Sunday, February 5, 2012

But is it Love? A conversation with Mike Wells.

A few weeks ago, Talking Writing published a version of a post I had written about reader taste versus publishing taste. After it appeared, I got a very nice email from a writer named Mike Wells, an American bestselling thriller and suspense author who teaches in the Creative Writing program at the University of Oxford. His note began a back and forth discussion about whether or not agents really needed to "fall in love" with a novel before offering representation. Mike said no. I said yes--sort of.

We both thought that readers would be interested in this discussion, so we decided to post it on our respective blogs (Mike's is Your comments are welcome!
Hi Jenny,

I just read your article about the difference between publisher/agent vs. reader tastes. Boy am I glad someone had the guts from inside the industry to write about this! I've been screaming about it for years but nobody listens because they assume it's a sour grapes thing on my part. But what you said is so true. I'm one of those rejected writers who has gone out and successfully sold his books (I have 15,000 Twitter followers, developing a very good fan base)...and that's after having four great agencies unable to sell them (Andrea Brown, Jean Naggar, Marly Rusoff, etc.) Funny, a few months ago I ran into one of your colleagues in NYC and we nearly got into a fist fight over this issue, with him claiming that he has some special gift or "nose for a classic" or some such nonsense!

I didn't know you were on Twitter and just followed you.

Anyway, a big thank you for that article, I really enjoyed it (especially the bit about the glasses!)


P.S. By the way you might like this post:

What Literary Agents Could Learn from the Girl Scouts

I think this is what set your colleague off! (hope it doesn't make you mad)
Hi Mike,

No, it doesn't make me mad—I think it's pretty funny. More people need to have a sense of humor about this industry.

I think the thing about having to love a book before you can sell it makes a little more sense than you say it does, however. I'm not selling a refrigerator, after all. If I'm selling refrigerators, I don't have to love them: they're pretty impersonal—I can judge them on objective criteria. And pretty much everyone needs to buy a refrigerator at some point. Everyone likes them. And with girl scout cookies, you don't have to like them to know there's a huge market. But the only way I can even guess if other people will like a novel is if I like it too. It's completely subjective. Unless, of course, there has been market research in the shape of self-publishing. Which is one of the reasons I like self-publishing so much and have repped so many self-published authors—it takes the guesswork out of it.

Anyway, good post—and thanks for sending it.

Mike's response:

I see your point, but the first person to sell a new product faces exactly the same problem you face, whether that product is a refrigerator or cookies or or an iPad--the market for it must be created. And the people who create markets for totally new products can do it whether they "love" those products or not, believe me.

Jenny's response:

Still disagree. :) Maybe "love" is the wrong word, however. Maybe it's "get" or "understand." If you "get" why an ipad would be appealing, you can sell it. But if you don't like a book, where again it is a matter of TASTE, not potential demand, how do you know whether or not it will work in the marketplace? Your argument would work better if I just had to figure out whether or not books in general would have a place in the market. Well, yes, people like reading, therefore books will work. But an individual novel? How in the world can I predict an audience for that unless I myself am responding to it in some way?

Mike's response:

I'm so glad we're having this discussion, Jenny, now we're getting somewhere. You stated it perfectly in your last message: "...unless I respond to it in some way." Of course you're right. A good sales and marketing person must be able to understand the needs that any product satisfies in the customer who buys it. But that's a far cry from "falling in love." Example: I'm not a huge fan of Harlequin Romance novels, not because of any highbrow snobbery about them, but simply because I'm a man, and after a couple of hours all that gushy romantic stuff makes me feel a little ill. :-) Yet, I can empathize with women who love that genre, completely understand the appeal of it, and can certainly recognize a Harlequin Romance that is well-structured and well-written. Could I sell such a book? You bet I could! And so could you, if you wanted to (whether you "love" them or not)

Jenny's response:

Well, except that I challenge you to go out and sell a romance novel to a publisher. ;) You might make a great agent, don't get me wrong, and you might understand that romance as a genre works, that women will love it, but without an affinity for this type of book, how will you be able to distinguish between a good or a bad one? Answer: you can't. And that's not even necessarily because you don't read the genre—it's because there's no such thing as a "good" or a "bad" romance novel, it's completely subjective. And so in the face of that subjectivity, what are you left with as an agent? Your own taste. That's all you have to go on. That's what agents mean by "I have to love it."

Once again we come back to the idea that we all know in general that people like books, and then you can categorize it even further by saying that in general people like romance, or thrillers, or literary fiction. But on a book by book basis there is no way to predict what a reader will like. Even if people like the Beatles a lot, for example, that doesn't necessarily predict that they will like a book about the Beatles. As an agent, you only have taste to go on.

Everything changes of course, if a book is self-published first, and you know a lot of people have already responded. Self-publishing is the new market research.

Mike's response:

I totally agree re self-publishing. If I were an agent I think that's the main way I would find new authors if I needed them, by trolling the self-publishing domain and looking for successes there. At the end of the day, the only way to know if a product has a market is if people will actually fork over their hard-earned money for it. This is even more than "market research"—it's downright proof that the product is viable. The only question is how large the market will be if a big publisher takes over. I think in the vast majority of cases the market will be 10x larger because we self-pubbed authors can barely scratch the surface with our limited resources. If I can sell 10,000 of one of my books a year, I'm quite sure a big publisher could sell 100,000 of that same book given that they don't screw up the product or marketing approach.

Any comments, readers?


  1. I think the major flaw in Mike's argument is comparing selling cookies to selling a book. It's an apples & oranges kind of thing because with a book, the agent is re-reading the same material over and over again and then talking about the same book over and over again with many different people over many weeks or months.

    If you bring cookies into it, the girl guides would have to dig through piles of random cookies and taking a bite from hundreds, if not thousands, then deciding which cookie (or cookies) them wanted to eat every single day for weeks (or months) until they sold that cookie to a single buyer.

    When agents choose a book (and an author) from that pile of slush, they're investing themselves in one single *flavour* that they have to continue to eat over a long period of time.

    Cookies and books... not comparable in my mind.

    I can totally see the *falling in love* thing. It's the same reason I'm not willing to spend thousands of hours writing and rewriting every single idea that flies through my brain. I have to love that flavour enough to want to taste it every single day.

  2. Jenny, I really enjoy reading your blog.

    Per Mike's final entry, I'd be interested to know if there have been any successful self-published authors who have subsequently been awarded contracts with agents/traditional publishers for the self-published book.

    After reading the WSJ's Dec. 2011 article on Darcie Chan, I was under the impression that deciding to self-publish was akin to closing the door on more traditional options, though to some degree that may be subject to how the self-published book is priced. Traditional publishers are not inclined to sell a print book for $25 that is already available in the market at a fraction of the price (ex- $.99 e-book). The good news, however, is that a successful self-published author may attract traditional publisher's attention on future books.

  3. Hi Kris,
    It's actually been done quite a bit. My author Laurie Notaro is one notable example although this was before e-pubbing. N. Frank Daniels is another. There are lots more. St. Martin's just re-released a self-published book by Amanda Hocking, in fact.

  4. Hi Jenny,

    It's an interesting debate, especially for writers trying to decide which way to go. I agree with 1000th monkey, however. You're the one who has to read the material over and over, and be able to processes it and love it enough to create a great pitch for publishers. I believe there has to be a highly vested interest and enthrallment with the particular book, to be able to get someone to take a chance on it and be just as excited to do so.

    I think self-publishing is a good option, but, it's like anything; there's so much good with the bad. Not that people put out terrible stories, per se, but it seems that we authors can get so excited to get out work out, we don't take the time to polish and "advertise" to agents and publishers as well as we could have.

    As far as what Mike's saying, working your way through self-pubbed works is probably a good way of gauging what's popular, but how many would get passed over for not "polishing" pretty good work to meet standards for submitting to agencies?

    Then again, the John Locke's of the world did something right. Who knows?? Maybe if I don't make it as an author, I'll go sell refrigerators...or chocolate. I hear the general consensus is people love that stuff.

    P.S Love your blog and am a huge fan..:)Thanks for all the great incite!

  5. Eh em..."insight"...*walks away sheepishly*

  6. Fantastic blog! Really gives an enlightening, fresh look on the self-published--& I daresay, small press--author. I would want my agent to be in love with my work. Why? Because that ensures me, at least as much as possible, that she feels a personal involvement in our joint effort. From a firsthand POV, she cares about selling my book. Yes, foremost because she gets paid when she does but also presumably because the affection she has for my material brings added satisfaction to her efforts ... & makes her more likely to put out the effort.

    I've had 2 agents, at different points, yet I've done more on my own than with either agent. Both were well-known. This isn't to say these agents weren't good at what they did. Their lack of success for me, I believe, speaks to the likelihood that they "loved" other projects much more than they did mine. Simple logic, in my mind.

    I'd love, at this point, to find an agent who loved my work enough to work with me to further my career.

  7. Linda,I wouldn't be so sure they loved other projects more than yours, just based on their lack of success. There have been projects that I loved with all my heart that I still couldn't sell. One of them still haunts me, in fact...

  8. Jenny, this is a fascinating discussion, and one with no obvious or easy answer. Subjectivity plays too big a part in it, which is why I believe most agents say exactly what they do about having to love something enough to pick it up.

    I don't know if that's 100% true, however. I'll grant that really getting a story would certainly help sell it, but I look to my own tastes in television shows (very limited and specific) compared to what I see as commercially viable and successful. I think it's easier for me to pick show apart because they're easier and quicker to get a feel for than books.

    Take a series like Firefly. Great concept, well written and produced, and overall a home run in terms of story. It has a huge cult following, and pretty much anyone who's seen it agrees it's completely awesome. But it was a relative commercial flop. Canx'ed halfway through the first season, and wasn't even allowed to wrap things up story-wise.

    Comparing that to some of the other series out there, one can get a sense of what would be a potential commercial success, even if it's a genre or theme outside their tastes. I can still recognize good writing and good acting even if I'm only "watching" the show because the wife has it on in the same room where I'm reading or writing.

    Ideally, I want an agent to love my work as much as I do, to really get it the way a reader is intended to. It'll help sell it. Just the enthusiasm alone will add an extra intangible that may mean the difference between a great sale and a modest one - or none at all.

    But I agree with Mike in that I don't think it's really necessary. It's the equivalent of needing a higher education for writing a novel. Not needed, but may indeed make a difference sometimes because of the little things it lends to the work. And in the world of publishing, I can easily see why that little extra is usually viewed as a necessary ingredient.

  9. as a musician and a former booking agent I watched similar fights/growing pains/industry-wide changes happen inside the recording industry as downloads and websites began making cd's and the radio outdated in the blink of an eye. The upside for labels and managers was bands came to them with a polished image and a built in crowd. The downside is that many bands and indie labels are finding more success working outside of the riaa and the big 6 record companies. It is a slippery slope asking writers to self-publish first and to learn the in's and out's of the business for two big reasons: one, is that some great authors will be lost in the pile unable to grasp the marketing, branding, and promotion essential for a proper release. Two, authors will the hardest working and most marketable of these authors will find or create enough avenues outside of nyc to make their book profitable without an agent or biggtime publisher. Then the only people left releasing best sellers from the biggest publishers will be the katie perry's and lady gaga's of the world...all. flash and no substance.
    Thanks for posting this conversation. I could talk about it all day.
    Douglas esper