Monday, August 03, 2009

Questions to Ask Yourself Before Seeking Publication: What's My Category?

This actually happened to me this morning. I feel ok blogging about it, though, because I am 100% certain the agent in question can't possibly read any industry blogs (although out of respect for the author I'm going to replace all the relevant details).


9:43 am: My phone rings.

YT: [Moonrat] speaking.

Agent: Hi, this is [Agent] from [Agency]. We haven't spoken before, but I was wondering if you'd be interested in taking a look at a great nonfiction project I'm representing.

YT: Sure. What is it?

Agent: It's called [Title].

YT: Ok. So... um... what is it about?

Agent: Well, it's the story of what it means to be from Appalachia, about the culture there.

YT: Wait, I'm not clear--is this a memoir?

Agent: It's a combination, kind of part memoir, part history, part travel guide, part novel. It's very poetic, but just really good readable nonfiction.

YT: Oh. [Pause.] I'm sorry, I'm still trying to see if it fits my list--which category would you say the book is? Like, which shelf would it be sold on in a bookstore?

Agent: Oh, narrative nonfiction, definitely.

YT: ...Narrative nonfiction?

Agent: Yes, it's a really unique book that really fits into all those categories.


I'm ending my dialogue rehash here. First, quick caveat--please NEVER say "really unique"--it's grammatically incorrect and makes editorial types cringe. Ok, moving on to more important things.

When I hung up the phone, the only thing I could think to myself was: Has this agent ever been into a book store?

Where did he get the idea that there's a "Narrative Nonfiction" shelf in bookstores?

Although I do think this particular agent's pitch was pretty lousy--I essentially asked three separate times for a category designation, and had to ask what the book was about because he failed to tell me on his own--ultimately I decided to be forgiving. I've worked in publishing long enough to realize that category, while perhaps THE most important question for an editor and his/her sales team, isn't something authors and agents think of automatically when they are writing and pitching. During the writing process, creativity takes over. On my end, we need to be able to squeeze that creativity into one of a finite number of pre-established boxes.

Know going in EXACTLY which shelf your book will be sold on in your neighborhood indie, BNN, or Borders. If the shelf is unclear to you, you're going to need to reshape your project--perhaps not much, but definitely a little.

Here, as elsewhere, I'm not claiming the system is perfect. But stock buyers (here I mean the bookstore owners and corporate buyers, not customers) at the major chains and at many large indies buy by subject. That means that the sales rep from your publishing company needs to talk to one specific designated subject buyer, and convince that one person that your book is worth the precious space in their section and budget. This is why subject-ambiguous books often do not succeed. It is very, very difficult to even sell them into stores.

Caveat: there are SOME subject nuances, and you should work together with your crit group or agent to try to think of what they are. You may think of your book as a romance novel, but perhaps your agent thinks it will do better pitched as commercial women's fiction (yes, they're different things). You may have written a middle grade novel that your agent thinks might be a better YA fit. Or a self-help book that your agent thinks actually would fit better into spirituality (or psychology, or medicine, or nutrition, whatever).

But picking category successfully is a big step toward nailing your book deal, and a good agent is going to make sure you're clearly tagged.


PurpleClover said...

If this was a real agent, then call me scared. He seemed a bit clueless and/or unprofessional. I would hope that my agent would pitch better than that?

I have read and been told using new agents is definitely something to explore because they need to build their book and they're looking for debut writers. I'm not sure if that was the case in this instance. But then I wonder if editors allow for a little leniency in the pitching process understanding their inexperienced.

I hope this is rare.

Additionally, I have trouble myself with this. I guess I wonder if certain genres are permanent like they can never cross over. For instance, will a Sci Fi ALWAYS be a Sci Fi? What if it has major romance overtones or thriller overtones?

That sounds like an IQ question. IF some Sci Fi's are thrillers and some Sci Fi's are romance are all thrillers and romance Sci Fi? lol. Okay the dork came out. Gotta go.

Alissa said...

I agree with PurpleClover on this one. This sounds like a very good warning for authors seeking an agent. I think most authors could have done a much better job pitching this book than this clueless agent.

For PurpleClover on your IQ question: I think the category is determined by your dominant theme, what really defines the book. There are plenty of science fiction books out there that don't get shelved in the science fiction section. There's literary SF, mainstream SF and even some over in the classics. Of course, if the author can't figure out just what their book is, that's a problem.

PurpleClover said...

Alissa - thanks for the advice.

The reason I'm struggling is because the book I'm currently writing is a thriller that uses Sci Fi as a means to get from point A to B. But the rest is all thriller. However, by book two, it will launch into a prepubescent Space Odyssey.

So I've been assuming that I should pitch as Sci Fi because of the long term although I think it would receive a lot more interest pitched as a thriller. Hmm. For many this is probably cut and dry. I'm very green myself so I'm sure I could do much more research between now and then. ;) But I appreciate your advice. It really does help. I would assume that happens where one genre starts in book one and it turns into another genre by book two or three right?

PurpleClover said...

Oh, but I promise to commit to one before I seek publication. lol.

Okay enough comment hogging. I'll move aside.

Stuart Neville said...

Defining my book as a thriller was one of the first key things my agent did for me, and it's stood me in good stead ever since.

PurpleClover: I could be wrong here, but I'd imagine sci-fi is such a strong genre that it would override everything else. I think any sci-fi story could also slot into sub-genres, such as thriller or romance, but the very fact that it's sci-fi is going to place it in a particualr part of the bookstore.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it be great to have a list of agents that publishers like to work with? I assume that agents that make a lot of sales are these agents, but maybe not?

jjdebenedictis said...

Was this, perhaps, a writer posing as an agent in order to get their book looked at?

Sophie Playle said...

That agent did indeed sound a bit clueless - quite worrying.

Thanks for the post. Category isn't something I really think about much!

Anonymous said...

Non-Fiction: Narrative - 112 deals this past year on Pub Marketplace. Maybe there should be a shelf.

PurpleClover said...

Stuart -

Thanks! As a matter of fact, I used to think of my book as a Sci Fi thriller because I was encompassing the genre and sub-genre (or so I thought). But someone said it had to be one or another. Maybe it was bad advice or maybe good advice. In the long run I just thought maybe I would write the query in thriller style but state it officially as Sci Fi. That way they get the urgency but don't feel blindsided when they read the MS. I think a lot of agents like Sci Fi but it isn't necessarily their top choice so it has to really grab their attention. I think that is why people appease an agent's tastes to get past the query stage. Maybe it's deceptive but the line seems a bit blurry anyhow for some manuscripts.

Oye. It makes my head spin. lol. Good post though! It definitely makes someone think! Thanks Moonie!

Deb said...

This must've been the agent's own book. Otherwise, I'm with Purple--really scary. One envisions the author who knows exactly what his novel is, and the agent supposed to and doesn't?

Chris Redding said...

My son had to read from several differnt genres last year for school. One mentioned on the paper we were given at back to school night was Realistic Fiction. I had to ask what that was. She looked at me as if I had two heads. I've never seen a book shelved in a bookstore under realistic fiction.

gringo said...

Really unique. As opposed to not really unique. Hot-Dog-On-A-Stick is a corn dog, dammit. It is what it is.

Oh, and the caller would have been better off describing it as a fictional autobiography. There might not be a shelf for those, but you could fit them in anywhere.

Richard Lewis said...

Great post on something that seems so obvious but is so easily overlooked. Not just by agents but also writers. In my naive youth I once submitted something that I thought was fantastically original but my agent scratched his head and said "I don't know where this would fit in a bookstore. I can't sell it until I do."

Maybe there should be a shelf in bookstores and an on-line shopping category for "Fantastically Original" but I doubt it will happen any time soon.

Charles Gramlich said...

Narrative nonfiction = fiction I see.

BuffySquirrel said...

The Fantastically Original shelf would be dwarfed by the Fantastically Unoriginal and You've Seen It All Before shelves.

Janet Reid said...

I actually think this blog would be shelved as "part memoir, part travel guide, part self-help, and part haiku" all in the "Hilarious" section of any good bookstore.

Jael said...

It's a memoir.

What a maroon. I vote "author posing as agent." Actually, I vote HA!

BJ said...

I know exactly which shelf my novel will be shelved on. Whenever I go into a bookstore, I look for the right genre, then find which two authors my name would fall between. Then I imagine my book right *there*. There is often wistful sighing involved.

africanstardustsays said...

BJ, I am with you on that one:)

Thanks for the post.

Becky Mushko said...

If it's "kind of part memoir, part history, part travel guide, part novel . . . very poetic, but just really good readable nonfiction," it's probably best suited for self-publishing and will make really unique Christmas gifts to the author's family and friends.

Coral Press said...

What do you think about the whole creating new genres idea? And do you think this agent/author was implying the creation of a new genre or just being ridiculous?

For instance, we at Coral Press are trying to make the notion of musical fiction more widespread. It's definitely a fictional genre that could just be lumped under fiction, but theoretically, someday it could be as big as sci-fi etc. and have its own shelf.

moonrat said...

Coral Press--I hope, for the sake of innovation of literature, that people never give up on inventing new genres. Bookstores, which shelve books by category, are in fact a pretty limiting and cookie-cutter means of packaging art/entertainment. But increasingly people buy their books online, where no category is needed, and I think category will gradually come to matter less.

But more directly to your question--in order to make a new genre "happen," there must be some kind of phenomenon that forces booksellers, who are always (by necessity) about two years behind things, to reevaluate their real estate. Remember when graphic novels were a half a shelf wedged into the comic book section? That was only 5 years ago at the chains--and now there are whole walls of graphic novels. What you need is a phenomenon (like, in this case, Neil Gaiman; or, in another, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies). One breakaway hit will change things for everyone else. In the meantime, we keep truckling with Amazon sleeper hits and cult followings.

Marjorie said...

I have moved on from a memoir to... interviews. And the interviews are published at my blog.
I even interviewed "Jerry, the Marble Faun." Yep. The real one. Edie Beale, RIP.
I also interviewed the legendary Anna Berger. She worked with Marlon Brando and John Garfield. We talked over pastrami and rye at Artie's. Life is surreal at times.
When agents reject... look for imaginative alternatives.