A ginger biscuit and a nice cup of tea
I got an email yesterday from a writer with a conundrum. Roughly: “I wrote the book my heart wanted me to write and now an agent says that there isn’t a market for it.”
And truthfully, I’ve seen variants of that basic email hundreds of times over the years. It’s a desperately common predicament.
What’s more, I know the feeling. When I first set out to write non-fiction, I had a great idea for a book. I’d take a look at British history through the prism of exceptionalism. All European countries have encountered plenty of plot and plague, regicide and warfare, invasion and insurrection. But in what ways was Britain’s story genuinely distinctive? What really stood out as exceptional?
The answer turned out to be quite a lot. There was plenty of substance there for a book.
I started to write my non-fiction book proposal. It was obvious, for example, that I needed a chapter on the British navy. (Did you know that Britain once had more warships than the entire rest of the world combined?) So I wrote a long, interesting chapter on all things naval.
I made it funny. If you write these things as an amateur, you have to offer the reader something in place of years of authority. So yes, people want to learn, but they want to learn in a non-scary way and if, every page or two, they get a laugh, then so much the better.
I wrote a couple of chapters of the book and sent them out to the guy who would go on to become my agent.
He liked my idea, but rejected the proposal.
The material I’d drafted – a passion project – simply didn’t sit with the market. Yes: the market was happy with a funny book about British history. Yes: my British exceptionalism theme could work well. But the way I’d approached things was still just too serious.
In short, he said no.
Over a ginger biscuit and a nice cup of tea, he explained to me why I was wrong. What I needed to do instead. What the market was after.
Now, if I’d persisted with my original plan, I’m pretty sure I’d have found some other agent to take me on. I’d probably have found a publisher, of some sort, at some price.
In competitions between your heart and the market, you have to let the market win. Every time. I had the wisdom, back then, to listen to the guy-who-is-now-my-agent, and I went on revising that proposal until he was happy.
Instead of a 100,000+ word book with chapters of 10,000 words, I ended up with a 70,000 word book with chapters of 2-3,000 words.
The advance I received, as part of a two-book deal, was £175,000, or about $230,000. I’d guess that advance was well over ten times what I’d have got if I stuck to my original plan.
And that sounds like a sell-out, a lucrative sell-out.
But here’s the thing.
The book got better.
The book that went on to be published was better than the book I’d started writing. It was funnier. More engaging. More persuasive. Covered more material. Was more memorable.
By engaging seriously with feedback about the market, that book got better – and put a lot more money in my pocket.
Of the novels I’ve written, I can think of three that went through some serious editing between the first draft-for-a-publisher and the book that went to print.
The first of those turned from a pile of steaming garden-fertiliser to an adequately good book.
The second one turned from a baggy story to a taut one.
The third one dropped its bonkers-but-entertaining ending in favour of one that precisely married up with the story that had gone before.
Every time Mr Market won. Every time, the book got better.
That sounds like it shouldn’t be the case: surely your artistic soul trumps grubby materialism. Except that the market is, in effect, the body that figures out what most pleases readers. It does that in a way that’s deeply sensitive to genre (so, literary authors needs to bow to a different god than crime writers, for example.) And the market also knows everything about every book that has been published. It churns through all that data and pops out its answers.
If the market tells you, loud and clear, that your book isn’t yet working, that is almost certainly an indicator that your book needs tweaking. Or major surgery. Or, just possibly, lethal injection.
I don’t say that the market is going to be right about every book ever written. The market will never quite know what to make of books that really burst boundaries. And there’s always an exemption for genius. Those guys get to set their own rules.
But mostly? Books get better under the discipline of the market. It’s happened for me, every single time. Chances are, it’ll happen for you too.
Now over to you. Have you reworked books to suit the market? Or did you plan them with a view to sales? And have agents been mean and horrible about your work? And were they mostly right, mostly wrong, or mostly something else. Tell me your thoughts and let's all have a Heated Debate.