Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Once in a while I hear a scathing author criticism of his agent, “He just sat on my manuscript.” Most clients expect that when we receive their proposal we turn it around and get it right out. A good agent almost never does this. There are a number of reasons:
- We go over the proposal and sample pages with a fine tooth comb. The package is our most important selling tool because, though we may sell the project verbally to the acquiring editor, it must go before any number of other approvals before a contract is issued. The verbal sell is long lost by the time it gets to the publishing committee. (Remember the old game of telephone? By the time the simple message went ’round the circle it was so distorted as to be unrecognizable. The same with our verbal sales pitch.) The proposal needs to offer the answer to every potential question that may come up.
- We may have to send the package back to you to revise a portion of the proposal. Don’t like to do the comparable analysis? Who’s going to answer the sales team’s question of what else is already on the shelf like this proposed book? Who else can argue for its unique place?
- We may have to send back the sample chapters because they simply don’t yet sparkle in a highly competitive market.
All of that takes time. But. . . there may be an even subtler technique at play if your agent is sitting on your proposal. Let me talk about that subtle technique.
It’s all about timing.
It may be that your book is too similar to something in the pipeline. Let’s say you have a fabulous proposal about the intricacies of communicating good money management to teens in a positive, creative way. Your agent tests the waters by sending it to one or two houses only to find out that Dave Ramsey has a book coming out next year about money management for teens. Your agent is going to put your book aside for a time because it is not going to be able to hold its own against a new book by the go-to money guru. If Ramsey’s book is a huge success she’ll probably shop your book assuming that now that teens and parents are convinced they need money management, your book takes it one step further–because you offer creative, unique ways to reinforce this. See? By waiting your agent was able to piggyback on the success of a “big” book just when everyone is looking for the next book in this popular new category. Waiting paid off.
It may be because the market has closed for a certain genre. If your agent were to send an Amish proposal out widely now he would probably collect all no-thank-yous because publishers have their Amish authors pretty much in place now. By letting everyone turn down the proposal, that book is dead. The smart agent will sit on that proposal so that when an editor says, “I think we’re looking to add one more Amish author,” he’ll have the perfect author and the perfect book.
It may be that the market is closed to a certain author. At this moment I have five stunning debut authors all ready to go. But guess what? Every time we talk with an editor we’re hearing, “We’re not able to take on debut authors at this time. We want to build the authors we have or contract authors who bring a strong readership with them.” If I sent proposals out for those fabulous debut authors right now, I’d collect nothing but polite and encouraging rejects, and once a book gets a no, I can’t send it again to that editor. I could kill five glorious books in one fell swoop. So my subtle technique? I wait until I can personally respond to something on an editor’s wish list, and then I sell that author like crazy– in response to a expressed need or an opening.
So does this subtle technique work? You bet it does. When I think of the debut authors I’ve placed–now most of them bestselling and award-winning such as Jill Eileen Smith, Tessa Afshar, Lori Benton, Cynthia Ruchti–I see that it works to wait till the right moment. I’ve done it with nonfiction authors as well.
As market savvy writers you do the same thing. That’s why you read publisher and agent blogs– you understand that you need to anticipate the market, right? What other timing techniques do you find important? Does the hurry-up-and-wait atmosphere make you crazy?
Proposal sitting with your agent forever? It may be a subtle technique. Click to Tweet
Why do some agents take forever to get projects out? Click to Tweet
My book is my baby, Wendy.
When my first child was born, I was always looking ahead to the next stage: first smile, first tooth, first step, first day of school. With my last child, I savored each stage. Can I apply this parental wisdom to my book baby?
Dear Lord, when it comes to my WIP, let me trust in “the fullness of time.”. Amen.
I love the way you said that…my daily helping of Shirlee Wisdom, and I needed just this message, this morning. Thank you!
Oh, I understand this! In the Snipers’ World, timing is both death and life. Without a clear egress as well as a clear shot, it’s a one way mission. Sounds heroic, but it’s almost never necessary, except in Hollywood. If the long rifleman dies (along with his spotter), both the information he’s, collected and his rather expensively-acquired skills are lost as well. Waiting is simply a part of life, and life goes on in the interstices of time – “they also serve, who stand and wait.”
I love reading the inside looks at agents’ methods. Your reasonings for waiting make perfect sense! In a world where we’re encouraged to hurry up all day long, waiting is a hard discipline to practice. In the writing journey, I know when I submit my MS, I will be waiting. I am very thankful for this blog which has helped me to gain a clear understanding of how publishing works . . . and moves.
I find it easier when there’s forward progress. When I submit my MS to an agent, there will be the sense of satisfaction that I did it. And then the waiting. Keeping busy in the midst of waiting seasons helps me not think about what may/may not be coming next. 🙂
As for timing techniques—and this one is unrelated to writing—when I have to talk with one of my sons about a difficult topic, I find it easier if they are in a good frame of mind. So, sometimes I wait to discuss consequences, or decisions until I think they’re ready to hear them. Since they’re getting older, it’s a little easier to do this. 🙂
“If I sent proposals out for those fabulous debut authors right now, I’d collect nothing but polite and encouraging rejects and once a book gets a no, I can’t send it again to that editor.”
Wendy, that sounds so disheartening. Why could you not send it again? The professional aspect? Or is it a rule editors maintain?
And waiting is always challenging, it seems. Doubt creeps in and tumbles about. Waiting always puts and keeps me on my knees before the Lord. I experienced this most especially when we were waiting to adopt our first baby … will we come home with her? Will we not? And so many more questions. Would I be a good mother? Will God let me be a mother? And then the condemnation … I don’t deserve it. Tears, fears … on my knees.
The writing questions parallel.
When I came home with my baby girl, I had a permanent smile on my face. 🙂 And it was worth every moment of the wait and every tear.
Shelli, as another adoptive mother, I hear you about the unpredictability of timing but in the other direction. The agency told us it would be one year if we didn’t specify race and 2.5 if we did. At 5 months, I got the call at work saying we could pick up our son that day! Absolutely nothing in terms of furniture or baby supplies was in place, and the bank was closed so I couldn’t get the cashier’s check (full payment due on delivery). I worked until 11 the next morning getting everything ready for my colleagues so I could be gone for a month, stood in Target at 11:30 trying to figure out what car carrier was best and what a “onesie” was when that name wasn’t on any of the package labels, and picked up our son at 1:00. When they told me “one year” on our daughter, I asked for the absolute minimum (4 months) and I had everything in place then. She came home at 5 months, too. Now if only getting a book accepted first by an agent and then by a publisher could be so unexpectedly fast!
Thank you for sharing that, Carol. 🙂 I’m saying a prayer for you right now about that book.
Shelli, this touched my heart so much. I’ve experienced similar parallels between the writing and adoption journeys, too, and your line about the permanent smile just lit up my day. I so agree– the sometimes-so-hard wait– every moment of it– is so worth it, and serves such purpose in our hearts. Thank you for sharing your beautiful words!
Amanda, thank you. I will never forget the day we drove home with her. 🙂 And all the tears prior … slipping away to the hospital bathroom where I could cry in secret. Just like in writing … trying not to let hope soar too much. And a continual prayer … Father God, keep my heart in balance. 🙂
Shelli, most editors want to see a project just once. Generally an agent has to have a compelling reason to show the same project to an editor more than once (such as a total rewrite).
Thank you for letting us in on this kind of information. It may not make waiting easier, but at least it makes more sense! Patience is easier to acquire when one isn’t totally confused. 🙂
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
It’s time, once again, for a tree story.
The giant sequoia (sequoiadendron giganteum) is one of Earth’s oldest living things. God knew what He was doing when he created that type of tree.
The full grown giant sequoia’s bark is two feet thick, and fire resistant (due to the tannins in the bark) and yet what do the sequoia cones need? Like, MUST HAVE, to germinate?
Fire. Not just lots of heat, but fire. Full on, deadly to all other trees, FIRE.
Without the contact with fire, the cones just lay there, looking all cone-y and squirrel food-y.
So instead of thinking “Oh, the poor tree will dry up and die with all that suffering!” look at it this way, for one tree species, the most magnificent of all, what looks like a slow death is actually the beginning of life.
The giant tree will be fine, because of the tannins in the bark. Some of those trees are thousands of years old, and yet how many forest fires have they endured? Here they are, still, after countless brushes with death.
You may ask, what do the good people of the US Forest Service do to encourage healthy growth of new sequoias without destroying everything? It’s called a “controlled burn”. Fire, within limits.
I am blessed to be married to a man who understands that great work takes years to reach perfection. He doesn’t try to rush me. And, he understands that my agent doesn’t want ‘good enough’, nor will she jump if she thinks she might have a hope of a shot.
Nope. We do what the smart people in the forest service do, we work hard, and then control the burn.
I am SO thankful to have an agent, and an agency, who understands and reads the market.
Sure, the “hurry up and wait” can get me a ticket to crazytown, but I don’t want to burn hard and then fizzle like a dried up white birch…I want to set the world on fire, then be here for a long time.
Once again, thank you for an excellent post, Wendy.
Wow, what a great word picture, Jennifer. I love your perspective and your passion. You light many others on fire with it. In the very best of ways!
As a Forest Service employer, I doubly love your comments. 🙂
Great info!! I wondered about this but was never certain. Love how the agents are savvy. It makes so much sense. Thanks for clarifying the process even more. 🙂
Anticipating the market and waiting were not two things I understood in my 20s when I was desperate to have a published novel by 30. I figured that if it was well written it should have no problem selling. I enjoyed the story, and so did some in my critique group. That was enough, correct? Oh, how grateful I am that what I wrote in my 20s didn’t go further than my critique group. There was little, if any, true market for the first manuscript that I finished. The second one I completed had potential, but was more a work of ‘wish fulfillment’ than true story-telling. So now, after having ‘sat’ on my writing dreams/goals for a time, I’m paying much more attention to the market and learning that patience is key. I’m also writing a story that is a different genre than my first two manuscripts, but that has a stronger potential market. It’s been a challenge to change writing gears, but so far it’s been worth it.
Thank you for the post, Wendy. The insight is wonderful to have.
After spending two nights in airports with a seven month old baby last week, I’m good with any version of hurry up and wait that allows me to sleep in my own bed 😉
When I first read through this, Wendy, it seemed discouraging. My intial reaction was to think that if the market is so competitive and great work is just sitting around because publishers aren’t ready to take it on, perhaps I should just write my stories and leave them in a desk drawer to gather dust (because I will always be a writer, regardless of whether my work gets to print or not).
On further reflection, I decided to view what you’ve shared today in a more positive light. If agents are patient and willing to play the long game, then I should be as well. I should devote my time to crafting the best books I can, polishing them until they shine. All that I’m responsible for is being the best writer I can be, and putting in the legwork to ensure that should the opportunity for publication arise, my books easily find a market. In short, this time can be used wisely to become a professional at my chosen craft, even when it’s not yet my profession.
Everything else is up to our good God.
Wendy L Macdonald
Wendy, this post is another great example of why this blog is award winning–you ladies tell it like it is in a way that informs and encourages us (and the comments and replies are gold too–waves to everyone). I’d rather have an agent sitting on my proposal than my proposal sitting in a publisher’s/editor’s recycle bin. Sometimes waiting is the wisest choice.
Blessings ~ Wendy ❀
Do agents let their authors know this? Since publishers know what they want, would it not work to their advantage to let it be known?
A secondary question here is: how does an author know what the market is looking for? I’m guessing that most authors start by writing what they want to write, not necessarily what the commercial market is asking for.
It’s the agent’s job to figure out what editors are looking for. We’re constantly asking them, but especially with fiction, that can be hard for an editor to articulate. Most editors might have a preference regarding genre, but beyond that, what they end up buying is also based on their personal preferences or their sense of what the market wants.
Leon, I was wondering the same thing. Do agents let the authors know when they are waiting for a better time to try and sell their project?
It would be great to get a response to these questions, but I don’t think we’re going to see one.
My guess is that the publishers have, at best, a broad idea of what they are looking for rather than tight specifications. Defining specs too tightly, especially in fiction, could make them miss the next great thing or buy what would sell today but be passé two years out when a book hits market. Even if they released specifics on what they wanted right now, by the time we could write to them, the market would have moved on. I don’t envy them their job of trying to define and then hit a target over the horizon with each contract. Too many misses could pull them under.
I made one query and then stopped until after I got feedback from the Genesis contest, but that one query received a gracious response that the publishers at that moment weren’t actively asking for my specific subgenre. I would be willing to bet that agent keeps his clients informed about market issues affecting their manuscript. It seem like all the agents at B&S look on their job as a ministry as well as a money source. I would be amazed if they weren’t keeping their clients informed as well.
Leon, I’m just now scrolling through the comments from yesterday. Wendy got sick and headed to bed after she posted her blog, and never made it back in to the office. Hence her silence.
Agents generally do let authors know that now isn’t a good time to submit material. We stay alert as to when the publishing gates open again, but publishers don’t make grand announcements. Agents must assess the situation and trust their guts regarding timing.
Hi Janet, thank you for letting me know, and I hope Wendy is feeling better. Your reply helps me understand the agent/author relationship, and I can see the picture now.
If the waiting zone is needed, an email or quick phone call to mention that would soothe the writer angst, I’ll bet.
Your wisdom is priceless, Wendy. As for the “hurry-up-and-wait” atmosphere– such great lessons are held for us on both sides of that, the hurry and the wait. I’m learning joy in both. 🙂
Wendy, it makes perfect sense for agents to be strategic in their timing of pitching clients’ books, but I had never considered it. Thanks for the insight.
Wendy, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your discernment and guidance.
Fantastic insights into the publishing process. Thank you, Wendy.
Thanks, Wendy. I feel better already!
An agent has been sitting on my full ms. without any feedback on it whatever since July 22nd, 2012. I’m not giving up on the agent just yet. Also, I’m not giving up on the ms. either, as I’ve extensively revised it and polished it since then, because I have no idea if this agent will become a business partner of mine, or another one.
Don’t be shy about nudging. Thinks do get lost and do get put aside.
This is absolutely invaluable information. Thank you for sharing!!