Why You Don’t Want to be the Exception

In a recent post on the top three reasons why my office sends rejection letters, I referred to authors sending me out-of-category submissions.

Spaghetti Against the Wall

First, I mentioned that some authors don’t do their research. They don’t take the five to ten minutes tops to find out what we’re seeking. We even have a handy-dandy tab on our site.

I think most authors who don’t consider what we’re looking for are querying dozens if not hundreds of agents they’ve found on a list and are hoping for the best. Unfortunately, that method wastes everyone’s time, time we need to spend serving our clients and reviewing viable submissions.

I’m Special

In my view, the second type of author who sends out-of-category submissions appears to be the author who thinks his work is so outstanding that we’ll make an exception for him. I’m not saying this can’t and never does happen. However, as an author, if you take this approach, you must ask yourself, “Do I really want to go with an agent who doesn’t know my category?”

I can be the most hardworking agent in the industry, and I might sign you. However, if I only know one editor who’d even look at a book on 53 ways to braid short hair, am I doing you a service to sign you, no matter how much I love your book?

Of course, the exception proves the rule, and that one editor could offer a multimillion-dollar contract tomorrow. Magic beyond logic can happen. That’s why it’s called magic. But if you’re a new author trying to navigate which agent to approach, wouldn’t it be in your best interest to work with an agent with a strong background in the type of book you write, especially when that agent works within an agency known for success with your kind of book?

There’s NO Other Book Like Mine!

A variation of “I’m Special,” this means that when you do your market research, you cannot find ANY other books on Mormon Vampires Colonizing the Sun. I understand the need to make your book unique, but when you can find NO other book anywhere near yours, there might be a reason for that. That reason is, there is no market for your book. At least this one has a remedy: do your market research before writing your book to help determine if you are entering a proven category or can offer a new take on a needed topic.

Your turn:

How many agents do you think an author should approach at the same time?

What is the most obscure book you’ve ever read?

25 Responses to Why You Don’t Want to be the Exception

  1. Avatar
    Loretta Eidson March 15, 2018 at 5:45 am #

    If someone is approaching multiple agents at one time, my personal opinion is to limit the number to three and only select those who represent what you write. I enjoyed reading a book once, and I’ve forgotten the title, but it was about a girl who found a job cooking for a family. She wasn’t a cook and she didn’t know what certain utensils were in the kitchen. It was a fun read until I reached the half-way point and suddenly it turned erotic. I gasped and threw it in the trash, disappointed that the author didn’t clarify her true genre.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 15, 2018 at 10:28 am #

      Loretta, thanks for that excellent advice. After researching agents, it makes sense that three should stand out.

      And yes, it’s nice when you know what you’re getting in to before you open a book!

  2. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser March 15, 2018 at 6:04 am #

    The most obscure book I ever read concerned a philosophical seagull who thought there must be more to life than fighting other gulls for scraps of food.

    Obscure it may have been, but in its day Jonathan Livingston Seagull helped heal a nation.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 15, 2018 at 10:28 am #

      So true! I was pretty young when I read it, and not really old enough to appreciate it. I just might see if I can find a copy and read it again!

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    Sarah Hamaker March 15, 2018 at 6:08 am #

    In my previous positions at several national trade publications, we used to receive queries and manuscripts for articles totally off topic by writers who wanted us to be so wowed by the submission, we’d make an exception and run it anyway. Or that the writing would make us assign them an article on an appropriate subject.

    There’s being creative, and there’s being lazy. I’ve often found that people who submit queries or manuscripts without doing their homework inevitably fall into the latter category, thinking that they can shortcut their way to success.

    As Christian writers, we should want to take as much care in finding the right agent and editor for our manuscripts as we put into writing them. It’s not just the words themselves, but how they are presented to others that matters too.

  4. Avatar
    Karen Sargent March 15, 2018 at 7:45 am #

    Tamela, this first comment is a bit off topic, but it is a good illustration of “I’m special”, although this applies to a ms rather than a query letter. I was leading a workshop and one pre-pub fantasy author explained writing was a slow process for him because he uses archaic language and has to spend time looking up words. I asked who his target reader was and if the reader would be able to understand his story without using a dictionary, and that in my experience readers are lazy (me included!). We don’t want to work to have to read a story, and it might be a tough sell to an agent. He said his target reader enjoys looking up words. I nodded to end the conversation because he clearly considered his approach special. (Or maybe there is an audience for his writing style, and I’m the one in the wrong?) — As for how many agents to query at once…a friend in the business recommended querying in batches of 10 about every two weeks. His advice was if a query letter is well-written and an agent is truly interested, I’d hear back within two weeks. If I didn’t get any requests for material–and assuming I was querying the right agents for my book–then I should revise my query letter.

    • Avatar
      Shirlee Abbott March 15, 2018 at 7:59 am #

      A two week turn-around time? Wow! That makes some interesting assumptions about the agents’ schedules: no vacations, no conferences, no out of town meetings, no pondering. Just an instant yay/nay. I’m not sure that is the agent I want.

      • Avatar
        Karen Sargent March 15, 2018 at 8:28 am #

        I’m sorry, Shirlee. Let me clarify. The reponse from the agent would be a request for chapters or the full ms, not an offer for representation. Just the next step… His take was that if a writer really has something to offer an agent and does it well (enticing query, polished sample chapters, etc.) that an agent isn’t going to wait long to hit the reply button and ask for more (in most cases). I hope this makes better sense. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Carol Ashby March 15, 2018 at 9:44 am #

      Karen, my millennial son is a ravenous reader of fantasy adventure. It’s not unusual for one of the races of beings who populate those books to have non-standard words for things, and fans like to learn them. Didn’t we all want to learn to speak Klingon after watching Star Trek or Elvish after watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit? Tolkien even created two forms of his language: Quenya (High-elven) and Sindarin, (Grey-elven). David Peterson wrote a book on language invention for world-building novels and movies (The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building).

      • Avatar
        Tamela Hancock Murray March 15, 2018 at 10:56 am #

        Carol, you have a point, but many fantasy fans expect to encounter strange words because the books are often about author-created worlds, whereas contemporary novels are supposed to be about a great plot in a familiar setting populated with characters we recognize. Most of the time, people we know use everyday language. The fantasy reader won’t have to consult a dictionary because the author has to acquaint the reader with his special world, so the definitions of the new words should be intiutive if not explained outright. So the fantasy reader isn’t frustrated by strange words, unlike the contemporary novel reader wondering what all those ten dollar words mean when simple ones will do.

        Oh, and for those wanting a Klingon dictionary, many such as this one are available! https://www.amazon.com/Klingon-Dictionary-Star-Trek/dp/067174559X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1521136527&sr=8-1&keywords=klingon+dictionary

        Thanks for the fun comment, Carol!

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 15, 2018 at 10:43 am #

      Karen, years ago, when I was still writing books, I was in a critique group with an author who’d quip, “Don’t you have a dictionary?” when people complained she used odd words. I agree that being willing to look up and learn new words is admirable. And yes, I own a dictionary.

      However, I have no desire to use a dictionary when I’m reading for pure pleasure. That’s not to be confused with learning something along the way in a novel. I just want to save looking up words in a dictionary for when I’m studying or doing heavy reading. And truth be told, I appreciate the author who can make a difficult-to-comprehend subject interesting and simple to understand. Case in point is that so many articles praising the late Stephen Hawking commended his ability to make tough science easy to understand. This way of writing respects readers’ time.

      As for a two-week turnaround? Your friend does have a point. To make my illustration obvious, I’ll use an example that will never apply to me: If a subject line says, “Stephen King wants you to be his agent!” I’ll immediately open this email and respond. So there’s merit in saying that if your query wows an agent, you are likely to get an almost instant response indicating high interest.

  5. Avatar
    Norma Brumbaugh March 15, 2018 at 7:53 am #

    Obscure book? My cousin picked out a book off a supermarket shelf somewhere in the pacific north-west. I was on a camping road trip with my cousin’s family that lasted for at least a week back in the seventies. We were duly entertained by my cousin and this book. He has a wicked sense of humor…and so did his purchase. It was about pets, in particular, dogs, and their owners. The writing was tongue-in-cheek, so humorous it kept us laughing the whole trip as my cousin read it out loud to the rest of us when he was cracking up. Things like… how dogs look like their owners or how small in stature dog owners have big dogs and big people have miniature dogs…all with some humorous real life stories.

  6. Avatar
    Anne Carol March 15, 2018 at 8:04 am #

    I enjoy reading these posts and learning more about the agent process! These are good points to keep in mind.

    I’m not sure about how many agents to seek at once – I’d say two or three?

    I once read a historical romance that was written entirely through the characters’ letters back and forth. It was so different, but I loved it.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 15, 2018 at 11:00 am #

      Two or three is probably manageable, especially if through research you’ve chosen the ones you really want to work with.

      Yes, the technique of telling stories through correspondence is a great way to go for historical. And accurate, as many biographers glean information from their subjects’ letters.

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    Barbara Ellin Fox March 15, 2018 at 8:20 am #

    The most obscure book I’ve read was written by a twelve year old girl named Sarah Bowes-Lyon and published by J.M.Dent & Sons in 1933. The book was reprinted twice. It is written by hand and also illustrated by the author. It’s a book on horsemanship. The girl’s biggest complaint is lack of time to write more as she is away at school. The book has an epilogue and also a preface. At the end of the preface she states, “All horses are fit for heaven, but few men.”

    I wanted to mention that I found the posts from last week and this week to be helpful.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 15, 2018 at 11:01 am #

      Barbara, that sounds like a wonderful and amusing book! I’ll have to see if I can find a copy.

      Thank you so much for the encouragement. I always appreciate learning that my puny efforts have been helpful!

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    Katie Powner March 15, 2018 at 8:25 am #

    I bought an interesting book at a garage sale: Creative Accessories for the Home. It included sections such as “How to add a handle to a twig basket” and “Haberdashery pillows.” Quite fascinating, actually.

    As far as agents, I think 3 is a good number to submit to at once, maybe 5 at the very most. But as far as how long to wait before sending another round….I’m still trying to figure that one out!

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 15, 2018 at 11:03 am #

      Katie, that sounds like a unique book!

      As for your submissions process, I’d wait a couple of months before sending a new round. Also, if there are one or two agents you especially want to work with, prod them first and see if you can get a response before moving on.

  9. Avatar
    Carol Ashby March 15, 2018 at 9:03 am #

    Most obscure book? I could name any number of scientific or engineering tomes, but my personal favorite is Fabrication of GaAs Devices. It enjoyed significant success, selling several hundred copies, but what really endears it to me is knowing the authors (Baca and Ashby). If you want to make compound semiconductor devices, this “apprenticeship in a book” is for you!

    On the more practical side for folks here, I’d say Squirrels of the West by Tamara Hartson. It’s a guide to the field marks and behaviors of the 65 different species of tree squirrels and ground squirrels found in the West. I got it in the visitor center at Yosemite to figure out what all the ground squirrels with the whitish V across their shoulders were.

    On the genuinely useful side for writers of western fiction: I recommend another treasure from a national park bookstore: Cowgirls: Women of the American West by Teresa Jordan. It contains biographical sketches and personal interviews of cattlewomen from 1885 to 1981.

  10. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D March 15, 2018 at 2:18 pm #

    HI Tamela:
    I met with four agents at the ACFW conference in Nashville in 2016. I think that worked out well because it gave me the chance to see what they were looking for in a client. I ended up signing with one of them.

    I haven’t really read any obscure books but the Mormon Vampires and Sun book that you mentioned has a certain appeal… I’m in, if you want me to write up a proposal and a few sample chapters…

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 15, 2018 at 2:19 pm #

      Awesome, Sheri. Except I wouldn’t want to try to poach you from your current agent! haha

    • Avatar
      Carol Ashby March 15, 2018 at 2:44 pm #

      Sheri, there was an ancient world historical romance entitled Werewolf Gladiators of Rome. I haven’t seen any vampire gladiator novels, but they did schedule the gladiators in afternoon combats. Maybe that would have been too much of a challenge for a vampire before high SPF sunblock was available. I didn’t click on the werewolf title because I could imagine the suggestions for what else I might like that Amazon would feed me!

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