Why Not Take a Chance?

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Often I receive queries and proposals in which the author will say his submission is out of the box. I’m not opposed to groundbreaking work, but I have to decide what will and what won’t work for me. I am the first to admit, this process is subjective. Our own Steve Laube is routinely teased by a couple of his successful author friends he turned down. If an agent as wise as Steve Laube misses a call, everyone does. But here are a few questions I’ll answer to show why it’s not easy to sell an out-of-the-box work:

Is the economy making you more selective? It’s not helping, but in any economic environment, we agents must choose the best of the best and most marketable submissions.

But you and the editors are all friends. Why not take a chance even on work you’re not sure about? I do take the occasional chance on out-of-the-box submissions that are so stellar I’m awestruck, but I’m not often awestruck. I must be mindful that I am putting my name and The Steve Laube Agency name on every submission I send. In addition, the submissions I get behind must compete with other submissions that have been vetted by other professional agents. I would venture that the quality of agented submissions is outstanding. So getting me on board is hard, but getting the publisher on board is harder.

Why can’t editors take more chances? Editors must be enthusiastic about your work and then convince other editors, along with sales and marketing people, that the book deserves a place on the publisher’s list. At most houses, an editor fighting for a novel that challenges readers to look at God a new way will have to work hard to kick a romance or Amish title off that season’s list. In other words, as in any business, the untried has an uphill battle over the already wildly popular.

How can I convince agents and editors to take a chance?  Whether you are writing in a popular genre or breaking new ground, the answer is the same: write an amazing book that people want to read.

Your turn:

What is your favorite book that was (for its time period) or is currently considered groundbreaking?

Which do you enjoy more in your leisure reading: being challenged or entertained?

16 Responses to Why Not Take a Chance?

  1. Jeanne November 7, 2013 at 7:27 am #

    Tamela, you bring up good points about the challenges of accepting an out-of-the box submission. Both from your position, as well as those at publishing houses. This week, I keep reading posts that remind me the importance of unique voice and stellar writing for us as aspiring authors. When these elements are in place, our books are a little more likely to be noticed and accepted.

    I don’t know if I have a favorite book that was groundbreaking in its time. But one I did like was The Help.

    As for me, I love a story where I am challenged and entertained. :) The Debt by Angela Hunt did that for me.

  2. Tamela Hancock Murray November 7, 2013 at 7:58 am #

    Jeanne, you are so right — challenging and entertaining don’t have to be mutually exclusive!

  3. Cristine Eastin November 7, 2013 at 9:28 am #

    I want to be gripped by a novel. Right now I’m reading Alice Hoffman’s “The River King.” I would have stayed up till 2 am to finish it last night, but I needed sleep. I’m entertained by the lyrical prose; it’s like the wonder of a special sunset. It also challenges me: to stretch my writing, which means stretching my brain. I want to be transported by setting, plot, and characters so when I stop reading I almost need to reorient myself to my living room. And I have to, have to, like at least one character.
    For out-of-the-box writing I nominate “Before I Go to Sleep” by S.J. Watson. I think that would be considered a success!
    Off the beaten track has to have a reason for being or it’s just plain weird.

  4. J.D. Maloy November 7, 2013 at 9:51 am #

    The words “stellar” and “awestruck” kept grabbing my attention.

    I agree that this industry is selective and highly competitive. Thank you, Tamela, for posts like this one. It’s insightful and inspiring whenever we’re given explanations about the business.

    Jeanne, you mentioned ‘unique voice and stellar writing’. In my study and research of this craft, I’ve heard the same repeated for authors who want to break into the literary world. I’m wondering if one could possibly bring about the other. Have you concluded the same or something different?
    A unique voice leads to stellar writing OR if a piece is written extremely well, the voice will be unique. Is this a vice versa thing? I could be way off in left field. It’s been a long week.

    Speaking of a long week, I have two young boys so I’m at the sweep-me-away-into-lala-land stage in my life. All about stories that purely entertain :)

    • Jeanne November 7, 2013 at 12:06 pm #

      Hey JD, that’s a good question, I haven’t thought a ton about. I guess I’ll think out loud for a minute. :) It takes time to find your “voice,” and most likely a writer is writing and discovering his/her voice in the process. So, writing improves and voice becomes more defined in the process. That being said, I imagine there are people who have a very distinctive voice but haven’t quite mastered “stellar writing” yet. I wonder if they do both develop together. Hmmm.

      What do you think?

      I have two young boys too. When I read, I like it to be a good story. Even better if it makes me think. :)

      • J.D, Maloy November 7, 2013 at 12:56 pm #

        Jeanne, oh, how I look forward to getting back into that “think” mode when I read, haha! Right now, I love when my emotions to go on a roller coaster ride. In a good way :)

        I completely agree that stellar writing comes with much practice. And a fantastic editor/team to help show a writer how to get there. But voice…I think we begin with one from the get go. I concur that it develops stronger and more pronounced in time, therefore enhancing ones writing. When I think of ‘voice’, I think writing style; the way a story is told. I wonder if that’s what Tamela meant by being awestruck? When I think stellar writing, I think it takes work from a writer and a team, like what Karen has been posting about. Voice & writing take work! Good thing we’re passionate about this gig, right? :)

        Thank you for conversing with me about this topic, Jeanne, it’s fun and learning! You seem very professional yet genuine :)

      • Jeanne Takenaka November 7, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

        Thanks for making me think, J.D. :) Yes, I think having a team to help us is definitely a good thing. And thanks for your kind words.

      • Tamela Hancock Murray November 7, 2013 at 8:02 pm #

        Jeanne and J.D., I have enjoyed the back and forth here. Now that’s a sign of a great blog community!

  5. Catherine Hackman November 7, 2013 at 11:29 am #

    Life is so serious, I really want to be entertained. Will an agent be more likely to take on something out-of-the-box if the author has been successful with a previous book? I don’t mean bestseller successful; I mean successful enough to have made a good profit on the previous publication.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray November 7, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

      Catherine, I think authors who have a proven track record will get attention based on that alone. However, there are other variables in the situation you describe. For example, an author writing a unique book on how to bring God into the everyday may be able to move right into a new contract based on the success of a devotional book. However, an author writing a book challenging traditional Christian theology probably will not find past success with a book on Christian women’s fashion or a romance novel to be very helpful because many of those readers accept traditional Christian theology. In other words, I believe if both books have a significant overlapping audience, they can build upon each other. If the out-of-the-box book is complicated by being totally outside the interests of the author’s established audience, the challenge is compounded, in my view.

      • Catherine Hackman November 8, 2013 at 6:01 am #

        Thank you for answering my question, Tamela. I am trying to learn as much as I can about audience and how it works.

      • Tamela Hancock Murray November 8, 2013 at 11:48 am #

        Sure thing, Catherine. Thanks for stopping by and posing the question.

  6. Rachel Muller November 7, 2013 at 12:18 pm #

    I would have to say that I go into phases where I want to read to be entertained then I have moments where I am wanting to be awed and wonder-struck. While I enjoy many good books, to date I have only 7 on my 2013 “best” list that have left a lasting impression in my life. Those same 7 have all had some sort of God-driven purpose where the story takes a deeper look into life’s curve balls–thus forcing me to look at the situations in my own life. I love reading books where the conclusion of the story has to do with a character’s resolve to fix what was broken.

    • Iola November 7, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

      I like what Rachel says, and I have to agree. That, for me, is what takes a book from an enjoyable 4-star to the memorable 5-star.

      On one hand, I’d like to read more of those books. On the other hand, they stay with me and challenge my thinking, so there are days when I really just want to read another 4-star light romance.

      • Rachel Muller November 8, 2013 at 10:00 am #

        Thanks, Iola. :) I can relate to what you’re saying about going back and forth between a light romance and a thought provoking story. There are books where I need a good day or two to “get over” the ending of one story before sprinting into another.

  7. Jackie Layton November 7, 2013 at 5:58 pm #

    I want to be entertained when I pick up a book. If I’m challenged along the way, it’s even better.

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