blogger: Cynthia Ruchti
Can you trust your agent? Coming alongside a client often puts an agent in the position of saying, “Don’t do that.” Kindly, of course. Or firmly. Depends. Much like the difference between a mother who urges her child not to put a tutu on the cat versus urging her child not to stick a screwdriver in the light socket.
At times, it may be hard to understand why a literary agent would advise her client against writing a book. Trust your agent.
WRITER: But I love this story. It’s, like, Les Miserables, but not. It’s funny. Really. And it’s told from the perspective of the loaf of bread. Clever, huh?
AGENT: We’ve had this discussion in the past. You primarily write about health and fitness.
WRITER: What if I made the loaf of bread gluten-free?
AGENT: Yeah, no.
WRITER: But, I’m passionate about this story. It keeps me awake at night.
AGENT: Me, too. But not in the way you’d think.
Why might an agent advise against something the writer is passionate about?
It’s the wrong book to launch the writer’s career.
Although some authors aren’t easily distracted (I met one once), most authors have a variety of interests and enjoy the idea of experimenting with topics that are off-genre for them. But agents cringe when they receive a proposal that lists the prospective client’s this-shows-my-range-of-writing-skill projects as:
- A memoir about my years as a member of the Secret Service
- A children’s book of prayers
- A dystopian YA book that is not only post-apocalyptic, but is based on the premise that the dark side of the moon is an optical illusion
- Four volumes of free-verse poetry on the merits of decaf (kind of a niche audience)
- A comprehensive concordance cross-referencing biblical texts with pop songs from the 60s and 70s
- And a novel set in a nursing home. With a serial killer who’s really a sweet old lady, misunderstood.
(Surprisingly, none of the projects have been picked up by a traditional publisher yet, so the agent should move fast if she wants to get in on that. Not to muddy the waters, but as I’m writing this blog post, the internet is talking about a newly released book of vintage wallpaper. Just goes to show…)
An agent may ask, “Who are you as an author? What do you want to be known for? And which project is the best one to launch your career?” The answer is likely that all important intersection of writer passion, reader need, and publisher interest. If the book of children’s prayers is the strongest project, and ultimately that’s where the author’s skill is showcased, long-term interest lies, platform is healthiest, and reader need clear, the other projects may have to wait for their turn in the sun…or the garbage disposal. Trust your agent.
The timing isn’t ideal.
An agent may advise a client to hold off on a well-done manuscript until the writer’s platform catches up, eliminating hurdles to a publisher’s “Yes!” This is especially true with nonfiction clients, where the publisher is watching for evidence that the message of which the book is an expression already resonates with potential readers.
Timing can be an issue for a great book idea that has missed its window of opportunity. Ties to a significant historical anniversary or commemoration next month is reason enough to wait to submit a book proposal that can’t get into print through traditional publishing in time to take advantage of prime marketing and publicity opportunities. You missed the quasquicentennial (125th) commemoration of the volcanic explosion of Krakatoa? Missed it by eleven years, actually? Hang in there. The sesquicentennial is coming up in 2033. Plenty of time to polish that proposal.
A timing issue may be due to information the author doesn’t know. The best editor match for that project is currently on maternity leave. The publishing house is undergoing editorial changes. Path-altering announcements are pending.
If you’ve chosen well in partnering with a literary agent, you can trust your agent!
It’s been done…repeatedly.
Agents have insights not only to what’s been recently published, what’s about to be published, what’s been tried and failed, but also to the plethora of similar proposals in a similar vein. Fresh is not a word reserved for fruit and vegetables. If a topic has been done before, a fresh take/angle/approach is the only saving grace for that hard-to-sell project. Trust your agent when she tells you that.
The book is too far off-brand for the author.
Even bestselling authors feel the fallout of trying to write outside of their well-established brand–what readers expect from them. Yes, your mind is conjuring exceptions to that statement, but exceptions are…exceptional.
A wise agent assists an author in establishing a path toward fulfilling meaningful reader expectations. The agent evaluates how the next project and the next will either satisfy and grow that audience, or threaten to distance readers from the author’s work.
All of the above is to encourage writers to trust the instincts of their agents in choosing which projects to pitch and which to set aside, at least for a time. “Mama always has her reasons” applies to agents, too. If you are partnered with a trustworthy agent, you can, well, trust your agent.