Monday, November 20, 2006

Jim McCarthy wonders if "it's nearly impossible to sell novels."

“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 Surrey, British Columbia, I made the decision to actively pursue more fiction.

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.


  1. That is funny - about the books gathering dust and yet anticipated...
    I gulp books like a parched camel at the last oasis - I can't put them aside for later. If I get a new one, I drop everything, curl up in my favorite spot, and read!

  2. I feel the same way about good books. I have been sitting on John Irving's "Hotel New Hampshire" for four weeks now since it arrived from Amazon, and am waiting until the perfect time to read it. I find that when I am writing a lot, I don't read much fiction. But since finishing my novel, I have taken a break to enjoy the work of others.

    I do have a question about the process of finding an agent and getting published. Why is the industry so slow to embrace technology? Why must I print out scores of pages of my novel (waste of paper)to send out when email exists? Now, I know anonymous emails are ignored, and with good reason, and I am sure that the very specific process of the query letter, synopsis, etc. probably helps to weed out writers that may not be as serious about the craft. But why is the process of finding an agent harder than the actual work of writing the novel? Is there a trend to accept more online? Or am I just daydreaming of the day the publishing industry joins the 21st century?

  3. I hear this all the time about selling fiction and am personally surprised by it because I lose years off my life trying to read non-fiction. I can't believe fiction doesn't sell as well to publishers when readers continually demonstrate such zeal and loyalty to it. People don't line up at midnight to get the next home decorating book like they do Harry Potter.

    Oh well. I'll just chalk this up to things that frighten and confuse me. Like the Roomba.

  4. A thoughtful and uplifting post -- thank you.

  5. Kristie, it does seem like publishing is awfully behind in publishing trends. Thing is, it feels like a waste of paper for the author to send their manuscript instead of e-mailing it. But we're not going to read everything online--we're at our computers all day and usually would rather settle down with some actual paper when we do our reading rather than log a few more hours at the screen. And the amount of time and money that would be required of us to print out everything we request just isn't usually feasible. Once I sign someone on, though, I tend to go e-mail exclusive.

    In terms of why finding an agent is harder than writing a novel...I think it's that when you're writing, it's you against you. There's no competition. Once you start sending out to the very limited number of agents, you're suddenly trying to stand out from hundreds of other people. It's a tough process, but the hope is that once you find an agent, you'll get to stick with them and have their assistance through the rest of your writing career.

    Hey, Richelle. I was surprised too when I first heard all those years ago how tough fiction was. But you start to think about all of the very specific things nonfiction is used for, and it begins to make sense. If someone needs medical information, they grab a book about their specific ailment. If they're remodeling, they go with a book that shares their design sensibility. The books often fill a specific, practical purpose. I could argue the practical purposes of fiction (but that'd be a whole other essay), but you don't tend to buy a novel because you need to fix a sink (unless you're looking for a great reason to procrastinate).

  6. No, people don't generally buy a novel because they want to fix a sink ... but they will buy a novel because they are searching for the love of their life, or because they feel like setting something right in the world, or because they want to experience the unknown, or a million other emotional reasons. Non-fiction usually can't fill those needs.

    Reading is all about "the me." Sure, others can read the same novel, and you can spend hours talking about it with others, but the actual reading itself is a self-absorbing process where the reader is experiencing their emotional reactions alone.
    No other medium can provide that experience.

    Fiction sells. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

  7. 25 novels sold in 3 years! Bragging rights well deserved. Thanksgiving approaches. I'm very thankful for informative blog sites like this one--keeps me writing!

  8. Richelle, the Roomba is the best thing since sliced bread! (And it can clean up the crumbs left over by said bread. :)

    I wrote a review of my Roomba; it's at so feel free to check it out!

    As for an on-topic post... I am looking at my bookshelves filled with both non-fiction and fiction. I've learned a lot from non-fiction; I've learned a lot about who I am from reading fiction.


  9. I agree! There's nothing like saving a good book for when you can really sit back and enjoy it.
    And fiction doesn't sell? Just walk into any Barnes & Noble and see how well it sells. As long as real life exists people will need the escape of fiction to keep them sane.

  10. A real reader!

    Wish my book was in your hands. I would be honored if your read it.

  11. the authors who just want a deal, any deal, right NOW

    I prefer to think of this as healthy enthusiasm. ;-)

  12. I have this same argument all the time; and I offer as my opinion - agents eat, because they pick books that are going to sell. So people read, and that's a good thing. But I wonder if it's understood that who we are as a particular species on a little round planet, is based on what we read.

    Our culture, mores, knowledge of right and wrong, comes to us, in large part, from literature. Be it the Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, or Graham Greene; what we know about acting like humans, is primarily from what someone has accounted in a novel or similar work.

    We are our myths, says Northrup Frye - and where do those come from? We have ideas like hero, heroic, noble, proper burial, feast days, monogamy, faithfulness, ad infinitum, all of which come from literary sources.

    No, we're not just what we eat - we are what we read. And I hope, from a self-preservation standpoint, that the profit is more than just financial.

  13. Oooo! I loved this entry!

    I tell you what - fiction will NEVER die. You want to know why? Cuz since the dawn of man we've sat spellbound around campfires listening to the storytellers as they wove tales about the hunts the tribe's warriors went on, the beasts they faced or the vicious battles they fought against neighboring tribes and the brave warriors who fought beside them.

    You think for one second there wasn't just a little embellishment goin'on? Uh-huh. (I once caught a mammoth THIS big!)

    It is human to embellish, to exaggerate and twist at the truth. It is within our very essence to create the fantastical - and to also be dazzled by it.

    Saying that fiction is doomed is like predicting the end of the world...again, (and again, and again, and again!)

    So you are wise to discount that notion and dive in with all your exuberance and excitement. As one of your clients, I can honestly say these are some of your greatest assets. When you think something is good - it damn well is, and I've seen first hand how you gush about something that is later sold. And I KNOW a lot of the reason that work sold and someone else's didn't is because of that exuberance and enthusiasm.

    The counter point is that I trust your instincts so much that if I sent you something and you said, "I didn't love it," that would be my cue to do a COMPLETE overhaul or to chuck the idea altogether. You are a fantastic barometer and I'm really lucky to have you in my corner. :)

    So...bravo to you, Jim, and bravo to the storyteller - that fiction writer- in all of us.

  14. Great entry! And you're a good writer, Jim. 25 books in 3 years? I'm impressed & proud to know you!