Against my better judgment I am confessing to my television guilty pleasure The Vampire Diaries. I’m not going to justify my viewing or explain what I see as the value of the program. I like it and I watch it. There is however an attribute within all of these “I Love a Vampire” stories that defies logic. After being on this earth for 47 years, I have learned a few things. One of those things, which I learned the hard way, is that intelligence and experience are not the same thing. The smartest young person still requires experience in order to gain insight into life’s bigger picture. I think they call it wisdom. So I always find it surprising when a 150 year old vampire suspends his wisdom and experience and places the decision-making into the hands of a 17-year-old woman.
I mention this because the decline in traditional publishing profits has increased the opportunity for new book agents. (So begins the part where I alienate agents the way I alienated Indie Bookstores) – Young and only semi-experienced agents who are charged with the responsibility of promoting new written work to traditional publishers. Not such a small responsibility. The things you will see in bookstores over the next few years will be dictated by the interests of these agents. Traditional publishers will choose from the selections being lobbied by these agents. In others words, agent interest will dictate reader selection. One would think that the savvy agent would be aware of the genres that are over represented and that they would possess a basic understanding of the concept of supply and demand. More importantly, you would surmise that every agent wants to discover the next big thing. They’d want to be responsible for bringing Children Books back to the best-seller list like JK’s agent did. Or they want to find the next book that transforms vampire love triangles into all the rage.
Not the case however. Simply selecting current pop interests for publication is like flipping real estate. You never know when the bottom will drop out leaving you holding the bag. Consumer appetite is fickle. It changes over night. What is popular today is tomorrow’s cliche. Certainly there are “blue chip” stories. Themes that remain a staple of the industry. They’re easier to spot because there exists a long sales history to draw our analysis. Most of the tried and true have a home in self-publishing and no longer require an agent or Random House.
Those were my thoughts as I began an extensive semi scientific research of agents and the types of stories they wanted submitted for consideration. My premise is that agents are the first gatekeeper to my future Barnes & Noble selection. An agent’s interest today results in potential publication 18 to 24 months from now. My research method was exhausting, but not exhaustive. It included a review of over 100 agents from randomly selected agencies. I included twenty-five, self-professed, “new” agents in the review. The methodology was straight-forward. I cut and pasted their preferred query descriptions onto a single document. I highlighted the key categories and themes from these descriptions. I compared the overall theme requests with those requests of the Top 10 US literary agents to see if general findings diverged from the requests of the most successful agents. They did not. New or old, agents were looking for the same types of story themes.
With the exception of purposefully including 25% of the sample size from “new” agents, the entirety of the selection was random. Sample size in studies is less important than randomness (A presidential election can be determined with a 500 person sample size). My findings have an acceptable (5%) margin of error due to the number of variables and the subjectiveness of terms such as “new, fresh voices.” However I can confirm that the findings fairly represent the industry and that if you conduct similar research you will reach the same conclusion. In short, this article is not an opinion piece, but a contention drawn from research based on the principles of sampling and statistical significance.
I hoped to answer the question“how do I get an agent?” I discovered that my research better serves in determining “how not to get an agent.” Your ability to find an agent is significantly decreased to the point of “no chance” if you pen anything outside of the Young Adult and Chic Lit/Women Fiction Category. Probably not news to most of my readers, but it serves to make a larger point about agents and the traditional book publishing industry.
Nearly 98% of all surveyed agents and 99% of new agents list YA and Contemporary Women Fiction as the stuff that excites them. Some list other categories of interest, such as thriller or comedy, as an afterthought. These other interests come after a longer dissertation of the agents desire to discover “fresh, new young adult, inspiring introspective stories centered on women.” In other words your story treatment stands a chance of consideration if it reads as such –
Sara (age 16-24) returns home after (the death of her mother, dragons arrive, she finds out she is a witch), to try to discover her destiny. Throughout the journey Sara must deal with the secrets of her past (emotional dramas of feeling unloved, undervalued or misunderstood) and she must reconcile her feelings with her former boyfriend (or girlfriend) while dealing with her attraction to the new guy (dark, brooding, bad-boy) and ultimately decide that inner strength and self-actualization are far less important than love. Sara should be extremely pretty, intelligent, and an above average fighter who rejects her beauty in some quirky but not too quirky way – make her a down to earth tom boy with long hair and a Michael Coors handbag. Ensure that Sara wants to be known for more than her looks, but can’t recognize that her interest in the story’s “bad-boy” is mostly a physical attraction. Make superficial appear a virtue.
I’m not criticizing writers of Young Adult Fiction, Women’s Fiction and Fantasy. I’m not contesting the marketability of Contemporary Women’s Fiction or that women make up the majority of book sales. My research point is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of those very stories available through Goodreads and the Amazon Indie and small press authors – Agents are looking for ice in the Arctic.
There is nothing new in the hundreds of agent descriptions detailing “what they are looking for.” That means we are still years away from seeing anything that isn’t already on the bookshelves. It also means that traditional publishing is in for worse times than they experience today. You can’t hit the target that you aren’t aiming at. By virtue of “here’s what I want” you have limited ability to find the things you didn’t know you wanted. I’m not suggesting an agent should ignore her passion…wait…actually I am suggesting that very thing because if you don’t try something new you won’t know that you like it – or know that it even exists.
Based on my research, there is little evidence that agents plan to bring anything new or exciting to the book industry. There may be some great stories within these overpopulated genres, but in consumerism the next Harry Potter or City of Bones tends to have nothing to do with Harry Potter or City of Bones. Agents are not agents of change and they are not looking for new colors. Blue is all the rage and “new” and “exciting” is just different shades of blue. It’s the same mantra of another dead industry – the Recording Industry who has lost more than half its sales in the past decade. They blame it on Spotify the same way traditional publishers and agents will ultimately blame the Indie market. I say blame you’re own short sightedness and lack of vision.
I’m not a zealot of self publishing simply because I am self-published. I write horror and sub-genre apocalyptic horror. An overwritten genre with more books than interest, but a staple among its small fan base. I don’t shop agents because my stories make little financial sense to traditional publishers. My reason for being a fan of SPA is because within these ranks are the next trends in literature. The future commercial viability of literature lies in the very writings that agents aren’t looking to review. No one wanted Children books when JK walked around London. No one wanted Young Adult until after Stephanie hit the best-seller list. Unfortunately, agent preferences are easily gleaned from the book blurbs of stories already on the NY Times best-seller list. There was time when that approach served the industry well, after all, a reader’s only choices were stamped Double Day or Viking. Today, we have many choices and the most interesting stuff is stamped Amazon.
Agents, like Indie Bookstores, are looking in the wrong direction – they are looking to the past for the next exciting thing. I understand. They are young and haven’t yet realized that books are much like their own lives – the most exciting stuff lies in the hints of the things to come – we call that “the future.”
In that way, traditional publishing is much like Vampire Diaries. A 150 year old industry is making decisions based on the passions and feelings of the young and inexperienced. Based on my understanding, when you use that strategy you wind up with a stake in your heart and a long dirt-nap.