Sparring with a Literary Agent

In a recent conversation with a literary agent, we discussed how books are classified shelved categorized pigeon-holed identified. Genres puzzle me. How does anybody figure out where a book goes, especially when most cross over “the lines”?

Music offers a similar problem. The demise of music stores pleased me. Don’t hate. I find it a huge relief to search for a song on some internet database rather than shuffling through bins of vinyl (gack!) or stacks of CDs in the hopes of striking paydirt. Especially since I never know the name of the song or the artist. Usually the only thing I can remember are a few inaccurate lyrics.

So I demanded to know politely asked for an explanation of why novels once listed as mysteries are now touted as romantic suspense. Books which once-upon-a-time could be found on the horror shelf are now stashed in with thrillers, general fiction, and whatnot. What gives, Agent Lady?

You brilliant people probably already know the answer.

I badgered the topic back and forth with Stilletto Woman until conversational sallies whipped through the air like a birdie in a badminton match (raise your hand if you know what that means). We concluded…not much.

Basically it boiled down to books go wherever-makes-the-novel-more-appealing-to-the-buyer.

The tricky part of this now, is the challenge of finding books that are characterized in ways I might not think to load in the browser.

In the old timey pursuit of new reading material, inside a brick-and-mortar storefront, I could meander aisles, grope through the stacks, and poke at interesting spines.

Today I buy most of my books in digital format or over the internet. I like the convenience. Searching out obscure texts is easier than ever – but finding fun reads is a bit more complicated.

A few months back I was surprised to learn the “dark” leanings in some of my writing is perceived as horror. Huh, interesting. I never thought of myself as a horror writer, but, okay. I’m not alarmed by that nugget of identity. Me and Poe, we’re good with being misunderstood.

What does frustrate me is the idea of consistency.  Whether it’s a publishing house, an agency, a book distributor, an online archive, a listing on a website…how do you make sure your work is where you want it to land? Some folks even adhere to the idea that if you write in one genre, you’re typecast. Sorry, you can’t write that western slasher romance because up till now you’ve only written apocalyptic how-to guides for surviving lemming attacks.

Too bad. So sad.

That sorta sucks if you want to try something new…and I’m pretty certain most of us will, at one time or another, feel the urge to kick over some new words and pounce on a unique idea. Beware the attitude of once a sci-fi writer, always a…that’s just nonsense. Ludicrous.

Art, people, lifestyles, popular culture, technology…it all changes. You either roll along with the tides or you atrophy on the seashore, stuck in a clump of seaweed. Nobody wants that! Small children will scamper past and tell each other you stink. Not good.

Voice is what makes a writer unique and I think that carries across genres and styles. There are plenty of people writing in multiple areas of interest, I insisted. The agent harrumphed and a lively discussion ensued (which is code for: we argued some more).

Opinions flew. It passed the time. Words like branding and platform got tossed around a lot. I slung them a time or two myself, and half the fun of disagreeing is flinging out all the current buzzwords. The people sitting around us were either amused or fled to the other side of the waiting area. By the time we boarded our respective flights, we pretty much agreed that whichever route a writer takes, publishing is a demanding business.

Many authors talk about making money. I’m all for that. Compensation is good but income is not the only motivation for writers. Heaven knows, there are easier and faster ways to make a living (…let us count the ways). In fact, most of the writers with whom I’ve interacted, are happy to collect a few bucks but it’s the desire to share our love of words that stabs at the collective heart.

The manipulation of language is lovely, but even more than that…stories matter.

What do you desire from the publication journey? What drives your motivation to spew the words out? Is there a story in your head that simply must be told?


  1. #1 by Elena Aitken on April 3, 2012 - 9:55 pm

    I love that you had this conversation/argument. So true that publishing, no matter how you approach it is a demanding business.
    As for what I want out of it. I’d be lying if I said money wasn’t a factor, it is. I’ve always dreamed about making a living at this. BUT…my greatest joy comes from hearing that I’ve touched someone, and my story has entertained, made someone think, or allowed them to escape from their world for a little while. 🙂

    • #2 by Leslie on April 4, 2012 - 12:24 pm

      LOL – it’s a mysterious and demanding enterprise (cue the Star Trek music).

      I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to be compensated for the work you produce. I’ve heard the arguments about “a true artiste needs only accolades”… Hogwash. Nonsense. I have bills and like to buy food – so do sculptors, painters, film-makers, game-developers, etc. Of course there are other payoffs like touching someone’s heart, evoking a memory, connecting thoughts across distance. I think that’s the really cool part too.

      It was also hysterical fun to spar with someone on the other side of the field – she was smart and fun. One of those weird transections that occur in airports.

  2. #3 by Jen Tanner on April 6, 2012 - 1:43 am

    Hi Lesann,

    I know a lot of writers who weren’t able to sell to an agent/publisher because the book straddled two genres or didn’t have a genre. Self-publishing has changed that to a degree.

    I just posted an article on our FB page about top selling self-pubbed authors. Those figures are mind boggling and makes me ask myself why I haven’t put my book up on Amazon. I’m kind of chicken. I write because I like telling stories. Sure, it would be great to make some money, but I want to put out the best work possible. For me, that means paying for editorial input. Ouch. I try to tell myself it’s like taking a really expensive workshop.

    I’d also like to experiment with different genres. I’d change my nom de plume if necessary. (As if I’d ever be well known enough to get pigeon-holed in the first place!)

    • #4 by Leslie on April 6, 2012 - 9:04 am

      Oh Jen…I know exactly what you mean. I’ve read wonderful manuscripts that just didn’t fit the pigeonholes and got tossed in the circular file as a result. I love watching the self-publishing/Indie crowd surf the new horizon and think about it jumping in the water. Then I consider if that’s what I really want to do – then do a 180 and decide, well what’s the big deal? The worst that happens is you toss out your work (don’t think about that 1,000 hours of unpaid slaving over words) and nothing happens. I can always write more, right?

      I read that article you posted and I agree, the numbers are mind boggling and you can bet everybody in literature land is taking notes. I think there’s a huge advantage for dangling a foot in each pond. Despite all the shouting I don’t think traditional publishing is going belly up, but it’s going to have to rethink some old-fashioned practices…and being privy to what’s happening in both closets is intriguing for nosy people like me.

      Paying for editorial input is like asking for a knife to be shoved in your side. But it’s necessary. I’ve tried to convince myself that it’s like paying for a master class but the checking account remains unconvinced. I’ve been writing all over the place during the last two years and now I have no idea how to market myself. It’s Berry style/genre I guess!

  3. #5 by Kate MacNicol on April 29, 2012 - 6:20 am

    I want to write, to spin stories that people enjoy. I want to write stories that take my readers on a grand escape. I want to make enough money so my husband can say he’s a kept man. Just kidding… but I would like to feel that all my hours spent are worth some monetary reward.

    Your post hit home on many points but especially on the mixing genre. I’m not entirely certain where my book is going to land genre-wise and that bugs me. LOL And it worries me, for all the reasons you list.

    I would have loved to have been in that airport with you! Thanks for the great post.

    I need to get on our Facebook page and read the article Jennifer mentioned.

    • #6 by Leslie on April 29, 2012 - 9:42 am

      “A grand escape.” I love that. Books that take me away are the best. It’s nice to have people enjoy and getting some compensation for all those hours of struggling to make it the best you can, feels good. More husband’s should be kept, mine included!

      Every time I think I’m getting the hang of how the industry and the public look at genre, I get sideswiped by something else. I know the idea isn’t complex but the way I think about a story isn’t always the way it’s perceived. *sigh* I keep hoping one of these days I latch onto the right wavelength.

      Thanks for dropping in and visiting!

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