11.27.2005

"too unique"

It's always good to hear that agents and editors want material that is new, fresh, and original. But, as far as I can tell, you, Miss Snark, are the only person who really means this. I went to a publishing evening here in New York a while back, and an editor from a respectable mid-sized house said that it's not good to be too unique, because "then we won't know what to do with you." His statement has haunted me ever since; so much so, that I've put it into a recent short story I'm writing. Any comment about this, Miss Snark?


I think he was being sardonic. The truth is that the financial demands of a for-profit corporation require publishers to produce books they think will meet a certain threshold of sales. "Unique" is a scary prospect for those guys (just insert the word "untested"and you get a better sense of it).

Agents fork over expenses on a book to get it into submission, but it's the publishers who lose actual cashola if the thing doesn't sell. And they also lose market muscle. They've got the most to lose, you'll have to forgive them for being timid.

Editors are right smack in the middle of this. They have agents breathing down their necks with "the next best thing since Bible", and the editor in chief breathing down their necks for bringing in things that will sell, while all they really want to do is sit in their office and read good books.

The good thing, in fact one of the best things, about being an agent is you get to find those "too unique" projects, figure out how to cloak it as 'the next best thing' and then trot it around to a variety of places. You get to stay with something till it sells, rather than being forced to say no "cause we don't know what to do with it" and watch it go elsewhere.

There's a reason editors move to agenting a lot. That's one of them.

7 comments:

Cornelia Read said...

It's excruciating to hear tales of any manuscript declined *only* because an agent or ed board felt nervous about how to categorize/market it. And, okay, there's no shortage of same-old same-old dreck cranked out each and every year.

However, the world is not without one or two persons for whom the phrase "new, fresh, and original" serves as a mantra of self-justification perhaps more accurately deconstructed as "I am far too talented to cheapen the blistering splendor of my god-given brilliance with, like, COMMAS."

Neither of them are snarklings, of course.

Macy said...

one would imagine that if it's the best thing an editor has read this year, it's "uniqueness" wouldn't come into question.

perhaps consider focussing on craft rather than category.

the green ray said...

Thanks for commenting on my question, Miss Snark. It was good to get a take on what it's like at the editor's end. I wish he was being sardonic, but his tone of voice was ultra-earnest. Macy, nice sentiment, but a little naive, I think. My "craft" continually gets praise; it's how they're going to sell it that's the problem.

Ig said...

Am I dumb to think that no means no, no matter which way you slice it?

Cornelia Read said...

Green Ray, more power to you and I'm rooting for your work garnering recognition of the primo contract persuasion. I hope my earlier comment didn't come across as denigration of YOUR comma loyalty--you sound like the best kind of real-deal "new and fresh."

(note to self: step AWAY from the keyboard after 11, or at least find one that turns into a pumpkin on the stroke of Letterman).

Simonbun said...

I heard substantially the same thing from an agent speaking at a luncheon last summer. He told the audience of mostly writers to wow him with something new, fresh, and exciting, but then went on a few moments later to discuss that it was so much easier for him to sell a ms. that was just like the one editor X bought last month. It's no mean task to figure out how to write a story that's fresh and exciting and just like everything else. :)

But this goes a long way to explaining the editorial flight to the agent side of the fence.

Rick said...

fresh and exciting and just like everything else

Without getting into the argument about whether there are only seven basic plots, or 12 or whatever (or even whether any claim of this sort is valid), isn't it all in the treatment? Setting aside truly experimental literary fiction - for which there's a market, but a particularly tough one to break into - "it's still the same old story, a fight for love and glory." We tend to remember books not so much because they're unlike anything else we read, but because they're more vivid than other books we've read.