A common question we agents get is “How to you know?” Or as Bob Hostetler put it, “When you know, how do you know?”
The answer is extremely subjective. And each agent, just like a consumer, will see an idea or read a book differently.
After thinking about this question, I believe it comes down to three things.
For me it is an instinct that comes from reading voraciously for many years. After a while you start identifying the markers of which books were worth the time and which ones were not.
Instinct can be described as an innate impulse, something that cannot necessarily be taught but is something that can be learned.
Can I describe it? Not really. It is truly a gut feeling.
Am I right every time? How many LOLs would be too many to write? Ask any editor or agent about the “one they let get away.” But that’s part of the industry.
Once I sent a proposal I thought was marvelous to a variety of editors. One wrote back within an hour saying, “There is nothing new here. Pass.” An hour later a different editor from a different publisher wrote, “This fellow is the best writer I’ve read since Philip Yancey!” Guess which one contracted the book?
My experience, even that instinct, has been bred through many decades of working within the bookselling industry. Back in my bookstore days, it was that feeling when I held a new release in my hands and the title, cover, and description all shouted, “Bestseller.” The Beginner’s Bible was one. I was the national buyer for the chain at the time. I had only ordered a few copies for each store initially. But when I saw it? Wow! I immediately ordered hundreds of copies for the chain, enough to build a small endcap stack in each store. It quickly became the #1 bestselling children’s book in the industry.
After a while you begin to know, from experience, which topics, genres, titles, etc., have that special “snap” to them. The feeling, nay, the knowing, that this is the one.
Today that “feeling” happens at the proposal stage. It happens with clients all the time since they, too, have the experience and the instinct of what works, which is why they are published regularly. It also happens with the occasional unsolicited proposal.
In fiction it is a combination of brilliant writing (the kind where I don’t realize I’m reading anymore but am inside that world painted by the words of the author). This is a high threshold for the debut author. If the author is already established and coming to me for new or first-time representation, their sales history and network comes into the discussion.
In nonfiction I react like a consumer:
Does the title grab me? It’s that quick. Is the topic a salable one?
Does the author bring something special to the table?
At the same time, I’m thinking of our publishing partners, which ones would find this of interest?
Which marketing team and editorial team could get behind the project?
If all those cylinders are firing at once, then my interest is piqued.
I also look at whether this author is a one-book wonder (nothing wrong with that!) or if there is potential here for a long and successful career.
Blind Luck (or Providence, depending on your theology)
I don’t mean to be cavalier about God’s providence. I hope you understand the point. Sometimes a book is successful without people having anything to do with it.
There are cases inside our agency where I thought a proposal from another agent’s client was unlikely to find a home, only to be proven wrong by a tremendous new contract for that author’s project.
Or there have been times where I thought something might have a modest response in the market only to end up selling over 200,000 copies in less than a year.
Think of some of our industry’s bestselling books. Left Behind was thought to be an okay idea, but no one predicted 70 million in sales. The Shack was rejected by everyone, so was initially self-published. Who could have predicted that Jesus Calling would still be on the bestseller list over 10 years since it was released?
For that matter, did you buy Microsoft stock when it was trading for less than $20 a share in 2009?
This is an old saying: “Even a blind squirrel will find a nut once in a while.” I’m not sure whether I’m the squirrel or the nut. I’ll let you decide.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is to be right more often than not. And our agency’s longevity and successful authors have been humbling to watch. (That’s where God’s providence and provision are on display.)