Saturday, March 28, 2015

Question: have you missed a big book?

 This question is a little different, but I'm curious. Have you ever rejected a query, proposal, or manuscript, but much later down the line saw the book on the shelves, selling like mad, and thought, "Damn."

Oddly, no.
I've certainly seen projects I've not taken on go on to be repped and sold, but I don't think I've passed on anything like 50 Shades of Gray, or Harry Potter, or even Lee Child.

On the other hand, I'm probably not the right person to answer this question because I don't really keep track of things I've passed on. It's entirely possible I have passed on things that went on to do well, and I'm just unaware of them.

I do know that editors are a bit more keenly aware of what they were offered [and not.] I've sold a couple books on very exclusive submission, only to have other editors call to ask if someone else at the publisher had seen the book and passed.

It's easy to have a million regrets in this business, but it's critical for morale to keep them at bay. My focus is on what's coming up that will knock your sox off, not what I missed two years ago. 


Melissa said...

I heard a Pulitzer-prize winning author speak at a class and tell the story of some good advice she once gave. An editor friend asked her thoughts about a horse book that was going up for auction. This author had a love of horses and dabbled with a few books in the genre.

"Do you think I should bid on it?" the editor asked.

"No, horse books never sell," the author advised.

With this great tip, the editor passed on the chance to bid for Seabiscuit. Amazingly, they're still friends.

Anonymous said...

My father in law once asked me if he should buy stock from the company where I worked. (Nortel) This was in the late 90's, during the dot com bubble. I said, "absolutely. We're doing great." And we were, like many other tech companies, our stock was climbing. So he bought several thousand shares and then the bubble burst.

I worried about my advice after the fact, but all he said was, "that's what happens when you take risks. You win some, you lose some."

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I used to be an antique dealer and once sold at auction (phone bids were in it too) an autograph book with every famous 40 s and 50s actor and actress there was, for a lousey 200 bucks. Some of those autographs were worth thousands. The person who owned the book does not speak to me. Its not because of the book its because, well, just because. She chose the auction house which did. Not do reserves. It sucked.

Dena Pawling said...

On a somewhat related curiosity note – how much extra work are books/authors like that? Previously you mentioned/joked that Little,Brown had an entire branch office dedicated to James Patterson. I'm sure an agent can max out on the number of clients she represents. So if, for example, you represented five Lee Child's, or apparently just one James Patterson, would that be all you could handle? Their royalty statements are probably longer, and I imagine you have to field more calls regarding sales of rights [a nice bit of extra work, I'm sure]. But is a mega-selling book/author 10% more work than your “normal” clients, or 25%, or 100%? Inquiring minds [okay, maybe just mine] want to know.

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

"My focus is on what's coming up that will knock your sox off, not what I missed two years ago. "

That's why QOTKU is a shark and not a quivering forest creature.

D. B. Bates said...

When I was reading movie scripts for a living, I would sometimes feel badly when I passed on something I, personally, really liked, but I knew wouldn't make any money (which was, of course, more important to my evaluation than quality). I missed the boat on a couple of critical/financial successes, like Black Swan and Margin Call, but I absolutely don't regret passing on them. Neither film was successful because of the quality of their scripts.

(I should also add that I didn't have any actual power, so I don't want to overstate my influence. If my bosses thought a project would make money when I said to pass, they'd just ignore me. Or, more often than not, they'd hire somebody less ethical to write a positive analysis that they could sell to their clients. What a business!)

Craig said...

Wow, I know that the query I sent you was kind of sucky but this is a heart stopper. Nothing you have turned down has gone on to big things. I guess that I'm going to have to prove you wrong. I'm sorry, I still love you and have all of the respect in the world for you but that is just how it has to be.

Colin Smith said...

Dena: No, you're not alone. Count me in on that question. While I don't think John Grisham is personally a lot of work for an agent, I could see how such a celebrity author might generate a lot of work for an agent: TV and print interviews, movie deals, legal challenges, huge--and perhaps more intricate--royalty statements, etc.

Who knows, Janet, someone in this very tank might have a blockbuster novel on his... or her... hands. Perhaps you should just sign us all up to be on the safe side. ;)

Julie Weathers said...

When I was doing race stories, there was a little mare named Kool Kue Baby who was burning up the tracks. She was in the money three out of four starts and won a remarkable $784,000. She won the Aged Mare Championship twice, Champion Three-Year-Old Filly and numerous other awards.

The breeder traded her for two pigs, two calves and a cow dog. He, of course, got tired of being how stupid he was to sell her, especially for that ridiculous price.

I was interviewing him later and he brought up KKB. I figured he was sick of talking about it, so I hadn't mentioned it.

"A lot of people hoorah me about trading Kool Kue Baby, but in my defense, that was a really good dog." He laughed and I did too. What a great attitude. "Honestly, I don't regret selling her. I didn't have the money to campaign her and Ramiro's done a great job with her. He's the one who made her what she is. She would never have accomplished all of that if I'd kept her."

Another man, one who had literally given up everything for his chance at the world's richest Quarter Horse race, The All American Futurity. His little mare was winning races and breaking speed records. He chortled about how his wife left him after he sold their house so he could campaign the horse. She was sick of doing without for all those years so he could chase his dream of winning the All American. Wouldn't she kick herself when he won the big one and she wouldn't be around to share it?

Some buyers from Mexico showed up with a brief case filled with a million dollars. They counted it out in front of him. Mexican buyers showing up with briefcases full of money isn't unusual, by the way.

He turned it down. No siree Bob, he was going all the way with this horse. He was already planning the ranch he was going to build with the money the mare would win before he retired her.

He'd have to beat the women off with a stick. (I didn't put that in the story.)

As luck goes in horse racing, the mare got sick and had to be put down.

Horse racing is filled with what ifs. My ex turned down a sizable offer for a filly we raised. The guy who wanted her was going to train her for cutting. Nope, she was ex's pride an joy. He didn't have the time or money to train and campaign her, so he was going to breed her. We took her to the ranch to be bred to a very nice stud. She was in the pasture and the owner noticed she was acting funny so He got a trailer and loaded her up. She was dead before he got to the vet.

If you're around horses enough, you hear all the stories about "what if" and "if only I'd".

How many people rejected DANCES WITH WOLVES? Everyone but Kevin Costner.

I'm sure if agents and editors dwelt on that stuff they'd go nuts.

That's why I don't get overly excited if I get a rejection. I want a Ramiro who believes in my little runt mare enough to campaign her carefully to her full potential.

Mister Furkles said...


With over 100 queries every week, do you even remember the ones you turn down. I imagine you might remember manuscripts, especially if you read to the end. But do you remember rejected queries?

Julie Weathers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dena Pawling said...

Colin & Julie - Yes my larger clients can be "demanding", but not all of them are. And some of my smaller clients are also demanding, and the managing partner vacillates daily about whether or not their demands and hand-holding is worth the trouble.

People are people, and I know there are probably prima-donnas in every field. But I was curious as a general rule. Are best-selling authors, as a general rule, more than just proportionately more work? Like we have clients who give us 5 cases per month, and others who give us 50 cases per month. Some of the 50-case-per-month clients create more than ten times the additional workload than the 5-case-per-month clients, and some actually cause less than ten times the extra work.

So I was just wondering, as a general rule, how much extra work those best-selling books/authors create, and just how many clients those agents can adequately/competently represent. One book by someone like Lee Child, as a general rule, creates X% more work than one book by Dena Pawling. Something like that.

Now that I think about it, Dena Pawling will most likely require more hand-holding and tedious explanations than Lee Child, but Lee Child will most likely require more paperwork/document review.

Maybe my question can't even be answered. Or, the typical lawyer answer, "it depends."

DLM said...

Once the movie goes blockbuster, I'ma be the one that got away from Janet. :) But she ALWAYS has Gossamer - he's pestering me to go to NYC right now.

In unrelated funny weirdness, I just watched America's Test kitchen do an Italian Wedding Soup featuring kale, and thought of y'all. Last night, I must've had you on my mind too, because - after running across something about "body horror" when researching agents, I ended up having a dream about having scary cysts removed from my body that turned out to be lima beans.

I honestly didn't realize just how much a part of my mental landscape this community is ...

Julie Weathers said...


While the days of the prima dona authors may be largely over, I'm sure the big names get treated very well. I wouldn't make a good employee of some of these stars who demand outrageous perks everywhere they go.

I hope I never get successful enough to think every word I write is golden and I don't a good editor. Some very successful and talented authors have dropped to my "do not buy" list because it's so obvious they refuse to allow their brilliant books to be edited.

Y'all are welcome to bring that up should I get published one day.

I'm going to guess the refusal to allow one of their golden words be cut is the major headache.

Ardenwolfe said...

Thank you for answering this question. It quite insightful.

Anonymous said...

My first year in univeristy (1982/83) I took a number of classes from different disciplines as I tried to work out which would be the best to continue in. One class I really enjoyed was computer science (yes, programming in an ancient language most people have never heard of).

I mentioned to my dad that I enjoyed that class and was thinking about getting my degree in that. He asked what kind of work would I be able to get. I told him there were going to be a lot of jobs in the near future. It was the field to be in.

His answer: "You need a job now, not in the future."

So I took anthropology.

When my 18-year-old nephew heard that, his jaw dropped and his voice rose. "But... but you could have been a millionaire in the dot com bubble!"

Yes, yes I could have.

Elissa M said...

Every day, we make irreversible choices. Some are important (do I take the job?), some less so (should I have the turkey or ham?).

It's really hard to steer forward if you're always looking backward. Best just to shrug and move on.

Ginger Mollymarilyn said...

@Julie - great stories.
@Craig - love that attitude, ditto!
@Colin - fabulous idea of Janet signing us all.

What's done is done. We can't change the past, we can only move forward, think positively and believe that everything happens for a reason.

Anonymous said...

I basically agree with everyone else.

I'm sure if you ask most authors (even the big ones) and if they're honest, they were rejected by a lot of people before the right match/time/ect worked out. So if you flipped the question, the answer would inevitably be LOTS of people passed.

I feel like when we ask this question (as writers), really we just crave justice for our beaten and bruised manuscript. But it's tough to really evaluate how much we learn through manuscripts that fail to garner the intended attention.

I won't say pointing to the risers and hitting one out of the park isn't something I'm trying to do every time I write something -- but I can vouch for how much those rejections have helped me learn. I doubt greatly I would be the same writer I am today had it not been for some form of rejection.

All this to say, if your question is really more aimed at "Should I still query even after getting rejections?" My answer will always be yes.

Also -- I like Colin's comment. I think Janet should clearly just rep all of her commenters to be safe. Even those trapped on Carkoon! ;)

AJ Blythe said...

Wow, all those stories show how life's a gamble. Makes you realise it's better to see the glass half full or you'd spend your years mired in regrets!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

So Colin says Janet is going to sign us all, how nice of her. I'm thinking we will sweep the NYT bestsellers list.
Hey, on that day we will have one hell of a painting party in her new office overlooking Central Park.