Literary Agents and Vampire Crushes

Book AgentAgainst 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.

11 replies »

  1. Another great post, which is one of the reasons I can’t stand Contemporary Women’s Fiction. I just read a book that had all the standard stuff you mentioned. Good thing it was a free giveaway.

    • I was just amazed that at the end of the research there was factual evidence that “yes” every agent is looking for stuff that you can find in a 30 second review on Good Reads or Amazon. I have several thoughts on gender socialization in today’s YA books, but I’m saving that for my upcoming Blogger Insight piece 🙂

  2. I don’t know if you were a fan of The West Wing, but I’ve seen every episode. There was one after Bartlett won his second term and his team is standing around, triumphant, and the president says (basically) that a president’s first term is spent trying to get reelected. The second term is to leave his mark. When the credits rolled, I was excited. I loved this world, and I wanted to see this office make changes and fight for what was right and make a difference, dammit! At the risk of ruining a series you’ve yet to see, I’m going to go ahead and tell you now that it never happened.

    I think a lot of agents start out with the mindset that if they can hop on the bandwagon now and make some money, they’ll later be able to stretch their wings and uncover the next revolutionary story. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen. Money is addictive. If you earn a fortune selling a newer copy of Twilight, you want to do that again. You can easily become stuck in a cycle of “success” and each one makes it harder to abandon the strategy and try something different.

    As with the falling standards of the traditional publishers, agents, too, are unknowingly aiding the indie movement.

    Great article!

    • I loved the West Wing although House of Cards is more reflective of true politics. I agree that an agent needs to make money and perhaps they aren’t responsible for cultural advances. The turn over and the average age and gender of agents tells a story… The story being that they aren’t really making money so if you’re gonna be poor than make a difference lol

  3. I just have to tell you guys; if you loved West Wing and House of Cards you HAVE to watch The Thick of It. You can find it on Hulu. It’s much more comedic, but a lot of what is being showcased is a lot closer to what really happens than anything I’ve seen. (was in politics for 25 years)

    • The Thick of It is magnificent. Maybe a bit pure British, but characters like Malcolm don’t get much better.
      Just some dialogue:

      Malcolm Tucker: [preparing Ben for going on TV again] Get him properly fucking screen-tested! I’m sorry, mate, but you need a lot of powder. I’ve never seen anyone look so fucking ugly with just one head!
      Ben Swain: No, I’ve lost my… erm… safety…
      Malcolm Tucker: Who was it that did your media training? Myra Hindley? It’s terrible! All these hands all over the place! You were like a sweaty octopus trying to unhook a bra! It was like watching John Leslie at work!
      Ben Swain: Yes, I know all that. It just, kinda, fell away. It’s like one of those dreams when you’re wandering around Covent Garden with just a west and everyone’s staring at you.
      Jamie: It was much worse than that. I mean, how many people see you at Covent Garden? A few thousands? Your meltdown was witnessed by 1.2 million people! That’s more people than saw Al Jolson in his fucking career! And that’s Al fucking Jolson!
      Malcolm Tucker: He loves Al Jolson.
      Jamie: The Guvnor!
      Oliver Reeder: Maaameee!
      Jamie: You take the piss out of Al Jolson again and I will remove your iPod from its tiny nano-sheath and push it up your cock! Then I’ll put some speakers up your arse and put it on shuffle with my fucking fist. And every time I hear something that I don’t like, which will be every time that something comes on, I will skip to the next track by crushing your balls!

      You’ll love it, Raymond. I got the whole series plus In The Loop on DVD. For whenever I need to lift my spirits…

  4. Great post, Raymond. As a writer of women’s fiction (as well as a fan of House of Cards), I enjoyed the reading your post and the comments — although the British show reference was really not my ‘cup of tea’ if you pardon the pun. Doesn’t seem like that show is targeted for American women after reading the crude and not-so-funny dialogue.

    But here is some something I can offer from a woman’s perspective: it’s Michael Kors, not Coors. 😉

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