What do agents want? What are publishers sick of? At Balticon52, I got the opportunity to hear a few of the industry leaders voice their opinions.
The panel was entitled “Pitches We’re Sick Of (And One’s We’d Like To See More Of), but since that’s not enough to fill an hour, it turned into a Question and Answer session.
Whose Opinions Were Shared And Why Should You Care?
Joshua Bilmes is the President of JABberwocky Literary Agency, which he founded in 1994. His clients include NY Times bestselling authors Brandon Sanderson, Charlaine Harris, Peter V. Brett, Jack Campbell, Elizabeth Moon and Simon R. Green.
Neil Clarke is best known as the editor and publisher of the Hugo and World Fantasy Award-winning magazine, Clarkesworld. He is a six-time and current finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Editor Short Form.
The panel was moderated by Sarah Avery. Sarah’s first book, Tales from Rugosa Coven, won the 2015 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Fantasy Scroll, Great Jones Street, and Jim Baen’s Universe, as well as Black Gate, where she was a regular contributor on series fantasy and teaching fantasy literature. With David Sklar, she coedited the Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic anthology.
Pitches They’re Sick Of*
- The Paranormal Boom is DEAD.
- Superhero piles are getting supersaturated.
- Zombies are rotting.
- Some urban fantasy subgenres are being overplayed.
Note: Even if stories are still being published in a genre, that’s often because publishing contracts and schedules are arranged years in advance. Even when a genre is dead, it can take 2-3 years for a publishing agency to get rid of their backlog.
Pitches They’d Like To See More Of*
- ‘HopePunk’ (even if the term stinks)
- I *think* it’s a dystopian future, where we actually solve current crisis. Like climate change or evolve into a more accepting species.
- Diversified stories
- It’s what the publishers are looking for
- As the book reviewers themselves become more diverse, a wider variety of stories resonates with the reviewers.
- Vampires seem to be coming back
- Steampunk can’t be counted out for the next 3-5 years, but it’s on a downswing.
- Short Sci-Fi sells better than short Fantasy.
- But really? Whatever you’re passionate about! Agents can tell if you’re just chasing trends, and earnestness shows through. THAT’S the spark they want.
When To Approach Agents or Editors
- NOT when they’re going into the bathroom – that’s their safe place
- If they’re attending a convention and are on panels, they typically want to be found.
- If they’re in a restaurant?
- Is it next to the convention?
- Are they at the bar, chatting away? Or off at a table in the back with one of their writers? Pay attention to context clues.
As any querying writer can tell you, a personalized rejection is worth its weight in gold!
What does it mean when an agent/publisher says, “It’s too similar to something I just bought/sold”?
- For some, it’s a polite brush-off.
- For others, they only say it when it’s true.
- For anthologies? Very likely true.
- For magazine publishers? They can stagger release dates if needed…
*** Now, we pause for a brief interlude and the story of…***
Once upon a time, Joshua submitted a story he was excited about from one of his writers to an editor. And this is what he heard back.
“I had to get a second read…”
“… because I couldn’t believe you’d sent me something so bad.”
Even agents get rejected.
Pitching Your Story
The Dos and Don’ts of Preparing Your Pitch
- Don’t use an adjective to describe your book itself
- Don’t go over a page!
- Don’t be cute or suck up
- Your query letter is somewhere between a job interview and a cover letter for a resume.
- Don’t write it from the main character’s point of view
- Don’t summarize your story, especially when querying a short story
- Don’t have a query longer than the story itself
- Do include wordcount
- Do follow the guidelines
- Do pick a genre
- Decide where your book goes on the library shelves and pick one.
Is it ever appropriate to respond to a rejection letter?
- If they personalized the rejection, you can send a very brief ‘Thank You’ note.
- NEVER respond negatively. If you can’t say anything nice, this is when you really shouldn’t say anything at all.
Is ManuscriptWishList.Com useful?
Joshua doesn’t use it, but at least one of his other agents does. Lack of inclusion doesn’t mean the agent isn’t skilled, inclusion doesn’t mean they are skilled. You still need to do your research.
Comp titles (comparison titles) are often included in a query letter. Typically either two authors with similar writing styles and markets, or mash-ups where you can specify what aspect of that story you’re using. They have to be under 5 years, (preferably under 3), in your genre, and not run-away successes.
As I’ve said before, what sold 50 years ago isn’t what appeals to most modern audiences. Pacing, themes, POV preferences change.
So, what did our panelists have to say?
By using current novels, you’re showing that the trend you’re writing for isn’t dead.
Verdict? Useful for novels, but only if it’s a good match. If you’re trying too hard, it’s obvious and you should skip it.
Joshua noted here that no one can use Game of Thrones as a comp, (even if it wasn’t too popular) because there hasn’t been a new one published in over 5 years.
Not useful for magazines, but can be useful for anthologies.
Writing Contests Tips
- NEVER pay to enter a contest or pay a “reader’s fee”
- EXCEPT – Tenure-track professors often pay the entrance fee for college magazines…
- EXCEPT – Some contests offer critiques/other services as a matter of course for having entered (RWA)
- Fees currently should be <$50, preferably under $30
- Verify their validity first, though.
- Look at the contest’s readers
- Who are you writing for?
- Is that the path you want to go down?
- Look at the past winners’ work
- Did they write just for the contest, or are they writing like they want to be published?
- Often, these will read very differently
- Pay attention to how much time it takes away from your writing
- Do you have to campaign for votes?
- What other obligations does it create for you?
When Is My Story Ready To Query?
As long as you feel that each round of edits is significantly improving your story, keep at it!
Brandon (Sanderson) submitted several manuscripts to Joshua. And Brandon kept getting rejected despite his wonderful (and steadily improving writing) because he couldn’t plot. Finally, when he submitted Elantris, Joshua looked at it and saw that the plotting could be fixed. That’s when he made the offer.
Submitting different stories to the same agent can pay off. But only if you keep working at your craft.
Make sure to reread these dos, don’ts, and preferences! And best of luck as you work towards perfecting your craft.
* Yep. I ended those with prepositions. Whatcha gonna do? Throw red ink at me? Besides, it was the title of the panel!