That’s nearly always the first question at a writing conference, panel, or upon meeting someone who finds out that I work as an agent. The answer the writer gets and the answer that I get when I pose the same question to an editor often sounds vague, and to some sounds like no answer at all.
In fact, it’s a lot like the question my wife asked me when we were out looking for those last Christmas presents, “What do you have in mind for xxxx?” To which I would say, “I don’t have anything in mind but I’ll know it when I see it.”
The simple answer is that I’m looking for a good book that is well written in a strong and unique voice, that I can see a solid market for it, and where I feel like I have the right contacts to get it into that market. Ask me the question and that’s probably the response you will get. In actual practice it’s more like I’ll know it when I see it.
Sure, there are some genres that I read more than others so I tend to like stories in that vein, but that’s no guarantee. I really love westerns but have little luck with them at present so having only so many client slots that I can service the genre I love the most may be the hardest to connect in. I don’t read much sci-fi and fantasy, but I have a couple of clients who hit me with some of that and the manuscript pulled me in and continued to make me read. As a result I’m trying at present to get it placed somewhere.
It’s a matter of connecting with the author and the story. A fiction story that I enjoy and can’t put down. If I don’t connect with it, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad story, but it simply didn’t pull me in as a reader. Not my kind of thing, or I just didn’t feel I was the right person to try to take it to the market. It’s the same with non-fiction, a topic that really interests me by an author who has credentials to be believable. A book on how to deal with all the problems in life written by a twenty year old who has few real life experiences to draw on probably isn’t going to be very credible, and yes I’ve been sent some of that.
And platform, oh yes, that’s part of it. I see so many that say “a readership of every living being between 18-90.” That’s no platform at all. That’s who all of us would like to sell to. A platform is groups of people a writer has direct access to through media or exposure or group membership, or perhaps associations particularly attuned to a topic. A platform says “These are my readers and this is how I am particularly able to market to them.” Particularly in today’s difficult economy platform is very important.
There’s a lot more that enters into it, the quality and flow of the writing, if it is professionally formatted and error free. But the bottom line is that it just isn’t a one sentence answer. A solid, professional proposal (single document) answers these questions for me, at least enough for me to want to pursue it further. I received over 1000 of these over the past months and the ones I’ve pursued sent me proposals that caught my attention, presented the author well, and answered my questions. Did some really good projects get past me because the author didn’t present them well? Probably. But it isn’t my job to like an author’s work, it’s their job to make me like it so I can then go on and make somebody else like it. It’s how the game is played.
The Marines are always looking for a few good men, and I’m always looking for a few good books.