“Fiction doesn’t sell.”
“The fiction market is dead.”
“Fiction is dying.”
You know what? I hear it. I hear it all the time. And upon returning from a particularly inspiring writers’ conference in
So…am I a masochist? Is my bank account so overflowing with money that I don’t care if I ever sell another book? Am I really, really stupid? Questions worth asking, one and all.
Frankly, I’m too much of a wuss to be a masochist; I have significantly less in the coffers than Scrooge McDuck; and, well, I really hope I’m not an idiot.
I love good nonfiction. I represent some amazing projects in the category. I have had the chance to work with brilliant people with expert knowledge, great talent, and personality to spare. I will keep doing so, and I am happy about that.
But nothing really gets the heart pumping like a fantastic novel. I have stacks of them at home waiting to make it into my narrow “pleasure reading” window. I could be intimidated by the height of the piles, but I’m more inspired than scared. I deliberately hold off reading certain books because I want to save them for a time when I’m looking to be particularly awe-struck. I’ve put down Middlesex before cracking the cover any number of times because I’m almost too excited to read it. If I get near the end of the line on authors I love, I’ll drop their one remaining title to the bottom of the pile so I will always know there’s more of their work waiting to be new to me. Toni Morrison’s Jazz has been gathering dust for years, and I love knowing that it’s there for me to read…someday.
I read across genres and categories. I grew up devouring books by Jackie Collins and Stephen King. I’d be as happy re-reading Valley of the Dolls as I would The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’ve never much understood book snobbery. I was once told by an aspiring writer, “I could churn out a schlocky mystery if I wanted to, but my aims are higher than that. I don’t do formula.” I responded by beating him senseless (in my head). Because the truth of the matter is, there’s an intangible element to fiction that separates the good from the great as far as I see it. And that is passion, vitality, life, love, or whatever the spark is that shines through a great author’s work no matter what they’re writing. If they don’t love what they’re doing, why should a reader?
And that’s the spark that keeps me going. I signed someone up four years ago and sent their first novel to 41 publishers. Every single one of them turned it down. The compliments came fast and furious, but they all ended up deciding to pass. Fine. We moved on. Two years later, there was a new manuscript that showed the same strength and vivaciousness as the first novel. I fell in love with the author’s work anew. There was editorial back and forth before it finally went out to nine editors. And sold. I knew this author had “it,” whatever “it” was. It drove me forward through the 41 rejections and edits on the next manuscript just like it drove him forward. In the best of situations, an author and an agent share a passion for a work and that becomes the engine that drives their collaboration.
Fiction for me is fundamentally about love and passion. Every once in awhile, I pass on a novel that I think is quite good simply because I can’t really get behind it. I like it, and I respect it, but the love just isn’t there. I always wonder if authors who receive those rejection letters think it’s a cop-out. It isn’t. The fact of the matter is that the market is really competitive. Fiction is one of the toughest things to place. So we roll the dice on what we love. It’s tricky, but when it works, it’s magnificent.
I’ve heard that it’s nearly impossible to sell novels. I’ve placed more than 25 in the past three years. And I don’t say that to brag (okay, fine, I’m bragging a little). I say it because what this job comes down to is commitment. Through the frustrations and the rejections and the authors who just want a deal, any deal, right NOW; it is the love of the written word that keeps me going. Well, that and the conviction that all of my authors are going to turn into major bestsellers.