February 16th, 2005

books

you see, there's this secret handshake...

....ha, you knew it all along, didn't you? No, wait. There is *no* secret handshake. Absolutely not. Nothing secret here. Move right along.

Somewhere in comments I was asked how I decide whether a book is marketable. To some degree, that's a very complicated question to answer, and I'm hesitant to give away all my trade secrets. What use would the writer then have for little ol' me? (Obviously I am feeling quite tongue in cheek today. I wonder where that's coming from.) Before I get into it, I'd recommend that anyone with this question or a similar one (such as, why the heck can't I get an agent/publisher?) take a look at Theresa Nielsen-Hayden's Slushkiller article. Pay close attention to those 14 reasons listed under the context of rejection. If you replace the word publish with represent, it's still almost completely applicable to agents for reasons why works don't get picked up for representation. It's reasons #11-14 that are the real difficult ones, and hard to explain.

Problematically, one of the answers to the question of how I tell if a book is marketable contains some variation on the phrase: I know it when I see it. It's true there are some other rationales: things I hear editors say, which when you hear it from six different editors starts to make an impression on you. For example: If I see another vampire query, I'm going to hurl. Disclaimer: This is only an example; not intended for posting in genreneep or RumorMill or any other such source. And this is also not to say that those variables don't change every day. Great storytelling and writing will out - even if it does have a vampire in it. Honestly, I think a lot of it comes from being part of the publishing community. Not so much working the trends, because by the time you can find a book to fit one it's typically over. The only way to take advantage of those is to begin one or by happy accident already have a manuscript that fits it. It's about being on the same wavelength as the editors and other agents, having dialogue with them on a regular basis. And reading. Definitely reading. As widely as possible. By that I mean the things that are currently published and popular. Though - to some degree - I think opinions are also formed by reading the unpublished materials that cross your desk - that's where part of the ability to see what works comes from....by seeing what doesn't.

Unfortunately, none of this answers the question of how an individual writer can produce a marketable novel. In a large part because you can't predict it entirely. There's no formula or equation (or the aforementioned secret handshake). When a book comes to me, my decision is based on an odd mix of:

* judging the quality of the book (storytelling ability, expertise at craft),
* judging the quality of the writer (originality of ideas, "voice"),
* judging the market (partially by staying aware of the current one because that's what editors are open to buying Right Now, and somewhat anticipating its future direction by instinct built up over years of practice and listening to editors talk about what *isn't* in their slush), and
* how it resonates with me as a reader, which is pretty much a gut reaction thing.

If all those things are good - no... actually they have to be better than good - then I have a very good chance of selling it. But after that it's somewhat of a gamble. Liking buying stock in a company that's new to Wall Street. Hmmm... maybe I should go try Vegas...
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