For the past couple of days, I’ve been talking about the strategic desirability of keeping abreast of what’s being published lately in the book category in which one has chosen to write — in particular, what first-time authors in your area are managing to get into print these days. While what hit the shelves at Barnes & Noble last week isn’t necessarily an infallible indicator of what agents and editors want to see right now — it’s often a year or two between a manuscript’s sale to a publisher and when it comes out, and often a year or several before that when that manuscript got picked up by an agent, so what’s new at B&N is reflective of what these discerning folks wanted then — reading the current releases can give you a strong general sense of what these folks consider good writing in your genre.
Besides, how else are you going to figure out how your book is different and better than what’s already out there, an essential set of information for pulling together a stellar query, pitch, or book proposal, if you aren’t familiar with what iS already out there?
Gaining familiarity with, say, the last five years’ worth of first releases in your category will also enable you to glean a working impression of what’s old hat and what’s hot, what might be considered fresh and what just weird in a new submission. Agents see a LOT of queries and submissions that seem derivative of the latest bestseller in a book category — or, even more commonly, a bestseller from two, five, or even ten years ago. And the sad thing is, in many of these cases, the submitting writer didn’t even borrow on purpose; they just knew so little about the current market for that category that they thought the bestseller was the category.
Don’t laugh — plenty of writers stumble into seeming derivative by accident. Independently writing a book that’s very, very similar to something that’s hit the market and failing to mention its uncanny resemblance to that book is a mistake that’s scuttled many a good query.
Or, to put it as uncharitably as critics as long ago as Samuel Johnson (who probably didn’t actually say this; it’s been attributed to a whole lot of editors over the years) have: “Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that’s good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”
Frankly, it used to be easier for fledgling writers to follow their respective markets than it is now. We hear about the potential bestsellers, of course, but smaller books garner less attention than in days of yore. Publishing houses have been cutting down on promotion in recent years, particularly of first books, and many newspapers have been cutting way back or even eliminating their book review sections.
Why, I read only the other day that even National Public Radio is planning on cutting one of its fine book-discussion shows. When even NPR and PBS start to doubt the future of the book, the barbarians are not only at the writer’s gate; they’ve pulled up chairs and are sharing our dinner.
Now, I happen to believe in the future of the book — yes, even the book that isn’t a bestseller. Mid-list books, the ones that sold not spectacularly but consistently, used to be considered the backbone of the industry, after all. I just think — and admittedly, this is a lulu of a just — that the combination of a slow economy and the rise of the Internet means that the traditional means of selling books aren’t working as well as they have in the past.
But that doesn’t mean that the book is dead; it’s perfectly obvious that people haven’t simply stopped reading, any more than folks like us have stopped writing. The rise of the blogosphere alone proves that. Publishers are going to need to figure out new ways to convince readers to buy their products — or to change how readers pay for it. (There have been some exciting experiments lately in sponsorship for serialized e-books, for instance.)
While they’re figuring that out, I’ve a modest proposal: the English-speaking world is rife with aspiring writers, and the vast majority of us are inveterate readers. Millions of us. We may not be able to change profitability trends by ourselves or overnight, but if all of us bumped up our book-buying habits just a little and kept at it, the cumulative effect could be considerable.
Or, to put it bluntly: if you want to live in a world where it’s profitable to sell books, buy some. And if you want to live in a world where publishers, and thus agents, are willing to take chances on first-time authors of books like yours, buy books like yours by first-time authors.
Admittedly, however, this practice can add up into some serious dosh pretty fast — which is why, in case you were wondering, so many professional writers regard buying recent releases in their own books’ categories as market research, a legitimate business expense, and claim it as such on their Schedule Cs. (Word of warning: I am not a qualified tax advisor and I don’t know your particular situation, so do have a nice chat with someone who is and does — ideally, someone with experience in artists’ taxes — before you start deducting anything.)
So why not, as I have been suggesting for some days now, place the relevant volumes on your wish list so that those who are just aching to buy you presents (like, say, our old pal, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver) can help float those authors’ boats, too? Everybody wins — including you, because it’s just about the least costly means of getting your mittens on the books you really should be reading in order to market your writing effectively.
But enough of the more depressing reasons that investing in books in your category is a good idea. Let’s move hastily on to another, more immediately practical reason to get in touch with one’s submarket and remain so, one much dearer to the hearts of most agent-seekers than any I mentioned yesterday.
It’s a great way to identify agents to query. Better than that, it’s also a great way to find out what warms a particular agent’s heart.
Because while, as I spent the late summer and early fall arguing in this very forum that there’s no such thing as a query or submission that will please every single agent on the planet, there is substantial empirical evidence that every agent on the planet is at least a little bit flattered by queries that begin,
Since you so successfully represented Unknown Author’s recent novel, FIRST BOOK, I hope you will be interested in my novel, PROJECT I’VE BEEN WORKING ON FOR A DECADE…
Obviously, to pull of this particular bit of strategic flattery, it helps to be familiar with Unknown Author’s work. If only there were a way to do that…oh, wait; I’ve just spent the last couple of days discussing that very issue.
Note that I’m suggesting mentioning a less-known or first-time author upon whom the agent took a chance, rather than merely finding out who an agent’s best-selling client is and praising her to the skies. They are far likely to be buttered up, I’ve found, by mentions of novels them may have struggled to sell than by similar references to their better-established clients.
It’s not very difficult to use this pervasive quirk to your advantage in a query letter. Perhaps because, as Edith Sitwell tells us: “The aim of flattery is to soothe and encourage us by assuring us of the truth of an opinion we have already formed about ourselves.”
(Had I mentioned that I still have a backlog of apt quotes to use up?)
To slather on the butter with an even more lavish hand, go ahead and say something nice about the book in your query letter to its agent. According to Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, “We are so vain that we even care for the opinion of those we don’t care for.”
Naturally, the buttering-up process is going to be a whole lot easier to pull of if you have actually read the book in question. Although truth does compel me to say that if you are in a hurry, you can’t go far wrong with something along the lines of, “As the agent who so ably represented Keanu Reeves’ BRAIN SURGERY FOR EVERYBODY, I believe you will be interested in my book…” even if your sole contact with this impressive volume was seeing it on a list of Mssr. Reeves’ agent’s clients.
That being said, on conscientious grounds, I really should reiterate that you ought to read, if not actually buy (or urge your FNDGG to buy for you), all of the books you are using as launching pads for query letters to agents. Don’t even think of formulating a substantive praise for an unread book, even if you lift that praise directly from The New York Times Review of Books. Too many would be butterers-up have found themselves being asked, “So, what did you like about that book?” by an agent who devoted years of her life to promoting it.
Trust me, she’ll be able to tell if you’re faking an opinion.
If you can at all afford it, do try to buy these books, though. Indirectly, it’s in your self-interest: after all, the sales of an agent’s current clients subsidize hiring Millicent to screen submissions from new writers, right? And while agents’ literary tastes do vary widely, they do inexplicably all share a taste for readers actually purchasing their clients’ work.
Must be the effect of close proximity on the collective mind, much like that strange phenomenon often noted by conference-attending writers where the mere fact of sitting on a dais with other agents and editors will apparently cause them all to tell an expectant audience of the would-be published exactly the same things about querying and submission, rather than emphasizing how their tastes differ, which would actually be far more useful to attendees trying to figure out which of the throng to approach for pitching purposes.
Perhaps famous salonnaire Marguerite-Louise-Virginie Chardon Ancelot was presciently thinking of the collective opinions of those who promote books when she wrote, “It can be said of the society of salons that not one person exactly resembles another. Nevertheless, there is so little difference, it being like the leaves of a tree that are not exactly the same, yet seem all alike.”
Another reason to buy books written by the agent of your dreams’ more obscure clients is the good karma factor. As I MAY have pointed out earlier in this very post, the world would be a substantially better place for writers if we supported one another by purchasing books by first-time authors early and often.
Who can forget Glückel of Hamelyn’s 1719 pronouncement, “Stinginess does not enrich; charity does not impoverish”?
However, good old Glückel aside, I know that some of you will need to rely upon the library for your pre-buttering-up research. That can be pretty time-consuming — and not always sufficient, because although the print-on-demand market is becoming increasingly important, both for self-publishers and small presses, many libraries still refuse to purchase POD books at all, as a matter of policy.
So here are a few tips on how to expand your reading list without buying out Borders or hiding from its staff while you carefully read books for sale without bending their pages. As Zora Neale Hurston liked to put it, “research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prodding with a purpose.”
First, you don’t need to until a book is actually published before complimenting it agent on the achievement of selling it. Given predictable lag times between book contract and actual publication, you may be able to spot a relevant sale as much as two years before it turns up in a bookstore near you.
So in a sense, even a very hip bookstore is a graveyard of passé contracts. (As Mary Webb informed us in PRECIOUS BANE, “We are tomorrow’s past.”) As I mentioned at the top of this post, what you are seeing in bookstores today, then, is not necessarily what is selling NOW.
And, as I sense dimly that I may not be the first to point out, the early bird catches the worm. By querying the agent BEFORE the book comes out, you will beat the crowd of writers who inevitably swamp the agent of any commercially big book. (Sorry, no quote for that one. This is harder than it looks, people.)
Also, your promptness will tell the agent indirectly that you are a savvy writer familiar with market trends — and you will become one, if you become a regular reader of book sales. It is surprisingly addictive, if a bit depressing at the moment, and you will quickly learn a great deal about what is and is not being sold to publishing houses right now.
How does one pull this off, you ask? Start reading the trade journals, such as Publishers’ Weekly, or subscribe to Publishers Marketplace, which lists pretty much every sale to a North American publishing house, by title, author, agent, and often a one-line description of the book as well.
Neither subscription is very cheap — but hey, isn’t that what hints to one’s FNDGG are for?
A fringe benefit to reading either source habitually: many times, these sources will give a general indication of the advance offered, too, so you can start getting some idea of what your writing is potentially worth in the happy event that you do sell a book in the current market. (Spoiler alert: pretty much every aspiring writer believes that the average advance is exponentially larger than it actually is. Especially these days.)
To quote my former agent, “We don’t really have any idea of a book’s market value until we start to shop it around.” (Come on — you expected me to have a famously relevant quote ready for that one?)
If you are a novelist, pay particular attention to the debut novels, which are often broken off into their own section in industry listings. Again, there is no better way to tell which agents are willing to take on new writers than to find out who is putting that inspiring level of openness into action.
If any or all of this seems anti-artistically practical to you, consider what George Eliot told us in ADAM BEDE, “It you could make a pudding wi’thinking o’ the batter, it ‘ud be easy getting dinner.”
Hard to argue with that.
Keeping abreast of who is selling what will also allow you to target your queries more effectively as agents’ (and agencies’) tastes change over time — a phenomenon which, I am sad to report, is not always reflected promptly in the standard agency guide listings (which often remain un-updated for years on end) or even on agency websites (which tend to be updated seldom). Acquiring the laudable habit of comparing what these sources say particular agents are looking to represent with the same preferences as the agents themselves are currently describing them at writers’ conferences and their blurbs in conference guides will also help you keep on top of who to send what when.
The more current the information you can dig up, the better.
Since a pre-publication query is a situation where you could not possibly have read the book before querying (unless you happen to be a member of the author’s critique group), you need not worry about complimenting the book; by noticing the sale, you will be complimenting the AGENT, which is even better.
In fact, you should make sure NOT to compliment the book, since anything you say is bound to come across as insincere. Has not Pearl S. Buck taught us that “Praise out of season, or tactlessly bestowed, can freeze the heart as much as blame”?
A good all-purpose opening, to steer clear of the slightest hint of misdirected flattery:
Congratulations on your successful sale of BOOK X! Since you so skillfully represent (BOOK X’s type of book), I hope you will be interested in my book…
Yes, learning to be this talented an agent-butterer does take time, as well as quite a bit of work. But unlike so many of the mundane tasks aspiring writers need to perform to attract an agent’s attention in a tight market, forming the twin habits of reading what’s newly in your area and keeping abreast of what editors are acquiring right now for your future reading pleasure will not merely be helpful in blandishing the agent of your dreams into taking a gander at your work. These are habits that will help you in later years be a more marketable — and perhaps even better — author, well versed in all of the pretty things writers in your category can do to enchant their readers.
“Unhappiness,” Bernadin de Saint-Pierre wrote in THE INDIAN HUT, “is like the black mountain of Bember, at the edge of the blazing kingdom of Lahor. As long as you are climbing it, you see nothing but sterile rocks; but once you are at the peak, heaven is at your head, and at your feet is the kingdom of Cashmere.”
Try to think of all this self-assigned reading as continuing education for your dream profession. Asking for these books might not have been your first impulse when you sat on Santa’s lap this year, but it would be a good, strategic second thought.
Speaking of gift lists, I shall be moving on to a new section of mine next time — and you’ll be happy to hear that I’m all quoted out for now. Keep up the good work!