Don’t Take Yourself Out of the Game

I got a letter from an aspiring writer the other day with a question about the marketability of her work. Basically, she’d written a book that might be sold as an adult novel or as a YA novel. She’d written it as a YA novel, though, and was concerned when a bunch of other writers (who hadn’t read her book) told her they thought it would be a hard sell in that market. So she wrote to ask my opinion.

My opinion was, in short, that given that neither I nor these writers had read her work, and given that neither I nor these other writers were in any position to publish her work, that what we might say on the matter wasn’t worth a whole lot. The only person whose opinion actually matters is the editor who has received the book as a submission. And, given that the work was written and edited, there is absolutely nothing to lose than trying to get it to one of those editors.

The writer wrote back to me to say that her next step was to get a few more reads by critique partners so that she could get more opinions about how best to market it.

Not to get all Dean Wesley Smith here, but as great as I think critique partners are (and I do think they are great) they are helpful in an editorial way. NOT in a marketing way. They are writers. They are NOT in any position to buy your book, or to sell it to publishers. In the end, the only person whose opinion about the marketability of your book that matters is the one holding the checkbook.

(And, for those of you without agents, let me tell you: there will be times when you disagree with your agent. When you send them a project that you think is great and they tell you they don’t think they can sell it. And then it’s up to you to decide if you’re going to agree with them and try something else, get a new agent to sell it, or sell it on your own, or what. I’ve known folks who left agents over projects that the agent wouldn’t sell that went on to become NYT bestsellers. I also know writers who thank their agents every day for steering them away from projects that would have been a bad move for them.)

So if this is a book that is written and edited and polished, then stop asking other writers what their opinion is as to its marketability. Other writers can’t do anything for you. FIND AN AGENT who can sell your work to an editor. Agents can be much better than you at figuring out where your book best fits in the market. Maybe they had lunch with an editor the other day who said, “I’m looking for a book just like XYZ.”

When I sent the proposal to Secret Society Girl to my agent, I called it a YA novel. My agent in her infinite wisdom said, “Hey, I bet an adult house would really go for this.” And they did.One of the reasons writers need agents is that agents can sometimes see better ways to position a book than a writer can. It’s their job to do so. And sometimes, what is a YA novel in one market is not a YA novel in another. The Curious Instance of the Dog in the Night-time is a YA novel in the UK and an adult novel here. There are other books that are vice versa (like the Book Thief).

Here’s a short list of best selling, award winning, and critically acclaimed YA novels that have come out recently that, according to articles or blog entries I’ve read about their inception, either began life as adult novels in the writer’s brain or were originally marketed as adult novels before being sold or marketed as YA novels: The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, Ballads of Suburbia by Stephanie Kuehnert, Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr, Madapple by Christina Meldrun, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes (ETA: Shadowed Summer, by Saundra Mitchell)…. guys, the list goes on and on.

And what you take away from this is that sometimes, what “the market” is is only definable by what one particular editor at one particular house decides he or she wants to pay money for. We’ve all read books where we thought, “What brain donor paid money for THIS?” Heck, we’ve all read bestsellers where we thought that. But someone holding a checkbook thought it was marketable, and they were right. Which shows what I know.

I repeat: If you’ve written and polished the book, what a bunch of writers think about its marketability is not important. Submitting it is the only way you can get a real answer.

But, you may ask, how can I submit it without knowing where exactly it fits in the market? But that’s the best part! You can submit it to both places! You might be scared, because you’ve read agent blogs where they complain about having completely inappropriate work submitted to them (Vietnam-era sex memoirs to a YA agent) — but your situation doesn’t apply. In good faith you are submitting to a YA agent a book that you think is a YA novel. She might agree with you. She might not. In good faith you are submitting to an adult agent a book that you think is an adult novel. He might agree with you. He might not. It’s no different than you submitting this book believing that it’s the best book ever — they might agree with you, they might not. And what do you do if the agent reps both kinds of books?

“Dear Agent, I am seeking representation for my book TITLE, which is a blankety-blank thousand word novel about blah blah blah.”

Yes, if you are CERTAIN that you are writing a young adult contemporary fantasy adventure or a hard sci fi space book or a cookbook, or a memoir, or a memoir about a cookbook, then say that. But if you aren’t, there’s no rule saying you have to. To start with, an agent might disagree with you (mine did). Also, if you put yourself in a box from the beginning, an agent’s thought process might not even get so far as to disagree with you — he or she might just say, “Oh, I don’t think this works as a YA — reject.” But there’s no rule that says you have to check every single little box about your novel before you submit it. It’s okay to say “a novel” and let the agent decide that it’s a paranormal historical romance.

The important thing to remember is not to take yourself out of the game. Don’t avoid submitting a finished, polished novel because some writer who has no ability to pay you any money for said novel has told you a priori that it’s unmarketable. And if you get a bunch of rejections from YA agents or houses saying this isn’t a YA novel, then maybe look on the bright side of that — perhaps it’s an adult novel. Try submitting it there.

ETA: I’m bringing up Julie Leto’s comment here because it’s just so darn good:

“It kind of perplexes me when writers will come up with a thousand and one excuses for not actually submitting their work.  Rejection doesn’t kill.  All successful authors have had their share of rejections.  If JK Rowling had worried about marketability, she never would have found a publisher for Harry Potter.

“I think some writers become so obsessed with getting it all “right” (to that dreaded rejection) that they make elemental mistakes.  There’s one thing to research the market…but it’s quite another to use the market as an excuse not to submit.”

This is so true. When it gets to the point that you’re just asking a bunch of other writers for their opinion about something you haven’t submitted — this is different than “can you crit my work, can you help me with my query” — then what you’re really doing is called stalling.

Accept the fact that you WILL get rejections. EVERYONE gets rejections. You have to learn to accept rejections, because let me tell you, the number of rejections you get before a book sells? NOTHING compared to the number you get after a book sells. Afterward, you get rejectiosn from: 1) foreign markets, 2) Hollywood, 3) Any media outlet who passes on doing a story on your book, 4) Bloggers 5) random people on the internet with Goodreads, Twitter, and Amazon accounts, 6) and every single person in the world who does not buy or read your book. Get used to it now. Accept the fact that every rejection is nothing more than one person’s opinion. There could be 99 agents who tell you your work isn’t marketable, and one agent who says, “I can sell this to an editor with a checkbook” and does. Whose opinion matters there?

ETA: Also, everyone read Saundra MItchell’s follow-up post on the subject, because she had a similar experience.

Posted in writing advice, writing industry

24 Responses to Don’t Take Yourself Out of the Game

  1. JulieLeto says:

    Brilliant advice. I hope the person who wrote to you follows your blog and reads this advice.

    It kind of perplexes me when writers will come up with a thousand and one excuses for not actually submitting their work. Rejection doesn’t kill. All successful authors have had their share of rejections. If JK Rowling had worried about marketability, she never would have found a publisher for Harry Potter.

    I think some writers become so obsessed with getting it all “right” (to that dreaded rejection) that they make elemental mistakes. There’s one thing to research the market…but it’s quite another to use the market as an excuse not to submit.

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  3. phyllis towzey says:

    Wonderful advice, Diana. I hear writers all the time angsting about what subgenre to label their unpublished book, afraid to send it out because they might inadvertently put the “wrong” label on it. Kind of pointless, because, really, it’s the market that determines what it is, not the author. You just need to put it out there.

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  5. Patrick says:

    Great advice!

    Here’s a question though. What would you have done if your agent (She IS awesome!) had said, “re-write this so Amy is a senior in a prep-boarding high school and let’s make it YA”?

  6. Diana says:

    Patrick, I had several offers so I was able to talk to prospective agents about my thoughts on the book and make sure that our thoughts on the book aligned. In that particular instance, I would have said no, that I didn’t feel comfortable doing that. I know ABSOLUTELY nothing about boarding schools and wouldn’t have the first idea how to write a book about a secret society set in a boarding school, and Amy is not a 17 year old girl. That’s a fundamentally different story. I’ve heard of such things happening, and maybe it works for those stories, but not for the book I wrote.

    In a related experience, a year or so earlier, I wrote a manuscript for the now-defunct bombshell line. The editor asked me to revise it in such a way that it would fundamentally change what I thought was the core of the story: different backstory and motivation for characters, different character relationships, different location, different central plot. I told her that rather than doing that, I’d rather present her with a few different proposals of entirely new books.

    However, these scenarios have nothing to do with the topic at hand. They are about revising, not about marketability or not submitting because of suspected marketability.

  7. Patrick says:

    Sorry for being off topic. It linked in my mind by agent revision for marketability. I was pretty sure it didn’t and wouldn’t have come up in your situation as well as the likely possibilty of you considering it.

    But I’m getting it now. This is about not even submitting to agents. That’s just plain silly. 🙂

  8. Diana says:

    Oh, I don’t care that it’s off topic — I thought that you were maybe linking those things, and I think they are deifnitely two separate issues. I know there are some folks (like the aforementioned Dean Wesley Smith) who are dead set against revising for agents. I think that’s something that you take on a case by case basis.

    I have been asked by my agent to revise. Sometimes I have, sometimes I haven’t (only to be asked to revise to the SAME specs by the acquiring editor, and if you don’t think my agent didn’t take the opportunity to say “I told you so…”)

  9. Alexa says:

    Brillaint post! This was me a month ago stalling like crazy although I called it making sure everything was perfect, which nothing ever can be. I think the amount of advice out there can sometimes be crippling, especially if you like to get things right.

    But I can now say from expericen rejection isn’t that devasting. Now of I can just stop obsessively refreshing my email I’ll be doing great 🙂

  10. Beth Smith says:

    Thanks Diana 🙂

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  12. Patrick says:

    I know Dean well and have been reading his blog, too. You mentioning him probably contributed to my brain linking them here.

    I agree with you, it would be a case by case basis for me as well. To me, Dean’s advice is sometimes over the top inflamatory/hit you in the face. It’s said in a way to get you to question what you believe moreso than tell you what to do.

    It usually takes me a few cycles to figure out the reason and the true meaning of his advice. When I was just beginning and met Dean, he would say never re-write – only re-draft. I took that to mean don’t even spell check the first time I heard it… I was really new…

  13. Robin says:

    I’m submitting a YA novel to agents now, and have heard back from some of them (in response to the query alone) that they love the premise but couldn’t sell it as YA because it’s set in college. Even though it’s set in freshman year of college, and the protags are 18. One agent said I should rewrite it (again, based on the query alone) to be set the summer before college. (Apparently making the characters 3 months younger changes everything.)

    So maybe I should try taking the YA label out of the next round of queries I sent out, as you had mentioned. Hmm…

    (Just to rant for a bit: I know the theory is that teens can’t relate to the college environment. But apparently teens have no trouble relating to, say, competing in dystopian kill-or-be-killed reality TV shows…)

  14. Diana says:

    Robin, I think you’ll find that a lot. It was a response we got from many YA houses in 2005, and the market has only codified itself more since then. When I sold SSG, there were several other “college” set books that were either about to be sold or sold already: Rosemary Clement Moore’s “Hell Week” series, Scott Westerfedl’s PEEPS, Serena Robar’s Fangs4Freaks and Stephanie Hales Twisted Sisters. There’s also a packaged “sorority” series by kate Harmon that was released from Dutton.

    And, aside from the newest Meg Power’s novel, which was a sequel about 15 years in a making, those are literally the ONLY college-set YAs I can think of in the last 5 years (And believe me, I’ve been paying attention), THREE of them are sequels to series that began in high school (Clement-Moore’s, Robar’s, and Hale’s), NONE of them have been published in the past two years (which means they were probably bought in 2006 or earlier) and one of them is not so much “college-set” as “features a college-aged boy who used to go to college before he was turned into a vampire.” There might have been one or two from small publishers, too, but I haven’t read them.

    So I don’t think, aside from the packaged book series, which I believe was canceled halfway through, that there has been a stand-alone, non-sequel, or series-starting YA novel set on a college campus in years. There certainly hasn’t been an overwhelmingly successful one.

    One response is to say, “Oh, it’s time!” The other response is to say, “Huh, maybe there’s a reason for that.”

    At the same time, I’ve heard from COUNTLESS writers like yourself over the past five years who have written a college set YA and been asked to change it to a “boarding school book.” I can think of at least half a dozen off the top of my heads, and those are the ones that ended up with book contracts. I can’t remember all the ones that didn’t.

    However, I don’t know if “taking the words YA” out of your query is going to help you, either. Yes, there have been more adult books set in college in the last few years. When I sold my book, there were a LOT of books that were doing quite well on the market that were marketed as adult books but featured younger protagonists (Chloe does Yale, PREP, etc.) That’s also something I haven’t seen too much in the past few years, as the YA market has grown to fill that niche.

    Agent Lucienne Diver talks a lot about how you can avoid calling your book a science fiction novel as long as you want, but she knows what she sees when she sees rocket ships and ray guns.

    It’s entirely possible that the agents are not seeing potential for your book as a YA because you say it’s a YA, but it’s also possible that since the feedback you’re getting is not, “Hey, maybe this is an adult book” that they don’t see that potential anyway. Also, nowadays there are a LOT of agents looking for YA, and not necessarily looking for “a book that is a stretch for the adult market.”

    Is that fair? No. But I don’t know how many agents you’ve submitted to. Maybe there are some who will see potential. Keep plugging away! Just as there is nothing to lose for the original letter writer to submit a book she’s written and edited, there is also nothing to lose by you continuing to submit a book you’ve already written, perhaps to adult agents,w ithout the word YA.

    However, having said that, I will include hte caveat that I’ve including every single time this topic of conversation comes up, which is that once I saw how difficult it was to find a market for my college set book (and those characters were all adults — 21 and up ) and once I saw how it was received by YA publishers (poorly, on a whole), I made DAMN sure to make the main character of my next book 16, and there is no way that I’d design a project right now that had the red flags of falling into the college-aged no man’s land. Do I have other college-set ideas? Yes. But I don’t think that’s what the market is doing right now, so I write other books.

  15. Robin says:

    Thanks Diana for the thoughtful reply.

    Over these past few weeks as I’ve been getting these responses, my perspective on the whole thing has changed a lot from where I was when I first started writing this story. Then, I was absolutely, 100% convinced the story I was writing had to be set in college, for plot and thematic reasons. And although I had heard on many writers’ loops that college settings were “a tough sell,” I told myself that “tough” didn’t mean “impossible.”

    Now, I still think THIS story needs the college setting, because without that, it becomes an entirely different book (and about 80% of the book I already wrote will need to be completely rewritten to set it in high school) — so, if I do change the setting, it won’t be the same story anyway. But I have a better sense now of the realities of trying to sell a college-set book. The only book I know of to add to your list is “Love & Lies: Marisol’s Story,” which came out in 2008, is only sort-of set in college (since the protag is taking a gap year), and is also a sequel, to a Printz honor book no less.

    And that’s the reality — sometimes “tough sell” means “no sell.” So I have to decide now whether to rewrite the book and try again or move on to a new story. I don’t want to query another round of agents with the story as it stands and lose my shot to query them again once I’ve rewritten it, assuming I do. With this round of queries, in addition to the “rewrite it in high school” responses, I also got more than one form rejection on a query from agents who had read the full of my previous YA submission and specifically asked me to send them my next work. Sure, there are a lot of reasons that could be, but I have a feeling the college setting is at least playing a part, and if I’m shooting myself in the foot, well, I should stop doing that.

    Sigh. I’ve been writing for four years now, and this is my second round of submissions, and this is the first time I’ve really wanted to shake my fist at the whole publishing establishment. I’m sure it won’t be the last! 🙂

    Thanks again for taking the time to talk this through with me, and sorry for ranting in your comments!

  16. Diana says:

    Rant away, Robin. Know that I fel your pain. Upthread a bit I told Patrick that if I was getting a response like that for SSG, I would have been like, “nah, that won’t work for this story.” Sometimes you CAN rewrite and sometimes it is not appropriate. It’s a case by case basis thing.

    And you’re totally right. Sometimes “hard sell” means “no sell” and pretty much everyone in the business has been there at one time or another. (And I’m not saying that you are, btw.) I think the important thing to keep in mind, if and when you decide to “retire” a manuscript, is that our career is about our career. It’s not about any one book.

    My career is coming up on its 10 year anniversary soon (I started writing the first book I finished in 2001) and during that time I’ve retired manuscripts, I’ve rewritten manuscripts to fit editor’s expectations, I’ve refused to write manuscripts to editor’s expectations, and I’ve said I’d rather not sell a manuscript that had an offer rather than sell it under that offer’s circumstances. And then I’ve moved on to the next book. I’ve written eleven novels, I’m working on #12, and I’ve also written countless proposals and/or false starts.

    I think you are having a good attitude about this — if anything, you are getting connections with agents who are saying, look, I think this book is a hard sell, but send me something else. That’s the last thing I heard from my agent before I sent her the book she offered on. It’s something I’ve heard from two other agents who, in the intervening years, I’ve become friendly with and they still remember those books they rejected and they still say “the problem was not your skill, it was the market.” Seriously. I had drinks with one of them and her client at BEA and she brought it up in a conversation about what kind of paranormals sell. (My paranormal romance novel was not in the “paranormal boyfriend” genre, which is not what sells in paranormal romance novels.)

    It’s a small world and it’s a small pool of talent and they will remember you.

  17. Robin says:

    Thanks for the nice words — I really do appreciate it.

    And I’m feeling a lot less ranty now than I was. This morning in the shower I had a brainstorm, and now I think there’s a way I can make the high school setting work. Yay!

    Yes, I’ll have to rewrite pretty much the whole thing, and I’ll have to remove some subplots and add others, but I think I can do it without destroying what made the story work in the first place. I wouldn’t do this for every story, but I think this one is worth it.

    And now I’m excited about this book again. Even running errands this morning in this super-awesome DC weather didn’t get me down. I’m sitting down now to redo my outline, and it’s actually fun to think about.

    It feels awesome, after this disappointment, to be looking forward to writing again!

  18. Beth Smith says:

    I suppose the next question is: to what extent should you think about marketing BEFORE you start the novel?

    Where do you draw the line between ‘protecting the work’ and not embarking upon a ‘hard-sell/no-sell’ project?

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