All through the month of April we’re doing “Ask the Agent” — your chance to ask a literary agent the question you’ve always wanted to ask. Last week someone sent in this question: “If your manuscript isn’t the right fit for the agents you query, should you move on to the next book or self-publish? How do you decide if your project is good enough to go out if it doesn’t have a gatekeeper stamp of approval?”
Your first question suggests there is a right-or-wrong answer. The fact is, if your manuscript isn’t the right fit for the agents you query, perhaps you need to query other agents. Or perhaps you need to tweak your proposal. (I’m not trying to be cruel here, but if a bunch of people have seen your proposal and all rejected it, then it’s always possible the proposal simply needs some more work.) I just don’t see this as an either/or question.
That said, I think your second question gets to the heart of the matter: How can a writer know if his or her proposal is ready to be shown to agents and editors? And the answer is no doubt, “By getting some experienced opinions.” Taking your proposal to a critique group can help, or taking it to a couple of experienced writer friends and asking them to suggest changes. Many conferences have workshops on how to create a good proposal, and most will give you a chance to talk with editors and agents about the proposal itself — not just to pitch it, but to refine it. All of those are good options. And, of course, if you need more help, there is always this fabulous book to peruse…
Okay, I’ll admit… I wrote it with longtime editor Holly Lorincz, and I love the topic. There are plenty of good books out there on “how to create a good proposal.” What’s unique about this one? I include actual book proposals from books I represented and sold to publishers. You can order a copy here.
On a related note, someone asked, “When you write novels that don’t ‘fit’ the marketplace… are you doomed? I have had a few agents that did not take me on because I wasn’t quite romance; my books were more literary. With the difficult publishing world, I was told they don’t know where to put me.”
If you’re trying to get published in a category, you have to fit the category rules or you are, indeed, doomed. Every category (romance, suspense, cozy mystery, police procedural, western, etc) has certain rules that must be followed because that’s what readers have come to expect of the genre. A cozy mystery that doesn’t have the crime solved at the end, for instance, won’t get much love. A romance where the hero and heroine don’t get together in the end is a tough sell. That’s what category fiction is: stories that follow certain rules.
But literary fiction doesn’t have rules. They are novels about life and relationships and the big questions we all ask. The characters may or may not get together, the hero may or may not win, the crime may or may not be solved… because these aren’t standard stories going by certain rules. They are stories exploring people and the human condition, and the rules governing category fiction don’t apply.
Occasionally there will be a novel that combines a literary sensibility with a category — many would consider The Time Traveler’s Wife to be a “literary romance,” for example, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is often talked about as a “literary crime novel.” That may be true because the stories have elements of the category, but in both cases I think most people consider those books largely as literary fiction. I don’t think Eco’s novel appealed to most crime fiction readers, for example. They would simply argue it was too literary.
So to me, it sounds like you may be talking with the wrong agents, or talking the wrong way about your manuscript. Category fiction sells a lot of copies to readers who enjoy the genre, but literary fiction are the stories that change us, that help us to see the world in new ways, that cause us to grow. It’s tough to point to a category novel that most critics would consider great fiction.
Does that help? Hey, if you’ve got a question you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent, stick it into the comments section below. Happy to start a conversation with you!