Your goal is to become a New York Times bestseller and rake in beaucoup bucks. Your novel is ready. You’ve done your literary agent research, and you’ve identified your dream rep. It’s time to query.
Now here’s a healthy dose of reality.
Literary agents are in the business of SELLING. That makes literary agents SALES PEOPLE. (Shocking, I know.) If you want to win the cooperation of a sales person, you have to give him a product he can sell in the current marketplace.
Many aspiring authors
are led to believe
they can't land an agent
because their writing is weak.
That's not the full story.
If you’re a business-savvy writer, you conducted market research for your “product” (book) long before you ever wrote Chapter One. Waiting until the agent-stage to determine what genres have commercial appeal is self-defeating. It’s also a sure-fire way to rack up rejection letters. No matter how much a literary agent may personally love the way you tell a story or the genre which you’re writing, he’s not going to take on your project if he isn’t convinced he can pick up the phone and talk an editor into buying it.
A literary agent can usually tell, within 250 words, if your project has commercial appeal (aka, “sales potential.”) If your project lacks this all-important quality, your project will be dismissed. Ignoring author correspondence – including emails and snail mails – appears to be the standard practice for 85% of literary agencies. A boilerplate disclaimer can be found on most agency websites. It reads something like this:
“Rest assured, we read every submission. If you don’t hear from us, we’re not interested.”
If you’re one of the more fortunate authors, to whom the agent deigns to respond (3 to 6 months later, while your bills are piling up,) you may receive an email like this:
“Thank you for the opportunity to read your Great American Novel. I’m afraid it’s just not right for me. Good luck.”
What does this cryptic message mean?
Many aspiring authors have been led to believe that they can’t land an agent (or a book contract) because their writing is weak. In some cases, this is true. We’ve all heard the pontiffs preach that you have to write grammatically correct manuscripts with complex characters and compelling plots, and that you have to follow the correct story-telling formula if you want to sell commercial fiction.
All of us Write-by-the-Rules authors
have seen the
become NYT bestsellers
and blockbuster movies.
That’s not the full story, however. All of us Write-by-the-Rules authors have seen the Worst-Possible-Trash-Ever-Penned become NYT bestsellers and blockbuster movies. (Which just proves there’s room for every story at the top. I consider that good news.)
The bad news is, publishers aren’t putting much money (or effort) into marketing new authors. Visit the paperback section at your local grocery store. What do you see? The only books on display are New York Times bestsellers. Occasionally, a USA Today bestseller sneaks onto the shelves. Some genres are noticeably under-represented in the “New Releases” section, even in big-box book stores.
The honeymoon with ebook publishing was over in 2013. Readers are no longer willing to chunk out five dollars and hope the pretty cover on the website has a great story inside. Readers shy away from reading the ebook of an author they’ve never heard of, unless the book is free. To make money in the ebook market, you have to write 3 or more books in a series – then give away thousands of copies of Book 1, hoping that readers will shell out cash for Books 2 and 3.
But of course, when you query literary agents, only the rare individual will take time to explain that he’s rejecting your book – the story that you slaved over for a year or more -- due to a sluggish market. You're left to draw conclusions based on vague boilerplate or abject silence.
So while you’re honing your writing skills, study your genre. Learn the business of selling books. The best way to find credible data on what readers are buying (besides Bestseller Lists) is to review respected industry publications (examples: Publisher’s Weekly, The Library Journal) or association websites (example: Novelists, Inc., American Booksellers Association.) Network online with market-savvy writers. Avoid the rumormongers who deal in Urban Myth.
The next step is to join a professional novel writers’ association that offers workshops on the business of writing. Attend conferences where literary agents and acquisitions editors are featured speakers. Listen to what they’re saying about market trends. Even self-published authors should follow this practice. Networking with other authors and industry professionals will educate you about selling your book to your target market.