The Literary Agent World Unraveled - Part 4
Advice on how to take the next big step on your path to publication - finding representation.
Ken Answers Our Questions About Rejection (from a Literary Agent)
By Kenneth Wright of Writers House
Hey Ken, I am working on a nonfiction book proposal. Is it up to me to identify a possible market for the book? How much market research might I be expected to do? I can take an educated guess, but is that good enough? --PENQUIN
Thanks for writing in and for your really good question. There is often a lot of uncertainty about how much marketing information an author should include in a proposal. My answer is pretty simple: A LOT. It really is your job as the author to indicate in the proposal that you have a full grasp and knowledge of the market into which you want to publish a book. If it’s a nonfiction book, presumably you are an expert on the subject, which means you have, or should have, what we call a “platform,” a wide variety of contacts and information about the market that the publisher and you can use to help market and sell the book once it’s published.
The kinds of information that goes into this are: competing and comparable books; websites; magazines and journals; organizations. There are tons of others. But the point is to indicate very clearly that there is, if there is, a large base of potential readers for your proposed book in the marketplace AND that you have a pretty good sense of how you and the publisher can reach them. Hope that helps.
Hi Ken, Thanks for taking our questions! Here’s mine: what is the most common reason that you to pass on a query that’s competently written, and has a good premise, but just doesn’t do it for you? Is it even possible to say exactly why you pass this type of query, or are you just kinda looking to feel inspired, and pass if lightning doesn’t strike? Thanks! --BEN L.
I am so glad you asked me this. Because I think most agents grapple with this every day. The long answer is that it is strictly gut or instinct. At least that is pretty much how I decide. I have to LOVE something to take it on. MAYBE one time out of a thousand submissions will I see something that I am very sure I can sell and will take it on, even though I don’t love it. But to be honest, it usually comes back to haunt me. Because these are usually one-shots, and as an agent who wants to work with the best talent, and help nurture that talent and help with career building, I need to take someone on who I feel has staying power, who has more than one book in him or her and who wants to grow, with my help. And for me that starts with the first book that I have fallen in love with.
The short answer is, as you say, I am “just kinda looking to feel inspired, and [I] pass if lightning doesn’t strike.”
This is, more than anything else, a subjective business. Lightning may not strike for me, but that doesn’t mean your work isn’t good and that lightning won’t strike elsewhere. That's why you just gotta keep trying. Don’t give up.
PS I think this may answer Jennifer Gibson’s question too. You and Ben are sorta asking the same thing…
Ken, This one has been bugging me for a while. Why do so many agents require us to put a word count in our query letters? Is this truly critical information, and do you automatically pass on word-count-less queries? --JOHN
This is a new one to me. I never ask for word count. Having said that, I usually get it, so you guys must be well trained! It is tremendously useful to know word count. If I get a middle grade novel in, for example, with a word count of 150,000 words, I am likely NOT going to have a look. It just tells me that the author doesn’t really have a grasp on his or her audience. I can’t waste my time reading it—even if it’s only the first 20 or so pages. After all these years, I know a red flag when I see one, and that’s one. So knowing word count helps. Thanks. Good question.
I know that most of your rejections probably come in the form letter variety, but I was wondering if you ever provide authors with more detailed feedback, despite a rejection. If so, how often do you do this? Is it to encourage the author to make changes and resubmit to you, or just to keep their hopes afloat? --ANNE
Rejections can be cold and harsh and mean and critical. Or they can he thoughtful and helpful and encouraging. So, good question. They take all shapes and forms. And I am quite guilty of writing both of the kinds I mentioned here, sorry to say. But if I really like something, and I have read it all the way, but in the end I don’t think it’s quite right for me, I feel an obligation to be clear (and helpful) to the author as to why it’s not right for me. So, yes, I will provide some helpful (I hope) feedback and encourage the author to go back and do some more work on the manuscript. But generally it’s not because I think I want to consider it again. I usually do not. It’s because I DO think there is something there, he or she should work on it some more, but it’s just not right for me.
Having said that, I have, and no doubt will again, reject something, provide feedback, and invite the author to resubmit when he or she has revised. But that is rare.
There really is no one way to do this. Each case is different. But usually a “pass” is a “pass.” We get SO much to read that it’s tough to go back to something we’ve passed on. Thanks for writing.