Get Published

How Do You Know It’s Something That Will Be Published?

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.

Instinct

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?

Experience

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.)

Leave a Comment

Three Questions About Agents

In meeting with writers on the cusp of their careers or flush with new success, we find that three big questions come to the forefront. Today, Tamela shares her answers:

How do I find a literary agent?

1)      First and foremost, visit the Agency web sites to see which ones are actively seeking the type of work you write.

2)      Talk to your agented friends to learn about their agents. Referrals are a big part of our business.

3)      If time and finances allow, attend a conference or meeting where your preferred agent will be appearing and meet the agent.

Read More

My Most Common Advice These Days

I’ve been a published writer for more than forty years, an author for twenty-seven, and a literary agent for two-and-a-half years (not to mention a freelance book editor and a staff magazine editor at various points over the years, but I just did mention it, didn’t I?). So, whether via …

Read More

Saving the World, One Romance at a Time

Often I will receive submissions of novels tying in an element of mystery and suspense with romance. Writers targeting the romantic suspense market will find difficulty in placing this type of story. Why? Because romantic suspense readers have certain expectations that won’t be met with a mere element of mystery and intrigue.

In my experience trying to sell and market romantic suspense, I have found that the readers of this genre want all-out adventure and crime solving along with compelling romance. The suspense is foremost, with the romance being tied in so deeply that the story won’t survive without it.

Read More

A Big Giveaway for Writers

Periodically, I like to let our readers know about some of the special things we are doing to help teach writers via The Christian Writers Institute (CWI). We love to see Christian writers learn, grow, and succeed in their craft. As part of that, CWI is offering you a chance to win a …

Read More

Is Yours a Book or an Article?

The title question, “Is yours a book or an article?” comes up on a regular basis with nonfiction authors. Someone has lived an interesting life, survived a horrible disease, lost a precious loved one, suffered terribly (emotionally or physically) and feels led to write their story. But is it a …

Read More

How to Hear “No”

In a recent media interview (yes, I am that cool), I was asked if as a literary agent I liked saying “no.” I answered emphatically—even a bit rudely, I’m afraid, as I started my answer before my questioner finished asking. “I hate it,” I said. It’s a part of the …

Read More

The Editorial Process

It is important to understand the process through which a book takes under the umbrella called “The Edit.” I meet many first timers who think it is just a one-time pass over their words and that is all that will ever happen. And many who self-publish think that hiring a high school English teacher to check for grammar is enough of an edit.

There are four major stages to the Editorial Process. Unfortunately they are called by various names depending on which publisher you are working with, which can create confusion. I will try to list the various terms but keep them under the four categories.

Rewrites / Revisions/Substantive Edit

These can happen multiple times. You could get input from your agent or an editor who suggests you rewrite or revise those sample chapters of the full manuscript. Last year I suggest that one of my non-fiction clients cut the book in half and change its focus. We sold this first time author. But the writer had to do a lot of work to get it ready for the proposal stage.

Read More

Write Like Paul

Somerset Maugham wrote, “There is an impression abroad that everyone has it in him to write one book; but if by this is implied a good book the impression is false” (The Summing Up). Far be it from me to add to Maugham’s words, but I’m going to. So I …

Read More