Thursday, February 08, 2018

An agent passed, but I think it might be good news

I queried an agent with an idea for a biography. The agent's assistant replied that my idea was too close to an idea that she (the agent) was discussing with an author. The other potential project was a biography of a different person, but apparently the theme is too similar to mine (of course, they didn't give me details about who the other biography was about).

So, is this a boilerplate rejection, without particular significance, or does it indicate cause for optimism that my idea is similar to one which an agent is actively contemplating? Or is it bad news that it might suck the oxygen out of the room for my idea? If you have any thoughts I would be flattered to learn them.

There's no way to know whether this was a genteel pass rather than "holy moly you think you can write, what the everloving duck is this mess."

Nor can you let it guide you in further querying or any assessments of the validity of your project.

All you know for sure is this particular agent passed. That is all you know, and really all you need to know.

However, my eyebrows did go up at the phrase "idea for a biography" because querying ideas is a really bad approach.

A good query for a biography (or any narrative non-fiction) is a lot more than just an idea. It includes an overview that talks about the subject of the biography, the significance of the proposed book, what new information you'll include, or what new interpretations of existing information you'll offer. It includes why you are qualified to write the book, and an assessment of previous books about the subject.

In other words, it's not an idea, it's a well thought out offering.

I can't tell you the number of queries I've gotten for very abstract ideas, from people who think they're qualified to write about something cause they're interested in the topic. My favorite is still the gent from west of nowhere who wanted to write a book explaining the existence of god.

Bottom line: the only thing you know about a rejection from an agent is that it's a pass. Don't try to parse out anything more. There are too many variables in play to draw any kind of reliable conclusion.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I’m so glad this subject came up because I have a fantastic idea for a book.
It’s about a shark that swims, walks, talks and bites the head off ass-hats. I am indeed an expert regarding this smooth skinned fish because I know her. Well, not actually know, we don’t swim in the same pool, yet, and I haven’t actually met her, but I know of a few wingnuts who have. I haven’t met them either, but they say, “...though she acts tough she’s really even tougher.” Believe me that babe knows all kinds of stuff about writing even though she can’t hold a pencil or turn a page.
Yup, I’m your fisherman (fisherwoman), if you want a book about (Sharkey and her Cohorts).
And if you don’t want me to write the book…
...Bite me!

Lisa Bodenheim said...

whooops!! I thought passed meant the agent had died! So the title had me giggling. Not a euphemism this morning.

OK. So biographies are written like a non-fic proposal then.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I have lots of ideas for books. For fiction, that means nothing. For non-fiction, you need a full proposal- right? Not my wheelhouse so not sure how that process works but gather that rejection is as much part of that process as it is for us fiction peddlers.

Unknown said...

As I understand it, you have to send the first chapter with your detailed non-fiction proposal, and prove a huge platform. Basically, your book and marketing need to be finished (except for the actual words) in advance of any advance.

InkStainedWench said...

You should have taken the gent from nowhere up on it! Hippo! I ask you!

Megan V said...

Lisa: I thought the same thing and was like, well, that's a bit cold. MAde a lot more sense after reading the post.

It's also neat to get an inside look at the non-fiction side of things and the bare bones involved in a proposal.

Casey Karp said...

Which makes sense, Lisa, since biographies are presumably non-fiction.

Now, autobiographies, on the other hand...

Joseph S. said...

Too many “Variables in Play” is a great idea for a book. I can see the variables now, skittling around a gently upward-sloping, circular field, their barrel-shaped torsos stumbling over short legs and rolling down the ‘pitch.’ Two twenty-person teams, the Slokums and the Rapidos, ranked one and two in the world, headed to an inevitable final title match. Suspense, tension, love, hate, revenge, bribery, deceit, counter-attacks, overly exuberant fan bases, and a murder for some spice. It’s all there.

Anonymous said...

Chiming in to say I thought the same as @Lisa and @Megan... I'm glad the agent is okay!

Let's just hope the OP here MEANT to say "plan for a biography" and just fumbled their word choice there. I mean, they do READ Janet, so I'd hope they'd have a clue.

Lennon Faris said...

But it's so tempting to extrapolate meaning from every word choice and comma that a rejecting agent uses! (OP, I'm not snidely poking fun at your dilemma. I really do do this, even when I KNOW that a no is just is a no is just a no.)

Lisa, I re-read the title after your comment and it is making me giggle now. What a morbid sense of humor we all have!

Steve Stubbs said...

Things which are obvious to an agent are not always obvious to the rest of us. I can see how OP would not understand the depth of a query for non-fiction unless someone explained it. Great question and great answer. I think you helped a lot of people aside from just OP with this.

You wrote: "I can't tell you the number of queries I've gotten for very abstract ideas, from people who think they're qualified to write about something cause they're interested in the topic."


Another great book idea bites the dust.

The Sleepy One said...

People reading too much into form rejections has been a theme for my life in the past few days. I'd love to be able to hit people with a glittery "it's just a standard rejection stop reading things into it" wand that would chill them out and let them focus on their next query and/or project.

John Davis Frain said...

If you head east from west of Nowhere, you won't get to Anywhere. But you will get to Nowhere. Which apparently is somewhere. Just not for writers.

Sorry, I'm crafting a synopsis and my head is Everywhere. The synopsis, however, continues heading south.

Colin Smith said...

I haven't said anything because I have nothing to say. It's all been said. Well, perhaps not all. But everything I can think of. :)

John: Synopses only know one direction: south. I just hope the agent loves the query and the pages enough that the synopsis becomes a curiosity and not a deal-breaker. :)

AJ Blythe said...

Keep going John and you'll find mine *wink*.