Friday, 29 June 2012

DEAR CRABBIT: Can I pitch an unfinished book to an agent?

Thanks for your questions for Dear Crabbit so far. Keep them coming! For guidelines, see the Dear Crabbit page above.

You asked:
"I have read your book (AKA my bible) Write to be Published and I have one small query:
I understand why it is wrong to send a publisher an unfinished book (i.e. you are offering them a product, which may never get off the drawing board and therefore potentially wasting everyone's time.) 
"However, you say - in your book - that it's also 'against the rules' to do so with an agent (although you yourself did it, then didn't write the rest of that particular book).  
"In the case of an agent, though, if they are, as you say, interested in 'you the writer' as well as 'you the book,' are there ever grounds for making overtures towards a possible agent, ahead of completing the MS? 
"I ask because of the length of turnaround time involved in sending off the completed work, whilst it then languishes at one agent's premises after another, awaiting a verdict on its suitability. 
"This would seem to be avoidable, if an agent could be approached in advance, and given an idea of the style and marketability of your previous work, and a 'flavour' of your work in progress. 
"That way, they could perhaps indicate whether - in principle - they feel any affinity with the author, and whether the novel in question is the kind of work they might wish to represent? 
"Or should I buy a ticket back from cloud cuckooland asap?" 
In here is a fair question: "are there ever grounds for making overtures towards a possible agent, ahead of completing the MS ..." and the questioner suggests, quite understandably, that it would be great if a writer could pitch an idea and allow the agent the chance to say whether in principle they'd like to see more and work with the writer.

The short answer is no, you can't credibly do this. Well, you can if you're a celebrity... And you could thirty years ago. And you could if you're an already highly successful writer in another field. Or if you met the agent at a party, got her drunk, seduced her (supposing you are the gender that she is attracted to) and put a manipulative drug in her drink, and if you did all this so successfully that she agreed to your every demand. Against her better judgement.

You said that you understand why it's the case with publishers, because "you are offering them a product, which may never get off the drawing board and therefore potentially wasting everyone's time". Exactly the same with agents. And agents are more often unsalaried, earning only a commission on successfully sold books. Agents have even more to lose.

You said, "if they are, as you say, interested in 'you the writer' as well as 'you the book,'" - yes, but they first and mostly need the book, especially if it's your first book. If you have other successfully published books, they might well take you on as the writer without an actual book in progress. I know some writers this has happened to, but they are writers with genuine track record.

The thing is that without reading your work (or part of it) the agent simply can't know. And reading part of it only tells her that she likes that part of it and likes the premise. The amount of time she takes to read part of your unfinished work is quite likely to be wasted, because even you do not know whether you can finish it.

It's simply too costly in her time. And therefore risky. She also runs some risks because what if she says, "Yes, carry on! Sounds great!" And you do and you send it to her a year later (by which time she's forgotten it) and she reads the rest of it (but the first bit again, especially since you've redrafted it) and it's not good enough. You'll be cross. She told you to write it and now she doesn't like it. Meh.

So, from the writer's pov, it sound like a great idea. From the agent's, not so much.

By the way, you said, "although you yourself did it [approached an agent with an unfinished book], then didn't write the rest of that particular book". Ah, but:
  • I didn't tell her it was unfinished! As soon as she said she was interested, I had to finish it! 
  • I did write the rest of the book - and it was the book she took me for and the book that got published. (Mondays are Red.) 
  • Also, it was 13 years ago. Things have changed. Novels must be finished. 
Hope that helps.

Basically, if you believe in your book, you have to believe in it enough to want to write it, to need to write it, to burn to write it. And to take the risk that an agent or publisher doesn't like it enough. I'm sorry - not the answer you wanted!

Remember, though, that there are always exceptions to rules. There might be an agent out there who'd be happy to take the line you suggest. I think it's a risk, though. I think it's also most likely to waste your time. So, it's not my recommended route, not by a long chalk.

So, not exactly cloud-cuckooland but possibly a pipe-dream.

More Dear Crabbit questions answered next week.


Stephanie Butland said...

I agree with all you've said here, Nicola.
I think, no matter how experienced or established you are, you can't be sure your book is any good until you've finished it, ignored it for a fortnight, then reread it, then listened to the little voice that you know is telling you the truth,
And I think if we, as writers, don't know whether our books are going to be worth reading, we have no right to ask others to spend their time and energy on them.

Kate Paice said...

I would add to this: If you want to be a writer, you have to be able to write more than one book. The multiple months' waiting time to hear back from agents and publishers is a fantastic opportunity for you to be writing your second book. If the first one doesn't make it, hopefully the second will be better. If the first one does get picked up, the agent will be pleased to hear you're 50K words into another.

If, on the other hand, you're thinking 'I don't want to keep writing this without some guarantee that I will be published', I'm afraid that's tough bananas, and there is no guarantee.

Look at it this way: I've known highly experienced authors choke on books half way through, leaving them forever unfinished. Imagine if you got the agent's letter of interest just when you had realised the whole project was a misconceived disaster that you can't do anything with. Finish the book first.

Rebecca Brown said...

Great answer to a question that passes through (or haunts?) a newbie writer's mind constantly - way too tempting to just test the water, see if you're any good, is it worth continuing etc etc.

I know I've been so tempted so, so many times but luckily there are wiser and more experienced heads, like Nicola, to say not only "Gah, no, don't do it" but also why.

But good luck finishing the book, Brave Person Who Asked!

Rebecca Alexander said...

I wonder if one of the things an agent and publisher want to be certain of, is that you CAN finish a book. Certainly, taking a first draft of the first half through to a carefully paced, consistently polished product is something best proved by having done it. As Stephanie says, books need rewriting and editing before we can ask whether someone else might want to read it. No to to mention, as Katie says, agents and publishers want a working writer, whose already half way through their next project with an idea for book 3 fermenting.

E.Maree said...

We've all heard the saying "Ideas are dime a dozen". Awesome book ideas are also dime a dozen. The magic lies in the execution.
It's important to prove to agents that you can take an awesome idea and then shape it into an awesome book, because the writing and editing is the longest and hardest part. And it's the completed, well-written book that the agent and publisher will need to sell.

david said...

One of my MA students pitched a partially written YA novel to six agents recently, and five of them offered to represent her (the story's slightly more complicated than this, but they replied with indecent haste), which implies that, if you target the right people and have a brilliant product, things haven't changed that much. She's now frantically finishing the book when she should be doing her dissertation (which is at it should be).

Nicola Morgan said...

David - as I say, "exceptions" and as you say "slightly more complicated than this" :) So has she signed with an agent?

I wouldn't accept a publishing contract for an unfinished book.

Please note Kate Paice's comments: she's a highly respected and experienced commissioning editor working for good publishers.

The best advice remains: write the book and make it the best it can be. Then think about what to do with it. But huge good luck and congrats to anyone who does it a different way!

David Belbin said...

Yes, she signed with a very big, very commercial agency. She has other books on the go and a good social network profile & I don't want to say more except for the usual: there are no concrete rules. Generally, of course, you're right about not going off half cocked. I got my first book commissioned by a big publisher on the basis of a sample chapter and synopsis. Ironically, I was careful not to tell them that I'd already written a much rejected version of it. Can't see that happening these days...

Nicola Morgan said...

David - wonderful! The interesting thing actually is that this is utterly logical and SHOULD happen more often. The reason it doesn't is that most writers/books are by no means as obviously brilliant/commercial is your student and her book. Hooray for her! (And you!)

Nick Green said...

The definition of 'unfinished' here also should be considered. I'm presuming that we're talking about the early chapter of the first draft here.

In reality, I'd say that when you've got to the end of the first draft (i.e. written 50k to 80+k words) then you can reasonably say that you have started. And I still wouldn't submit this unrevised draft to anyone, not even my closest, drunkest friend.

Carol Hedges said...

Sound advice. Sadly, I did get my first book accepted on basis of sample chunk - which I then had to finish. BUT that was 24 years ago and I now think the satisfaction of finishing a whole novel - whether it then gets taken on or not, cannot be beat. It teaches you so much about persistance, your own ability to interect with the story and just to get in there and slog on. That 'whoah I've just written the final sentance' feeling is amazing. And then ... you have all that lovely revision to do. Which you can't do unless you have a whole text to deal with.

DanielB said...

My agent took me on when only 50% of my book "The Cut" was completed. But she'd already seen earlier work from me which she liked but didn't feel strongly enough about to sell. And I'd had my two Doctor Who books out without an agent, so I'd already proved I was publishable, I suppose.

Stephanie said...

I realised after posting to this thread that my second novel, which is entirely unwritten (unplotted, uncharactered), was bought at the same time as my first, completed, one... I should have said so! But maybe second books are different, Nicola?

Nicola Morgan said...

Stephanie - oh yes, completely different! That's how "two book deals" work. x

Anonymous said...

I clicked through your "About Me" Page and clicked the link to your book blog "Write to be Published" and to the "Positive Feedback", but both links are broken. Apart from that, I loved your blog, thank you so much for sharing.

Nicola Morgan said...

Hi yanovelist. Sorry, only just saw this comment because blogger had put it into spam! I don't moderate comments but comments on old posts go into spam and I have to go looking, which I rarely do!

I'm not sure which links you mean. If you happen to see this comment could you possibly check again? It might have been a temporary glitch.

Thanks for your comment!