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.)
Thank you for sharing. I’m honored to be a small part of The Steve Laube Agency.
Thank you for those insider updates on what might expect via an agency like yours. Great news lies in learning how to accept what is gifted to us through, God’s use of us in writing. You share some courageous and perceptive insights. Thank you, Steve.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D.
Steve, thanks for the great way to start my Monday. What a great blog posting! Okay, now this is gonna sound weird but I have a gift for picking houses that will sell. I was in real estate for about eight years, full time, and I can walk into a house and tell within minutes if there will be multiple offers on a house. It just happened to me again last month, when I was looking at a condo in Florida. So here I am in academia. Go figure.
Thanks for this wonderful tips, it’s a great lesson
Did Paul hope for publication
of the epistles that he wrote,
based on growing reputation;
or did he fear he’d missed the boat?
What of Relevatory John,
stuck on Patmos drear?
Did he think he would live on
in words that we’d hold dear?
And how ’bout he who wrote the Acts
and the Gospel of good Luke,
who reported what he saw, the facts;
would he consider it a fluke
that his lovely Natal story
would be paradigm of God’s kind Glory?
Love your words Andrew as always.
Daphne, thank you so much!
Wondering if the word is: Revelatory?
Kristen Joy Wilks
This is such an interesting post to read. My as readers and writers we experience the same thing. My sons recently convinced me to read a 1,000 page fantasy novel. It had like, 18 viewpoint characters, a completely made up world that required hundreds of pages full or world building to understand, and a complex magic system. “No,” I thought. “This book looks exhausting to read.” On the one hand, my instincts were right in that I had to get over 40 pages into the book (past both prologues, yep, there were 2 prologues) before I was hooked. But once it happened, I knew that it was going to be a fabulous book, despite the massive length and considerable investment required. I also had 3 sets of twinkling boyish eyes urging me on. “You’ll love it, Mom!” And who can say no to that? But yeah, what at first seems unlikely, all of a sudden feels like gold and you realize what all the chatter is about! Such a great experience whether you’re a reader, writer, agent, or editor. Thank you for showing us your side of that magic moment!
Kristen Joy Wilks
Wow! I was typing way too fast. Please pardon the plethora of typos, yikes!
It may be instructive to look at the other side, “that sinking feeling” you get about some projects.
Consider, “Solo: A Star Wars Story”…apparently no-one realized that the name was an instant connexion with the red plastic disposable cup, and that the film would thus be lampooned before it was even seen. It’s hard to overcome a tide of ridicule at the start.
It’s not a bad film, but it became the joke of the entire marque, and I’ll wager it was largely due to that embarrassing debut.
I should be a consultant, because I have a near perfect record in making predictions about what will be successful (books, films, house sales, politicians etc). I am generally wrong about 90% of the time. So listen carefully to what I say, and then do the opposite, you can’t lose.
It must be an interesting business with the excitement of new discoveries. I see the intrigue.. Glad for the successes. Happy with the surprises. Humbled by the ways of God … how He works behind the scenes. It’s exciting to know how a work propels its way to the forefront.
Daphne a Woodall
I always enjoy your stories of success or the one that got away. There’s always hope for publication with talent and determination. It’s like my golf game. I may have a terrible game but let me par two holes out of 18 and I’ll keep coming back trying to improve my putting game and score.
I really enjoy these behind the scenes tidbits about what it’s like working in publishing.
I enjoy these behind the scenes tidbits about what it’s like working in publishing.
OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU
Hmm… very interesting read. Thanks for the great post Steve!
The bottom line is that every craftsman knows his trade drilled in by years and years of experience.
When students write me an essay, I can accurately predict what grades they will make in my subject.
For writers, we do our best and leave the rest to God.
I really enjoy your posts. The gentle self-deprecating humour tickles my funny bone.