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On the Fence

Because it has come up a few times for me lately, I wanted to chat a bit about the difficult moment when I find myself waffling on a manuscript.

I get a lot of questions about how I decide what to represent, and it’s difficult to answer because so much of it is just a gut response. There are outside factors, of course. Sometimes a genre is wildly overpublished, and I think, “I just can’t read another (fill in the blank) right now.” Inevitably, as soon as I think that, something in that category comes along and bowls me over.

Other times, I’ll be reading something and enjoying it, but there’s that piece of me deep down that feels like SOMEbody should sign the project on but it probably isn’t me. This is one of the trickiest areas, and it grows trickier as you amass a larger group of clients. Starting out, if a book seems like it’s saleable, you sign it on. That’s simple math. You’re trying to build a client list, and you grab things up big and small. As you hit a point where you can sign new clients but don’t HAVE to, you start to look at whether you personally add anything to the project—do you know the perfect editor for it? Do you know exactly what edits would make the book sing? Can you simply not say no to the chance to work with an author?

All of those situations come up sometimes. And sometimes they don’t. I read two novels over the weekend that just made me keep thinking, “This ALMOST feels right.” One was very polished, and all of the pieces worked together, but I couldn’t fall in love with it, and I wasn’t sure why. That one I passed along to another agent here. Another novel was unpolished, but I kept reading. And reading. And reading (part of the lack of polish was that it was WAY. TOO. LONG.). That one, I sent the author extensive notes about how they might improve what they have. I wasn’t ready to sign it on yet, but I had hope for it. And I connected with it.

What ran through my mind before I made a final decision on either was what someone told me the first day I read slush for DGLM: “If it isn’t a yes, it’s a no.” It sounds like such a harsh way to go through things, but it has helped me time and again. I could sit on something and waffle forever, but if I don’t know that I can bring something to project, I’m not the right agent for it. It’s as simple as that. And it has to be. Otherwise, nothing would ever get done.

So while I always hem and haw when asked what makes me sign on certain projects and not others, it’s ultimately as simple as that: in my gut, it was a yes, and it couldn’t be a no. And we do want it to be yes. We always want it to be yes. Because yes is always the most satisfying answer for everyone involved.

2 Responses to On the Fence

  1. Regina says:

    Reading your process as you go through these close contenders is interesting. I’m sure that both of those writers would love to be represented by you, but writers truly should want the agent who falls in love with their (complete, polished) work.

    That said, knowing that you are going into the manuscript wanting it to be a yes is so reassuring and satisfying. Somehow it makes the whole querying mess seem a little more positive!

  2. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    All points valid, but if I were an agent, I’d never sail very far away from commenrcial viability as a compass point. There are agencies around town, (naming no names, of course) where they’ve gotten sso succesful that they don’t even THINK about sales when signing new material-you read about them fairly often in the PW Deals section, where one of their agents has just signed an epic saga written entirely in verse about (or worse yet, BY) a suffering 13-year-old kid struggling with bullies or something equally twee. I only wish they did followup stories like “Quixotic literary project sinks with all hands and the cook, no survivers…” I’m definitely on James Patterson’s page on this one.

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