Thursday, July 06, 2017

How do agents decide whether a book is right for their list?

How do agents decide whether a book is right for their list? Some people tell me agents want books similar to those on their list, others tell me agents want books in the same genre but they should not be similar to any other books on their list. When querying, is it worth taking a look at an agent's list or should we be guided by genre alone?

Also, if I look through tweets with the #MSWL hash tag, I see rather specific requests with regard to plot, characters, setting and even the ethnic background of the writer. One could get the impression that agents look through the slush pile not just for good stories in the genre they represent, but for good stories containing specific traits. If that's true, where do they get the list of traits they want? Is it gut instinct? Opinion polls? Requests from editors and publishers? Has the market become so fractured that agents only represent books in certain genres possessing certain traits? 

You can't even think about this right now.
This is a textbook recipe for driving yourself absolutely crazy.

One of the things that keeps us all from going nuts in this crazy world is imposing order on the chaos of life: establishing habits, organizing our lives, having routines.  Entire shelves in bookstores are devoted to books about organizing your life to exert control. (I probably own them all, I love books about being organized.)

The trick is to know where you can impose habit, routine and order. Creating a checklist for what agents are seeking and selling is not one of them. How you query is.

What I'm looking for isn't a checklist. If I read something and like it (a lot!) I will consider whether I think I can sell it. I will consider how much I can sell it for. I will consider whether the author appears to be someone I can work with or if they are giving off the Nutso Vibe. I'll look at other books on my list and consider if this fits or overlaps with my current clients. (I'm unlikely to take on a book too close to what Laird Barron writes for example.)

But, that is MY process. It's not only not everyone's process, it's not anyone else's process.
There is no uniformity in how agents consider books.

That actually works in your favor; if you annoy the snot out of me (you don't) all you have to do is query someone else for a fresh opportunity. If I annoy the snot out of you (all too possible) well then, here's La Slitherina's email address and she's damn good at her job.

As to the #MSWL request list. A lot of those specific "things I'm looking for" are in fact responses to what we think will sell. There's been a surge in demand for books that specifically reflect diversity in race and ethnicity, rather than the characters simply being default white.  Some of the requests reflect our knowledge of holes in the market. And some of it is just us yapping about what we like to read.

#MSWL is useful mostly for finding agents who are looking for things in categories you didn't know they were interested in.  It's not a comprehensive list.

And just because we're looking for X, and you wrote X, doesn't mean it's a slam dunk that I'll sign you. (See paragraph "What I'm looking for isn't a checklist" above.)  In other words, it's circular.
Like a damn rodent wheel. It's no wonder you guys are all nutso.

And one last thing: you wrote "Some people tell me" and I get the feeling you're listening to other writes yammering about what works and what doesn't. Beware of vesting too much confidence in these voices.  Writers know their own experience. They aren't agents. They don't work in agencies.

One of the things that will trip you up hardest is listening to someone tell you how it is, and accepting it as gospel. There is no "how it is" for acquiring clients. Every single client had a different path.

A lot of publishing is luck.
All of publishing is subjective.

There's only one thing you can control: your novel.  


CynthiaMc said...

I spent a lot of my holiday weekend time reading new books. One of those was a multiple award winner. The author spent years on a fellowship writing it. I thought it was the most boring thing I ever read. I finished it, but thought "If this is what's selling, I am screwed."

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Nutso, a definition.
Being something you are not, for someone you do not know, in order to achieve that which you know little about, is like balancing nuts on a string.

Amy Johnson said...

Thanks Janet, for the information, for the advice, and for understanding the rodent wheel.

"...if you annoy the snot out of me (you don't)" Way to anticipate potential wheel-turning!

"It's no wonder you guys are all nutso." Cracked me up.

Colin Smith said...

I think what Janet's telling us is that agents are human (or Sharkoid, at least), and don't conform to predictable patterns. Sometimes a novel grabs them because it ticks all the boxes on their #MSWL. Sometimes it's because it DOESN'T tick ANY boxes but it's so compelling. Sometimes you get noticed through your query. Sometimes it's because your great uncle knows a man who knows a man. I'm sure I've had requests based more on a friendship with the agent than the quality of my query. But that doesn't mean you go sucking up to agents, because YOU DON'T KNOW what's going to get your ms read, other than writing the best you can. And even if your ms gets a reading, no agent with integrity is going to take on a book they don't believe in--and you can't predict that. So, troll #MSWL for potential fits for your novel. But if you don't find any, query anyway. The worst that can happen is a rejection. And after a few dozen of those, you get used to them. :)

Janet: How about a book on how to organize your books on being organized? :D

Lennon Faris said...

It's like one of those silly dating shows. That I, uh, have never watched.

The one who gets dumped says, but I'm everything she said she likes! Why would she pick HIM over ME?

Even if an agent has a 'type,' they might fall for the bad boy...

This analogy is getting a little out of hand. Anyway, I like what Janet said. Don't go crazy, just write a good book. If you find it compelling, maybe someone else will, too.

Susan said...

Lennon: I once fell for a guy that was my complete opposite. Took four years to figure out why that didn't work. Then I fell for a guy that was perfect for me on paper except--EXCEPT--neither of us were feeling the romantics.

Then I fell in love with a puppy named Moxie and, along with my Riley, we make the perfect family.

Wait, what were we talking about again?

Oh, right. Books, like people, like places, like things: you know when you know.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Last night, I skimmed through a NYT best-seller. The setting and the plot line intrigued me. I liked the main character and the love interest but I wasn't intrigued. It wasn't compelling, for me.

Opie Just write your story, the story that fires you up. Get it out to crit partners and beta readers. Revise as needed and polish it. As Janet wrote, All of publishing is subjective.

And ugh. The hot nights of July, even with air conditioning, saps my energy. I want to open some windows. I miss the bright, clear mornings of June.

Time for caffeine and a slog through my story.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

So what you are saying, Your Majesty is that I still have a chance. Despite Jeff Somers. Or must I have his cats devour him before I query? That can be arranged.

*Tightens bolts on rodent wheel...*

Unknown said...

OP, Thanks for asking the question. I've wondered about this too. Have a good day all!

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I spent a lot of time exploring the websites/reading submission guidelines of dozens of agents while writing a work of women's fiction, and then again for my paranormal mystery. It was productive procrastination as I compiled a list of agents I felt would be a good match for each ms.

When I was ready to query, I went to #MSWL for reinforced inspiration on who to query. My opinion? #MSWL is a waste of time. It was for me, at least. An agent's website is the most useful place to go.

But what do I know. Both mss are keeping each other company in a sad cyber drawer. That drawer, however, is neat and tidy. I am the Queen of Organization.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I submitted THE LAST SONG to two different agents whose #MSWL seemed to be looking for exactly this novel. Given that I'm rewriting the novel, heavily, right now tells you what you need to know about that.

I love reading #MSWL, so there's no hard feelings there. It sometimes inspires short stories, sometimes matches up with a novel I have. Sometimes it is very very very specific, like the agent's shooting the moon and seeing what comes of it like all the rest of us, and good for them, really. Agents are people too!

BJ Muntain said...

I'm sorry. This is longish. If you don't have time to read through this, please skip and and read the better comments above and below this one.

I know some agents give very specific #MSWL items on Twitter, and some even say 'someone should write this'. That is NOT a voice from the Almighty saying, "Write this, and thou shalt be published." It's a person excited about a topic. That's all it is. If they go into their queries the next day and find three well-written, saleable novels on that premise, they will have died and gone to Heaven.

But they probably wouldn't take all of them on, simply because it's hard to be objective when you represent three of the same thing. It's hard to be passionate when selling one if you have two others of the same waiting in the wings. How would they do that?

And that's where the 'too similar to something on my list' comes in.

An agent has to take into account a number of things: Has she been able to sell her client's similar book yet? If so, is it successful enough to get a publisher to publish something else that similar? And will her client feel betrayed by the agent working on his behalf if she takes on something new much like his?

I'd think this is something an agent would either consider on a case-by-case basis - which might be more fair but take more time - or develop a personal policy that, yes, she can do this fairly, or no, she just won't even try at all. Thus, form rejection: Not right for my list. Quick, easy, move on to the next query.

Like Janet says, agents are individuals. And from what I've seen, many are also individualists. They do what works for them, what they are able to handle, and what might work with their current clients.

My suggestion is Janet's common advice: Query far and widely. You never know what will click in an agent's secret heart. You never know if an agent is trying to find someone like a highly successful client, or is avoiding it. You never know if the agent might look at your science fiction and consider it a futuristic thriller (a la Mr. Jeff Somers).

As Janet says, you can't use what information you don't know. And you can't know what an agent is thinking at any given time unless you're there in the room with her, and she's telling you.

Good luck, OP! Query far and widely!

John Davis Frain said...

Shockingly, (to me, anyway), the free online dictionary features an entry for "nutso."

informal, chiefly US: insane

I didn't bother to look up "luck" and "subjective."

But "control" is pretty good for writers...
"the power to influence or direct people's behavior or the course of events."

Keep writing.

BJ Muntain said...

Melanie: I glance at #MSWL to see if there are any agents out there I may have missed in my previous research. Many of the agents who do #MSWL are younger, newer agents, and weren't around a couple years ago when I made my first list. It also gives me a chance to see what new trends are out there.

I may have to go back to looking through all the agency's websites, though. The number of agents on Twitter looking for adult science fiction are fewer than those looking for YA anything. #MSWL was just a shortcut for me. And I think it may be time to invest more time again.

Unknown said...

If you google 'query success' or 'query success letter' or 'how I got my agent' you get lots of (sometimes) inspirational stories.

Unknown said...

A couple weeks ago I went into the bookstore to look for something to read because the 30 books stacked next to my bed weren't enough. I bought a few YAs but at the check out desk was an adult sic-fi thriller called DARK MATTER. I read the back and was totally intrigued! Not at all my usual genre and I don't read much adult fiction anymore. But I read it and loved it! My point is that sometimes we don't know what we want to read until we see it and sometimes what we want isn't at all what we thought we wanted. I would imagine that agents are looking for queries that make them say WOW, THAT SOUNDS REALLY INTERESTING. Now, they would need to be familiar enough with the genre to sell the book, unlike those of us just shopping in bookstores.

My point is, query based on MSWL, but query everyone else, too, because you never know and the agent might not know she was looking for exactly what you write until she saw your query.

And good luck. :)

Unknown said...

* And by everyone else I mean legitimate agents who aren't out of bounds nutso. Do your research.

Morgan Hazelwood said...

If agent's wishlists look like mine. I can have a few things I will jump to the front of my to-read pile because it's JUST what I'm looking for. But that doesn't throw away the rest of my to-read pile! I still want to read those.

RosannaM said...

"There's only one thing you can control: your novel."

And yet. And yet. The thing acts possessed at times, tearing off on trails, running away from home and some days stubbornly refusing to get out of bed.

Joseph S. said...

Maybe I’m wrong but it seems to me an agent may choose to represent a “book” because of whatever attributes you can list, but will then represent the “writer” on subsequent books that may not contain the same attributes that appealed to the agent in the first place.

Theresa said...

Those last three lines of Janet's post belong on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and bumper stickers.

You'll get there, OP.

Beth Carpenter said...

I've often wondered about those #MSWL. For example, an editor for a popular line of books known for small-town stories requests more urban settings. Is it because she thinks the line will gain new readers, or because she lives in the city? Maybe both?

Julie said...

So... don't write your book for #MSWL - write your book because it's the book you want to write, and then see if it matches the WL-es that are out there. Because writing your book for anyone but you will make you nutsier. (Yup, it's a word, I just made it one...).

Is that the bottom line here?

Eileen said...

Best advice I got when starting out was: Writing is a craft, publishing is a casino. Focus on what you can make the biggest difference- the writing. When you are ready to work toward publishing know there is an element of luck and chance you can't control. Play smart, but don't assume there is a way to "beat the house" you'll just drive yourself crazy. Or end up in a George Clooney heist movie- which granted wouldn't be an entirely bad thing.

Craig F said...

I came, I read, I wrote and I got the tee shirt; "It's all about the writing!".

It is not a bad idea to check MSWL when you are ready to query. You might get lucky. I would not tailor a story to one agent's tweet though. By the time you are done writing it they will want something else.

MSWL has a cast of usual suspects that ask for outlandish things on a whim. Some days they look like the tweets from the loser of the popular vote.

If you need ideas for a story get out in the world and look around. Maybe something will hit you upside the head and you will know. The right story gives you energy, it does not suck it from you.

Panda in Chief said...

When I first jumped into the writing-and-maybe-it-would-be-cool-to-have-an-agent pool, I started by asking a writer I met at a party, "where do you look for agents?" She suggested or some such website. I guess you could say it was a forerunner of #MSWL. As such, it is a starting place. I found much more up to date info by going to their websites. Still, it was a good place to start and was helpful if you don't take it (or #MSWL) as gospel.

Don't let the spinning of your hamster wheel drown out all the creative thoughts running around your brain.

First, write a great book.

Peter Taylor said...

I have an agent. I met her at a talk that she gave in a local bookstore. She said, "...No poetry, no screenplays, no 'how-to'...". When mingling afterwards she asked what I wrote. "What you don't rep - 'How-to books'," I replied, but she saw the calligraphy manual in my bag. "Oh, but I love paper-crafts!" she said, and we've been a team for the last 9 years.

Pity she doesn't rep the picture books and other children's genres that I now write...

John Davis Frain said...

Peter, that is filarious!

I'm gonna start carrying a bag with my manuscript inside. Except I'll stuff it inside a Patrick Lee novel.

Agent: Oh, are you reading Signal?
Me: This? No, I'm reading something newer. In fact, it's so new, it's not even out yet. But I have an ARC for you...

Okay, okay, I'll keep working on the plan.

Steve Stubbs said...

If you are interested in being organized, let me recommend Better Homes & Gardens book cases from WalMart. They are cheap at $80 (approximately) apiece but look really nice when assembled and they get a LOT of books out of boxes, off the fireplace, off the floor, off the table, and etc. I just got three of them the other day. In my area at least I get free shipping. Unfortunately one of my bedrooms looks like a library now with book cases lining the walls all around. That's OK.

I fumigated the place and the bugs have not returned. So I live alone now.

Colin Smith said...

Hello, Peter! That's encouraging--both the fact that you snagged an agent even though you don't write what she reps, and the fact that in our culture of iPads and SmartPhones, calligraphy still sells, and people still appreciate the art of penmanship and paper crafts. Cool! :D

Peter Taylor said...

Yes, John, people are always curious to see what’s inside a bag. The calligraphy book that the agent saw had been published by Allen and Unwin and HarperCollins UK, but in 2010 I went to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and to the London Book Fair carrying an art portfolio. When I arrived at publishers’ stands at the end of one appointment, they didn’t know if I was their next appointee and asked what I was looking at. My standard reply was, “I’m an author wanting to see if you have any books likely to compete with my new one, and if there are any gaps in your list that I may be able to fill.”

They all wanted to know if my book would compete with theirs and were willing to chat …and most asked to see inside the portfolio. I came away with 10 requests for non-fiction proposals, and a deal (for Calligraphy for Greetings Cards and Scrapbooking, though I had initially suggested Lettering Fun For Children). Hmm. I wonder if the others still want the proposals?

It probably wouldn't work for fiction.

It was interesting that while dozens of books were in print on ‘Recipes Children Can Cook’, one publisher was desperate to find someone who could write on the subject because they didn’t have one on their list. I thought there would have been too much competition and wouldn't have contemplated sending a proposal. Pre-#MSWL.

My calligraphy manual pub'd A&U and concurrently by HC was developed by packagers. They saw calligraphy in a shop window and asked the owner if she could write a book on the subject. She said she didn't have time but suggested that I might be interested.

Agents also pick up on what individual publishers want, which is often not advertised.

Morgan Hazelwood said...

I love Eileen's casino analogy! Can I steal it?

Jill Warner said...

I was a volunteer slush reader/editor for a short story magazine while I was in college. If you'd told me that my absolute favorite story would be in a genre I never read (unless it was homework), I'd have thought you were crazy. Guess that just shows that the story is most important part when you query!

Unknown said...

I recently went though and made an spread sheet for agents to query who represent what I write. It did it while my MS rested so that I wasn't procrastinating (too much). I found it was crazy how many agents don't list anything about what they are looking for anywhere. It took me weeks to compile the list of people who may or may not represent YA fantasy because many who are listed as YA on Querytracker don't list what they're looking for on their website. Frustrating.

But I'm only using that as a guideline. I like to think that in the world of art, no one expects anyone to color in the lines. Like, it's not that hard-and-fast as to what people are looking for.

Gingermollymarilyn said...

"You've got to do what you won't regret." Love that,Colin! (From yesterday)

Stacy said...

I don't know about anyone else, but I would love to see a booklist of books on how to get and stay organized.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

Re #MSWL, I think it is an interesting place to look at where the conversation is at, sort of eavesdropping on agents over coffee:

"I'd read the shit out of some Amish Werewolf Romance right now."

One of my outlines came from a two-word post on #MSWL a long time ago "YA preppers." I couldn't tell you who posted it or if she still wants it, but it just hit me right between the eyes with an idea.

There are definitely market trends, but you'd be trying to write to a market trend a loooong way down the pike. Who knew Hunger Games would turn the YA genre on its head and lead to the blockbuster success of series like Divergent? I remember when Hunger Games was a two-line "This is interesting . . . " in a sidebar in TIME, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

My take is #MSWL is a blast to read, lightning might strike (you might have Amish Werewolf Romance on your hard drive,) and is a great hunting grounds for new ideas.


Bonnee Crawford said...

Despite all the Dos and Don'ts both agents and writers alike tell us about, there really is no black and white right or wrong way of getting our manuscripts in the door. Thanks for sharing your advice, Janet.