you see, there’s this secret handshake…

….ha, you knew it all along, didn’t you? No, wait. There is *no* secret handshake. Absolutely not. Nothing secret here. Move right along.

Somewhere in comments I was asked how I decide whether a book is marketable. To some degree, that’s a very complicated question to answer, and I’m hesitant to give away all my trade secrets. What use would the writer then have for little ol’ me? (Obviously I am feeling quite tongue in cheek today. I wonder where that’s coming from.) Before I get into it, I’d recommend that anyone with this question or a similar one (such as, why the heck can’t I get an agent/publisher?) take a look at Theresa Nielsen-Hayden’s Slushkiller article. Pay close attention to those 14 reasons listed under the context of rejection. If you replace the word publish with represent, it’s still almost completely applicable to agents for reasons why works don’t get picked up for representation. It’s reasons #11-14 that are the real difficult ones, and hard to explain.

Problematically, one of the answers to the question of how I tell if a book is marketable contains some variation on the phrase: I know it when I see it. It’s true there are some other rationales: things I hear editors say, which when you hear it from six different editors starts to make an impression on you. For example: If I see another vampire query, I’m going to hurl. Disclaimer: This is only an example; not intended for posting in or RumorMill or any other such source. And this is also not to say that those variables don’t change every day. Great storytelling and writing will out – even if it does have a vampire in it. Honestly, I think a lot of it comes from being part of the publishing community. Not so much working the trends, because by the time you can find a book to fit one it’s typically over. The only way to take advantage of those is to begin one or by happy accident already have a manuscript that fits it. It’s about being on the same wavelength as the editors and other agents, having dialogue with them on a regular basis. And reading. Definitely reading. As widely as possible. By that I mean the things that are currently published and popular. Though – to some degree – I think opinions are also formed by reading the unpublished materials that cross your desk – that’s where part of the ability to see what works comes from….by seeing what doesn’t.

Unfortunately, none of this answers the question of how an individual writer can produce a marketable novel. In a large part because you can’t predict it entirely. There’s no formula or equation (or the aforementioned secret handshake). When a book comes to me, my decision is based on an odd mix of:

* judging the quality of the book (storytelling ability, expertise at craft),
* judging the quality of the writer (originality of ideas, “voice”),
* judging the market (partially by staying aware of the current one because that’s what editors are open to buying Right Now, and somewhat anticipating its future direction by instinct built up over years of practice and listening to editors talk about what *isn’t* in their slush), and
* how it resonates with me as a reader, which is pretty much a gut reaction thing.

If all those things are good – no… actually they have to be better than good – then I have a very good chance of selling it. But after that it’s somewhat of a gamble. Liking buying stock in a company that’s new to Wall Street. Hmmm… maybe I should go try Vegas…

20 responses to “you see, there’s this secret handshake…

  1. VERY helpful, thanks.

  2. Problematically, one of the answers to the question of how I tell if a book is marketable contains some variation on the phrase: I know it when I see it.
    Is the corollary to this, then, that you won’t know until you see it?
    For example, that it’s possible for a writer to take an idea that screams “trite!!!” and turn it into something really good?

    • Interesting…. and yes, I think. I’ve thought in the past that it’s more likely for an excellent writer to make a bad idea work than for a less talented author to make a good idea work. In the best of all worlds, though, you get both – the talent and the new idea.

  3. Thanks, that was certainly entertaining. Probably too much, I need to get back to work.
    I’ll say this much: what most disturbs me is how often basic advice is conveyed and yet so many writers still don’t get it. When I decided to write I did as much research about the job as I could and learned how it worked, like you would any other career. I figured that a little research and professionalism was worth it given how long I’d spent writing my first novel. After doing that, rejection just didn’t seem personal to me.
    But then I’m writing to tell stories not to gain acceptance, love, or whatever.

    • Mmm…”entertaining”….that’s one I don’t get too often. I hope you meant that in a good way. Heh. And I agree with you – I am somehow still vaguely surprised by authors who will spend months, or even years, working on a manuscript, and then not take even the briefest amount of time to present themselves and their work in a professional manner. Personally, I think a little research can go a long way.
      An interesting point you bring up…. the why of the writing and how it pertains to the reception of rejection. How can rejection be personal if the editor or agent rejecting you doesn’t know you from….well, anyone? So, why project all those negative feelings into an already competitive situation? Food for thought, there.

  4. *ahem*
    “The nightingale doesn’t know when the sun rises.”
    That’s the passcode, right? I mail you the manuscript now? *grin*

  5. Thanks Ms Jackson,
    That was my question in the disguise of a comment in a previous post. If I see another vampire query, I’m going to hurl But wait, my err vampire is the uhm actually the dark hero who is uhh facing his own inner demons—totally fresh and not played out I swear! 😉

  6. What Agents Do for You
    Great statistics from the two articles. I hope this doesn’t come off as a backhanded compliment, but as a friend of mine was going through the “agent-hunting” process, I saw how many parasites there were out there. It was very much a case of–you sell the book, I’ll take the 15 percent from your efforts and THEN represent you. One agent told my friend that she didn’t think the idea would sell or in any way be marketable, and this was after my friend had already sold the entire series and had a 3 book contract. In contrast, it seems like you really know the business and can see the bigger picture, beyond advances.
    Thanks, also, for the information you posted about foreign rights. I had no idea that they could be so lucrative with the right negotiation. Keep those facts coming!

    • Re: What Agents Do for You
      In contrast, it seems like you really know the business and can see the bigger picture, beyond advances.
      Michelle….thanks for the compliment! And you’ve summed it up nicely – this isn’t, and shouldn’t, imo, be all about advances. Big ones are nice, of course, but the truth is that they don’t generally come along in the first deal (possibly, but not likely). Ergo, a more holistic approach, as it were. The goal then becomes big money *and* feeling good about it. *g*

  7. But wait! You don’t understand – I’m going to redefine the vampire genre! Surely you can sympathize. So do I get a contract now?
    … No? Damn. It was worth a shot.

  8. Vampires
    Hello! I’ve been thinking about the market for vampire stories quit a bit lately and wondered if demand has waned for vampire novels.
    Is there any empirical industry data for your statement? Or is it based primarily on what you’ve seen in your slush?
    Just curious.

    • Re: Vampires
      Dear Michelle – Please take a look at the disclaimer immediately following my sentence using vampire queries as an example. It was not my intention in the context of this post to make any definitively quantifying statement concerning the market for vampire stories. Or any other type of story. Thanks.

  9. I know it when I see it.
    (You just don’t want to show us the Secret Handshake. *pout*)
    Thank you for enabling comments and encouraging a dialogue.
    “I know it when I see it.” That was the only safe definition that Phaedrus offered for “quality” in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. When he attempted further refinement of that definition, he had a nervous breakdown. *grin* Couldn’t resist mentioning that.
    It’s the same with any crapshoot. After fifty rejections, books come out of nowhere and become smash hits. Why and how did so many agents and editors miss that magical quality? Is it really there? Or do we only have to make readers *believe* it’s there? *facepalm*
    I hear all the time about “voice” and how agents now WANT you to have it. However, my critique partners seem to react very poorly to my work because it has voice out the wazoo. It’s impossible to tell how someone else will react to your work because they bring their own “baggage” to it (not in a pejorative sense–just their own history and resonances) and they will therefore “read into” your work many things that may not even be there. That’s why this is so dadblasted difficult. Why couldn’t I have been good at modeling and baton twirling instead of fiction writing, so I could be happy? *wink*

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