What Would You Do?

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Nov 30 2009

One of those questions that comes with a variety of answers . . .

Let’s say you’re an agent who has fairly specific tastes for what you like to represent. You have a client for whom you’ve already sold three of these type of books. This client then comes to you with a book that has very little to do with the kind of fiction you normally represent. (Not genre-jumping, but a different style.) It’s a perfectly good book, just not to your taste. If this had come via query, you’d turn it down.

What do you do? Farm it out to a junior agent? Tell the writer to shelve it? Learn to love it even though it’s not your cup of tea?

The first thing I’m going to grab on to is the phrase “not to your taste.” If that’s a phrase that comes from me, if I tell my client that her book isn’t to my taste, it probably means that I really don’t like it, that the writing, the style of the book, and the book itself didn’t grab me and ultimately I don’t feel I’m the right agent for it. How I handle it will be dependent on many things.

Do I feel this is a direction that doesn’t work for the author? If this is the case then I’m going to discuss my concerns with my client. If it’s a book I don’t feel is that strong or the right direction for the author’s voice or the market, I feel it’s my job to let the writer know that. How she wants to handle the next step is up to her. Does she want to consider my opinion and put the book away for something else? Or would she rather find someone else to work with?

Do I feel that there’s something there, but the execution is off? If this is the case then I’m going to talk to the author about possible revisions and what we can both do to make the book stronger.

Do I feel it has potential, but I’m not the right agent for it? If this is the case then I’m probably going to suggest that I shouldn’t be representing the book. I need to do what’s best for my client and her career, and sometimes that means stepping aside.

One of the other phrases I want to latch on to is “perfectly good book.” That’s not a term that screams sale to me. In fact, it’s a term that leaves me a little cold. See, “perfectly good books” don’t tend to sell, especially in this market. Great books sell. If this book is only “perfectly good” it sounds to me like it’s not quite enough to hang a career on. Sure, others might hear that phrase differently, but it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. If someone told you about a book she just read and called it “perfectly good,” would you run out to buy it?

And would I pass it on to another agent? If I feel the book has merit, but I’m not the right agent for it, it is likely I would talk about it with the other agents at BookEnds and ask if any of them, junior or not, might be interested. Of course, whether or not the client wants to work with that agent on the book would have to be a decision she would need to make.

As for learning to love something that’s not my cup of tea, well, it’s a little more than love. I try and love new teas all the time. In fact, I credit many of my own clients for introducing me to genres, sub-genres and writing styles that I might never have considered in the past. The issue for me comes not from loving the tea, but from being able to do what I feel is right for the author, and that means giving her the best agent possible. If I really get excited about something it doesn’t matter if it’s something I thought I might have rejected in a query; what matters is if I can do my best for it.

So I hope that variety of answers helps you. There’s no right or wrong to how an agent or a client might handle this situation and, as always, without knowing the book, the client, and the entire scope of the career it’s really a hard question to answer.


15 responses to “What Would You Do?”

  1. Avatar Anonymous says:

    This post made me wonder a bit about the client-agent relationship and the advice unagented writers get all the time: query one book at a time and sell the book, not you. Yet once an author becomes a client, even if the book originally signed up for has not yet sold (and perhaps ultimately never sells), that client gets time, attention, and help on future projects, whether those books are as salable as what's in the slush or not. Now I'm not crying "unfair" because this is business after all and there has to be some model or it's all chaos. But doesn't there seem a bit of dichotomy here?

    I'm sure it differs for all agents, but how long do you hang with a client and champion her even if her projects aren't selling?

  2. I think what is most important to note here is that the question was about one book, not a career arc… most writers have one unusual book in them, something that just doesn't fit with their career arc, and a wise agent may help them with it, (if it's a great book with potential to sell) then ask if she sees her career going in that direction. If the writer does, then maybe the agent and writer have a problem, but if it's a one-off, then it doesn't impact the career as a whole, ultimately.

    Sometimes, both agent and author are going in different directions, and that is the time to 'break up'; like a marriage dissolving it's painful, but can be amicable. That's where I'm at right now… I have a perfectly good agent, nice guy, we get along, but we just aren't moving in the same direction and have decided it's time to part. It's weird to be starting over after six or seven years with an agent!

  3. Avatar Rowenna says:

    Maybe "perfectly good" means different things to different people, but to me it's what my father says when my mother tosses something in the trash and he fishes it out because it's still "perfectly good." Not exactly a selling point in terms of imagery.

    Thanks for putting this in perspective of an entire career. Would you recommend that an agented writer talk to their current agent before getting too invested in an "out of character" project like the one in this example?

    Good luck starting fresh, Donna!

  4. I read the question to be more simple and I think it's a valid question. If, say, an author writes mysteries and has moderate success with them, then she writes a sweeping sci-fi or a quirky YA, or a heart-wrenching women's fiction book and her agent does not normally read nor represent that style at all, then does the agent say, "not for me"?

    There are many writers who write in different genres and they use pseudonyms. But there are also authors who use their name for anything they write. Karen MacInerney, Ann Aquirre (who acknowledged in her third book her agent said she doubted she'd like it), John Grisham, Anne Rice (talk about black and white).

    I think the key is to land an agent that wants to guide your whole career and who represents multiple genres. Flexibility is important in this business. If an agent isn't willing to bend simply because they don't like (fill in the blank), then that agent isn't a good fit if you are not one to be boxed in.

    Of course, the best thing would be to send pages before the book is done to get her thoughts on the idea.

    Barbra Annino

  5. bingol- great comment. Thanks. And agree with the "perfectly good" assessment. Because really, how many great vampire stories can there possible be? Yet shelves are filled with them.

  6. Agent… take the book on, come up a Pen Name and get on with it!

    Ya just never know what's gonna happen… could turn out being bigger than a rhinoceros in a chicken coop!

    Haste yee back 😉

  7. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    Anonymous 8:41–to give an example of how long Jessica will champion a client: I signed with her in 2001 when she accepted my contemporary romance which, consequently, she was unable to sell. I continued to send the occasional manuscript to her without any results, until 2005 when I finally sent one–an erotic romance–which sold to Kensington Publishing. She has sense sold a second series for me in yet another genre, also to Kensington, but there have been a few things in between that I've submitted that Jessica did not feel were right. I've learned to trust her judgment and those projects will probably never see the light of day. Does that bother me? Not at all–I want a career as an author and that means I need to keep writing and keep exploring new ideas. When one doesn't work, I have to be able to put it aside and move on to what does.

    Remember, with every manuscript you write, you're learning more about your craft as well as yourself as a writer. And in this business, if you want to succeed, you need to keep swimming…sort of like sharks.

  8. Kate: thanks for sharing your story in the comments :). I think that helps illustrate this post perfectly. I love that it's about the career and about honesty between client and agent.

    Thanks, Jessica, for the insight!

  9. Kate, I appreciate you sharing your story. To me though, it seems contradictory. You said the book that Jessica signed you with never sold. Then a few sold, then a few she didn't feel were right and you trusted her judgement and put them aside. But isn't judgement in the eye of the beholder? Because after all, that first book– which she deemed salable or she wouldn't have taken you on– didn't sell.

    I guess my point is that agents work for the writer and while I think it is important to listen to their advice and guidance, ultimately you need to champion your own work. Take Charlaine Harris for example. She was already a mid-list mystery author when her agent told her to shelve the first Sookie. She refused and I think a lot of people are glad she did.

    From an interview linked on her site:
    Charlaine Harris: I wrote it over two years ago when I was on a break between one series and the other. I wrote it very quickly, and I had the most fantastic time writing it. But my agent didn't like it, and he didn't really want to try to sell it, so I got some outside intervention. I told my agent I was getting another opinion.

  10. Avatar bingol says:

    My agent wasn't all that thrilled with a book of mine–it's not in a genre with which he's all that familiar–so she recommended that I speak to a few other agents, at other agencies.

    I did, got an agent, and it sold. So now I have two agents. If the book is good, and the relationship between the writer and agent is good, this isn't much of a problem.

    I do want to pick a nit with this, though: '… “perfectly good books” don’t tend to sell, especially in this market. Great books sell."'

    Not really–as any trip to the bookstore will attest. Half of the 'wonderful books' that are being flogged by agents who blog (written by their clients) are between mediocre and perfectly good. I check out everything that a blogging agent recommends, and my impression is largely: eh. Fine, but by no means great, books.

    The novel of mine that sold is also perfectly good. It's not deathless prose. It's not an earthshaking concept. It's just a perfectly good and commercial book that'll possibly find a healthy spot in the marketplace.

  11. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Kate, why not look for a second agent who may be able to sell your other books? Every agent has different contacts. I'm sure Jessica won't mind–good luck!

  12. The problem with "perfectly good" is that it implies a "but…." In this case the "but" was ill-defined which implies mediocre.

    When the "but" is well-defined, it's easier to find an option. If you write a hard-boiled series, and a fluffy, funny romance pops out, you want to find a place for it, even if it doesn't fit your career overall.

    I know people in the sf world who self-publish those little odd-ball stories. In some cases, those odd-ball stories are part of the same series, or are an alternative world of the series, and just don't belong in official publisher's line. But they are still of interest to the fans – especially in the context of something on the side.

    IMHO, if you've got an agent, you should talk it over with her, and decide what it means in the arc of your career. And then deal with it accordingly.

  13. Avatar Voidwalker says:

    I'm not an agent, so I don't quite know what I'd do in that circumstance. As a writer, I'd hope my agent and I were on the same page about future work, since they are the pro at it.

  14. Avatar Timothy Fish says:

    Like most people, I have a boss. He comes to me occasionally with some idea of how he wants something to be done and it may be the case that I disagree with the way he wants to do it. I make my arguments against what he has suggested and it may be result in compromise, but it may be that my boss doesn't change his mind. When that happens, it is my responsibility to put aside my better judgment and do what he asks. A literary agent's job is to offer advice and tell the author when she doesn't think something is a good idea, but when the final decision is made, it should be the author who has the preeminence, because the agent works for the author, not the other way around. The agent should certainly inform the author of all the pros and cons of the decision, but refusing to do something because we don't like it does not bode well for a good working relationship.

  15. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Sorry, but it's just plain silly to say that only "great books" sell in this market–scan the romance racks and yes, you'll find plenty of great writing and plotting, but "great books" will be few and far between (I say this as a huge fan of romance–a huge fan because it's predictable, formulaic, and easily digestible).