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10 Novels Agents Have Already Seen a Billion Times

9 November 2017

From Electric Lit:

As a literary agent, I receive roughly 500 queries, or book pitches, a month. After 11 years of doing this job, I have seen a lot of book ideas. Obviously I’ve noticed trends (did you know all vampires live in Seattle now?) but there are other similarities outside of pop culture or critical mass made evident by the slush pile. When an agent or editor says they are looking for something they’ve never seen before, these are the things we don’t mean.

. . . .

1. The Axe To Grind Novel

This book sure will show your stupid boss/girlfriend/teacher/parent they were an idiot for firing/dumping/failing/not loving you! Unfortunately, your personal injustices are your own, and it’s hard for the reader to generate enough sympathy for the infallible “protagonist” when everyone else is 100% horrible and wrong. If your life was The Glass Castle, then yeah, write that, but I sure hope it wasn’t.

A subcategory of The Axe To Grind Book of Non-Fiction is the Stunning Work from a Fearless Whistleblower that will Set the World of [Industry] on Fire.Maybe it will! But I usually learn about these stories from the news, as they are genuine news, and not in the query pile.

. . . .

8. Eat, Pray, Whatever

These stories of enlightenment in the face of illness/divorce/loss/grief as an important personal journey, most often written by women, are heartbreaking and profound. These issues are serious and so is the self-actualization (of women. Sorry dudes, we’ve heard enough about your self-actualization). But this formula of illness etc. leading to radical life change has crossed my desk so many times that it no longer holds any meaning. It’s a familiar jumble of medical jargon, empty white wine bottles, and taillights in the mist.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Agents

43 Comments to “10 Novels Agents Have Already Seen a Billion Times”

  1. Barbara Morgenroth

    But if something different arrives, then it’s rejected as off-genre. Years ago, before chicklit, I pitched a romantic comedy to an editor at Three Rivers. She said “If there was a market for that, those books would exist.” About 2 years later Bridget Jones hit.

    Best stick with indie publishing.

    • LOL. That really is just like them, isn’t it, Barbara? “We want something we haven’t seen before.” No, wait. “We want something we know how to market.” Which basically means they really only want slight twists on familiar things. What’s great is when they straight up tell you, “We don’t actually know what we want until we see it.” Which leads to, “Send whatever you have. Maybe we’ll love it.” And then, “But don’t send us something we can’t market or something we’ve seen a million times because those are a waste of our time and patience.”

  2. “We want something we haven’t seen before” only flies so far. What I finally deduced they’re saying is they want a new-ish spin on the ideas they already know how to market. Not that they will do any marketing, that’s just stock-language for “we’re looking for something we can love, that’s kind, intelligent, liberal, warm, giving — but not you.”

  3. I’m writing a zombie story. Because I like them and, if you write a good one, they can SELL. Just because an editor is tired of a type of story, doesn’t mean readers are tired of them.

    • More power to you. I managed to get a zpoc novella published last year and got the bug, so that’s what I’m working on as well. Definitely taking the more sci-fi angle than most of the novels of the last few years.

      • I got frustrated when my favorite TV ZA series killed a horse in the first season, the horse didn’t put up a fight. It just died.

        Horsewomen of the Zombie Apocalypse was born out of that frustration. The ZA genre requires a lot of survivalist knowledge, which makes it a lot of fun to write.

  4. When an agent or editor says they are looking for something they’ve never seen before, these are the things we don’t mean.

    OK. That’s why we have the Amazon Kindle Upload Buttom.

  5. “Man, we’ve seen that a million times …”

    “Yeah, but this time it’s with zombies in space!” 😛

    • If it’s well-written, with great characters and fun action, I’d definitely read that.

      Sadly, 90% of the zombie genre is horribly-written cannibal porn.

  6. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy decides the kitsune next door who has been waiting for him to dump the self-absorbed little twit really is the woman of his dreams. The End.*

    * Also works for movies – just add explosions, a vehicle chase, and more kissing!
    😛

    • I actually started to read that story. I bailed early on because it was going in a different direction than I was hoping it would. But I would read a better version 🙂

  7. Smart Debut Author

    Grandpa, what’s a “literary agent”?

  8. Nomore zombies? What world are they living in? This is just another reason to avoid tradpub. Sure, maybe they’re tired of zombie apoc novels, but guess what? Readers sure aren’t. A few years ago it was ‘no one can sell vampire novels anymore’ but you know, Bella Forest can, along with a hundred other writers. I shake my head every time I see one of these articles because they are food critics. It isn’t that no one wants cheeseburgers anymore, it’s just that they’re tired of eating them.

    • Exactly. I’ve seen tons of indies do very well selling Tolkein/D&D-inspired fiction. Agents that represent fantasy ALWAYS say they don’t want that stuff. No orcs, elves, or dwarves, peeps! But… it sells. Write on. What you love. 🙂

    • Yeah, an agent told me “no one wants vampires anymore” years ago. I’m still writing about vampires. And reading about them, more to the point. What agents mean when they say that kind of thing is that *publishers* and *agents* are tired of seeing them and want whatever the “next big thing” is. It categorically does not mean that readers are tired of them.

    • The beauty of our age is that you could say “I want a vampire/zombie/monster story where this happens and that kind of character is in it,” and then write that story. My brother once wanted to see a movie about some Yakuza who end up fighting zombies or vampires. Turns out this was a real movie, not an idle wish. When I found out, I wondered if any other monster stories had zany premises.

      As an indie, you can put your own twist on your genre and find your audience. There are no straitjackets. It’s glorious.

    • I love to read zpoc. The problem is finding GOOD zpoc. There are definitely some excellent writers putting out worthy titles (David Moody, for one, who gave yours truly a shot at the genre last year).

      Sooooo much of it is completely bereft of 3d characters and interesting plots. You have to bring something new, or a new combination of old, to the table in a genre that’s so bloated and distended 🙂

  9. #2 I didn’t ask for this
    So just throw your Heroes Journey out the window because Call To Action and Refusal of the Call is apparently a cliched and overused technique

    • I dunno…I found DC’s Flash character in the upcoming Justice League movie (at least as he’s portrayed in the trailers) quite refreshing. “Stop right there. I’m in.”

  10. Maybe this literary agent has seen a lot of stories that follow trends. He or she is at the mouth of the funnel seeing more than average person would.
    I didn’t know all vampires live in Seattle. Mine live in New York, is that OK?

    • Haha, I didn’t know about that either. Maybe she’s referring to people trying to copy Twilight but who are unwilling to fathom a story *not* set in a large metropolis, so they pick the biggest on in that area that they know about.

      My vampires are in the northwest, but it’s because I live here. The funny thing about Twilight was that Meyer had never even been here (as I understand it), when she wrote the first book, and it shows. I mean, it’s not awful, but there are some points where it definitely shows.

    • I thought real world vampires all live in LA. They used to work in NYC PUBLISHING but were laid off.

  11. “All those wacky stories from your grandpa/hairdresser/neighbor/ex-friend that are just soooooo good that you could make them into a story, kinda like Life of Pi but maybe not so Indian and more about your mom’s summer camp in Connecticut? A series of anecdotes does not add up to a novel. If you have to say “but it really happened!” to convince the reader, Anne Lamott comes over and takes back your copy of Bird by Bird.”

    What, so if I were to write a beautifully-written surreal allegorical tale based at a summer camp in Connecticut, the agent would think “Ha, what a foolish author!”

    Any idea sounds daft if you couch it in smug BS. “Oh, wow, so your story is about a little orphan boy who goes to wizard school? Um, yeah, sounds greaaaat”

    I can’t stand this attitude. I know not all agents are like this, but it just makes me think of them as a gaggle of idiot teenagers. “OMG did you see Melissa’s boots? Who does she think she is?”

  12. Smart Debut Author

    If Data Guy’s $1.25 billion number for annual US indie sales is accurate (and I suspect it’s pretty close), that’s nearly $188 million in yearly “agency fees” (at 15%) these obsolete industry toll-collectors have already lost. And it’s only going to accelerate.

    Free ride’s over.

    No wonder so many of them are closing up shop now. The ones that survive will have to *earn* that 15%.

  13. Looks at OP list. Looks at random recent award winners list. Looks again at OP list.

    Okay, no zombies among the award winners, that I see. (Which is only more proof, as noted by others, that “awards” have very little to do with “what people want to read.”)

    But every winner falls neatly into (at least) one of the other “no-no” categories.

    EDIT: Just noticed that I disjointed the set of “people” and the set of “literary agents.” I would like to apo.. apolo… Oh, heck, I don’t have the energy for hypocrisy tonight.

  14. For about five minutes, this article made me want to write a completely serious S&S about a priestess tasked with killing demons titled, Eat, Pray, and to Hell with Them All.

    • Only five minutes?
      Too busy with other projects?
      Sounds like it would be fun. Especially if she’s a contemporary pagan priestess. Lots of religions take issue with demons.

      It’s an under-explored theme.

      • It has actually become one idea of a multitude I’m contending with. LOL

        • You know, I’m actually getting ideas for this thing now. Putting it in my story ideas file to look at later.

          • Yay! I just finished writing a scene where a priestess has to do spiritual guard duty for some seers, who come under attack by demons who are trying to keep the seers from finding out key information in the mystery the priestess is investigating. I love your title! Bring it! 🙂

  15. the agent who wrote this cr infers the ‘royal we’ … which I’d wager she/he is neither ‘royal’ nor a ‘we’. This is a jaded agent’s personal opine. One person. Never heard of her. She thinks 11 years in the biz is a long time. lol. Seriously?? lol

    What I hear from good agents who are not jaded and dead-eyed as the tone of ‘article’ appears to be scolding about, is that they are ever looking for two things; original work that they can SELL.

    That’s their job. A good agent has a long list of editors who will look at whatever he/she brings. That’s their job, to build their list of contacts and to have salesmanship. If one thinks books are sold simply on their merit, not quite so. Also, a good agent makes real relationships with their client-authors, business friendships. How many agents do this? Not many. But they are there .

    The person who wrote this ditty is into shaming authors by her ideas on genre, lol. DONT ever be with someone who is p-o about the ‘omg tewwible tewwible difficulty’ of their OWN chosen ‘work’ . If an author wants an agent, one deserves far better.

    I see in Star Wars, von Daiken’s work. I see in LOTR, the ancient mythos of the Grail and Parsifal and others. I see in eat pray love, chaucer, the gruel of the pilgrimage, as well as song of bernadette and other ancient ‘miracle stories’ that have been with us for thousands of years beginning in the work found re Gilgamesh.

    I see in the mysteries and suspense novels, and sci fi and fantasy, the old myths of black against white, while shedding blood [red], which is the ancient
    alchemical equation.

    I see I have little patience with persons who dont know the genealogy of storyline, the ever burgeoning ways and changing leitmotifs throughout time, as most of us here write.

    I guess I have to say dismissing the time-honored forms, because an ‘agent’ does not like the motifs or the writing, is pretty d twee. Fair enough tho. Everyone’s free to like what they like.

    • Or make fools of themselves in public after one too many appletinis.

    • As usual USAF you hit the nail right on the head. I no longer have an agent, but I remember many years ago (a whole lot longer than eleven, sadly) when I had written plenty of radio drama and some television drama, being invited to pitch ideas for a TV series to one of the big Scottish media companies. I wanted to write something with a supernatural flavour. Oh how they yawned. ‘Nobody is remotely interested in anything to do with the supernatural’ they said. This was just before Buffy and all that followed hit our screens.

  16. “All those wacky stories from your grandpa/hairdresser/neighbor/ex-friend that are just soooooo good that you could make them into a story… A series of anecdotes does not add up to a novel. If you have to say “but it really happened!” to convince the reader”

    Umm, tell that to Art Linkletter (“Kids Say the Darndest Things”) and Erma Bombeck (everything she wrote).

    • Erma Bombeck and Art Linkletter predate modern times. Also, Art was a TV personality, which would have guaranteed him a publishing contract even these days, and may wall have if he’s been published anytime recently.

      These days, if your “platform,” whatever it may be, has garnered you a vast audience, Traditional Publishers come looking for you, in hopes your “big name” will make Big Money.

  17. Missing that easy 15%, I guess. Everybody wants something the same but different, until something really different is a surprise hit, after which everybody wants the same, but different of that. It’s a never-ending cycle of mediocrity.

    I’m glad I landed on the fun rides.

  18. I’m considered “the feminist” among my right wing, conservative family… but even I am offended by the casual dismissal of men and their stories in this article.

    Men represent a good half of our population. In our culture, they are discouraged from having strong, emotionally intimate relationship with their peers, *cough nohomo*. Do we also expect them to exist without at feeling of self-worth and importance?

    I acknowledge that there is a disparity in the voices we hear, but lifting up one group absolutely does not require tearing another down.

    Women are important. Men are important. All our voices and stories deserve to be heard.

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