky and got a cool and powerful job.

    However, I'm not quite getting the rest of your argument here. I never said that an agent should represent a genre they were not familiar with. Anne addresses that really well in her article, I thought.

    However, within a genre.....well, that's where I believe an agent should rely primarily on their training to assess literature, and not personal taste.

    I also want to take a second to acknowledge your perseverence and dedication to the craft - good for you!! You're a role model. 27 agents and you kept going - right on.

    But then - I checked your website, you're a best-selling author? cool, that's wonderful - which raises the question of the 27 agents who turned down your work. And yes, I know this is subjective. But it does speak to the idea that the system could use some improving.

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  26. Steph - that was an interesting article. A scary one actually. Not because it's right, but because it represents once again, what I feel is the scarcity model of the business. The idea that there are bascally 2 readers out there, and they can't tell the difference between good and bad books.

    Try marketing books once in awhile. You might find readership increases.

    Thanks for sharing the article - sorry we're disagreeing so much today. :-)

    Hope I'm not posting too frequently here. Sorry if I am.

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  27. It's precisely the fact that you perceive yourself and your kind to be firstly "customers" that betrays the endemic flaws in your logic that beget your grandiosity and unrealistic sense of self-worth.

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  28. Without joining the argument, I have to say that I think it's possible to tell a technically good book without actually caring for it.

    For example, I can see that Anna Karenina is technically a good book, and I can understand why people like it. However, to me it was so dull that I considered blinding myself so that I would never have to even look at the cover again...

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  29. On the flip side of what Jen C said, there are books that have done quite well that aren't necessarily "good" from a technical standpoint.

    There's a particular set of books that, were I to take them to the creative writing department of the college I attended, would *never* have made it to publication based on how they adhered to the general guidelines that make something "good". There are certain rules most (if not all) people with a good understanding of writing will tell you to follow: make sure not all of your characters sound the same. Think about your word choice (for example, don't have your teenage character speak like a 70 year old). Craft your characters so they're not two-dimensional. Etc.

    I've read books that are entertaining, but are poorly crafted, from a technical standpoint. Defining "good" isn't quite as easy as it seems. And just because something isn't "good", doesn't mean it won't sell. And sell incredibly well, at that.

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  30. This is interesting to me because I have just started my querying process and have thought about why an agent would decline to read my book. Here's what popped into my mind:
    When I go to the library I sometimes take over an hour to find the one book that stands out and just screams to me, "take me home." If I don't find one that does that, I normal go home empty handed. For me, the books in the library are the vast amount of query letters an agent gets. They are just going to want to pick the one that screams out to them among the pile.
    Thanks for posting this. It makes me more confident in my work and in how I view agents.

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  31. Excellent stuff!

    Thanks for sharing :)

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  32. Far from being unethical to turn down a book that is good, surely it is unethical to represent a book knowing that someone else could do a better job for the author? If a book is good enough to sell (and that does not necessarily mean a good book - look at all the celebrity crud that is sold because people will buy it) then a passionate agent will do a better job with it than a lukewarm agent.

    Only unrepresented authors think any agent is better than none. Once you have a relationship with an agent, you begin to understand that no agent is better than one who does not share your interests. It's a bit like teenagers thinking any boyfriend/girlfriend is better than none - it's just not true.

    And no-one *forced* you to approach a particular agent (or any agent). I published many, many books before signing with an agent. If you don't like agents, don't have one!

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