Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Submissions :: The Genre Jungle

New York Times bestselling author Joe Finder tells the story of his first attempt at selling a thriller.  He sent it to an agent (back in the hardcopy days of yore) and received it back with a paperclip on page forty.  Joe is the ornery sort and did what you're not supposed to do: he called the agent and said "What's with the paperclip?"  After berating him for being cheeky, the agent finally told him that the paperclip marked where he stopped reading.  He then told him not to bother ever submitting a story to that agency again and hung up.

Joe didn't get any less ornery, but he did learn a lot about where to begin his story.  He cut the first forty pages and sold the book to a different agent, going on to a mostly successful career on best seller lists and so forth.

One of the reasons I began this blog was to chart my path from the slush pile to the bookshelf. This includes some rejections (and more than a little Chinese food) but more often it means listening to crickets chirruping in the form rejections that most of us receive back.  A sterile rejection letter tells you nothing at all.  Agents and publishers fire them off for a whole host of reasons including the fact that they just don't have room on their docket for another (insert genre here) novel or the market isn't right to try to sell (insert genre here) just at this moment.  In all my submissions, I've received only three personal notes and only the last one included anything I could use to really examine whay the book kept coming back to me.
Like every other writer (or so I hope), I have a cheering section rooting me on -- family and friends who believe in my ability to fight my way free of the slush pile.  I've been gratified by their response to the aforementioned agent's brutally honest assessment and I thank my dear friends for rising to my defense.  But their love for me doesn't make them right any more than his ambivalence makes him wrong.  The trouble with brutal honesty is that while it is brutal, it is also honest.  And honesty should never be ignored.

The crux of that agent's comment was the same as the feedback Joe Finder got (except that I didn't have to alienate an entire literary agency to get it): I started in the wrong place and he felt no desire to keep reading or ask for more pages.  He likes the way I write but he didn't care for the way I handled the story.  In essence, I failed to meet his expectation for a "Thriller".

So now I can do one of three things...
  1. Ignore him and carry on.
  2. Re-cut the manuscript to meet genre expectations.
  3. Pitch the book for a different genre.
Honestly, my takeaway from all this is that I failed to impart to him what I was attempting to do in The Palimpsest.  Either that or I should have pitched it as a mystery or suspense novel (which it isn't really either). 

For the record, I think that genre conventions are complete and utter horse-puckey (thank you Colonel Potter).  I sold books for a decade and understand as well as anyone can why they exist (to help readers find books similar to ones they already like).  I still think they're artificial constructs and that they do more harm than good.  In a physical bookstore, it was about where to shelve a book and where a customer will go to find it.  Online bookselling has thankfully begun to erode these distinctions and I think that we will eventually be largely free of them even if the publishing industry isn't quite ready to let go yet.

My feelings about genre distinctions aren't the reality.  So I have to decide how to move forward and how to categorize my work within the framework that exists.

I always knew that The Palimpsest was going to be hard to sell.  While I'm a fan of writers like Finder, the writers who set the bar are the likes of Ken Follett, Iain Pears, Amitav Ghosh, Arturo Pérez-Reverte and Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  All of these guys write books that could be described as 'thrillers' but manage to bridge the genre distinctions, creating smart, literate and exciting tales that meet or exceed their categorization.

All of which means that there's a market for a book like mine.  Smart, literate thrillers and mysteries, "Nerd Adventures" if you will.  To pretend that's not what I'm trying to sell would be a lie.  And no one is served by me re-crafting a sales pitch that lies about what the book is (or isn't).  If I cut it and cut it and cut it until it fit inside the cookie cutter, it would no longer be something excite me or my readers and that's a problem for me.

This may sound arrogant, but I don't really care: I did not come here to meet expectations, by God I came here to exceed them.


  1. Good for you Scott! Believing in yourself and your work and knowing you will succeed is more than half the battle. (Sorry for the cliche, it's early). What do you call a writer who never gives up? Published. Keep at it, that's all there is to it.

  2. Indeed. At the risk of wandering into cliche, I'm fond of the bumper sticker "Today's Mighty Oak is Yesterday's Nut That Stood Its Ground."


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).