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Confessions of a Literary Agent

… a weary one


By: James Donovan

Call it Donovan’s Equation of Book Viability. It’s a highly unmathematical formula that would make a mathematician grab his binomials.

I’ve been a literary agent for 15 years. Previous to that I was a trade book editor, and before that I held jobs in the retail end of the business—bookseller, store manager and bookstore chain buyer. Any dunderhead stationed on the front lines of the bookselling battle would learn something about the purchasing preferences of book buyers. I hope to God I did.

As an agent, I’ve evaluated and critiqued the prose of hundreds of good writers. I’ve sold plenty of their books to major publishers, but not all. No agent does, no matter what they claim. After slogging around in the business for so long, I think I’ve developed a sense of what’s publishable—or, rather, saleable—in the way of nonfiction, and what’s not.

Emphasis on the not.

I’ve discovered that it’s much easier to judge what’s unsaleable than saleable. One reason is that there are a lot more bad books than good ones. And a really bad book announces its mediocrity early—like, on page one. Most bad writers can’t write a good sentence.

Bottom line: It’s a lot harder to sell a book idea to a New York publisher than most people think. There are hundreds, even thousands, of publishers across the country and in the Infinite Country known as the Internet. But I’ve got to put food in my baby’s mouth and shoes on her feet. I sell to New York publishers for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks. That’s where the money is.

I receive five to 10 unsolicited submissions a day through the mail or online—what’s collectively, and uncharitably, called the slushpile. That adds up to roughly a thousand queries a year, minimum. They’re written primarily by unpublished writers who aren’t published for a reason: They’re barely literate. Some of them can’t type or can type only after a fashion. A query letter typed entirely in capitals is like a big yellow road sign with danger written across it. It immediately signals that I’ll encounter big problems with the writer.

The majority, though, are from seemingly intelligent people who are avid readers and decent writers. A few have been previously published, and more than a few of these are academics with lofty titles and tenure. The queries I receive from these scholarly types are typically among the most unreadable and, therefore, least publishable. These scholars dwell in a world outside the one occupied by sanitation workers, cab drivers, plumbers, housewives and salesmen. They don’t seem to know how to write about real people.

Here’s how bad it is: If I snatch one writer out of the thousand or more queries and proposals that come in and help that writer develop their idea into a book I can sell, it’s a good year. If I find two, it’s a great year. This is why the vast majority of writers I choose to work with have been previously published–professionals paid for their work. Either they wrote or write full-time for a newspaper or magazine, or have developed their craft and creative skills into a successful freelance career. And most of the freelancers were at one time or another full-time newspaper or magazine writers. Most of my writers have come to me through referrals. Others I’ve pursued myself, after reading something that caught my eye—either because the story itself was tantalizing or the writing was dazzling or something else that sparked in me the hope that the writer had the right stuff to write a book that I could sell.

But the funny thing is that few of these professional writers have a very clear idea of what constitutes a good book. When we begin working together, I typically ask for a list of subjects they’re interested in, or book ideas. Sometimes it takes 10 or 20 ideas—from a simple topic sentence to a fully fleshed-out book proposal—before we can flush out something that I think will prove irresistible to at least one trade book editor.

Here’s the equation:

B = A(se2) + S(na2)
                         f

Daunting? Don’t worry. Let me explain.

B=Book           A=Author        S=Subject          f=focus

s=skill              n=need             e=expertise      a=audience

Simply put, a publishable book idea requires the right author on the right subject at the right time. Let’s take these elements one by one. The primary requirements of the author are skill and expertise, a combination we might refer to as the author’s “reputation.” Everyone knows that skill is an essential element of the equation, right?

Apparently not. I receive queries every day from writers who can’t write—at least not well enough for publication. The writer’s expertise is equally important. If a writer has never been published previously—in other words, by a royalty book publisher that pays the author for the right to publish her book (ruling out vanity or print-on-demand outfits) or a reputable periodical that’s picky about what it publishes and exercises standards of editorial acceptance—it’s much more difficult to earn a contract. A publisher’s investment in even the smallest, simplest-looking paperback can easily reach mid-five figures when you factor in a reasonable advance against royalties, editing, proofreading, design, typesetting, the rising costs of paper/printing/binding, and sales, publicity/marketing, distribution, shipping . . . Need I go on?

If you ran a business, would you want to gamble $50,000 or more on someone who’s never shown they can do what you’re paying them to do? Publishers, understandably, would rather invest their money in an author who’s been previously published in a reputable venue with high standards. That’s why I encourage unpublished nonfiction authors to seek publication in short form first. It’s proof to a book publisher of your skill and credibility as a writer.

“A really bad book announces its mediocrity early–like, on page one. Most bad writers can’t write a good sentence.”

Skill—not John Updike-level word wizardry, but clean, clear, well-organized writing—is critical to the success of any would be author. But it’s almost impossible to market a book without authority or expertise in the proposed book’s subject area. Shortform publication can help establish that. That’s why I recommend an author get published—and thus become an expert, in the odd way that works—in a specific subject area. If the goal is to write and publish a book on a historical subject, for instance, don’t write for Popular Mechanics or Woman’s Day. Write for American Heritage or MHQ or any of a number of historical publications. Wouldn’t you rather shell out your hard-earned $25 for a book by an expert on the book’s subject? I can’t tell you how many variations I’ve received on this book title and subject: What’s Wrong With America and How to Fix It. The author is usually a retiree and always male, and that’s typically the extent of his credentials. Unless the author is a nationally known authority on the subject, why would readers who buy such books buy his?

One of my first clients was a woman whose writing credentials were scant. But she was the former executive director of a national dyslexia organization, and her son was dyslexic; she wanted to write a book on how to help dyslexic children perform better in school. It was a timely idea with an eager audience. The Dyslexic Scholar sold well and is still in print a dozen years later.

That’s half of the equation—well, half of half, anyway. Regardless of skill or subject expertise, the book-buying public won’t pay for a book they don’t find compelling. An author must make sure there’s a need for their book, and an eager audience. The two may appear to be the same, but they’re not; the difference is real need vs. perceived need.

To illustrate: A few years before 9/11, I tried to sell a wellwritten book about Arab women. No one cared. If I had tried to sell it immediately after 9/11, when Americans realized they needed and wanted to know more about the Arab world, the book would probably have sold. Again: real vs. perceived need.

Expertise or reputation in the form of fame or visibility doesn’t always equate to book sales. I sometimes receive calls from newspaper columnists who propose a collection of their most popular columns in book form. Since their fans are numerous and vocal, they’re confident their book will be a best seller. Seems to make sense, right? Wrong. Unless the writer commands a large national readership, their fans are reluctant to spend money on what they’ve already read for “free” in a newspaper. What people will read and enjoy in a newspaper, and what they’ll pay for in a book, are two quite different things.

By the same token, a popular subject may not translate into a viable book. There are few topics more hotly debated than abortion. But most Americans have made their minds up, and they’re loath to spend money to read another viewpoint.

Of course, the subject’s audience must be significant and somewhat quantifiable—a book aimed at dog owners clearly commands a larger audience than one for, say, lemur owners.

But qualitative counts too. I don’t know how many avid opera lovers there are in the U.S., but I can’t think there are more than 100,000. That’s not very big for a book market. But those 100,000 are a fanatic bunch and will buy anything well-written about their subject.

The material must also be something readers can’t get anywhere else. Fifteen or so years ago, one of the hottest areas in publishing was true crime. But when TV shows such as “A Current Affair” began to concentrate on horrific crimes using lurid crime-scene photos and imaginative re-creations, book sales in the genre dropped precipitously.

Lack of focus is another common affliction among writers, even professional ones. They often don’t understand the wants and needs of the book-buying public. They’ve never had to. These writers often suggest a general, unfocused idea that reveals no sense of the subject as it pertains to the book market. What’s needed in most of these cases is focus (the “F” in our equation). It’s the agent’s job to assist the author in finding a suitable aspect of the story to focus on and crafting a suitable proposal to tell it and sell it. That usually involves either shifting the author’s microscope, or changing the power of their lens.

One writer with an expertise in the American West suggested a book on Jim Bridger, America’s most famous mountain man. It seemed to make sense: The standard biography of the man had originally been published in 1925 and was replete with errors. Surely, a new, definitive book on Bridger would ignite a bidding war among New York publishers eager to get their hands on it.

“My author”—we agents get possessive about our clients—wrote a fine proposal that promised a lively, authoritative narrative. But when several young editors told me they didn’t know who Bridger was—and neither did others on their staffs—I knew we were in trouble. The book never sold.

But there’s a happy ending to the story, and it involves focus. The same writer proposed a book on Pat Garrett, the man who hunted down and shot Billy the Kid. I did some research on the subject and determined that there was a huge audience interested in the Kid, the iconic gunslinger, but not much of one for just Garrett. I suggested a dual biography of the two. The author’s finely written proposal, which evidenced considerable knowledge of the subject and a personal passion for it (always a nice extra touch, since editors realize that passion will probably transmit itself to the writing, and thus to the reader), was bought for a healthy advance.

Another veteran writer I represent suggested a book on the Korean War. While some avid history buffs buy textbook-sized tomes on such subjects, general readers prefer a more focused story. When we changed the focus to concentrate on the single most important campaign of the war, the book was quickly sold. That illustrates the importance of focus, for in any subject, readers like to read a book that respects the Aristotleian (or classical) unities of time, place and action—if we bend them to our uses, and substitute “character” for place.

Readers tend to like stories about a relatively small cast of characters involved in a single enterprise that spans a specific and preferably short time period. Which is why, when considering a proposed book of narrative nonfiction, I often ask myself, Could it be made into a movie? The smaller the likelihood it will ever be filmed, the smaller the audience for it. Some might disagree. But generally speaking, I think it’s true.

One final point: It’s important to note that while all the factors discussed are important, their respective importance, their weight in the equation, is relative. That is, if one factor is particularly strong, the value of the others is less important. For instance, a Very Famous Person’s name trumps just about everything else; former President Bill Clinton’s desire to write a book caused publishers to throw millions of dollars at him with little regard for any other factor.

So that’s Donovan’s Equation of Book Viability. Of course, this article only scratches the surface of the subject. No doubt an entire book could probably be spun on the subject. Hmmm . . . I think I’ll start plugging some values into the equation.

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… a weary one
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