How Do Literary Agents Think?

Thirty rejections into my latest campaign of querying, I’m not feeling dejected at all, more puzzled by the phraseology that agents use in their form letters. I’m in the process of composing lyrics for a blues song from these phrases…things such as:

* I didn’t feel passionately enough to take the novel further.’

* ‘We have evaluated your query and regrettably, your project is not a right fit for our agency.’

* ‘Please do not be disheartened by this reply and do not assume that we saw no merit in your work.

The strangest turn of phrase, which sounds vaguely nautical, was:...your synopsis didn’t seem quite right for us. The comparatives you cited make this sound not in our wheelhouse.

This rejection alarmed me a bit, as the agency asked me to say where my style of writing fitted within the crime genre. As I’m writing a series, which features lots of characterisation and internal dialogue, with the landscape appearing as one of the characters, I chose Walter Mosley, James Lee Burke and Dennis Lehane, who all do these things. Seemingly, the literary agent doesn’t think much of these giants of crime writing.

Trying to work out what it is agents are looking for, is an act of divination comparable to examining the entrails of a slaughtered animal to work out the future.

Reading agents’ profiles on their agency employers and stalking them on Twitter and Facebook unearths such highfalutin wishes as:

* ‘I love big high concept stuff, psychological/domestic suspense that truly breaks the mould….’

* She likes high concept hooks, books with an international appeal, quirky first-person narratives, historical novels with women at the forefront, and books which make her cry.’

* ‘Your book will be published for a number of reasons: it is a cracking good read, the writing is excellent, the timing for the subject matter is just right and the market is ready for your book.’

So, how do agents predict what will be commercial? And remember, they’re deciding what will sell in six months, at bestif it’s to be properly edited and formatted, given an effective cover and marketed in places that count.

Obviously, big news stories that are on people’s minds will affect which novels get published. It’s not hard to predict there’ll be stories about a mad president, the war against terrorism, border controls, climate change and the Illuminati.

But, how does an agent decide if your Regency Romance or Sci-Fi/Western mashup will be a big seller? Do they check sales figures for similar recently published books? Or, do they look for plots that mirror contemporary news events?

It would be good to know, for, after all, there’s little point in writing stories that are of limited interest (mainly you!): it’s not selling out to write something that’s popular, that achieves word of mouth chatter and which sells thousands of copies.

(I sound like I’m attempting self-hypnosis!)

What I’m describing is a book that’s achieved discoverability, which is the nut to crack for success. What is it about your story that makes it stand out? Increasingly, publishers are looking towards A.I. to predict which book will excite readers—cutting out the middle man—literary agents. This report contains some startling statistics and its assertions about using metadata to monitor readers’ tastes are believable.

If A.I. does take over, I can see literary agents becoming more like book doulas guiding the birth of a book, advising which is the best option to take for publishing it.

This no-nonsense advice about writing, querying, literary agents and being published, from Delilah S. Dawson on Chuck Wendig’s website Terrible Minds is worth a read.

Do you have any idea how literary agents work?

Have you been well-guided by an agent to improve your manuscript?

Or, did an agency hamper you?

Do you feel like you’re being made to jump through unnecessary hoops, and that it would be simpler to self-publish?

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