Love vs. Sell

Evergreen reader and blog favorite, Siski, asked me, a long time ago:

Would you turn down a story you loved but knew wouldn’t be an easy sell? I’m imagining something literary that for whatever reason didn’t suit the market at this time…

Siski really knows how to stick it to the ol’ Kole-ster. (Yes, I really did just call myself that. It’s early. Leave me alone.) This is a great question and one I wrestle with all the time. It also illustrates how I’ve grown in my thinking as an agent. Unfortunately, I haven’t grown in the direction that some writers will want to hear.

Here’s a great qualification for someone looking to get into the agenting business: must love books. But a qualification to stay in the agenting business is that they must sell books, too. I’m not saying the two are mutually exclusive, by any means. I obviously need to love, very deeply, all the books I sell. However, it’s the selling part that matters undeniably in today’s marketplace, and I don’t plan to look for another job anytime soon, so I have to build my list accordingly.

Early in my agenting days (and it’s still relatively early, mind), I took on some projects that did tend toward the literary, the quiet, the beautiful. And I’m not going to lie when I say that some of them have turned out to be tough sells. I’ll sidestep a discussion on selling out and how the whole high-concept “commercial” book world is a travesty and what havoc it’s wreaking on the literature-starved youth of tomorrow and all that blah blah blah here and just mention that I am majorly bummed that these fine, beloved manuscripts of mine are still looking for a publishing home. Enough said. The undeniable fact, though, is that it is easier to sell something with a commercial, high-concept premise than something that’s a review-driven award contender or a school and library market darling these days.

Two things. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying to sell what I already have that’s in this vein. My love for those books is unwavering. And that doesn’t mean I’ll lower my literary/writing quality standards for the lure of the commercial money-grab. But I do have to think about the sales pitch and market viability as I’m falling for a story. That aspect weighs heavily on my mind as I’m deciding which projects to represent. These days, sales potential is probably the number one thing that separates a beautifully written near miss from a client on my list. So, to answer Siski’s tough question, if I didn’t think I could sell something I loved, I would probably pass and ask to see the writer’s next book. Love can’t be the only consideration anymore.

That’s not a bad thing at all. What would you like? An agent who gushes over your book as it sits unsold? Or an agent who gushes over your book and then sells it, makes your dreams come true, and turns you into a soon-to-be published author? Sorry to be so callous, especially with Valentine’s Day around the corner, but I think you’d best be served by the latter, and that’s who I want to be for my clients.

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  1. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Callous? The Kole-ster?! ‘Blog favorite’?! Pink fluffy love hearts are floating in front of my eyes now…

    Seriously, though. This is SUCH an important and valuable post. You’ll probably get flak for it because you’ve said something that many writers dread hearing. (Especially me!) Yes, it IS all about the writing, as everyone says, but that doesn’t mean that all well-written stories will get published. Sad but true.

    (On a positive note, though, I hope that maybe some of those beautifully written but unmarketable/unsalable stories will end up being self-published so I can at least read them! Or that I win the lottery, set up my own no-profit publishing company and produce all the quiet literary books the big publishers don’t want to risk… I can dream, can’t I?!)

  2. Jenn Albin’s avatar

    I think that’s the challenge of a literary piece. I don’t think you have to be high concept exactly to be marketable, but even a quiet, beautiful book needs a hook or something that makes it marketable. The Lovely Bones is a book that I think of as quite literary and beautifully written, but sense it’s about a violent murder it has something that compels the reader to keep reading. I suppose this is ultimately what gives a novel it’s name and why the medium was so critically rejected as crass and vulgar in the beginning.

  3. Marybk’s avatar

    Laughing at the Kole-ster comment. I don’t know if that will ever get out of my head now when I read your blog. :p

    Good luck with your beautifully written MSs. Hope they find an equally beautiful publishing house.

  4. Fawn’s avatar

    Well, there’s always small press for the literary and the quiet. And authors don’t need agents for small press. They can submit directly. The upside is that you may actually see your work published, the downside is that most small press offers small (if any) advances.

    It’s not really worth an agent’s time to work for small advances. So, it seems to me that agents are not just looking for the ‘sell’ – they’re looking for the BIG sell. “Small” fiction doesn’t make big advances.

    That’s where small and independent press comes in.

    I sent a novel on the rounds to agents for several months with a lot of partial requests and then no offers of rep. I submitted directly to small publishers and received several offers almost immediately.

  5. Kristen Faulconer’s avatar

    I love this post, Mary! I would prefer the agent who has a glad union of the passionate and the practical. My first goal is to be well-published.
    A groove machine agent (Love this, baby! It’s smokin’ hot! We got ourselves a bestseller here! You can quit that day job! Movie rights! Lunchboxes! You got a bright future, baby!) must not be reading Publisher’s Weekly.

    I have a passion for all books–the quiet ones especially–so I will be crossing my fingers for your quiet, beautiful books.

  6. Greta Marlow’s avatar

    Reading your post and the comments brings up a question that has been in the back of my mind for some time. Obviously, not every well-written book is going to sell. I write historical fiction, but I know you’ve said before that HF is a tough sell in today’s market. At what point does a writer say enough and start to consider small presses or self-publishing? Submitting to a small press is no guarantee of being published, either, even for a good manuscript, since (I guess) finances limit how many projects they can take on. Yet there’s so much negative talk about self-publishing that I feel I would be letting myself and my manuscript down by even considering it as an option. Does this mean all my editing to whip this HF manuscript into shape is wasted effort? Will anyone other than my family ever get the chance to read this story? How many good HF books am I missing out on getting to read because they “won’t sell”? I’m sad.

  7. Melissa K’s avatar

    Well, Kole-ster, I think you’ve given yourself a permanent nickname. Sorry. I know it was early, but we readers can’t forget some of these little gems once they pop out of your typin’ fingers.

    For the record, I wouldn’t consider this callous. Just honest.

  8. Melissa K’s avatar

    I’ve been thinking. Do you see a hard line between high-concept, big-sell fiction and quieter, more literary fiction?

    I’m guessing no, because clearly some writers manage to do both–but do you see any patterns in what makes their literary books fit the market better than the books you’re having trouble selling? Do you have any advice for writers who love and want to write those “school and library market darlings”? Is it all about the eye-popping one-line premise, or is there more to it?

  9. Rose Green’s avatar

    Would some of those literary darlings be an easier sell if the author had a really commercial book, too? Like, if you sold the commercial one first, would you have an easier time coming back and selling the quieter one? Just thinking of some amazing books I’ve critiqued lately that for whatever reason haven’t sold yet, and what could be done to change that.

  10. Laura Sassi’s avatar

    I’ll be interested to read what you have to say in response to Melissa K and Rose, Mary, because I’ve been wondering just the same thing. I also wonder how much the “hard to sell” factor of “school and library darlings” as well as “quiet books” and those that clearly are not high concept has to do with the current state of the economy. Could this turn around if the economy rebounds? Or, on the other hand, are we on a downward slope towards obsoleteness of “darling books” and agents willing to pitch them?

  11. Alina’s avatar

    That had to be such a tough lesson for a book-lover to learn. Because loving a book is so lovely. It would stink to have to turn that down.

  12. Jean Ann Williams’s avatar

    I say you’re honest. Some of the best stuff I’ve been reading from agents comes right out of your honest mouth, Mary. I appreciate that, because it guides us struggling writers.

    Greta, I’ve been reading “Writing Fiction for Dummies” and on page 49 the sidebar states: What happened to historical novels? And on page 50 it continues the article. The the article says this, “You can sell your historical novel, but you must first assign it to one of the well-established categories.”

    Then it gives examples: historical romance novels, historical thrillers, historical mysteries, historical general fiction, historical literary fiction.

    This article helped answer my question about HN.

    Hope this helps.

  13. Brooke Favero’s avatar

    Thanks for the tough love. It is tough to hear but I appreciate your honesty and would want that from an agent. I would want the love but I’d want the sale just as much as you.

  14. Franziska Green’s avatar

    I need an edit button!

    Just realised my earlier post reads as though my best hope is for the Kole-ster’s clients’ books to end up self-published, which is not what I meant! I was thinking of some of the great books that remain unsold AND unrepped and so are even less likely, in today’s market, to find a home.

  15. Lora’s avatar

    Mary-
    You are so awesome! I love your honesty. My first novel was a beautiful piece of HF. Everyone I queried asked to see a partial or full. Most returned with personal comments. They liked my writing- Could I write something different? Maybe. I finally found someone willing to publish as a romance novel, with many changes, of course. I spent months trying to edit it as such and then just gave up, depressed. I went back and read all of the comments from agents and publishers. I want an Agent. I want to be published. So, I’m writing something else. At first it felt like a sell-out but now I really enjoy it. These days, I like to read easy reads myself – so why wouldn’t someone else. Bonus – If people like my style, maybe later someone will take a chance.

  16. Blanche Baxter’s avatar

    Thank you for the honesty of this post! Always helpful to see things from the other side! :)
    It’s hard cause, as writers, our books express our many varied interests and don’t always fit into commercial niches. We hope that all of our book-babies find good homes and reach the public. But, of course, it’s important to remember that the salability is just as important. Hearing it from the agent’s perspective, reminds us to consider the market potential, and allows us to look for ways to meet in the middle.
    When we talked a couple months ago, you mentioned that I should consider repackaging some of my stories that were hedging on the literary/educational side, so that they were more multi-layered and had more commercial marketability. While it was hard to hear, turns out it was the push I needed to re-imagine the works into something new and exciting! So…it can definitely be a good thing!
    And then there are other times when those “literary darlings” are just as they should be, well thought out, developed and beautifully written, just waiting to find the right home with the small publisher ready to take a chance…
    As writer’s, we just need to know the difference!

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