Friday, July 29, 2011

We Sell What We Can Sell

A comment came up a while ago from a writer on this blog complaining that agents were really limited and tended to stick to this model that if we can't make a quick sale of the project, then we won't sign it. While I thought that comment was a bit harsh, I started thinking about it during the last couple of days and wanted to address it in great detail.

Literary agencies, like any other business out there have a market they work with. This might be based on connections the person has, their likes and dislikes when it comes to stories, or simply the focus of business. With this as a basis, when agents look at projects, this is indeed a factor we look at. In other words, does the project fit in with the business model we have and use for selling projects.

Think of it this way. If you run a hardware store, you are confronted daily with new vendors wishing to sell their products in your store. As you evaluate what they have, while you might look at the quality of the product, a key factor is whether or not the product fits with your marketing model. Therefore, if someone comes to you saying they want to sell milk and eggs at your store. You will probably pass. They might argue these are the best eggs and the freshest milk in the world. You might taste the product and swoon on yourself because it is true; but does this mean you will change your marketing model to accommodate eggs and milk? Probably not. Simply put - it does not fit your model.

I think authors fail to realize that we do take on many projects we believe in, and that we believe we can sell, but end up never being able to. We also pass on a lot of well written projects and great authors simply because this is a market we might not be familiar with, or know the story is likely to be an impossibility in this particular marketing climate.

We have to remember that agents are not only into the money aspect of things. We are not always into the quick sale. We are into the author as a product and a long term investment.



  1. Terrific post. I've been thinking about this topic a great deal lately. I was not able to find an agent for my first novel, though I came very close. While working on my latest project, I'm paying attention to craft of course, but also thinking of the final manuscript as the final "product" - always keeping in mind the product's audience, and also how an agent might be able to sell it.

  2. Good reminder. I think we writers get tunnel vision sometimes, as in, "I really NEED you to want this, despite what your guidelines say . . ."

  3. The above two commenters are so right! I think it's also easier for many people to have someone to blame. The problem can't be their books, so it has to be the system, of which you are the representative.

    Have you ever thought about compiling statistics? How many projects you take on, how many of those you sell, maybe the average advance, etc. You don't have to prove yourself to anyone, but it may help the detractors to see some numbers.

  4. Elizabeth got it so right... We get tunnel vision. "This is GREAT -- why won't you take it on?" Your "milk and eggs" example, Scott, is perfect. It goes back to what you've said so many times: authors MUST research the agents they query. Even so -- even when the writer finds the "perfect" agent -- they could get turned down. In a perfect world, such a "perfect" agent would have the time to give the writer a detailed reply ("listen, loved it, swooned over it, but I can't take this on because ____" ), and then the writer would learn something new. But of course that doesn't happen more than rarely (and when it does, believe you me, we are so incredibly grateful we'd kiss your foot).