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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.

But –

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.

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Comments (9)
  • Sorry, Harry, no heated debate. You are so obviously correct. And that's the frightening thing about preparing for submission.

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    • You are correct but with a few caveats. You need one eye on the market, but you also need one eye on your writing style, and another eye on your interests, and perhaps an eye on your agent should you have one. 

      How do we writers ever get a book written? I don't know. It was messy, fraught with doubt, and took almost two years (first one). 

      Let's continue our debate. I am all ears as a more or less new writer of historical fiction. I have to be comfortable with my writing amongst all the other concerns. 

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      • I wonder if it is still possible to get an advance on a non-fiction proposal. I have a meeting with an agent in a couple of weeks for mine, and I have no idea what to expect.

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        • Yep - you can get good advances on the back of a proposal only. It's happened for me, more than once. Info on writing a proposal here: https://jerichowriters.com/nonfiction-book-proposal/  

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          • Thanks Harry. I had already done the proposal - this is the next step, meeting with an agent and in-house editor to discuss "next steps" whatever that means. I am 65,000 words into the project so it feels like I have something more meaty now that I can actually pitch with more substance behind me. 

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          • This is a big issue for me Harry. I have four books, two children's fiction and two adult. The latter two have been through a thorough consultancy and editing process and the editor was wild about them. The consultancy gave top marks and said they were ready for submission and  were highly likely to get published. I have sent the first to 20 agents and not even a word back (well, except the 'not for us I'm afraid' word or two). And I am stuck.

            Is it that the genre is not in vogue? Do publishers only want oplit/uplit whatever? Have I chosen something only suitable for a niche market? And who to ask? Or, am I simply a terrible cover letter and pitch writer?

            So, right now I am stuck. I have a dozen different ideas, most planned out to some extent and a half dozen started. But I come to the stop, the impasse, the ginger biscuit moment . . . but they don't sell ginger biscuits here in Sao Paulo. (I did find some digestives but they were terrible). On top of that I have run out of tea bags.

            What I feel I need is some one-to-one on my cover letter/pitch and synopsis rather than the books themselves.

            I was interested to hear you have got advances based on plans and that an agent sat down with you before you had more than a couple of chapters. I can imagine that might happen with an already published author but . . . I mean, did you have to arrange a kidnapping? I am open to all possibilities.

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            • Hmm. Yeah. Other consultancies aren't as brutal as us, so it's quite common for us to hear, "editor was wild about the book, but ..." The issue there is that the editor just wasn't tough enough in the first place. We put our money where our mouth is: we either tell you how to fix the MS, or we help you get an agent. That means we can't take the easy way out and just offer empty praise. We're not always the cheapest. And writers don't always love what we tell them. But we ARE good at what we do, and we do get results!

              On getting an advance via a proposal: yes, it's perfectly possible - no kidnap involved - but it only works for non-fiction. With fiction, almost always, you need to write the whole damn book first ...

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            • Insightful post as usual. But, pray tell, how does one know what the market wants? 

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              • Ah, yes. Big question that one. I sense an email coming ...

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