Conferences

3 Things Never to Say to Agents and Editors

Believe it or not, agents and editors are regular people. Some more regular than others, of course; but most of us are pretty easy to approach, whether via mail or email, at writers conferences, at church, or on the street—preferably without a visible weapon.

But there are some things you should never say to an agent or an editor. Not in conversation. Not in a query or one-sheet. Not in a cover letter or proposal. And yet, you might be surprised by how often I see or hear one of the following from an aspiring (and, sometimes, fairly accomplished) writer.

#1: “There’s no other book like this.”

You see, editors and agents may appear to you as adventurers and “international men (and women) of mystery.” But they’re usually not. Most don’t want to be the first to try something new, risky, avant-garde; they want to know there’s a pretty good chance of success, so they’re interested in what other books are similar, and why, and also why this one you’re pitching is quantifiably better or different from those others. When writers fail to include a book comparison section in a proposal or—even worse—say, “there’s no other book like this on the market,” the editor or agent is likely to think there’s probably a good reason for that. I know, every writer wants to believe, like one pitch I received, that “There is no other Book like it within Existence, and due to it’s Rarity when compared to all other Books, it would be an International Bestseller until the ends of The Earth.” I don’t think I’m the only person who greets such a claim with caution.

#2: “Comparable books have become classics.”

I’m a fan of the classics. I really am. But I don’t recommend citing them in the comparison section of a book proposal, like the person who sent a proposal for a murder mystery/historical fiction/literary novel and said, “The three books comparing to this novel are Oliver Twist, Don Quixote, and Crime and Punishment.” There’s always a chance, sure, and that would be sweet; but it’s never a good idea to compare your work to Dickens or Dostoevsky. Even if it’s a fair comparison, saying so won’t help your case. I promise.

#3: “Everyone is publishing this kind of book.”

There’s a fine line in publishing between a hot topic and one that’s played out. And by the time you see six or seven different books about minimalism or the end times or intermittent fasting on bookstore shelves, it’s probably too late to catch that wave. Remember, those books were all pitched two or more years ago. And yours, even if it’s contracted tomorrow, won’t be in bookstores for at least another year. I know, you can’t be expected to keep up with every trend and fad; but these days just a little bit of research can at least indicate whether your idea is one whose time has come … or gone.

Like most of writing for publication, it’s an art, not a science; but striking these phrases from your book-pitch vocabulary will improve your chances immensely. And every little bit helps.

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