There are No Absolutes

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Feb 09 2010

I was concerned about a statement I read on an agent’s website:

“Fiction by unknown authors is almost impossible to sell these days.”

Following that, she also went on to say:

“As a rule, I no longer take mysteries, thrillers or historical novels from unknown authors because publishers won’t buy them.”

Since my novels are thrillers, and since I am, as of yet, an “unknown author,” as she put it (although, I prefer to call myself pre-published), this concerns me. Is there some industry secret of which I’m unaware? Are we “unknown” thriller, mystery, and historical writers just spinning our wheels, or is this merely the opinion of one very misguided literary agent?

For a long time I’ve preached that there no are absolutes, that you should never believe anyone who says “never,” and yes, I see the irony in that statement.

I think to say that no editors will ever buy books from unknown or unpublished authors is a huge, wide-sweeping generalization, and I think we all need to be careful to avoid those as much as possible. We need to avoid saying them and we need to avoid believing them. It’s no different really than authors giving advice to one another that if you say “thank you” in your query letter you’ll be automatically rejected (and yes, I know this advice came about after people misunderstood a blog post I made some time back). Both seem a little ridiculous, don’t you think?

Editors and agents are looking for good books. That’s it. Good books. Books from unpublished authors can be a more difficult sell. Of course books from published authors with a bad track record (bad sales numbers) can be an even trickier sell. I suspect that what this particular agent is really saying is that she just doesn’t want to represent books from “unknown authors.” It might be that she’s never had luck selling them or it might be that she’s at a place in her own career where she just doesn’t want to.

I don’t think this is necessarily an opinion of a “misguided” agent. I suspect it’s more an agent who has misspoken. No, you aren’t spinning your wheels. You are writing in a genre (mystery, thriller, or historical) that’s especially challenging for writers these days, but getting published is challenging, heck, selling books is challenging, but a little challenge can be good for the soul.


26 responses to “There are No Absolutes”

  1. Avatar Jason says:

    There are NO absolutes…starting…now!


  2. Avatar Neil Nyren says:

    Completely right, Jessica. Every publisher I know publishes unknown authors, because the "unknown" of today are the bestsellers and prize-winners of tomorrow. Last year, my company published six first novels. This year, it'll be eleven.

  3. Avatar Lydia Sharp says:

    It's difficult for unknown authors of ANY genre.

    I think you're right, Jessica. This agent simply misspoke. Perhaps a more accurate, more professional, thing to say would have been, "Sorry, I'm not currently interested in unpublished authors." I've seen that in agents' guidelines, and it is not insulting at all. It's understandable.

  4. Avatar magolla says:

    Take heart! One of my writing buddies–an unknown author–made a three-book deal with Berkley Crime.

    My guess is that particular agent has never had success with selling an unknown author in those genres, but there are other agents out there that have.

  5. All I have to say is "Before they were known, they were unknown".

  6. I suspect many agents tend to become too hyper-aware of what they themselves can and cannot sell. And if a book is something they do not think they can sell, then they bestow on it the mantle of unsellability. This is why you should listen to everything agents and editors tell you with a big dose of salt. If three or four or ten agents or editors tell you the same thing, well that's something else.

  7. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Yes, I've heard of a few agents who won't accept these genres cuz they're not the current trend. But who's to say mystery/suspense won't be hot in a year or two? Aren't people sick of vampires and werewolves by now? (I am, but I've never been a big fan.)

    As for historical mysteries, the movie "Sherlock Holmes" puts a fresh, action-packed spin on an old favorite so let's hope this helps revive the historical mystery genre (my personal fave)!

  8. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Hi Jessica,

    You said: 'You are writing in a genre (mystery, thriller, or historical) that’s especially challenging for writers these days'

    My question is: What if any of the above three, or a combination of any two also fit into the genre "Young Adult"? Would the book still be as challenging to sell?

  9. Avatar VR Barkowski says:

    Not sure if this agent's website was recently updated or if the quote was truncated, but the agent's page now reads:

    "Fiction by unknown authors is almost impossible to sell these days but if the novel is truly brilliant, it will sell if its agent is dedicated."

  10. Avatar James King says:

    Thank goodness that there are no absolutes in this business, or after three decades of trying, I'd STILL be unpublished.

  11. Thank you for this post. It can be easy to feel discouraged by absolute statements. Your perspective helps me maintain perspective.

  12. Avatar Shelley Sly says:

    Great post. Thank you for this optimism, or at least this anti-pessimism. You're right, there are no absolutes, and I'm going to believe that. 🙂

  13. When I get a rejection like that, I always assume it's a kind of brush off. Yeah, it's hard to sell this or that, but what they're really saying is that they weren't excited enough about the book (or query) to overcome the inertia of not accepting it.

  14. Avatar Layne says:

    Recently, I've received emails from Publishers Lunch which detail book deals for "unknown" authors.

    Obviously, every author is unknown until they're known. Common sense.

  15. Isn't that why so many authors lately, kick start their public career by self publishing their first born? …There by taking some of the pressure off the new and over worked agent.

  16. Avatar Mira says:

    Thank you for this post, Jessica.

  17. Avatar Bron says:

    It sounds like this agent has taken on these genres by unknown authors in the past and has failed to sell them. That's probably not an agent you want anyway, so I think this agent is doing both themselves and unknown authors a favour.

  18. Avatar Anonymous says:

    It seems many commenters know who this agent is, but I don't. I am about to query for my finally completed first mystery /suspense novel. i would appreciate knowing who this agent is.

  19. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Agents are especially good at overlooking high concept thrillers. Look at Daniel Suarez' DAEMON! Best-selling series now, originally self-published.

    Query the agents who handle your genre, but don't rely on them. There's a lot of roads into the city. If you're inventive enough to write a thriller/mysery, you should be inventive enough to figure out how to get it to the poeple who want to read it. It's actually easier than ever these days. Amazon is the new gatekeepr when it comes right down to it. make it available, then make sure the right people know it's there–readers, movers-and-shakers in the real-life subject area of the book, reviewers, etc. Agents are only 1 small aspect of the publishing game. to fixate on them alone is like playing chess and limiting yourself to only using one piece for the opening 30 moves.

  20. Avatar D. Antone says:

    I'm very grateful to have received query responses from agents with a positive attitude. They have all been very uplifting. I guess sometimes books and agents aren't a right fit, but it shouldn't ever be articulated as an absolute.

    Great post!

  21. Avatar Buffra says:

    Jason — that is the most adorable picture ever.

    Just sayin'.

  22. Avatar Sheila Deeth says:

    Genius, plus luck, plus time, plus opportunity, plus lots of hard work… still dreaming.

  23. Avatar atexasgirl says:

    Just today I got The Call from my agent telling me that a major mystery publisher has made an offer for a three-book deal. I'm a first-time, unknown author writing in the cozy mystery genre.

  24. Avatar Anonymous says:

    congrats, texas!

  25. Avatar MargaretD says:

    At I've reviewed quite a few recent historical novels published by major presses that are debut novels: The Wet Nurse's Tale by Erica Eisdorfer, The Jewel Trader of Pegu by Jeffrey Hantover, Company of Liars by Karen Maitland, As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe (this one was on the NYT bestseller list last year), The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson, Daughter of Kura by Debra Austin, Mistress of the Revolution by Catherine Delors . . . the list goes on. Several of these appeared on my "best books I read" list.

  26. Avatar Nishant says:

    I've seen that in agents' guidelines, and it is not insulting at all. It's understandable.

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