Monday, 13 August 2012

DEAR CRABBIT: my book is too quiet and midlist

This raises some iteresting questions about debut novels and mid-list novels.
Dear Crabbit
I received a rejection from a literary agent. I would like your thoughts. That my novel is "too quiet" and "midlist" makes me wonder why all books have to be "in your face" to sell well, although I appreciate she was probably being kind and meant it was actually as dull as ditch-water. 
This was what she said: “I thoroughly enjoyed [redacted] which is an entirely compelling and enjoyable romance with excellent setting and characterisation. I have no criticisms of the novel itself but believe that prospective publishers will see it as being slightly too quiet, or mid list as they call it, to really be able to compete effectively, and at a high sales level, in a competitive market. For this reason I can’t offer to take things further. I’m really sorry."
I'm afraid I understand what the agent probably means. I've blogged on a similar topic here. That time, I was talking about how a debut novel needs to be a bit shouty, a bit "HELLO! LOOK AT ME!" because a debut author needs to be launched with a bit of a splash in order to be seen at all. (Actually, sometimes published authors need to be relaunched, to make a bigger splash, but this is another matter.)

The rejection doesn't necessarily mean the book is "as dull as ditch-water", by any means. It means that there is something about the book which makes it too hard for the sales and marketing people to find a hook on which to hang it. It will disappear before being read. Now, most books do that, but publishers can't afford to launch books that look like sure disappearers right from the start. Books that end up disappearing once had publishers who fully believed they could sell them; they were wrong, but they can't make too many mistakes like that.

The only way that publishing a no-hook, unshouty book can work is if it fits perfectly into an existing series or formula. But I guess this author's book doesn't. 

No, not all books or even all debuts need to be shouty, but they do have to have some clear power to create a reaction of "Oooh, that sounds interesting - I'd like to buy that." They need not to be obvious disappearers.

Yours could nevertheless be the sort of book that will do well as a self-published book, because you yourself will put enormous effort into the marketing, effort which the publisher simply can't/won't provide, because it looks too difficult to succeed. And if the book does do well self-published, that doesn't mean that the agent was wrong. It means you were able to do what a publisher probably couldn't have, given that the publisher as other books and finite resources. It's a fact that selling a large number of books as a self-publisher normally requires hours and effort that simply don't make commercial sense for a publisher who has to pay staff to do such work.

Given a well-written book that looks easy to sell and a well-written book that looks hard to sell, which would you choose if you were a publisher? And therefore an agent...

It's one of those sad-but-true reality checks. Sorry. :(

I also have to say that, even though Dear Agent has had terrific endorsement from literary agents, and even if you follow all the detailed advice in it and pitch your book as well as it can be pitched, once the agent has read your book and decided that it isn't what he is looking for, I'm afraid his answer will still not be the one you want. unless, of course, the true reason for rejection wasn't the book but something you said or didn't say in your covering letter. In which case, Dear Agent could save the day!


Derek said...

I have heard that sometimes a 'first' book will get the green light for publication once an author has proved herself / himself with a new novel. Perhaps this is one of those situations?

Emma Darwin said...

Great post, in response to such a common story.

And who knows: maybe it's not that the whole novel is incurably not in-your-face enough, it's just that the hook needs bringing out. It make seem hooky enough to the writer, but then the writer knows what it is already. Is there a clear hook/BigQuestion which is already latent? One which could be make bigger and hookier without fundamentally altering the nature of the novel?

I blogged about that question here, which might help:

Derek - it does happen, but it's a dangerous game; one reason for "second novel/album syndrome" is that it's really an earlier effort, dusted off and with a few details brought up to date. But you're a very different writer the far side of your second novel, you're very unlikely to patch together something out of your first which is nearly as successful as if you started on a fully new project, or re-conceived the first project completely, re-writing it from the ground up.

Squidge said...

My first novel was deemed 'not commercial enough' by it has been officially relegated to status of 'wardrobe novel' on the advice of my agent. That is, it's been put to one side while I work on a different project which has more potential to be the 'breakthrough' novel I need.

Disappointing? Very. The first one carried so much of my hope and dreams...the bottom of the wardrobe just doesn't seem like a fitting resting place for such a work.

But as a result, I've been spurred on to write something else which might, just possibly, receive a different response in the future.

Fingers crossed...

Elizabeth Dunn said...

Good luck Squidge. I'm reading an Isabel Dalhousie novel by Alexander McCall Smith that exemplifies quiet and unshouty, even unhooky. His novels know what they are, they know their niche, and are slickly packaged as such - literary, quirky, a sort of modern Jane Austen. I don't think we have to be Hollywood, but we do have to recognise what makes us original and build on it. Turn up the quirk - or whatever it takes even if we're not A. Mc Smith .

SolariC said...

It's hard to know how 'hooky' your own work is...Obviously if you want to write it, you also want to read it, so you assume there are others out there who share your feelings.

However, there's no way of knowing if the agent and publisher will feel that your work is marketable. It's sort of a gamble, trying to write a novel which will catch their interest.