Blue Ball Points

Dear Miss Snark,

Apparently I am a fantastic query writer, but nothing else. I have sent a query for my non-fiction book proposal to about 65 agents and have received 21 requests for the proposal. The problem is that I can't get past that point. Most rejections claim that the book is more suited for a university press or is not commercial enough, which is fine, maybe that's true. What I don't understand, though, is why they requested the proposal then? The query is very explicit as to the nature of the project. Why would they even request it if they felt the idea was unmarketable? ***

Some of the other rejections claim that my writing just isn't strong enough, and they may be right. Could the other agents possibly be rejecting on grounds of "too academic and not commercial," merely as a nice way of saying "your writing sucks?"

Sure. But probably not. "Your writing sux" reads: "not quite right for my list; good luck placing this elsewhere --in fact let me give you the name of my bitter rival".

Without seeing your proposal I have no way of commenting intelligently on my colleagues decision. That of course won't stop me for one moment from doing so.

I ask to look at lots of stuff I'm not sure I can sell. Sometimes the query letter IS really good, and the writing sux. Or sometimes, I get the proposal and there's a complete and utter lack of platform and the idea isn't strong enough to get an editor past that.

And sometimes I read something, check Publishers Marketplace and see I'm a day late and dollar short on this hot new idea.

Or I look at Amazon and see that the category buster is front list hardcover, starred review from PW and thus I've got a snowball's chance in hell of selling this to anyone else for a while.

***there is a HUGE chasm between unmarketable and "not marketable enough". Major houses have to sell tens of thousands of copies of a hardcover book; university presses usually can plan to sell under five thousand and be ok.

Writing conferences might be a good investment for you too. There's a chance sometimes to meet an agent, have her read the proposal and if you swear an ironclad oath not to harrass her, she might give you some specifics about why this isn't flying.

Since you're writing non fiction, it's time to get a new idea and shop that around. If this is your ONLY book, and you really really think people are missing the boat, publish it yourself and see what happens.


Talia said...

Really? I thought self publishing was reserved for either the very desperate, the very vain or those lucky enough to have a platform and other channels for sale. Isn't self publishing incredibly hard work?

On the plus side the idea must have some merit or you wouldn't have had 21 requests so maybe you could get it professionally assessed. I don't know how it works in other countries but in new zealand the local author's society has a very reasonably priced service as well as free places each year in mentoring programs. maybe you could look into that, or a local writers' group to get feedback.

good luck

Unknown said...

"Your writing sux" reads: "not quite right for my list; good luck placing this elsewhere --in fact let me give you the name of my bitter rival"
Why, I wonder, don't agents and editors just say what they mean?
I've heard of so many (especially new) writers getting so hopeful over "not quite right for my list, good luck placing it elsewhere." Wouldn't it perhaps be just more decent to say, "this really doesn't work for me" or "get thee to a writer's course and don't give up the day job"?
They'll get over the sting and at least they'll know where they stand before they mortgage the house.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Miss Snark for answering my question. I think I am just going to give up on this one. The idea is unique, there have been no other books published, ever, that are similar because the historical source for this book has never been read or written about. I still think it would work. Well, either way, I am half done with a novel and have ideas for about 40 others all different genres, so I think I will try my hand at fiction. It's more free and fun to write anyway. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I light candles to the agents who make specific comments when rejecting a partial/full.

Without those comments, I would have no idea how to improve the material.

And no, I'm not a stalker. Sure, many months later I may resubmit to them. But I don't call that stalking - I call it smart.

Maria said...


in the snarkives are many examples of why Miss Snark and other agents don't comment. Time is one reason--it takes time to think and write constructive criticism, even how to phrase, "your grammar ain't nothin' to brag about."

Yes, mature writers will get over helpful criticism and see the merit. But you read a few blogs like this one, a few critique blogs, etc and you really start to wonder if you want to be lumped in with some of the..."writers" out there. I mean, frankly, some of these people are deranged. Frightening. Suicidal. Pyschotic. Mean. Weird.

Agents have better things to do than take chances on setting people off.

Anonymous said...

"Your writing sux" reads: "not quite right for my list; good luck placing this elsewhere --in fact let me give you the name of my bitter rival"

Yikes! Guess I've been my writing sux a lot more often than I had previously thought. This wasn't an enjoyable discovery.

Anonymous said...

Wait..."not quite right for my list" means "your writing sux?"

Dang. Guess I have something more to learn.

Cheryll said...

A few decades ago, when I was writing non-fiction training materials and textbooks out on the West Coast, authors there pretty much had to do their own selling anyway. East Coast publishers did little marketing out there. We filled up the woody wagon and trundled up and down the coast to supply our markets (Mostly university bookstores and conference book sales).

It made sense to self publish that sort of thing, since we were doing most of the selling work anyway, and could keep the material in print longer. Besides which, it was mainly workbook format that didn't need to be hardbound.

The publishing world has changed, however, and you might really benefit from approaching someone in your prospective market for advice. If this person in part of the academic world, you might very well be able to open doors to the university press.

Find some experts in the field (unless you are the only one?) and see if anyone is interested....

Work on other things, but don't give up. Frank Herbert nurtured Dune for more than 10 years, I heard, before putting it out. Guy Murchie (pulitzer prize winner for 'Music of the Spheres') had his tome, 'The Seven Mysteries of Life,' cooking for most of his writing life before he found a market...

Anonymous said...

Maybe the thing to do is to to sell one's services as a query/proposal writer.

Many people are able to publish earlier "unpublishable" books after they get one published. Rather than giving up on this idea, I would work on something else and, if you find any degree of success with that, to dust off the old one.

Another thought is to break the book idea into article-sized chunks and try to place articles somewhere. It's easier to publish an article than a book, and if it gets positive attention it would be easier to get a book published, and in the meantime you've gotten some ideas out there.

Or just blog bits of the book and see if you can drum up any interest without the expense of self-publishing.


Anonymous said...

" "Your writing sux" reads: "not quite right for my list; good luck placing this elsewhere --in fact let me give you the name of my bitter rival"."

OMG, I actually do this. Do you do this? Last year I had the most unfair, nasty experience with a competitor and since I'm not one to get all crazy and fight about things, I simply send anyone who seems like a control freak, an arrogant or whose synopsis includes "the book is a lamens guide to..." (not sure if it was a guide for novices or for medieval mistresses) directly to him. Bwahahahahah

Jana Oliver said...

"Isn't self publishing incredibly hard work?"

Yes, it is. Very hard work. And that's even before you have 1K books sitting in your garage and you need to sell them to pay off your credit card. Self-pub is a viable option, but think long and hard before you make the leap.

Elizabeth Krecker said...

Miss Snark, your advice about meeting agents at writer's conferences surprised me. Aren't agent's overwhelmed enough by wannabe writer's at conferences? Is a writer hawking a manuscript at a conference akin to used car salesman? Or is there an art to approaching an agent at a conference?

Anonymous said...

elizabeth, if i may take the liberty... some writers' conferences have meetings where contributors--the paying attendees--get to ask questions of an agent or even, I think, pitch their projects in small groups or individually. all you do is sign up. More important, I know that if a teacher likes your work at a conference, he or she can quietly steer you to an on-site agent, who will then find you and tap you on the shoulder. you can look up conferences by name, month or location on www.shawguides.com, and from their listings hop over to each conference's website. It would help to know both the conference's and the agents' reputations before writing a check. bread loaf and squaw valley community of writers and sewanee writers' conference are among those with good reputations and agents present.