Thursday, 14 April 2011

York Conference, post script

I had an interesting time at the York writing conference, going to some really good presentations, like Debi Alper’s for instance, but it was also interesting in the Chinese curse sense.

I may just be the wrong sort of person for such events, for instance here is an exchange that would have driven all my old friends in public health completely mad.

Audience question ‘What do you think of market research?’
Well-known agent on platform ‘Sounds a bit scientific to me.’
Publisher on the platform ‘I’m against it because it could prevent the publisher from using his professional judgement.’

So there we have it publishing is not scientific, or evidence based, so should I believe anything anyone tells me? They do however, believe in markets, if not market research, because so many decisions are driven by what they think will sell.

Part of the attraction of the York conference are the one-to-one sessions with agents and book doctors that come as part of the package.
I met two agents, both of whom said almost identical things, namely that there was no market for medical thrillers and that I should write something else.   I'm putting it a bit baldly but quite honestly if I had not insisted on continuing the conversation both one-to-ones would have lasted 30 seconds.

One agent was good enough to follow up with an email

Dear Rod,

Thank you for taking the time to have a one-to-one with me on Saturday in York. The (name redacted) literary agency is very small agency and therefore I really have to love the work that I represent. As I explained, I don’t feel that there is a demand in the market for a medical thriller at the current time and that is why I was unable to look at your novel further.

I wish you the very best with your writing career.

With all best wishes

So that is pretty definitive –write something else.

I mentioned this experience in a comment on one of Nicola Morgan's blogs and Nicola has now posted the following.


A comment from a blog-reader recently needs answering. He said he'd been told during one-to-one feedback sessions (with an agent, I think), "No one can sell medical thrillers, so write something else." He went on to say that in some ways he preferred this to being told that his writing wasn't good enough and that he found it helpful because he had "a better idea of what I'm aiming at - something where they at least reject the genre rather than the writing."

Back to that in a moment.

This links to something else that happened recently. I was chatting with a senior commissioning editor at a major children's publisher and when she heard I was doing an event on how to write for children that day she said,"Tell them not to do anything with vampires. People are always sending us vampire stuff and we don't want any more."

So, obediently, I relayed this message during my talk. I thought I noticed one member of the audience blanche and when it came to Q&A she asked, "That editor who didn't want vampires - was that [name redacted]?" I replied that it was. She blanched further. She told me afterwards that she was actually seeing this same editor for a meeting later that day, AND it was a vampire story she was pitching. Anyway, when I saw her again later, she was beaming. "She's asked to see the whole thing," she said. "She's interested!" Yep, the editor who said she didn't want any more vampires was interested in a vampire story.

Which just goes to show a very important truth: publishers (and therefore agents) do not reject a genre, unless of course it's actually a genre they specifically don't handle. They reject the book or the writing. Almost always. You can overcome any amount of tiredness or disillusion with great, sparkling writing, a wonderful voice, a new take on an old theme. And the easiest way for an agent or publisher to reject a story they don't think has those elements is to say, "We're not publishing vampires any more," or "No one's selling medical thrillers."

They might mean it's difficult to sell more vampires or it's difficult to sell medical thrillers and that therefore the writing has to be even better, but if you get it right someone will buy it.

However, having your writing rejected does NOT necessarily mean that you're not a good enough writer, only that you didn't get it right this time. 

It's all in the story.

Nicola seems to imply that the agent was talking in code, and that in fact I should assume that he didn't like the book and that if only I could make it sufficiently wonderful he would have. I guess it is possible to read that meaning into the agent’s email I quoted above. He says he can only represent stuff he really loves, so therefore he didn’t love mine. It might have been nice to have actually said so, and said what was unlovable about it – I was paying for the session.
The response of the two agents was pretty devastating, and to some extent wrecked the book doctor session which followed because she wanted to know what the agents had said and was surprised by their comment, and telling her took up half of the time allotted. All in all, I got about three minutes actual feedback on my writing.

I write books because I want people to read them. I try to tackle subjects that I think are important, not just what I think people want to read. I try to be entertaining, because if I’m grabbing a piece of someone’s life while they read my book, it’s only fair that they should have some fun.
So what did I learn? First of all, it seems obvious that my writing is not so overwhelmingly magical that the agents had to have it, even against their better judgment on the subject matter. Is that a big surprise to me – no, and I have to say that I don’t think I’ve read anything that would pass that test recently. If agents and publishers think they are only publishing magical books then they are kidding themselves.
Second, that old adage about write what you know, may be a load of bunk. Actually at the York conference, David Nobbs said as much in his keynote address. Write magic instead.
Three, it probably is a good idea, at least for me at the moment to write in more than one genre, at least it will make the agents dream up more complicated excuses.
Four, don't write unless you can't stop yourself, it can be tough.