Thursday, April 24, 2008

...I'm at a loss.

Anonymous said...

I'm a literary agent who's been on both sides of the desk. After about 4000 rejections for my own MS I got a job with a reputable agency, 30 years in biz.

In 4000 e-mail queries, I found a single snotty agent. He's opened himself to humiliation one day, as this kind of hilarity can make valuable copy.

This is no 9-to-fiver. One is up 'til the wee hours looking for quality work. In 2000 queries I found a single potential -- who didn't even follow submission rules. This first-timer is now getting thumbs-up from several "Big Guys." That's good writin'.

This is what puts food on our tables. Nobody I've rejected has got anywhere so far. We all keep watch to see how right or wrong we are.

Writers who have time for bitterness can't be very certain of themselves.

We get TONS of proposals from self-healed or been healed of something; a client's associate, incidentally, is going on Oprah for that.

My friends who have overcome worse hardships may never be heard from.

There's no pathology in turning down uninspiring queries. Many sound fraudulent. Let's get "obnoxious:" many were just too dumb to stay out of trouble. People that dumb may think they deserve a book contract and TV accolades, but their peers don't buy books anyhow.

This is a response in my "You Are Not Special" post.

Someone please explain it to me.

P.S. There are not 4000 literary agents in the United States. Maybe in the world. Maybe. And that's including assistants. And the cleaning lady who works in the agency building.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Children's Books and Agents

I’ve done many searches looking for a statistic or at least a better understanding of why some houses do not respond to agented submissions. I read on one editor’s blog that he doesn’t even look at a MS until the agent nudges him. Is this common practice?

I write children’s’ fiction, and out of 7 agented subs this past year, I’ve only received two positive rejections. The rest are all no shows (these are major houses, too). I’m trying to figure out if this ‘if we’re not interested, you won’t hear from us’ is a common thing now, even with an agent, or if my agent is not being aggressive enough with follow up (which I suspect is true). I’d really appreciate it if you could address this on your blog. Thanks so much for your insight.

So I'm not sure the statistics in children's fiction (particularly middle grades and below), but yes, most houses have a blanket policy of no un-agented material. See more about it in this post. There are, however, a lot of smaller publishing houses for children's books that take un-agented submissions.

EDIT: (OK, this is the third time I'm typing this out because blogger keeps losing my work) Sometimes agents take on work that they cant sell, either because they're not good enough or the book isn't as good as they thought it was. Also, markets can dry up and contacts can quit or get fired. Give your agent time to exhaust every possible avenue. When he/she does, it's time to write another book and/or find a new agent.

You Are Not Special or Inspiring

I would say that about 30% of our submissions are medical memoirs. Occasionally they're by doctors who want to bring someone to the public's attention, sometimes someone has a crazy medical theory, but for the most part they're people who have had or have some disease, disorder, or syndrome and have chosen to write about about it. That's all well and good, and inspiring stories about illness are important or whatever, but there are two aspects of it that particularly annoy me.

(1) The ones concerning psychiatric problems, unlike cancer or a disease, tend to fall in line with whatever is a trendy diagnosis in the medical world. Right now we're seeing a lot of bipolar memoirs, far more than we normally see. In fact it's gotten to the point where if I read a CNN health blurb about some disorder, I expect to see more queries about it in the next couple months. The article was written in response to a trend in diagnostics, which means more people were being diagnosed with that particular illness, which means more people who are writing their memoirs are going to say they have that illness.

I've singled out mental illnesses here for a reason: they adhere more to trends because the diagnostic procedures are constantly in flux. Unlike cancer, which is always cancer, mental health issues are simply harder to pin down. Many psychologists and psychiatrists think some of the less obvious categories (obvious categories being narcolepsy and pyromania) are not worth diagnosing. They would rather treat the patient by their symptoms and use therapy to get to the root of the symptoms than label it, but the labels serve a purpose. The patient wants the comfort of knowing their problem has a name, which gives it a legitimacy it might not have had before, and the doctor needs some guidelines on treatment methods, so names are assigned to a collection of symptoms which really appear in a lot of different disorders. Periods of mania followed by periods of depression might label a person manic depressive, but then bipolar disorder came along and some people felt it was separate, and then they classed it into type 1 and type 2, and then added a bunch of supplemental classes, and now after DSM-IV some people argue that manic depression might just be a sub-type of bipolar disorder. (This happens in other areas of medicine. One of my doctors feels strongly that Ulcerative Colitis, long believed to be unrelated to Crohn's Disease, is actually one of 5 subtypes of Crohn's Disease)

The results are good: Doctors learn more about the differences in subtypes and therefore how to treat them. However, it also means I'll see a huge increase of queries of people who for years have struggled with whatever depression and mania is currently being called. In our office we don't have a blanket policy about rejecting disease stories - in fact, many are requested - but we are used to seeing a direct response to medical trends in people's memoirs, which means the memoirs reflect not so much their personal struggle (which could be interesting) as what's popular in medicine (less interesting/relevant).

(2) Almost everyone feels compelled to add the line, "I hope to inspire/educate other people with this disease/disorder/syndrome." Altruistic or narcissistic? You decide. It's probably a bit of both. Not to knock on people with serious mental illness (having been misdiagnosed with a number of them myself by well-meaning doctors), but being sick is not the only requirement for writing a memoir about it. You also have to be a good writer and there has to be a reason why your story is something people would want to read. My boss does request a lot of these, which results in a high number of rejected partials, as it becomes plain within a chapter that the author has nothing special to contribute and is merely going through the chronological history of her doctor's visits and making mundane observations about the waiting room in hopes of making it seem real.

I have a personal beef with this, and I admit it outright. When I got sick ten years ago, a ton of people either recommended books to me or gave me books about either my disease or a more general book that was meant to be inspiring. I have a shelf full of them. It's never really stopped. Everyone from the person in the seat in front of me at synagogue to my hairstylist reads some book about illness, thinks of me, and then makes sure I hear about it at length while they're cutting my hair or running into me at the bagel line at kiddish. The more annoying people give me a copy, and then even check back two weeks later to see if I've read it, which means I have to read it or lie about reading it. I did read some of them, and the experience was mainly negative. Either I found them depressing, uninteresting, or irrelevant. In a few cases the author was clearly deranged. Some guy apparently cured his Crohn's by eating dirt, but if you read his story carefully, you'll notice that his doctors were just doing a terrible job and had he been seeing someone decent, he would have gotten treatment that definitely would have prevented him from being 80 pounds underweight (it's called intravenous feeding, dork).

All of these people are well-meaning, and have no idea how little interest I have in whatever book they think will inspire me. When I want to read about Crohn's, I go get a book and read it. Otherwise, I mainly listen to my doctor and have him explain things in detail, and that's enough for me. Beyond that, I have a life to live.

Over the years, many, many people have told me to write a book about my experiences, another line that pops up a lot in these queries. The response I give is always the same: "I don't think anyone would want to read it." Nothing about my personal medical history is particularly instructive or inspiring. I may feel differently in the future, but this is the way I've felt for awhile, and it's unlikely to change very soon. Just because something was traumatic doesn't mean people want to hear about it. There still has to be a basic story, even in a memoir, to entice people. It doesn't have to adhere to the basic conflict/action/resolution structure of a novel, especially with a chronic illness to which there is no resolution, but it has to tell the reader something other than "I was sick and here's what happened."

Also, change the names of your doctors or get their permission to use them. They wouldn't write a book about you and name names; you probably shouldn't do the same.