Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, June 16, 2008

It's Not You, It's the Odds (and the Resonance Factor)

Here's an analogy sure to brighten the mood of the unpublished: writing a book is kind of like spending a year creating a lottery ticket. Sunny days, people! Sunny days!

Basically, what I'm trying to emphasize in this post is that the odds are against you. Wait. That also sounds depressing. Um...

A week and a half ago I posted the query points system, in which one needs to score 10 points out of a 30 points system (Professionalism/Book Idea/Credentials) in order to get a manuscript requested. But what Conduit pointed out in the comments section is that the whole "resonance with agent" factor is extremely important and that there's an undefinable X Factor at play in queries.

This is completely true. And I think people need to take it into account when querying and reacting to rejections.

We agents give tons of advice on how to write a query letter, and you authors spend hours and hours crafting the perfect query letter. But because of that resonance factor, which is hugely important... I might just not get your project. It's not my fault, it's not your fault, we can't control it, it's just part of the process. I think it kind of drives people nuts to think that there's so much they can't control when it comes to queries. So I have a recommendation: try not to think about it.

This is the entire driving force behind the idea that one should query widely. You just never know who your idea is going to resonate with. It might be me, it might be someone else. You just never know (don't forget to query me first though).

But I did want to end this post on a happy note, which is that you shouldn't take rejections too hard. Like I say in the blog title, it's not you, it's the odds. I can't take on very many people at all, and when I do take someone on I have to both really love their work (so I can be the right advocate) and think I can sell it (so I can have a job). That translates to a mere handful out the 10,000 people who query me a year become clients. Um. Wait. That wasn't very reassuring.

RAINBOWS AND PUPPIES.

There. That's better!






59 comments:

A Paperback Writer said...

Well, you didn't succeed in reassuring me, but you did succeed in getting me humming that old song "Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows."
Thanks a bundle. geez.

Cam said...

Kind of like hot guy meets hot girl in bar but they don't speak the same language so it doesn't work out past, well... the first "date."

Sorry for the analogy. I had "hot" on the brain after seeing your nomination. I had no idea there was such an honor out there for the taking. Good luck!

C

Bernita said...

Nathan, makes me want to query you just so I can receive one of your rejections as a kind of coming-of-age cachet.

Anonymous said...

Wow, was feeling low this morning with no less than 3 rejections sitting in my inbox - but now, happy as a clam. Boy, Nathan, you really know how to throw a party! Will not attack my query - again - to try and capture the essence of "What Agents Want". Will go for the large bottle of Scotch and continue to read blogs, feeling sympathy for all those struggling on. Go, writers, go.

Margaret Yang said...

...And once you have an agent, you have to do the resonance dance all over again with editors.

Been doing that for several months now.

Ooops. Tulips and teddy bears! I meant to say, tulips and teddy bears!

LeeAnn Flowers said...

I had just gotten three rejections in one week and was still stinging a bit, although I have consoled myself that none of them was just a plain no. One wasn't taking new clients (although his website said nothing about that), one was a not for me, and one was an 'interesting, but not what we're looking for'.

So thanks, Nathan, for at least thinking about us and trying to support us. I think I'll make it some day, so that's enough to keep me going for now.

jeanoram said...

Know what my husband keeps telling me? "If it all came easily and fell into your lap, you wouldn't value it very much, would you?"

Stupid know-it-alls.

Adaora A. said...

You're blog is so popular that everyone will think of you first. Personally, I like to get a feel for the personality of the folks I like to query. I know other people think the same way I do (and that's why you get so many queries?)

This is totally like dating. "It's not you it's me..." The 'me' is substituted by 'the odds.' You can't take it personally if the connection and the 'it' factor isn't there. There are lots of fish in the sea. But if we cast a line for the particular one who is 'the ideal' you have to nurse(with ice cream, chocolate, and a good movie show casing your idea of eye candy), pull up your boots, put on your best dress (query letter), and move on.

sarah said...

i heart nathan

Anonymous said...

All these young agents and editors. And yet it is the older folks with attention spans intact who remain loyal to books and buy them in preference to video games and the other products of the attention economy. There must be someone somewhere wise enough to explain the industry's emphasis on what's young and, in this case, "hot."

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

How I Think About Resonance (not that anyone asked)

Well, first you have to have "self-resonance." You have to resonate with yourself. You have to be centered in yourself, your own voice.

I can't explain it. The phrase "groove thing" comes to mind. What is your groove thing.

Also, do you write enough? Maybe you just haven't put enough hours in (of writing or reading) to have developed your voice enough, to the point it will resonate with someone else. If brain science were developed enough, they could show a series of MRI images, here's the writer's brain at 19...25...32...and there would be different color patterns at different stages (I think MRIs come in a rainbow of colors, hey, even of puppy brains...rainbows and puppies!)

Oh well...just stay centered on your groove thing...

Polenth said...

Yay for rainbows and puppies!

On the resonance thing, I find it useful when agents talk about books they've enjoyed. It gives a broader picture than looking at the books an agent represents. If they only read dark gritty angst, they're not on my potential list.

Not than I'm hinting at being interested in knowing more about the science fiction Nathan reads.

wickerman said...

Nathan certainly knows more than the rest of us here, but think of this as you consider the rate of rejection...

If Nathan (sorry you own the joint so you get to be the lab rat!) gets 100 queries a week and asks for 2 partials and ends up asking for 1 complete manuscript that doesn't necessarily mean he got 100 good proposals and only 2 were SOOOO fantastic he wanted to see more. Now, obviously Nathan doesn't want something that ISN'T fantastic, but what if...

5 people sent him screenplays
5 people sent him poetry
5 people sent something so unprofessionally put together he rejected it on the first glance.
5 people sent him proposals that looked like Harry Potter rip offs.
5 people sent him Da Vinci Code rip-offs.

That's 25 people with NO chance right out of the gate. If you can send an agent something they represent, well put together and even reasonably original, maybe you have a 2 in 75 chance vs a 2 in 100 chance.

Great odds? Not if it were surgery I guess, but like Nathan said, it's an odds stacked against you type of business.

Now Nathan is going to jump in here and correct my numbers I imagine, but I think you get my point :)

Conduit said...

Thanks for addressing this point, Nathan. I think it's a vitally important one that has been neglected in agent blogs. I think we're all aware of it on a cerebral level, but we don't believe it in our gut until it gets proven to us in some way. Some form rejections I've had for the few queries I've sent didn't help. Only one or two said anything about personal connections (the best was one that said "Assume we're wrong"), while some said things like the work was "not sellable".

I do wish some agents would be more careful on this (thankfully, Nathan is). There's a big enough problem with perception on the author's side.

A rejection might say something as mild as: "Sorry, this wasn't quite right for me, but better luck elsewhere."

But the author interprets that as: "This is crap. Send any more of your garbage to me and I'll take out a restraining order, you talentless gimp."

If authors were more conscious of that elusive X factor, we might deal with it better, but I'm not convinced we're capable of being level-headed about such a personal thing.

Other Lisa said...

What about PONIES???

I was expecting a pony.

Heidi the Hick said...

I will always remember this, no matter what happens in the future...

I queried you first!

Mary said...

Ah, rainbows and puppies, and ducklings and lambs... :)

Merry Monteleone said...

RAINBOWS AND PUPPIES.


Well, hell, not much comfort in that for the colorblind cat lover, is there?

Just kidding, Rainbows and puppies works okay for me...

Mike C said...

All this stuff is great, but I really want to know what you think about Tim Donaghy's "revelation" that the refs were on the take during game 6 in 2002. I know everyone suspected it, but there are like 12 Kings fans in the country, and you're their voice!

Speak!

A Paperback Writer said...

I suppose this is why there's such a huge surge in self-publishing.

Adaora A. said...

@Paperback writer - True hun. Then they realize they want a bigger/more respected publisher to back their book and send it to more people. So they go looking for (a) an agent, or (b) a publishing house. Eventually we're all going to get there, no matter which road you take to begin with. Finish line looks the same from every direction.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Ehh, can't worry me more than I already worry myself. I unfortunately think about the odds too often, because everyone I know with no insight into the publishing business swears I'll land an agent and get a $2,000,000 advance soon after I start querying. I have to politely inform that no, it doesn't (usually) work that way. :-P

But I finished the first draft of a MS a few days ago, and there are puppies (puppies!) in this post, so I'll just choose to focus on the positive.

Nathan Bransford said...

mike c-

That wound is still gushing blood.

And yes, I believe him! Tin foil hats unite!

Mike C said...

You'll be thrilled to know that Doug Christie is blogging about it.

Too bad his wife's keeping him out of the game.

Anonymous said...

Rainbow = Laser beam into writer's brain.

Puppies aborted at birth.

Trying to get an agent? Nil.

Too bad I just keep getting published by small presses.

Yanno, I don't give a s**t anymore.

I write. I get published. Agents? An unnecessary appendage. Mere appendices on the bowel of publishing.

Will I get rich? No. Again, I don't give a s**t.

Mike C said...

Now, maybe I'm comment-analyzing Anonymous, but I'd say he/she was rejected a lot, gave up, and now claims that he/she doesn't care. Who's with me?

Anonymous said...

I just received a rejection –after making the finals (woohoo!!!)– from a contest for one act plays. It came back with the sheets from the three judges.
One gave me top points for plot dialogue and even wrote remarks to me about it.
Another gave me low points for plot, hated the dialogue and thought it would take imagination and a good actor to pull off. (??)
The third thought the dialogue was too intellectual.
So I guess I can see it really varies from person to person. One of of three though (and making the finals) made my night!

Mike C said...

I would imagine that one-act plays, much like poetry, are tough to sell to agents and publishers. I have a friend who has more than 100 rejection letters for his book of poetry and is now trying to finish a play. Yipes.

Isabelle Santiago said...

It's nice to know a lot of it has to do with making the right 'connection'. The agent/author relationship is definitely one of those things that - after having an uber awesome story and marketability - have to have the right chemistry as well.

*repeats mantra* Rainbows and Puppies, Rainbows and Puppies.

Julie Weathers said...

"You're blog is so popular that everyone will think of you first."

Yes, and this is confession time. I had pretty much taken Nathan off my list of agents to query, when the time comes because of this. Then he tosses out that, "query me first," line and he goes back to the top.

Some years ago I got a rejection from another Curtis Brown agent, Marilyn Marlow. It was hand written and said, "J. I'm sorry, but do try other agents. Your writing is very pleasant." At the time, I didn't realize they were returning most material unread, so I appreciated this even more.

So, yes, Curtis Brown agents have a special spot in my heart.

Gus Gallows said...

I am on my third rejecting just this last weekend alone. I was really hoping for at least 5 by now though. ;)

I have a couple of books I have written but the trend I am seeing is, the Fantasy ones are the hard sells? Is that accurate to say? I love the genre but have also written fiction. I am more in love with the fantasy novel than the other, even though I think its good. It just wasn't where my passion was.

What advise do you give in that situation? Write what you love but may never publish, or write what agents are more open to?

I can do both and may even grow to love straight fiction, but the geek in me does not want to let go of my dear and pain inducing lover that is fantasy.

Gus

Will Entrekin said...

How about this explanation: for every agent that rejects your book, the odds are one in a million, but for the one who represents it, there are no odds, because it works. It's something I tell any freshly-broken up friends; only one relationship during your whole life works. Only one date can ever actually become your final first date.

Same with agents and your book (which is where your "It's not you, it's me" thing works); if you have resonance, real resonance, no point system actually applies, because resonance renders points moot. And if you don't, no amount of points will make it work.

Anonymous said...

I've gotten a few requests for the first 50 pp b ut have yet to get the whole enchilda request...I'm down to 1 agent who has the first 50 now....To me it's a harder reject when they pass after reading the first 50 than it is being rejected on the query. Because if they request 50, it means they must like the general idea of the novel, right? But if they read the opening and pass, they must not like what youve done with it. That's what's hard for me.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Passing on a partial isn't any more personal than a query, and it doesn't mean you've done something wrong when you get a rejection. I try to provide at least a little insight into what I'm thinking, but sometimes my reaction is just that it's good, but not for me. When you get to the manuscript stage it just has to have a magic zing, and that doesn't come along often.

Whirlochre said...

So much in life is down to the X Factor.

We generate non-judgemental discriminatory criteria by the bucketload only to find our decisions hingeing on the look of someone's shoes, a peculiar curl on one side of their lips when they smile and other unpindownable qualities like being ten feet tall and ferocious.

So, Cam's bar analogy at the start is spot on. Anyone who walks into a bar full of a hundred people and expects everyone to like them is a fool — moreso if they cry about it.

Seems obvious, but if it's a bar full of agents and all you have to talk about is your novel, the stakes are higher and it's easy to forget this.

To date I have no rejections — but that's because I've never queried yet. Not sure whether to feel like a lamb about to be strung up and gutted, a virgin waiting to be deflowered or an idiot who ought to be selling vacuum cleaners and getting on with the decorating.

Either way — good post.

Joseph L. Selby said...

I got my very first rejection letter on my birthday. Talk about a present! :)

Julie Weathers said...

I'm rather looking forward to the query process again. Not because I enjoy pain, but rather because I view it as an adventure. I know the right agent is out there for me. I just have to find him or her.

It reminds me of the story of the room full of horse manure. A man put two little girls in rooms with piles of horse manure and gave each of them a shovel.

One little girl sat down and cried because she would never get the mess cleaned up. The other one was delighted and started digging through the pile as fast as she could.

When asked why she was so excited, she replied, "With all this horse poop, I know there has to be a pony somewhere."

I know there's a pony in there somewhere for me.

LitWitch said...

Rainbows and puppies, indeed.

Well, here's a good note for your resonance topic: my success was based on hitting resonance with an editor I met at a conference. She and I traded manuscripts back and forth for a year before she made an offer (on an unfinished fiction manuscript, no less!) and then I approached my Top Five Agents.

Why get an agent at that stage in the game? Because agents are invaluable negotiators, business partners and they can be the bullies while I'm the peaches-and-cream.

Find the pro who "gets it" and It Will Happen!

Ulysses said...

I apologize for being off-topic, but I just came across this article which discusses Canadian copyright law and the impact of e-publishing here. I thought you might be interested, Nathan.

Ulysses said...

I find myself thinking of the query advice I find here and other places on the net not as ways to land an agent, but as ways to increase the probability that I'll land an agent.

It is possible to do everything right and still not succeed. Life's a crap-shoot.

HOWEVER, we owe it to ourselves and to our work to do as much as possible to increase the odds of success. It's possible that Nathan will reject my query because it's just not right for him, but at least I'll know he didn't reject it because I sent my query as an attachment, opened with a rhetorical question and then directed him to read a sample on my web site.

Erik said...

It's certainly not the fault of an agent who reads as many queries as you do, Nathan. It's the system, or more accurately the lack thereof.

There has to be an independent way of vetting every MS based on quality, ideally with some support for polishing them to be the best they can be.

That's why something like The Queue, http://www.queuebooks.com/ is so vital.

The current system is not only broken, it doesn't really make any sense. It should be replaced with a method that has identification and development of talent built into it.

JES said...

Ulysses @7:16: I find myself thinking of the query advice I find here and other places on the net not as ways to land an agent, but as ways to increase the probability that I'll land an agent.

Yes!

There are so many many obstacles to getting one's work out there, and so many of those obstacles have nothing at all to do with the really important task of "doing the work" in the first place.

All that other stuff is just a huge distraction... a tempting one to be sure, because so many of us are more at ease with human interaction and process than with pulling the threads of story out of the air. But all that weaving and spinning and lacework is what makes the product agent-ready (and, really, -WORTHY).

Well said. Now I just hope I can remember it when I'm fretting over a round of queries. ;)

nymeria87 said...

Rainbows and Puppies!

I'll bear that in mind when I query you :)

Paula said...

It's not just the feeling of personal rejection that gets people down, Nathan. It's that every rejection is a blow to the possibility of achieving one's dreams. SeewuttImean?

Vinnie Sorce said...

I think it's time for all writers to form their own publishing company and take agents totally out of the loop.

Nathan Bransford said...

Vinnie-

What's stopping you?

Lupina said...

How about rainbows, puppies and chocolate? Now there is a triad I could root for.

Nathan I think your confession that there is a purely subjective element to reading queries makes total sense. Humans are subjective by nature. And if that component was not somehow integral to the process, if it was as easy as a mere search for no-no's and required elements, I'm sure someone would have invented query-sifting software by now.

Vinnie Sorce said...

Money and time are stopping me Nathan. I also wouldn't know where to start.

It's one of those things you say but you know you can never do.

whatever trevor. said...

thanks for the optimism. i've been feeling like query shit lately.

Vinnie Sorce said...

Misery loves company Treveor...

Anonymous said...

I do keep querying you first. But damn, they don't resonate. Not yet, anyway.

Other Lisa said...

I just looked at that Queue Books thing.

A "professional" critique at $4 a page?!

I find that dubious.

Melody Ayres-Griffiths said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Melody Ayres-Griffiths said...

@vinnie: There's a self-publishing scheme at http://www.lulu.com that also aids in selling on-line. I think that's the closest thing to a 'writer's co-operative' you're likely to find.

I like it because you can actually hand someone a bound book to critique, which tends to significantly elevate their opinion. And it's not that pricey.

Nick Travers said...

The whole point of writing is we do it because we love it. Anything else is a bonus, right?

Always look on the bright side of life,..dum...de-dum...de-dum, de-dum-de-dum-de-da-da...

Nick
NickTravers.com

Anonymous said...

@ Lisa

Yes, and Erik also lives in Minnesota, where Queue's parent company, Scarletta Press - an indie that doesn't accept unagented submissions - is based.

I'd avoid this company.

Lisa said...

I don't really like ice cream and only have one stomach, so I would always pick a cookie or a brownie. That doesn't mean the rest of my friends wouldn't give their precious stomach space to ice cream. Personal taste is everything...

Anonymous said...

A heads up: don't send your work to be "polished" by an unknown on some website at great expense. There are writers groups you can meet with in person. There are also some great ones online. Writers help each other.

If you really feel you need a final edit before sending out your manuscript, hire a professional editor whose credentials you can check.

Some of these websites remind me of the ads in '60's comic books: "Draw this character." Anyone who did, received a "You really do have talent!!" letter and a heavy pitch for their drawing course.

Jack Roberts, Annabelle's scribe said...

Sigh

Well then...

Just keep swimming, just keep swimming...

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