Speaking the industry’s lingua franca

Congratulations to all of you intrepid souls who managed to track me down already! At some point, I hope that the PNWA will allow a link from my former blogsite to this one, but at the moment, they flatly refuse. (Sic transit gloria, eh?) So for now, I am relying upon my loyal readers’ intuition and the writers’ grapevine to let people know to search for me under my name, rather than my former institutional affiliation. Let’s hope this works.

I’m going to try to start posting my old blogs into the archives here as soon as I understand the new system well enough to do it, so please be patient: over the course of 11 months, I wrote 1,126 pages of advice for writers as the PNWA’s Resident Writer. That’s a LOT of material to move, but rest assured, I shall keep the ferry service running until it is all safely archived here. (Clever readers Ute and Harold both alerted to me to the fact that it IS still possible to access my old blog’s archives, but I assume that the organization will catch on to its incomplete hatchet job soon. I’ll be happier once they are all safely stored here.)

I think today’s topic will interest both those readers who attended the recent PNWA conference and those who did not: today, I shall be talking about how to translate industry-speak into words and phrases that make some sense in the English language as she is spoke by commoners such as ourselves.

Since some of you may be currently in the throes of trying to figure out whether you liked a particular agent well enough to send a post-conference query (and if you are not already aware of it, it is ALWAYS a good idea to write on the outside of such queries THE NAME OF THE CONFERENCE in great big letters, and begin your query letter with, “I enjoyed hearing you speak at the recent X conference, and I believe you will be interested in my work…), I thought it might be a good idea to provide at least a rudimentary Rosetta Stone.

Those of you who followed my old blog might remember that I had suggested lo! these many weeks ago that it was advisable (by definition, since I advised it) to go to the agent and editor forum at any conference in order to figure out to whom you should be pitching in the hallways. After you had been sitting there for an hour or so, you may have gleaned some marvelous insights, or you may have wondered whether all of these people were speaking Urdu. Unfortunately, the way agents and editors talk about their work in general can be bewildering for writers new to dealing with it.

What are we to make of publishing professionals who, for instance, brush off pitch attempts quickly, saying, “I don’t handle that sort of book,” in a tone that implies that you should already have known that? Or the agent who tells a pitcher, “Gee, that sounds interesting, but my client roster is totally full at the moment.” (If so, why come to a conference to solicit more?) Or when an agent gives a statement of work he’s seeking that’s so wildly different from his stated preferences in the standard guides, or on his agency’s website, or even in the blurb that he submitted to the conference organizers that you want to leap to your feet, screaming that this man is an imposter?

What can you do, other than check the conference center basement for pods?

You may have noticed that this ambiguity of intention sometimes gets reflected in the blurbs in agents’ guides, too. How many of us have read that a particular agent is looking for new authors in a wide array of genres, including our own, only to be crushed by a form letter huffily announcing that the agency NEVER represents that kind of work? Years ago, I made the mistake of signing with an agent (who shall remain nameless, because I’m considerably nicer than she is) who listed herself as representing everything from literary fiction to how-to books, but who in fact concentrated almost exclusively on romance novels and self-help books, two huge markets. I did not learn until the rather tumultuous end of our association that she had signed me not because she admired the novel she was ostensibly pushing for me, but because I had a Ph.D.: she hoped, she told me belatedly, that I would become frustrated at the delays of the literary market and write a self-help book instead.

Why would an agent advertise that she is looking for genres she does not intend to represent? Well, for the same reason that some agents and editors go to conferences in the first place: just in case the next bestseller is lurking behind the next anxious authorial face or submission envelope. An agent may well represent cookbooks almost exclusively, but if the next DA VINCI CODE falls into his lap, he probably won’t turn it down. He may well reject 99.98% of the submissions in a particular genre (and actually state in his form rejections that he doesn’t represent the genre at all, as an easy out), but in his heart of hearts, he’s hoping lighting will strike. He is a gambler.

Honestly, most agents and editors who attend conferences ARE good at heart. Most of them truly do want to help new authors. However, not all of them are necessarily there to discover the next Great American Novel: in fact, it’s rare for an agent to pick up more than a single author from any given conference — yes, even at PNWA — or for an editor at a major house to pick up anyone at all. There are agents who pick up only one or two clients a year out of ALL of the conferences they attend.

There is even an ilk who goes to conferences simply to try to raise authorial awareness of market standards, with no intention of signing any writers at all. The soulless few who attend conferences just so they can visit their girlfriends in cities far from New York, or who want a tax-deductible vacation in the San Juans, are beyond the scope of my discussion here, but I’m morally sure that the karmic record-keepers frown upon them from above.

Oh, how I wish these people came with great big signs, so writers would know who is serious about finding new clients and who isn’t. But they don’t, and in fact, sometimes the ones with the least intention of being helpful to the writers in the room sound on the podium like the greatest lovers of good writing. And now that the conference is over, you may be wondering in retrospect which is which.

One way to separate the wheat from the chaff is to weight agents and editors’ concrete statements of likes and dislikes (“I never want to see another SF book again,” for instance, is probably a reliable indicator, as is “I am desperately looking for books on squid cookery for the pre-teen NF market”) much more heavily in your assessments than the general observations (e.g., anything from “I represent a wide variety of commercial fiction” to “I love good writing”). The more specific the expressed preference, the more reliable it is, generally speaking.

That being said, there is an accepted array of platitudes that agents and editors tend to spout during speeches and in pitch meetings when they are trying to discourage writers, and over the years, I have gathered a list of them. I suppose they are not lies, per se, so much as polite exit lines from conversations and ways to make themselves sound better on a dias, but from the writer’s point of view, they might as well be real whoppers.

Because I love you people, I am posting my top ten favorites today, so you may check them against what was said to you at the conference or in response to your latest query letter. I have included a translation for each that makes sense in writer-speak — and I suspect some of the translations may surprise you. Please bear in mind that these are accepted industry euphemisms, and thus if you do find one that was applied to your book by an agent or editor, you should NOT take it personally — or even necessarily as a reflection on your book. Do not, I beg you, use any of them as a basis for thinking your work is not marketable. Like all platitudes, they are easy substitutes for a thoughtful response.

(10) “There just isn’t a market for this kind of book right now.”
Translation: “I don’t want to represent/buy it, for reasons that may or may not have anything to do with what is selling at the moment. Do not press me for my reasons, please, because they may be based upon trends that will end tomorrow.”

(9) “The market’s never been better for writers.”
Translation: “I prefer to represent previously published writers; I want to be the second person to take a chance on a writer, not the first, so I might be willing to make an exception for contest winners. Since it is now possible for an author to self-publish a blog or write for a website,” (despite the fact that such writing is generally done for free) “I don’t think there’s any excuse for a really talented writer not to have a relatively full writing resume.” Note: this attitude is almost never seen in those who have ever published anything themselves.

(8) “I could have sold this 10/20/2 years ago, but now…”
Translation: “Your pitch was good, but I’m looking for something just like the most recent bestseller. I’m not even vaguely interested in anything else. Actually, I am pretty miffed at you authors for not paying closer attention to the bestseller lists, because, frankly, you’re wasting my time.”
OR, in the nicer cases: “This was an interesting pitch, but I started being an agent/editor a long time ago, back when it was easier to sell books. Your work may have a political slant that has gone out of fashion, or it is too long, or it shares some other trait with a book I truly loved that I struggled to sell for a year to no avail. I don’t want to get my heart broken again, so I really wish you would write something else. Have you checked the bestseller list lately”

(7) “We give every submission we receive sent careful consideration.”
Translation: “I’m having a hard time keeping a straight face for this one, because it’s so palpably untrue. Like most agencies, we spent less than a minute reading the average query — and by we, I really mean an underpaid summer intern who was looking for predetermined grabbers on the first page or in the query letter.”
OR, from a nicer human being: “If I had actually taken the time to read all of them, I might have had some constructive comments to make, but I simply haven’t the time. I do know that we ought to give some reason for rejecting each submission. In my heart of hearts, I do feel rather guilty for not having done so; that is why I habitually make this defensive statement in my form-letter replies and from the podium.”

(6) “We are looking for fresh new approaches.”
Translation: “This is a definitional issue. If it is a spin on something already popular or on a well-worn topic, it is fresh; if it is completely original, or does not appeal to conventionally-approved NYC or LA states of mind, it is weird.”

(5) “The length doesn’t matter, if the writing quality is good.”
Translation: “I don’t want to be the one to tell you this, but a first novel shouldn’t be longer than 450 pages for literary or mainstream fiction, 250-350 for anything else. For some genre fiction, it could be as short as 200 pages, but frankly, I think it’s the writer’s job, not mine, to check how long works in her genre are. However, if you’re a spectacularly talented writer, I would like a peek at your work, because maybe I could work with you to bring it under accepted limits. It might be the next DA VINCI CODE!”
OR: “I think the industry’s current length standards are really stupid, and I don’t want to give them more credibility by stating them here.”

(4) “We are interested in all high-quality work, regardless of genre.”
Translation: “We do have fairly strong preferences, and actually represent only specific kinds of books, but we are afraid that we will miss out on the next bestseller if we tell you people that. Does anyone out there have the next DA VINCI CODE?”
OR: “We are an immense agency, and you really need to figure out who on our staff represents which genre. If I am feeling generous when you pitch to me, I will tell you who that might be.”
OR: “We are a brand-new agency. We don’t have strong contacts yet, so we’re not sure what we can sell. Please, please send us manuscripts. Lots of them. My kid sister is out back right now, going through the slush pile, in the hopes of finding something marketable in the mess.”

(3) “I am looking for work with a strong plot.”
Translation: “I am looking for books easy to make into movies. I’d feel a little bit silly saying this out loud, but for my purposes, BRIDGET JONES’ characters are miracles of complex characterization, and a plot too complicated to explain to the average 8-year-old before he finishes his Slurpee is not for me. Sorry.”

(2) “We are always eager to find new talent.”
Translation: “We are looking for the next bestseller, not necessarily for someone who can write well.” (Yes, I know; this one is genuinely counterintuitive.)
OR: “We are looking for young writers, and think older ones are out of touch.”

(1) “True quality/real talent/good writing will always find a home.”
Translation: “…but not necessarily with my agency/publishing house.”
OR: “If you’re having trouble finding an agent or publisher, you either do not have talent or are going about it the wrong way, but I don’t have time to sit down with you and figure out which. Come find me when you have honed your craft to professional standards.”
OR (and this is both the kindest and the most common version): “Because I love good writing, I really want to believe that the market is not discouraging talented writers, but I fear it is. My nightmares are haunted by the specters of good writers who have given up trying to hack a path through a hostile system to get their books read. Maybe if I say this often enough, the great unknown writer in the audience will take heart and keep plowing through those rejections until she succeeds.”

In this industry’s lexicon, there are two sentences that mean exactly the same as in our language: “I love your work, and I want to represent it,” and “I love this book, and I am offering X dollars as an advance for it.” These, you can trust absolutely.

Here’s to all of you out there hearing those last two very soon. Keep up the good work!

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