Today’s post is a flashback to August 20, 2010. Enjoy!
This month, we’re looking at a question that comes up frequently in the mailbag, though it takes many varied forms. The upshot: a writer is sitting on a completed manuscript. It belongs in a genre which isn’t a strong seller at the moment, or it straddles genres, or she isn’t entirely sure what genre it belongs to. How should she describe it when pitching it to agents or editors?
First, and most important, don’t lie. For example, if your book is clearly a western, don’t pitch it as a general historical in an attempt to overcome any current market bias against westerns. Lying about the nature of your manuscript will only irritate the very people you’re trying to court.
You might think this is a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised by the number of people who violate this simple rule. I’ve had queries for books pitched as romances that had no heroes, for erotic romances that had no sex scenes, and for paranormals that had no paranormal elements. Yes, I read at least part of these manuscripts based on the deceptive queries. And then I rejected them. Yes, even the ones that were written competently, though in my experience, writers who must resort to such tactics generally don’t have publishable manuscripts. These kinds of deceptions are generally desperation moves.
Second, if your book straddles genres, say so. Again, this might seem like a no-brainer, but there have been plenty of times I’ve heard pitches for straight-up contemporaries that ended up having a dash of time travel, magic, or other non-niche elements. This always strikes me as a lesser crime than lying outright about the genre, mainly because a dollop of cross-genre influence is not always enough to pull a book out of its main niche. Nevertheless, you’re better off describing it accurately: “My Awesome Novel” is a contemporary romance with a dash of urban fantasy. Or, “My Awesome Novel” is a hot Regency historical influenced by alternate-history paranormals. See how easy that is?
What do you do if you legitimately don’t know how to position your manuscript? Go to the bookstore. Wander the aisles until you find the book that most nearly resembles yours. Where is it shelved? Let’s say you have a murder mystery plot with a traditional romance arc. If the similar book was shelved in mystery, pitch it as a mystery. If with romance, pitch it as a romance. (But don’t forget to tip off the agents and editors that it straddles genres. Truth in advertising.)
Maybe you already know it’s romance but don’t know what type of romance. What kind of cover does your similar book have? Subgenres often share cover characteristics: flowery covers for sweet single titles, half-unlaced ballgowns for hot historicals, tight black costumes for urban fantasy, and so on. If you can’t quite figure it out, find books with covers that resemble the cover of your similar book. If, for example, they’re all light Regencies, then you know your similar book was branded a light Regency, and you can safely describe yours as a light Regency, too.
When questions about positioning a book come into the Ask-an-Editor mailbox, they often include a plea for advice on how to find a good agent. Good agents are not hard to identify. Watch the deals reports from Publishers Marketplace. They have a marvelous paid service (http://www.publishersmarketplace.com) and a free daily newsletter that’s well worth a few moments of your time.(http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/lunch/free/). Other online databases such as agentquery.com can give you a glimpse at client lists and past deals, also very useful. Spend some time searching the web and you’ll find plenty of similar resources.
But the best resource for agent and editor information is (and probably always will be) your writing network. Build it and nurture it, and become a resource within it. Be friendly and undemanding with your peers. Encourage people to come to you with information, and give them a reason to do so by being open with your knowledge and time. But always protect the reputations of the people who trade with you. One of my personal rules — and it’s iron-clad — is that I never reveal my sources. Sources can share information with me knowing that their identities will be protected, and they can come to me for information knowing that I will reveal as much as I safely can.
A well-developed network will be able to tell you things that can’t be written in online databases. They’ll tell you which houses are slow pays, which agents don’t answer email, which editors have restricted power, what are current advances at various houses, and so on. You’ll have to learn to separate the sour grapes from the facts — learn, for example, to ignore most of the generalized grumbling about how agents don’t do enough for their clients or how editors take too long and expect too much. There may be a grain of universal truth in those complaints, but that’s probably more a systemic problem than a sign of weakness in any individual professional.
So, if you want to know how to match your unique book with an agent and editor who will love it, it’s really a three-step process. Know your work. Know the industry. And tap your network.
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Thank you, Theresa, for the great tips on pitching multi-genre manuscripts.
Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/ where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.