Monday, 18 January 2010


One skill that authors need to learn is the ability to see into the minds of the editors and agents who will read their proposals. (Another skill is the ability to understand sales and marketing departments, but I'm afraid this skill eludes me. There are some lovely people in them but their minds are beautiful mysteries.)

Since I am neither an editor or an agent, I bring you the words of some real-life ones, so that you can begin to hone your editor-whispering skills.

First, The Top Ten Questions Dutton Editors Ask Themselves. They are somewhat vague, but still a very good starting point. Absorb them till you think like that about your own work.

Second, for something even vaguer, but essential because it's about that all important gut-instinct, here is wonderful blogger and US lit agent, Rachelle Gardner on why she says yes or no to a book. It's worth highlighting the essential part of the post:
"You know how sometimes you're reading a book and you don't want to put it down, and you're really frustrated that it's time to go make dinner or put the kids to bed, and you just want everyone to leave you alone so you can read your book? And whenever you're doing something else, you just want to be finished so you can get back to reading your book?

"But other times you're reading a book, and it's easy to put down. You find yourself distracted. You go check your email, or see what's on TV. Or fall asleep. Not that you can really define anything bad about the book, it's simply not holding your attention. And when you have some time to read, you debate whether to go back to that book or not."
I believe that if we remember that the agent or editor has to love it that much, just like any reader, we will a) improve our work by working harder to capture and hold our readers and b) understand better why a tecnnically good piece of work may be rejected. One thing I tell my clients at Pen2Publication is that we should read our work aloud, imagining that our audience consists of people desperate to go to the beach / pub / bathroom.

Finally, here are two fascinating ones. Lit agent, Janet Reid, lists the reasons why she turns down MSS, with stats. And editor Betsy Mitchell [I think that's the right name!] reveals her own list of reasons for rejection. Some of these reasons are worth a whole blog post each. They may get one, later.

One the the most interesting reasons, I thought, was this one: "Writing quite good, but this isn't the story to launch an author with."

The reason that caught my eye is that it's another facet of the point I've often made: we don't just have to write well - we have to write the right book. Not just the right book for the market, but the right book with which to launch a career, to make a splash, to attract attention.

Open your eyes, writers: think like an editor or agent and you're more likely to hook them. Editors and agents are trying to think like readers, so what you actually have to do is think like an editor or agent thinking like a reader.

If only sales and marketing departments consisted of these readers, things would be so very simple.


Catherine Hughes said...

I am hoping that the fact that I can't put my own novel down - that I can't stop working on it, and constantly thinking about it, until it is done - is a good sign. Two novels I started but never finished and I suspect that there is a good reason for that - if they couldn't hold my attention, why would anyone else be engrossed in them?

Especially an agent with much better things to do!

The Virtual Victorian said...

Excellent post, Nicola.

dirtywhitecandy said...

Excellent post. We can never have too many reminders of this. Readers won't wait for your book to warm up and get to the good bits. It has to be irresistible from the first paragraph.

Thomas Taylor said...

Yes, and those links are fascinating, though all too brief and vague.

Anna Bowles said...

Heh. My next blog post may have to be an 'unwritten' editorial job description with "try to understand the sales and marketing departments" in there prominently.

Sally Zigmond said...

Great post--as usual.

Vagueness from editors/agents is the writers' bugbear.

But having briefly sat on the other side of the Great Divide (albeit with shorts and not novels) I know that sometimes it's almost impossible to define what's a publishable manuscript and what isn't.

But I know one when I see one.

(And my reaction may well be totally at odds with other people's but I could never have said yes, had I not been truly committed to it.)

Sometimes it's as vague as that.

Whirlochre said...

I wondered over Christmas whether John Simm's Master was actually an unpublished author.

Now I know why.

The...constant...drumbeat...inside my head. All those think like...

Queenie said...

This is really useful, thank you. I'd be very interested in separate blog posts on reasons for rejection.

KP said...

Thank you Nicola! This is great. My agent, who is quite hands-on, used the "Writing is good, but not good enough to launch you" reason, and she was right - the book lacks the 'wow factor' edge that debut novelists must have. So I wrote another one, which she's got now, and am revising the old one, keeping in mind that it's got to have that edge. This is making revision both challenging and exciting, as I feel I'm reading it for the first time.

altguy3 said...


I've just come across this blog and have found it most interesting.

I was particularly taken by Janet Reid's observation that nowadays a novel 'needs to be in the 99th percentile'. This has been my experience.

I'm getting the most fabulous rejections you can imagine (my agent has never seen anything like them), with editors praising my novel for its originality, pace, characters etc... and yet... and yet... I can't quite make that final transition to editors saying yes.

Obviously the marketing dept are an issue and the current economic climate doesn't help but I've come to realise that editors need to be 100% behind something; 99% isn't good enough!

Of course this beggers the question how do some appalling novels get published (those that aren't even in the top 50 percentile), but I suppose that's a question for another time.

I shall continue reading this blog with interest.

Best wishes


Dan Holloway said...

Fascinating - and a post thatresonates wit me. Back in the days I was looking for an agent, my dream agent eventually turned down Songs from the Other Side of the Wall (after requesting the full and entering into a very helpful correspondence) because it wasn't a "big splash" (her words) book for a debut novel. It was a consideration I hadn't made at the time, but perhaps should have done having been involved in the launch of two businesses (as manager of luxury flooring showrooms), where the key thing was a big splash window display and product range to draw people in.

I'm no longer looking for an agent, but I AM now very much aware of the need for initial impact to grab people's attention, and that comment has been invaluable in setting up the current Year Zero Live tour, and choosing the material to include in our anthology and media packs, as well as the books to promote alongside the tour. What you've highlighted is something I'm always saying, but had not thought of in that particular context - anyone who wants to be a writer has to think not about writing and selling a book, but a long-term career.

JaneF said...

Really interesting - thank you! But as I am planning to send my full ms to an agent this week, it is just a little depressing to look down those lists of 'reasons to reject' and try to decide which category mine will fall into... At the moment I am plumping for structural problems. Or maybe the pacing isn't right. Or the voice?

Actually this has highlighted for me the importance of getting feedback, even in a rejection. No - *especially* in a rejection.

David Griffin said...

Thought-provoking as always, Nicola!

The quote from US literary agent Rachelle Gardner was interesting, implying that a "real page-turner" of a novel is very important. Of course, I agree it is, but what's one person's page turner is another person's boredom, I think. There have been two bestsellers that I started to read in the past few years, which didn't engage me at all. One was "out of focus" and didn't seem to go anywhere fast, another was snoozeville for me. (I gave each novel at least 30 pages or so before I gave up on them). Yet many people obviously love them. (One is a Booker prize winner).

I'm sure some people might find my novels "snoozeville"; but I'd like to think there are others who won't; hoping that the latter group will include literary agents I send to!

Also interesting is the quote: "Writing quite good, but this isn't the story to launch an author with." For interest, I spent quite a bit of time trying to decide which of my two completed novels I should go with first sending to agents again, finally deciding to go with my previous agent's decision.This is my second novel. I like to think that this "literary" novel could give me a wider readership if/when my second novel (which would be my first written) is published.

Anyhow, a published novel is another country to me at the moment, as I sit here without a passport! Ah well, plod on trying agents I will; try to understand their thinking somehow...

Nicola Morgan said...

Am just rushing out but I feel it's very important to emphasise, esp in the light of David's comment, that different editors and agents want different different sorts of books. Which is why you must always do your research and only approach agents and editors who do take your type of book. So, if your book is commercial fiction it does need a big "page-turning" quality and must be sent to an agent /editor who handles commercial fiction. If your books is more "literary fiction" (and please bear with me with these definitions - they may be vexed and unappealing but they are what we work with) then the level of and need for page-turning-pull is different.

So, when agents / editors disagree about a book it's not as random as you might think. They know what they'r looking for - you have to work out what that is.

Sally says "I know one when I see one" - indeed! Like "real" readers. But you also know, as an expert, that there are SOME objective tick-boxes.

altguy3 - welcome! You make good points. congrats on your fabulous rejection letters! Re why rubbish gets published - I've written about this in a post called something like "Why crap is published". I will do so again.

Queenie - I've also blogged about reasons for rejection and will do so again. Let me know if you can't find the posts.

Must go - excuse if lots of typos!

Sarah said...

I loved the questions Dutton editors ask themselves- very thought provoking.

In some ways submitting a MS reminds me a lot of dating. There are certainly deal breakers, but you occasionally meet a great person and know after a while that the relationship isn't going to go anywhere. Perhaps editors and agents feel the same way.

I started following, written by Mary Kole, an associate agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She blogged just a few minutes ago about why she says no to great work!.

Clair said...

Although I agree that making a 'big splash' early on is important, I worry that too many of us spend ages polishing our opening chapters and maybe let ourselves down later on. I know I've been guilty of obsessing over the beginning of a novel, determined to catch the eye of an agent/publisher and also because some peer review sites place such an emphasis on them. A 'big splash' is great, but it needs to be sustained throughout - which is always the tricky bit.

Nicola Morgan said...

Clair - to clarify: "making a splash" does not mean having a great beginning to your book. It means having a great beginning to your career! Of course, our books must be as brilliant in the middle and end as at the beginning, but this is about launching your career with a book that attracts attention. Publishers have to think like this if they want us to succeed long-term, and they should, and so do we!

Nicola Morgan said...

Sarah - it is indeed a lot like dating. And when a publisher or agents drops you, it's probably a bit like being dumped by a partner! (Of course it's not as bad, but you know what I mean.)

KP - good for you! And to lots of the rest of you: glad this resonates.

Emma Darwin said...

It's true that you need to send to the right kind of agent, but it's also true that whether or not an agent finds something a page-turner is very personal and subjective, and not purely about where it is on the literary/commercial spectrum. Agents have particular tastes (specially in, say, crime fic or sf/f) but many agents are generalists, with a wide range of clients: mine represents Mark Haddon and Sarah Dunant, but also Penny Vincenzi and Louise Rennison.

So, on the one hand, do your research. On the other hand, be prepared to submit to more than a mini-handful of agents, because you can't ever predict the falling-in-love chemistry.

Helena Halme said...

Very interesting and useful post as always, Nicola.

What I find most difficult is knowing which agents to approach.

Is there a website which finds an agent of a particular author? I know some books have the agent's name in the back, and their sites have a list of authors, but doing it the other way around would be so useful.

Also, if an agent has an author which I relate to and could compare my style and work to (although obviously mine is such a unique voice there's no-one quite like me...), they often don't want to take on another author of the same genre.

Any advice?


Nicola Morgan said...

Emma - of course I agree that you can't predict which agents or editors will find your work page-turning or whatever but i do mean you have to send the sort of book they seem to be asking for, based partly on what sort of books they've already taken. There is a judgement to be made somewhere bwteen "This agent is definitely the right one for this sort of book and this agent is definitely not" - of course, for all those in the middle you just have to take pot luck, with a bit of judgement thrown in. When agents take a wide range, that may seem easier, but it's probably actually harder, because the proportion of the pile they'll say yes to will be smaller because the pile will be bigger but they still have the same numnber of hours in the day.

mindmap1 said...


Great post, especially since I'm in the middle of a 'pitch' - yikes!

I suspect the reason agents and editors are vague is because there are no rules as such. A lot of their decision making is based on a 'gut' reaction. And I believe that when we, as writers, have a 'eureka' moment and experience a 'gut' reaction to what we're writing then we have a good chance of attracting attention.

We need to do our homework on agents and take the time to learn how they tick as individuals. I know there is nothing they loathe more than someone sending in a full manuscript in a genre they do not even represent. No matter how good it is.

And ANY feedback is a fabulous thing, no matter how negative it feels. Editors and Agents know what sells and that is the bottom line. Certainly I believe that if you've had a 'eureka' moment, why not pitch it and see what happens?

Perhaps Nicola would like to do a thread on pitching? It's a left brain activity and something all of us need to learn to get to grips with. It's all about how to SELL our story. It saves a hell of a lot time for us as writers hanging around waiting for a response, because agents tend to answer a log-line and two paragraph pitch pretty quickly.

And I don't worry too much about the first chapter because sometimes I don't get to grips with my characters until chapter three or four. I keep going until the end of my first draft. By then I know them intimately and re-write the first two or three chapters.

Now, if only I could do all of the above myself!!


Jemi Fraser said...

Great advice and great links to some very smart folks! Thanks :)

Debra Harris-Johnson said...

That is quite a lot to digest but I understand exactly what is meant. Think like an editor thinking like a reader mmmmmm.

Dave King said...

That comes like a late Christmas present which I shall b e un wrapping for some time to come, I think. Grateful thanks.

Elizabeth West said...


I appreciate knowing this but it's somewhat discouraging at the same time. I might think my book is awesome, but the whole "splash" thing makes me wonder. If you can't write to trends because they pass too quickly, and your own passions don't necessarily click with the market, then how are you ever going to make a splash?

The only thing I can say to myself is Never Give Up.

Nicola Morgan said...

Elizabeth - don't worry about trends. By the time a trend exits, it's too late. Publishers are looking for a great story, and there are many, many great stories to be told. It's important to keep reading contemporary fiction in your genre, because then you'll see where the zeitgeist is at the moment and it could trigger a "what if" idea, and it will help you pitch your book correctly, but your book does not have to fit an existing or even upcoming trend (though that would be a luck break!) - it just has to grab your desired readers. So, keep your mind wide open, rather than focusing on whether you've hit a trend or not. The best stories hit the writer between the eyes and the writer then hits the reader between the eyes.

Anonymous said...

Nicola, if I'm supposed to walk like an editor, does this mean I must change my shoes? I really, really like my Nikes...

Anonymous said...

Queenie said:
I'd be very interested in separate blog posts on reasons for rejection.

Nicola, I hope you don't mind a minor blog-heist, but I did a blog post a while back about this very question - from my perspective.

Nicola Morgan said...

Lynn - sounds as though you're walking like an author... (Tho not this one.) And of COURSE I don't mind your blog-heist, since you always speak sense. I've blogged on the topic myself and will do so again and maybe I'll come and heist your blog then, too! Really, we should just go to each other's houses and drink margharitas.

Vera said...

I think it is difficult to 'see into the minds of editors and agents', because if I did I wouldn't have written the book I did: it would have been more 'sensational', which would have missed the point of writing it in the first place. So I self-published! I think one has to write from the heart, and keep on writing, until that magic wand is waved and one is accepted by the publishing industry. Meanwhile, if one's voice is different to all the rest in one's genre, self publish, and keep on writing....
Excellent thoughts in your blog, and I much enjoyed reading it.

Old Kitty said...


Probably not much to add to the valid comments here but I was just mesmerised to read the editors' reasons for rejecting a book. And the tiny amount they actually took on, four in total I think, two per editors.

I shall now read that "why do publishers publish crap" blog - but after a large glass of wine, I think.

Take care and good luck to all


Linda Strachan said...

Great post Nicola! It is always useful to get an insight into the minds and thoughts of editors (and agents).
I recall a picture book that one editor was very keen on being rejected because they already had two books on that theme on their list.

By the way I have a new blog BOOKWORDS -so a mini blog-heist here, too!