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View Full Version : Agents: can they pick winners?



brutus
02-06-2009, 07:48 PM
m

ChaosTitan
02-06-2009, 08:13 PM
Since there is no magic formula that guarantees a book being a bestseller, then you're quite correct--agents can't recognize one via query. There's simply no way to know what will break out and what won't.

Which is why, in my experience, agents are looking for books that will sell. Not necessarily bestsellers, just books that will sell. And most agents are good enough at their jobs that they can pick manuscripts and authors who will sell. Even if the first signed novel doesn't sell, often times the second or third try will. Agents want clients with whom they can form a partnership--I write, s/he sells my books, preferably for many, many years. Few agents, even if they somehow suspect a book could be a monumental bestseller, will sign a client whose manuscript they don't love. Because if the agent doesn't love it, how are they going to convince an editor to buy it?

I don't see much wrong with Mr. Barber's statement. He's been in this business for a long time, and he makes valid points. But likewise, a character he may see as unsympathetic in a manuscript he just can't possibly represent could be exactly what the next agent is looking for.


Could this be why there are so many published books that do so poorly? They are well-written, but, like one I struggled with recently, uninteresting and downright bland. But well-written.

And somehow the reverse is also true: there are many interesting, engaging stories out there that are very poorly written.

Good is just too subjective.

KikiteNeko
02-06-2009, 08:18 PM
I liked Humbert in Lolita. I wouldn't want to date him, but.... he was an okay dude. Even if Lolita IS a bestseller, lots of agents won't like it, while others don't have the proper contacts to make it a bestseller anyway, and that's a part of why some MS's get canned.

Also, many bestsellers were rejected. And there are bestsellers I can't stand, and others I love. I've had publishers reject my manuscript, and my agent say "this editor was crazy."

I think it just proves that writing is subjective.

Toothpaste
02-06-2009, 08:18 PM
No. It shows that one agent happens to not like unlikeable characters. Your example of "Lolita" was still, you know, published, so someone out there obviously saw its merit.

And there are tons of best sellers out there, so obviously agents do find good books through query letters.

Also your conclusion is a bit flawed because if you are saying that agents judge books only on their queries, wouldn't that suggest that books would have stronger plots and not necessarily strong writing? Because a query letter is basically ALL plot, and has less to do with the actual quality or originality of writing (though the best queries can still get the latter across).

ideagirl
02-06-2009, 08:52 PM
And somehow the reverse is also true: there are many interesting, engaging stories out there that are very poorly written.


Da Vinci Code, anyone?? That book was so badly written it hurt to read. But I read it, because the story was great.



I don't see much wrong with Mr. Barber's statement. He's been in this business for a long time, and he makes valid points. But likewise, a character he may see as unsympathetic in a manuscript he just can't possibly represent could be exactly what the next agent is looking for.

I can see Ms. (not Mr.) Barer's point, though. I don't want to spend hours or days of my life in the company of someone repellent. For example, I love the actor Daniel Day Lewis, but the only reason I was able to sit through his last movie, There Will Be Blood, was because his character didn't start out repellent--at first he was merely off-putting but still fascinating, and he had some good traits. But he became repellent slowly over the course of the movie, so I walked out of it feeling a little ill and thinking, "Ok, so what was the point of all that?!"

Personally, I'm not even a big fan of books (novels or memoirs) in which a truly repellant main character undergoes some great transformation and becomes a decent human being. Somebody's memoir or novel about a hellacious alcoholic who makes everyone miserable but ultimately heals and becomes a better person is not likely to be a big hit with me. I loved 'Tis, but I certainly wouldn't have loved it if it weren't for the narrator/writer himself--without him, the hellacious alcoholic dad and miserable family would just not be worth spending time with for me. There's got to be at least one major character that I actually want to spend time with. Such a character can make even hideous circumstances worth experiencing, just so you can be in their company. (Example: Salim in the movie Slumdog Millionaire).

Claudia Gray
02-06-2009, 08:59 PM
There's a big difference between an unlikeable character created with the depth and eloquence that Nabokov brought to bear on Humbert Humbert and the unlikeable characters who mope through a lot of would-be commercial fiction.

And, as Toothpaste points out, both Lolita and about 99% of the bestsellers you've ever heard of* and/or their authors were spotted by some agent out there. If they couldn't pick any winners, they wouldn't stay in business very long, would they?

It's a cycle, of course -- agents pick winners because agents largely decide what publishers see, and winners have to come from this pool -- but if the system were wholly unable to find books that people enjoyed, it would have broken down many years ago or never fully taken root in the first place.

* in the modern publishing era

ChaosTitan
02-06-2009, 09:18 PM
I can see Ms. (not Mr.) Barer's point, though.

:o Apologies.

waylander
02-06-2009, 09:27 PM
It should also be borne in mind that 'Lolita' was published a good while ago when the publishing industry was different. It might not get published today.

brutus
02-06-2009, 10:26 PM
m

Mr. Anonymous
02-06-2009, 11:04 PM
Another example would be Dosteovsky's underground. One of the least sympathetic characters I've ever read about.

As other posters mentioned, agents aren't looking for a classic that will be read for years to come as much as they're looking for a book they can sell now.

NeuroFizz
02-07-2009, 12:59 AM
Agents are human.

Agents have a great deal of experience in the writing field and (the good ones) with editors of publishing companies. They use that experience and those contacts to the best of their abilities.

Agents have seen volumes of both good and bad writing.

Agents have their own personal tastes in writing.

As far as I know, agents do not have a crystal ball that is any better than the one I have sitting next to me right now. Damn thing. I just shook it up and turned it over and it said... "Mexican food."

scope
02-07-2009, 01:03 AM
Bestsellers, classics, etc., that's not really the point. I don't think we should ever forget that publishing is a business, and like any other business everyone involved in it is out to make money -- has to make money -- an acceptable profit. This applies to bookstores, online stores, newspapers, magazines, and of course to publishers and literary agencies, to name a few. So I totally agree with those who have already said that agents look at query letters, proposals, synopsis', and ask themselves if the book is needed, has a large enough audience, and will sell. As for the actual writing, of course it has to be good, but that's a given. A well written book for which there is no audience and no basic need probably won't make it. This I know to be true for works of nonfiction (my area), but I also suspect for fiction.

blacbird
02-07-2009, 01:04 AM
I mean, the unlikable character thing is really hard for me to understand. If I don't like a character, why would I want to spend four hundred pages with them? Why would you write a whole book about them? Am I wrong about that?"

Nah. Nobody wanted to read about Hannibal Lecter. That Flashman series by George Macdonald Fraser, that was a complete flop, too.

caw

Claudia Gray
02-07-2009, 01:32 AM
Nah. Nobody wanted to read about Hannibal Lecter. That Flashman series by George Macdonald Fraser, that was a complete flop, too.

caw

Yet those people -- outlandish or even horrifying as they are -- ARE likeable. They're likeable AND unlikeable, with abilities and wit that coexist with their flaws.

Even Humbert Humbert is funny.

This may be the trick of having an "unlikeable" MC: making them simultaneously loathesome and fascinating. And I suspect the agent quoted is talking about characters who bring the loathesome without the fascinating.

NeuroFizz
02-07-2009, 01:36 AM
It would be instructive for this discussion to go back and read a classic pulp story (really a novella): The Name of the Game is Death by Dan J. Marlowe. This is the original Earl Drake story (I believe) and he is a horrible, despicable person. But the reader gets on his side, partly because Drake is surrounded by people who are worse--a literary trick that can be very effective. Go back and read about the Hannibal Lecters and the other despicable characters that captivate readers and look for the literary skill that is used to bring them out from under their own acts. That's quality writing that we can use as learning tools. That's doing a good writing job and giving the readers a unique and creative kind of thrill.

wandergirl
02-07-2009, 02:13 AM
There's a big difference between an unlikeable character created with the depth and eloquence that Nabokov brought to bear on Humbert Humbert and the unlikeable characters who mope through a lot of would-be commercial fiction.

This is an important point. I especially love your choice of "mope through", lol.

What's more, Nabokov (arguably) makes us empathize with Humbert Humbert, as much as we despise his actions. As uncomfortable as it makes us, on one level we come to understand his obsession, while simultaneously questioning it (she's such a brat!) and condemning it (she's a child!). Such is the power of the complex, beautiful masterpiece that is Lolita.

blacbird
02-07-2009, 03:00 AM
Yet those people -- outlandish or even horrifying as they are -- ARE likeable. They're likeable AND unlikeable, with abilities and wit that coexist with their flaws.


I know all this, and agree. But the manner in which Ms. Barer expressed her thought about "unlikeable characters" just puzzles me. If she'd said "boring, uninteresting characters" it would have made sense. Nobody deliberately sets out to write boring, uninteresting characters, though it obviously happens by default a lot of the time.

The way she phrased her observation, however, made me think she aimed it at writers who were deliberately trying to write characters people wouldn't "like". In which case, the statement is ambiguous at best, and meaningless at worst. I wish she had clarified it with some example of what she meant.

caw

MetalDog
02-07-2009, 03:09 AM
I like seriously flawed characters a lot more than the white knights - they're just more interesting. I'll take Darth Vader over Luke Skywalker any day, but I guess the happiest ground is in Han Solo territory. A git with a sense of humour is usually the best company for a few hundred pages - for my money, anyway.

'Moped through' is a great phrase. Hero or antihero, someone who spends the whole book crying 'poor me' is just a pain in the arse. Looking at you, Fitzchivalry Farseer.

JeanneTGC
02-07-2009, 03:14 AM
I means that if you've got an unlikable MC, send it to another agent.

Writing falls under the creative arts, and all art is subjective. Each person's take is different.

One agent cannot speak for every agent out there, and I don't even think this one was trying to. She doesn't want to read something she doesn't enjoy...'nuff said, on to the next.

blacbird
02-07-2009, 03:17 AM
I means that if you've got an unlikable MC, send it to another agent.

One agent cannot speak for every agent out there, and I don't even think this one was trying to.

Except that, the way she said it, it very much sounded like she was trying to do exactly that, at least in her own mind. In any case, I'll just consider myself pre-rejected by her, and save some postage.

caw

Claudia Gray
02-07-2009, 03:33 AM
What's more, Nabokov (arguably) makes us empathize with Humbert Humbert, as much as we despise his actions. As uncomfortable as it makes us, on one level we come to understand his obsession, while simultaneously questioning it (she's such a brat!) and condemning it (she's a child!). Such is the power of the complex, beautiful masterpiece that is Lolita.

I agree. I think one of the hidden messages of the book is that Lolita dies in childbirth because she and her husband are in a remote area of Alaska, one that you can imagine probably didn't have top-notch medical facilities. And, of course, they're only in Alaska because Humbert gave her the money. In other words, the one unselfish thing he ever did for Lolita is the very thing that kills her: Every part of Humbert's love is poison. And yet, when I get to the last pages, and the words "the only immortality you and I will ever share," I usually cry.