Monday, November 01, 2010

Books I couldn't sell

by Jim

For a conference I’m going to next year, I was asked to answer a series of questions about myself and agenting—what the most exciting part of the job is, how I landed in publishing, and what my first sale was. Those were easy. Then I hit the question about who the first client I ever signed on was. That was less easy. Not that I didn’t know the answer. It just required me to publicly admit that the first project I signed on never sold. You know what? Eight years later, it still stings.

I thought about lying, but that’s really not my style, so I answered instead that I had signed on a wonderfully fun novel in a Valley of the Dolls vein that I still think deserved to be published. It was really good! And then in a slightly defensive moment, I jotted down that I almost immediately thereafter signed on Victoria Laurie who has sold 24 books with me since then. Well, it’s TRUE.

The thing is, every time something doesn’t sell, it hurts a little. The happy fact of the matter is that the number of projects that don’t sell becomes smaller and smaller as you carry on as an agent—you learn what you’re better with, understand markets better, and come to know the perfect editors for certain projects. But sometimes things don’t work. And it suuuuucks. Especially when you’re head over heels for a project.

I was at a release party for Lee Houck’s Yield a few weeks back, and in his incredibly kind remarks, he mentioned the moment I called him to offer him representation. Apparently I told him something like, “I don’t know if I can sell this. But I can try.” Apparently I remembered to put on my honesty shoes that day! I didn’t remember that I had said it, but I remember that I had thought it! It was a literary novel about gay characters and themes that was at best going to be challenging to place. It was also amazingly heartfelt and beautifully written, so I gave it a shot knowing it would pain me if I didn’t place it. Happily, that one worked out.

The novel about a juvenile prostitute in Newark that was written in dialect? That one didn’t sell. It was just as brilliant as Lee’s novel but even more challenging. I still hate that it didn’t work. I also hate that an editor called me to ask if the author had been a hooker in Newark, adding that the novel would be more marketable if so. That led to the single most awkward phone calls of my entire career. “I was just wondering if maybe you ever happened to, ummm…”

In the end, no agent can guarantee a sale. The most they can ever promise you is their best efforts. But if it’s any consolation, they’ll still be kicking themselves years down the road if they aren’t able to usher you to success.


  1. I think this is an important post for aspiring writers to see because I do think that unagented writers often think an agent wouldn't take you on unless it's a guaranteed sale. My first book did not sell, but my second one did. And my critique partner's first book did not sell. And a friend of mine is writing his second book right now because his first book did not sell. We all have wonderful agents. There are no guarantees.

  2. This post is wonderful. As a writer about to start querying for the first time, knowing that there are agents out there who will be honest, both about their love for the work and about its prospects in the market. I could never ask for more than a truly honest agent who loves my work.

  3. Writers who have you as an agent are fortunate indeed.

  4. This is one of the most intriguing posts by an agent I've read. Thanks for telling the truth and letting us experience this from your side of the desk.

  5. This is unrelated to your blog but I hope you can help.

    I've read conflicting information on what to do when an agent has a copy of your ms but since sending you've made changes to it. Is it okay to notify them of the changes? Does this irk agents? I'm sure I'm not the only writer to have experienced this.

    Before you yell at me for sending an ms to an agent in the first place. Know that the ms is complete, was complete at the time. Because an unpublished manuscript is something that can always be improved upon, I did another round of revisions.

    Thank you for any help or suggestions you can offer.

  6. Oh, Jim, I can just imagine that phone call! Did the author politely recommend sending the publisher up in flames?

    If I ever have an editor ask if my past life includes smuggling, spying and guerrilla warfare...!

  7. Jim:

    Because the poor sales of your first book still stings, that makes me feel good. I hope to engage in a client/agent relationship and keeping that in mind, it'll make me feel like we're on a team.


  8. This is an intriguing post, but of the things that intrigues me is what happened to that first writer, not just the first novel.

    Jim, did you keep him/her as a client? Sell other works? Part ways immediately, or later? It's nice to know that the unsold manuscript is a moment of regret and reflection for the agent, but what happened to the writer? What happened to your agent relationship?

  9. Ha ha ha... that would be an awkward phone call! Great post, I enjoyed it.

  10. Congratulations for the great post. You did a good job keep going and I’ll keep coming back.

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