Sometimes I can’t sell a book to a publisher. Actually, a lot of times I can’t. Even after doing this job for 5 years and getting an estimated 5000 rejection letters explaining why the editor turned me down; even after my rigid filtering process where I reject at least 500 unsolicited author queries for every one that I decide to represent; even when I have become so smitten with a project that I am convinced the publisher will offer a seven figure advance and Spielberg will be on the phone next day begging me to make a movie deal; I still have projects I can’t sell. All agents do. Even the coveted celebrity New York agents who have daily lunches with the coveted celebrity executive editors. Whenever any agent is representing an unknown author, taking a risk, trying to sell a book based on the merits of the project, not just on the author’s celebrity status, there will be rejections.
And when I do sell a book, sometimes for a lot of money, it is usually after I have received 30 rejections from other editors saying: “it’s a really great book, but I just didn’t fall in love with it”, or “it’s competing with another one of our titles”, or “the author has too modest a platform”.
And authors can be even less realistic than I am. After all, they look at the bookstore shelves and see a lot of dreck. They read lots of literary novels that are all well crafted but have a feeling of being sort of the same. They see some really horrible exploitative celebrity memoirs. Really crappy social analysis by gas bag political pundits. And some of these book deals really are getting seven figure advances.
So now what I do just before I submit the project to the publisher is give my client this stern lecture:
“Today I am sending out your book. I believe in it. Otherwise I wouldn’t have worked with you for 4 months polishing the proposal, refining the concept, and (in my humble opinion) making it perfect.
“But you must be realistic. It’s hard to get books published these days. You should hope for the best but expect the worst. I have experience in these matters and will make sure that your book gets to the right editor at the right imprint. I don’t just send books to the same 10 editors and then give up on it. I will send it to all major and not so major publishers who would have an interest in your book. If I can’t sell this book, you can be assured that all avenues have been explored.
“If I can’t find a publisher, it doesn’t mean that your book isn’t good. Sometimes, most times, the decision to publish a book comes down to issues of marketing, not quality or aesthetics.
“But even though your book is good, there are also a lot of other good projects going around. Editors may look at 10 proposals a week or 300 fiction manuscripts a year. Most of them have been heavily vetted by agents. And most of them are publishable. In other words, there is lots of competition.
“You have asked me several times how much your advance will be. I won’t venture a guess on that because my estimates have been wrong so often. Sometimes I expect $20,000 and get an advance for $100,000. Sometimes I get an advance for $7,000, even from the big publishers. Times are tough for publishers just like for the rest of us. The big ones are owned by multimedia conglomerates who are putting a lot of pressure on the publishers to make a lot of money. So publishers have become skittish about big advances. As an agent, I probably can get a publisher to sweeten the deal a little. But publishers base advances on their calculation of sales. They always have a figure in their head of the maximum they will pay. My job is to find out what that figure is and try to find other ways of sweetening the deal when they won’t budge on the advance. I’m an agent, and I don’t have secret alchemical wisdom. I can’t turn lead into gold.
“Don’t expect your publisher to spend a lot of time and energy promoting your book. All those full page ads in The New York Times usually are focused on a very few name brand authors. The publisher really expects you to do the heavy lifting and to promote your own book. They used to send a lot of authors around on 7 city tours. They don’t any more. I have never met an author, no matter how successful, who was satisfied that their publisher promoted their book well. You might ask yourself what kind of added value you get from having a commercial publisher as opposed to self-publishing. It’s a reasonable question to ask. But the answer is complicated.
“I know you would give a great interview on Oprah, Fresh Air, or The Daily Show. And a lot of publishers will make contacts to these and other “A” list venues. But competition for this is fierce and these shows have their own criteria that are often hard to fathom. Again, hope for the best but expect the worst.
“And then there is the Big Enchilada, the Holy Grail. I mean the call from Spielberg. Even though your novel would make a great movie or a tv series, it might not happen. There are a lot of “option” deals for books. Most of them are for very little money, and most of them never go beyond the option. Just like Oprah, movie producers have their own calculations that are not easy to comprehend. Does the book have the kind of 3 act structure that producers want. Will the character in your novel fit with a star who could attract financing? Would the subject of the book require so much resources for production that the film couldn’t make money? Has the producer gone into drug rehab and become unavailable for an indeterminate amount of time? Hope for the best, expect the worst.
“So now I’m sending out the book. Let’s cross our fingers and hope for that seven figure deal. But….remember my #1 rule: be realistic.”