“This book isn’t going to work.”
I know many of you worry that agents gossip about writers behind the scenes. I don’t find this to be true, but what I’ve found is that agents often commiserate with each other about the hard parts of the job (like people in any kind of job). And one of the hard parts is when we need to have a difficult conversation with an author. So this week in my never-ending quest to make you the most informed writers on the planet, I’m going to talk about some of those difficult conversations. I hope that by reading this, you’ll be better prepared and perhaps less devastated if (when?) it happens to you.
Today’s difficult conversation is the one where you’ve written your “next” book—it could be your third or your fifth or your eighth (whatever)—and send it to your agent, or perhaps it’s sent to the publisher. In any case, the agent or editor reads the manuscript and… things aren’t going well.
I know my author is a good writer. As I begin reading, I can tell that, as usual, this book is amazingly written. But when I’m a couple chapters in, I start to wonder about it. A couple more chapters and this foreboding is stealing over me, growing page by page. By the time I’m halfway through the manuscript, there’s this lump in the pit of my stomach. I push myself to continue. By the time I finish, I just know. It’s not going to fly.
It might be the subject matter is all wrong. It might be a genre that’s just too different from what you’ve written previously. It might be the tone is off, or the plot isn’t well constructed, or the characters are cardboard, or you’ve simply strayed too far from the brand you’ve established. Sadly, it might feel like you phoned it in.
Regardless of what the problem is, now a serious internal wrestling sets in, as the agent or editor examines the manuscript and thinks about options. Maybe it just needs a good edit. Maybe it’s not a lost cause. Maybe we can tweak a few things… maybe… maybe…
But finally, we’re forced to admit to ourselves that we simply can’t sell this, and it’s unlikely that an edit will help.
Now we begin to stress about telling the author. After all, you’ve probably agonized for months over this manuscript. You finished it, triumphant, another 85,000 words written! You may even feel like it’s your best book ever. How am I going to tell you it’s not going to work?
I remind myself this doesn’t mean the manuscript will never get published, it just means that now is not the right time. I remind myself that the only reason we need to have this conversation is because it’s my job to help you not only get published, but get well-published. It’s my job to keep my eye on your long-term writing career. And so I can’t be afraid to tell you the hard truth when I believe it’s in your best interest.
I pick up the phone and make the call, and what I wish I could say is, “This hurts me as much as it hurts you.” But I don’t, because I know that no matter how hard it is for me, it’s worse for you.
I’m really sorry to be the bearer of hard truths sometimes.
Q4U: Have you considered that this might happen as part of your publishing journey? How do you think you’d respond?
P.S. Many people’s gut reaction to this is that they’d immediately self publish. I’ve addressed this in the comments. Please see my comment at 8:20 am. Also see Timothy Fish (7:46 am) and agent Michelle Wolfson at 8:08 am.
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