When an agent gives you the old, ‘This has great potential, but I’m afraid it’s just not for me,’ routine, what do they really mean? Isn’t it just another get out clause? Isn’t it just one step up from the bog standard rejection slip? Aren’t they really saying, ‘Sorry, but you haven’t a hope in hell?’
Agents prattle on about how they have to feel passionate about a book in order to sell it. They talk about books that come off the slush pile and keep them up all night, leaving them gagging to get on the phone to the author the following morning to tell them how brilliant they are. That’s what agents are looking for. Just because your book doesn’t answer that call doesn’t mean it’s no good, or that it won’t have that effect on someone else. It’s simply a question of personal taste. Or so the story goes.
I started thinking about this question of taste in relation to my own reading. I asked myself how often I got really excited by a book. I love reading and I can usually find something to enjoy or admire in most well written novels. But very few novels move me in a significant way. I’m talking about novels that have already been vetted by agents and publishers and booksellers and deemed good enough to invest time and money in. Given that so few of these novels truly excite me, imagine, were I an agent, how few of the unsolicited novels landing on my desk I’d fall in love with.
It’s not merely a question of quality. I recently read a contemporary novel that caused quite a stir. It had great reviews, it won prizes and has sold very well. I think the writing is undoubtedly strong. I think the premise is original and arresting. I think the structure is sound and the execution exemplary. I can appreciate its merits. I can’t really find fault with it. And yet, it doesn’t do that much for me. It’s just not my kind of novel. If I were an agent who genuinely believed I couldn’t do my job unless I were in love with it, I would have to say to this author, ‘I’m sorry, it’s just not for me.’
Amongst those books I mentioned in my previous blog as ones I’d really enjoyed reading, I don’t think any would make today’s bestseller lists. It’s safe to conclude I don’t generally go for bestseller books. Which means I don’t particularly like the books that most readers like. How, then, can I expect most agents to like my book?
So if and when I get those letters from agents saying it’s just not for them, maybe I shouldn’t scoff. Maybe I should take them at face value and be grateful for the nice things they have to say about my writing. I should remind myself that you can’t please everybody and that, in the end, the only person you can and should be sure of pleasing is yourself.