Difficult words to hear, especially for would-be authors.
Would-be authors need to hear them.
Kate McKean is a literary agent for, and the vice-president of, Howard Morhaim Literary Agency.
Simply having the title “literary agent” means she deals with a stack of submissions from would-be authors on a weekly basis. Most, if not all of them, are from someone who was told “this would make a great book.” And so the would-be author writes something, figures that McKean would make a good literary agent to represent their new book to publishers, and sends off a query letter.
These query letters are often written with much excitement and hope. In my experience, they also incur a great deal of anxiety.
Literary agents, and McKean is no exception, will state the genre and type of manuscript they are interested in. These details can be found on the agency website and on the agent’s personal webpage, if they have them.
There is even an online database for literary agents, The Manuscript Wishlist, that states, in detail, what an agent is looking for. These aren’t suggestions, they’re definitive statements of “I want this, not that.”
Beyond an agent’s stated desires for a manuscript, there are blog posts, and blog posts, and articles, and more blog posts, and tweets, with hints and suggestions for would-be authors on how to query an agent.
There’s one common thread among them all.
Read what the agent is looking for.
Sadly, this is ignored by the majority of query letters.
If my experience is any indication, an aspiring author will finish a manuscript and hit the querying process hard. He’ll search for agents and send out query letters in bulk. Or, sit in angst over what to say for each one, worrying that one word or phrase may destroy their one chance at becoming a published author.
Which is what I did.
I sent out hundreds of query letters and worried about everyone. I got so fed up with the process that I did a form letter and just inserted the agent’s name into it. Since I am not a bestselling author, it’s obvious that this tactic didn’t work.
Learn from my mistake.
DON’T DO THAT!
As good as my intentions were, the end result is an exhausted author with no literary agent.
Add in there being demoralized with my book and thinking I wasn’t a good writer at all, and that’s my experience with querying agents.
While I may have queried McKean -- I’m not sure as I sent out a LOT and I wasn’t paying attention to names for a while -- my story isn’t unique. The story of querying agents that is. The book I wrote was different, if burrowed in a sea of extraneous details and poorly thought-out characters.
The end result of my story is one literary agents deal with on a daily basis: would-be authors who think they have a story to tell...but don’t understand the industry.
McKean, very bluntly, explains how it is inside the publishing industry.
It’s a retail industry.
Through and through.
Yes, books are amazing things that can trigger social change, change lives, facilitate self-discovery, etc.
They’re also a product, just like anything else.
To create said product takes time and effort.
Lots of it.
Those creating these books, even eBooks, have bills to pay.
They can’t do it for free.
It sounds callous, cold, and indifferent, but it’s the truth.
Not all stories can be turned into book.
Everyone feels they have a story inside them.
But not everyone should put it into a book and query an agent.
McKean likens writing a book to running a marathon.
An apt metaphor. As one who has completed books and runs marathons I agree wholeheartedly.
Well, half marathons.
These shortened distances are still grueling. Maybe only half as grueling, but grueling nonetheless. And the training for them isn’t exactly sunshine and rainbows either. But it’s part of the process.
Back to books…
For someone who makes their living off of books, it’s a long and difficult process. If there was no love for it, then doing it would feel pointless.
When there is love, there is still the reality of making sure the lights stay on, the heater (or air-conditioner) is always working, and that there’s food in the fridge.
For this reason, a literary agent can’t always say “yes” to every book.
That would be nice, but wildly impractical.
Instead, there must be thorough analysis as to what will sell well in the market. McKean is not alone here, as all literary agents must be aware of trends and what makes a manuscript a worthwhile risk to take on. Because each manuscript is a risk.
To mitigate this risk, agents watch the numbers and decide if a manuscript will do well. Most of the time, the answer is- “no.”
Another factor in mitigating risk is to determine if the author will work to market the book as well. If the author has no clue who will likely read their book, that’s a red flag. Another red flag is the author assuming the publisher will take on all the marketing involved in selling the book once its published.
While the publisher does the heavy lifting of creating the book, it’s on the author to take on the bulk of the marketing.
These red flags are easy to spot. The agent will usually figure it out from the query letter itself.
An overwhelming majority of manuscripts end up on the slush pile this way.
It’s not because the agent has no taste in books, it’s because they need to find a manuscript that will pay the rent.
While the statistic may be outdated, it still bears repeating here: over 80% of the population believes they have a book in them.
What McKean is arguing is “a good story to tell at parties” does not equate to “a good book.”
There are always the little anecdotes we tell to friends and family. The ones we share, and enjoy sharing. We know just what to say and how to say it to get to the punchline.
For example: I used to work in pest control. For a couple years I would don a uniform, walk into businesses and people’s homes, and willingly look for bugs.
It paid well enough.
There’s a range of creepy crawlies that people don’t want to see. They’re there, but if too many of them occupy a space, that’s when they call in a pest control technician. And it was usually me.
One creature that no one wants to see, even if it’s just one, is the cockroach.
I’d get a call because someone saw “one” cockroach.
Other times someone would call in a panic because, as they’d say “there’s roaches everywhere!”
I’d roll up to find three, maybe five, crawling around.
That’s a lot, but it does not fall into the “everywhere” category. And most of the time this was the case.
Three times, and I counted, it wasn’t.
These were “rice crispy” jobs.
About this time the story, I pause, and someone will undoubtedly ask- “What’s a rice crispy job?”
I then get to answer- “A rice crispy job is where the cockroaches are so prevalent, that your shoes go snap, crackle, pop as you walk across the floor.”
People squirm, wrinkle their noses, go “ewwwwwwwwwwwww” when I share this knowledge with them.
As disgusting as “rice crispy” jobs were, I get the enjoyment of sharing it with unsuspecting strangers.
That said, that’s the depth and breadth of the story.
It fit into about two hundred words.
It’s not enough to turn into a book. Sure, there’s other stories of working in pest control. To me it was just a job. Something to put food on the table. I liked that I got to help people, but I did not love the job.
I’m not going to be turning it into a book.
If I ever write a book about my life, and there’s a tiny chance of that, I will definitely put “rice crispy’s” in there.
But an entire book it will not make.
In order for my time in pest control to warrant an entire novel of 50,000 words, the industry standard for a book, there would have to be an underlying plot, something about good vs. evil. I could spin it that way, but in reality, I did my time, put up with my boss, and got out of there when I could.
In fact, my time as a pest control technician was one of the major motivators for going all-in on ghostwriting.
But not enough to write an entire book about.
A Hard Truth
I doubt Kate McKean has gotten an entire book on rice crispy jobs. Even if she did, I’m sure it went right to the slush pile.
The point is; a great many queries that agents receive are just that- good stories that fit into a nice little package.
To write a full-length book takes a lot of time, practice, editing, rewriting, editing, heartache, and excitement. To do it day-in and day-out requires a lot of stamina, discipline, and tough-skin.
It’s not easy.
Ghostwriters, the insane people who write books for other people and take no credit, have to do it for other people.
They do have an advantage though, insider knowledge.
For example: One potential client came to me with a book idea and I replied that it would work. I gave him suggestions and he was enthusiastic about moving forward.
Just like literary agents, however, ghostwriters need to put food on the table.
There have been too many times where the client started strong only to get bored in the middle of the project and decide to leave. For this exact reason I’ve put a “kill-fee” in all my contracts. It’s not devious, it simply states that should an author decide to quit in the middle of the project, then a fee, proportional to the amount of work done or half the total project fee, is due.
He didn’t like that idea.
I wished him well on with his writing endeavors.
Even though he had what could have been a good book, he didn’t understand the publishing industry or how the ghostwriting process works.
To become a professional in the publishing industry, one must be steeped in it. It’s not an easy industry to make a living, but a very worthwhile one.
For this reasons, professionals in the publishing industry aren’t going to bend over backwards for every potential client, especially when it’s apparent that client isn’t fully aware of how the business works. And yet, these potential clients expect to get exclusive help -- for free.
That is simply not possible. To ask for their help means they have to take time away from work that pays. Giving away free advice can lead to having no money.
Doctors are set up the same way. Since I’m no expert on joints, when my knee hurts from running, I talk to a doctor.
But I know there’s a bill coming.
Agents, on the other hand, don’t take an upfront fee (If you find one, then run the other way). Instead, they take a cut of the advance for the manuscript, or the royalties, or both. That is a lot of work. Therefore, an agent isn’t going to put in all that time on story bout rice crispy jobs.
The manuscript must be well-written and the author needs to understand what’s expected of them moving forward.
As cold as that sounds, it’s how the industry works.
Books are amazing things. Getting to write one and have it published is an amazing experience.
It is not, however, one that will happen because someone said “hey, that’s a good story, you should write a book about it.”