Sunday, March 30, 2008

Trust Issue #3--Yourself

A very interesting topic was discussed on Writers Net the other day. It posed the question about agents’ sales rates to publishers, and answering this got me to thinking about why this question should come up in the first place. It’s a legitimate question, of course, but it also hints at this lack of trust issue that keeps cropping up—a testing of credentials to find out who’s the toughest kid on the block.

There seems to be a trend here, a kind of new millennium skepticism and testing of everyone’s credibility. You see this continually on CNN where someone states that he or she is an expert in an area and the talking heads seat a panel of pundits specifically designed to tear down what someone has spent years to build. I can understand the general public’s cynicism because there’s been a long-term trend of authority testing that has found many of those who are challenged lacking. But does that mean that everyone has low or non-existent moral character or ability because a few have been found guilty? Has anyone considered how they were found guilty? Was it in the court of public opinion, was it just a slow news day, or was it something that threatened the general security and well-being of our citizenry in general?

But I digress. In an industry that’s built on the strange marriage of flights of the imagination and the need for information at best, do writers want exact numbers so they can make better choices? Possibly. Okay, I’ll give you that. So let’s parallel this exactness and place some of it on the other side of the chart. As agents, we’d like some exactness too. If I rephrase the question, it comes down to what is the writer’s sales percentage rate?

As a writer, what’s your success rate? How many books have you written versus how many have you sold? Wouldn’t that level the scale? Wouldn’t that make an agent’s choices easier? So you’ve written one book but sold none—would your success rate be zero? Would an agent want to take a chance on you? These are things to think about, but really, it’s not that dismal.

I feel that if a writer has written more than one book, he or she has learned quite a bit in the process and probably is a better writer. I actually have more of a problem with writers who have penned one novel and very possibly won’t ever write another. As far as I’m concerned, if you’ve written ten novels and say that nine of them were practice, I want to talk to you because I feel that you’re at a point were I can do something with your work. First novels usually don’t sell unless you have that natural talent that appears once in every million or so writers. Writing is what makes a good writer out of a beginner. Of course, a little failure for humility never hurts either.

Cynicism breeds a lack of trust, and that’s why I think many writers try to make tangible a business that is, on a good day, nothing but complete nonsense. It would be great to be able to say I sold a certain percentage of books I took on, just as it would be great for a writer to say he’s written a certain amount of novels and a certain percentage have been published. We realize, though, that publishing credits represent a fluid and odd business, and so we don’t ask for percentages of books sold. Strangely, though, agents feel they have to provide this information when asked. I don’t. If someone asks me what percentage of client projects I’ve placed, I will tell them that at any given moment, I don’t know. There are too many different factors to be able adequately answer that question—are you talking foreign rights, 2nd novels, reprints, etc.?

So it boils down to trusting your own judgment, not some percentage rate. Once you figure out what you consider success and whether you trust yourself to make decisions about your writing, your career—or the attempt at building one—life will be much less stressful.


Scott Jensen said...

Hmmm. This is the first time I have ever heard an agent say anything about mentioning practice novels when sending inquires to agents. I do agree that you do improve your craft with each you write. However, it seems the conventional wisdom is not to mention them when contacting either agent or publisher since you'd expect the first kind of questions out of their mouths to be: "So why couldn't you get an agent/publisher with them?" or "Why didn't you try to get an agent or publisher with them?" or "Is this just another 'practice' novel for you?" That sort of negative stuff.

Speaking for myself, my first novel (100,000 words and written ten years ago) was a science fiction one and I did try to get an agent to represent it. I think I could completely cover a refrigerator with the rejections. My second novel (53,000 words and written a year ago) was a murder mystery and I didn't send it out at all. By the time I ended it, I didn't think I would enjoy making a series with the main character. He was an anti-hero. A blackmailer that ended up solving a murder. I set it up to be a series but when I got done, I didn't want to write the series. It would have felt like giving birth to a monster and then being forced to keep it alive.

My third novel (85,000 words and which I have just completed) has gotten good reviews from my beta readers but stepping back from it, I don't think I want to do a series with it either. Another anti-hero. This time "the mafia's private detective". I like the character and no-safety-net set-up but the entire world is make-believe. Nothing from first-hand knowledge. That and it is the first novel done in my all-dialogue style. While I do think it is really good, my gut is telling me to try again. That and possibly I will be able to make my all-dialogue style work even better with the next novel.

And my gut is even telling me what to try next. Due to a major change in my job, I am about to essentially become a full-time Jet Setter. A business executive (VP of Marketing) that will live a Jet Set type of existence (corporate jet, luxury hotel, limos, the whole works) both while working and then as I have every fourth week off. I'm thinking of creating a main character that is sort of like me and have them solve crimes that cross national borders. In the process, enabling readers to get a glimpse into my new lifestyle and the world of Jet Setters.

While I would like to get published, I'm not in a rush. I don't need the money and do want to create a series that I and the public will enjoy. A series whose set-up is unique, intriguing, and something I can speak from first-hand knowledge. A main character that I would like to continuously write novels about.

WMLA, what do you think of the above? Is the above what you were talking about in "Trust Issue #3--Yourself"? What does other posters here think of the above? Sound like a good idea? Or does it sound still too much like a greenhorn writer? Input appreciated.

E. J. Ruek said...

"Who's the toughest kid on the block" - you made me laugh, but, no. I don't want that. I do want someone who can get in the door, though, and, honestly, whether it is hearsay or not, there's a sense that an agent needs some sort of established relationship or good rapport with a publishing house to even have the books they're shopping taken seriously...a lot like a novelist seeking an agent.

I don't distrust established agents, those who are not listed on the 20 worst, for example. I do want an ethical, morally upright agent representing me and would choose that over any track record with an agent who was known to be mercenary and lacking ethics.

As to number of novels written, the plain truth is most agents have indicated, at least in my querying history, that they do not want to hear about anything other than what an author is pitching. What they do want to hear is that the author has some credentials that nick with their genre (MD and medical thriller), or that they have some fame or infamy that will net big sales on name alone, else go fish. That leaves those of us who have chosen to write fiction as a profession -- like me -- out in the cold until and unless someone takes a chance on us, if that ever happens. Meanwhile, we keep writing novel after novel and querying agent after agent.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...


We've responded to some of your comments in another post; however, we did want to mention one other thing. It seems like you have written quite a bit, but that it is more like you are trying on genres to see which one fits. That is great. Once you find where you feel comfortable, then you can start writing practice novels in that area, and those might be worth mentioning in your query. The other novels you described we would not suggest you mention. Hope this helps!--WMLA

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Hi R.J.,

Thanks for your comment. In addition to some of the things we put in our post Responses to Comments on Trust Issue #3-Yourself, keep in mind that you don’t need an agent to get published. There are still small publishers out there who take chances on new writers and that’s where many writers have begun their careers. It is difficult to jump into a major house with no credits, and there are other paths you can take to get into one, with or without an agent.
Also, to clarify, we aren’t saying query on the practice novels—the project you are querying on should always be the focus of your letter--but they can be mentioned under preparation for publication—see our newest post for more details on that.


Scott Jensen said...


Thanks for the reply.

As for finding the right genre for me, I have long known that mysteries is my first love and it is the one for which I want to create a series. It is the genre which I read, watch, and listen to the most. I have recently finished going through all of Agatha Christie's Poirot novels and about to finish Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels. That and reading many other mystery authors to see how they approach the genre. Trying to learn from example. Trying to think how the author was thinking when s/he was writing it. Pacing, clue revealing, red herrings (which I view as sub-plots), etc.

What I'm mainly working on these days is my voice. I've developed an all-dialogue style that seems to be working for me. Words flow very nicely.

As for science fiction, it is more like a chance to show what I think the world might be like if certain things come to pass. It isn't a passion but a thought exercise.

Are you saying one should stick to just one genre? Or at least at the beginning of one's writing career? I was thinking of alternating between mystery and science fiction with a very rare sprinkling of children's books. Bad idea?

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

We always suggest to stay with one genre until you build an audience, then you can make a switch if you want. Or, you can build an audience in more than one area by writing under a pen name in other genres you take on (though you should always use your own name in at least one area). Many popular authors have written in more than one genre successfully, though most are known for just one. It's possible and sometimes even necessary to work out of your genre, but we also caution that you should make sure you train yourself in all of the genres in which you work. Mysteries are not the same as romances or fantasy, although they share some common elements.

Scott Jensen said...


Thanks for the sound advice. Given it, I'll first make myself unbelievably famous in mysteries before dabbling in other genres. ;-)