Thursday, February 05, 2009

Who's the Culprit?

Question of the day: So my question is, how is the poor author supposed to determine if she had a poor agent or a poor manuscript? Somehow I can't see a poor agent admitting that they hadn't really tried

Ooh, toughie. Well, if your agent has lost interest or you suspect your agent has lost interest, I'd ask to see the list of where he/she has submitted. You're entitled to this information. Some agents openly share it (mine does) as the process goes along, others are more cagey. But, if you're considering moving on to someone new, it's imperative that you know where your ms has been, and thus, your agent should be more than willing to let you know who has read it. If the list looks long and relatively complete, you might still want to poke around on Publishers Marketplace to ensure that the right editors read it, and if so, well, then, it's best to start writing something new. If it's short and pathetic, however, this might be your opening to seek another agent with the same ms: you'll have to share this list with the new potential agent, and it would be up to him/her to assess.

As to whether or not the problem is that the ms itself sucks? Well, this is something we've chatted about a bit before, and the problem with getting an objective feel for it is that we often aren't capable of this until long after we've stepped back from the ms. In my own case, it wasn't until I'd written a much, much, much better book that I realized that my first (unsold) effort seriously blew. But given that you might not want to take this route, I'd recommend getting it into the hands of objective readers: find a critique group - maybe online, maybe at your local college, maybe via a local writing workshop - whom you trust and see what they have to say. Listen with open ears. If you truly want to be sure that the ms is the very best it can be, you have to accept some constructive criticism.

Anyone else have a good method for determining when your work stinks? Or for determining if it's actually your agent, not you?


Unknown said...

Critique group/readers are a good way to get a sense of whether the book has serious problems -- like you say, Allison, it can be really hard to get a sense of perspective on your own work without the luxury of distance/time.

If the MS isn't selling, try to have a real heart-to-heart with your agent. Some questions to ask: why do you think the book isn't selling? What's the most common reason that editors are passing? Should we be targeting smaller houses? Should I be thinking about a rewrite? Is it time to give up on this MS or are you planning more submissions? I'm thinking about writing something else, at what stage do you want to see it?

It's such a tough situation, but open dialogue is essential before you decide to take the drastic step of terminating an agent relationship and looking for another.

Nathanael Green said...

I know it's been said a million times in every writing workshop, but sometimes even the best books take a while to sell and go through dozens of editors before someone picks it up and sells it like crazy.

Jael, I think you've got a good point with having a writing group to look at it. I think it's extremely helpful to have at least a few people who will give you honest, sometimes painful, feedback.


Brenda Janowitz said...

In my classes, I always recommend that students give their work to friends-of-friends. Often, the extra degree of separation frees someone to give really constructive criticism.

Anonymous said...


We love your blog and hope you'll pick up your award at:

Thanks so much for such an interesting blog!

The Texty Ladies

Kerrie McLoughlin said...

i am NOT telling you how to run your blog, but PLEASE add the option of "followers" to your blog so I can sign up and check you out and put you on MY blogs ... I'm at and i've stumbed upon you b/c i have outdated american baby guidelines and was looking for the latest and LOVE your blog. can't wait to come back!

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Wow, you guys offered some great feedback, thank you!

Textyladies - thanks, I'll check it out!

And Mommy Kerrie - thanks for the tip. Thanks to you, I've added in that feature!

Kerrie McLoughlin said...

sure! you're going to think i'm a jerk, but would ya mind putting your labels down the left side as well so i can find topics i'm looking for easily? you have such a thorough blog that goes back so far. i have a ton of kids and need the timesaver! loving your blog!

Anonymous said...

Trusted Readers are great -- readers who will catch you out on your bad habits, be honest, and have YOUR best interests at heart, without lying to you.

Also, distance between drafts during the editing process. You have to approach the edit reading it as though someone else wrote it.

And, the more you write, the more you feel it in your gut when something isn't working.

Elizabeth George talks about this in WRITE AWAY! It took me awhile to realize she was right.

Anonymous said...

With my last ms, I had a close call with a major publisher. Then the editor's boss decided that my book competed with others on their list. That experience (which involved a nice conversation with the editor and some minor revisions to the first couple of chapters and the synopsis) suggested to me that my book, in fact, did not stink. However, after a dozen rejections, I stopped hearing from my agent and she wouldn't respond to my emails. That suggested to me that my agent, in fact, was kind of stinky.