Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, August 7, 2008

Choosing Among Projects

Lately I've been seeing quite a few queries telling me about multiple projects, as well as multiple e-queries from the same author. I totally understand the sentiment -- people justifiably grow attached to their work and they want an agent who is going to be able to champion all their projects. Also, taste is subjective and different agents might respond differently to different projects, uh, differently.

But, as I'm sure you've noticed by now, finding an agent is hard. And it's even more difficult when you split your time and energy between multiple projects. There's a major dilution effect -- the more projects described in a query, the less each one stands out.

You know what else is hard? Reading queries! (I know, I know, the world's smallest violin is playing softly in the background). And when you are responding to a couple hundred queries a week and have 15 partials sitting in your inbox, the prospect of reading 5 different magnum opuses (opi?) can seem a little daunting. Images of five 500 page manuscripts sitting on one's... uh... Kindle start passing through one's head.

Decide which project you love the most and go full throttle on that project. I know it's hard to choose among children. But do it anyway. In the meantime, keep writing, and don't mention the 10 manuscripts in your drawer until you're farther along in the process. And if you decide to re-query an agent, give them a couple of months.






49 comments:

Margaret Yang said...

True story. Someone I met at a conference wanted a fellow writer's opinion on his query letter. It was written in 8 point font and described ten--ten!--projects. He'd written a book a year for ten years and wanted to query all of them at once. He had lovingly written two sentences about each of them.

I wanted to help this person. Really, I did, but I skimmed the first two sentences and I just couldn't read anymore. He could have had the world's best novel buried in there. I'll never know. And I suspect, neither will he.

ilyakogan said...

Do you have any experience of authors publishing those other children after their "breakout" novel?

Nathan Bransford said...

ilyakogan-

It definitely happens. But more often, by the time the author has a work published those unpublished manuscripts begin to look more and more like practice runs, and they decide instead to write new novels.

ilyakogan said...

That's what I told my wife and a huge fan of my first novel from my writing group. But then I got four partial requests and one full (all resulting in eventual 'No') Everybody's advice was to keep searching for representation, but I want to move on.

Dan said...

Hey Nathan, I think we can tweak the NBA analogy and make it work here:

How many professional athletes have achieved success in TWO sports SIMULTANEOUSLY? There's Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, and .... ?

Granted, there are a lot of athletes who would probably be good at almost any sport they choose (not hard to imagine LeBron catching passes from... anyone in the NFL) - but after college most of them choose one sport and see it through until the end - often the Hall of Fame.

Seems pretty applicable to publishing, though I am curious to know if there are any equivalents of Bo Jackson in the industry?

Dave F. said...

I tried sending out several shorts stories at once and fixing them between rejections.

That was so wrong, so wrong. first, I became a slave to the submitting process. Second, the editing in between to "fix" any comments was depressing. Third, waiting, tracking and all that just comsumed all my energy. That was a quick entry into writer's block.

Do one project at a time - - write one novel while you market the next and stop the new novel to edit the older one. It's a matter of focus.

Brains don't like to be split that way.

Nathan Bransford said...

Dan-

I think we need to write a book called EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT PUBLISHING I LEARNED FROM SPORTS.

There are definitely some Bo Jacksons out there who write things all over the map. But if you notice, the biggest betsellers tend to have a brand and they stick to it. They don't dilute their energies. They find their niche and hammer away at it.

A Paperback Writer said...

People DO this?
Wow.
I so never would have thought that anyone would do that.
Oh well. Live and be amazed.

Kat said...

For cryin' out loud.

It's hard enough to write a coherent query in a limited amount of space without using cliches.

Why on earth would anyone want to waste their time stuffing more than one project into one of these puppies?

Dan said...

Nathan -

Too bad we don't have the platform for that book. Perhaps we should call it: EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT PUBLISHING I LEARNED FROM SITTING ON THE BENCH

Nathan Bransford said...

Haha. Yeah, that would probably be more accurate.

ORION said...

Hey I can write the book "Everything I know about Publishing I learned from sailing ORION."
Decide where you want to go...and go there.
and
It's a BIG ocean and you are very SMALL.
Seriously those older projects may have a great premise but the execution may need to be re-worked...
I got a bunch of them puppies.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I understand your logic on querying an agent with another project soon after getting a reject on a previous one. What difference does it make if you wait a week, three months, or six months? Other than the fact you may remember the author's name...if the new project catches your interest why would you pro forma reject it because you recognize the author as one you just rejected on another project? Makes no sense to me other than that you are judging another project as automatically inferior due to passing on the other book. I can understand passing on a query letter with an alphabet soup of two or three books on one query. Also, if the new query follows the proscribed format, you will read the pitch before you even get to the end of the query. Unless, of course, you recognize the email address beforehand. Anyway, in this instance, I'm not sure I understand all of your thinking. Most, yes. But if a query gets your interest I would think that would take precedence over how soon the author contacts you with another book...

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

That's a good question. Honestly, I think there are a couple of different ways of looking at it.

1) Fatigue factor. I just finished reading an author's query and am trying to move on to the next author. Now there's already another from the same author? And then oftentimes there's a third. I think I mentioned in another post that it begins to feel like a query mobeus strip.

2) Strategy. I've just decided one project wasn't right for me, and that query is still fresh in my mind. Am I going to be in the right mindset to look kindly on the next project? If you wait six months I'll be looking at it fresh.

3) Possible conflict. I prefer to represent all of a writer's work. Ergo, if I did like the second project and the author hasn't yet put the first project in the drawer, how are we going to resolve the fact that I didn't connect with the first project? If the author waits a few months I can look at the new project fresh on the understanding that this is now the project that the author is focusing their attention on.

Hope that clears things up. At the end of the day, you're right, if I'm absolutely blown away by a second query I'm not going to pass on it just because it came on the heels of one I rejected. But querying is all about the odds, and you're stacking the deck against your self if you query an agent several times close together (that is, unless I specifically asked to see other projects, in which case fire away).

And honestly this is as much about staying in an agent's good graces as much as it is about strategy.

Ithaca said...

Michael Chabon says he decided on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay after a discussion with his agent. He threw out a number of ideas, and the one about comic books was the one she was excited about. He didn't expect her to be interested in that project. So if he'd had the kind of agent who wants a client to go the telepathic route, and just go for a single project, he'd have missed out on a Pulitzer. The agent did, of course, have the hassle of considering a large number of projects instead of just getting a MS for one - but she can take a lot of credit for both the sales and the Pulitzer, because she was willing to break ranks and share her sense of the marketplace and what was interesting with her client.

Nathan Bransford said...

ithaca-

That's not at all what I meant. I'm only talking about querying. I have discussions with my clients all the time about projects and we kick around ideas and discuss things constantly. Querying an agent is a different ballgame. One does not apply to the other.

Nadine said...

Great post Nathan.

Quick question on re-querying. If we queried you several months ago for a project and you asked for a partial, but rejected it - should we mention that we queried you before when we are querying for our new project?

Or should the query for the new project be a completely new slate and not mention any past interaction especially since it was rejected. Any thoughts?

Nathan Bransford said...

Nadine-

I always prefer that people mention it -- usually I remember the author, but then I end up searching through my over-full Sent Items to try and find the other query just to be sure, and that takes a while.

Anonymous said...

ithica--

I adore Michael Chabon, so forgive me for being defensive and possibly even annoyingly oversensitive, but his agent can't take "a lot of the credit" for the sales and Pulitzer Prize win of "The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Klay." She did not WRITE it. She simply nodded her head and said, "Yeah, that sounds interesting."

It's never the idea, it is always the execution of the idea.

Michael said...

Some agents like the idea that the submitted work has a "series" potential. Some agents resent the suggestion that if they accept one, they are obliging themselves to accept several, before the sales potential of the first has been tested.
Some agents want to know whether the author is a "one-off" and never again, without potential (like Gone With The Wind).
How does this sit, Nathan, with your "not more than one at a time" query submission?

Nathan Bransford said...

Michael-

They way to do it is to write a query for one book and mention that it could be turned into a series. That way you satisfy everyone from the agent who wants a series to the agent who doesn't.

Dave F. said...

Truer words have never been spoke and deserve repeating, thanks Nathan.

There are definitely some Bo Jacksons out there who write things all over the map. But if you notice, the biggest betsellers tend to have a brand and they stick to it. They don't dilute their energies. They find their niche and hammer away at it.

Anonymous said...

Do you really remember the names of people who have queried you a month ago? Three months ago?

I was kinda hoping you'd forgotten my query. I realize now that it sucked.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Yeah, definitely. Although I'm sure I forget plenty repeat queriers as well.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, if you already have a client and are have not yet placed the manuscript you represent, do you still consider looking at a second manuscript he or she has completed? Or would you rather spend your time trying to find a home for the first before reading the second? Sorry if I didn't pick up on this answer from the other threads.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

It depends on the client, but usually I've taken stock with the author very early on in the process on what projects they have and together we formulate a strategy on a way forward. I'm more than happy to read whatever the author has at that stage. The advice here is really only for the query letter process.

Joanne said...

I think the secret here is in your last paragraph. "In the meantime, keep writing." Find your niche and keep writing, keep learning. Every page, every manuscript, is a learning process.

Abby Gaines said...

Before I was published I was in a situation where I had two projects (one category romance, one single title romance)on submission with two different publishing houses, and both houses requested revisions on the manuscript they had. I wasn't sure if it was okay in that situation to ignore the "query me one project at a time" dictum and mention both projects to the agent. What do you think? Or does it just make the writer sound out of control?

Nathan Bransford said...

Abby-

Yeah, there are definitely exceptions to this and that would be one of them.

Adaora A. said...

What do you think about Nora Roberts who has J.D. Robb and Nora Roberts? Robb is crime fiction, and the Roberts - her real name, as far as I know - is for 'category romance' Sometimes the two 'pen's' write together. The Robb is called '[INSERT WORD HERE, RE: JUDGEMENT]IN DEATH.'

Do you think it's fair and OK that major authors can do it, and aspiring writers cannot? Or should someone try to break this [sometimes called] perpetual status quo.

PS: Make no mistake; I'm a huge fan of her (under Nora Roberts and several of her Robb series.)

Maris Bosquet said...

Nathan, Doesn't switching from one work to the next in the same query denote a certain lack of focus? And wouldn't that lack of focus be enough for an agent to not want to work with that author?

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...
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Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...
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Anonymous said...

Damn, I'm thinking, I need query coach...or a query intervention monitor.

Monsieur Bransford - If someone sends you a semi-lame query - (someone very like me)- and then waits three or four weeks without response -

and then questions you on the blog and is told that anything you can recognize to be a query will be answered...

and then resends the query with a new cover note and one month later has still heard nothing -

should that be understood to be an answer?

That the query in question was so lamentably bad it was unrecognizable to even be a query, though it was clearly labeled as such?

William Womack said...

I'm happy you addressed this, Nathan. There have been times when I thought no agent would be interested in my novel if they didn't see at least the possibility of others in the near term. The thinking goes "if I can sell this cat's stuff, then I'll want more, and pronto." Now I see that ain't necessarily so, and why.

Here's a counter-question for you: if you like my work and (gasp!) decide you'd like to represent me, can I assume that you'd want a peek at any other manuscripts I might have in my drawer? And if this were my one and only project so far that was marketable, would that matter to you?

By the way, this is research for my upcoming book "Everything I know about publishing I learned from watching farm animals."

Kristin Laughtin said...

I imagine another reason for not querying multiple projects at the same time is the same as I've seen mentioned for letting some time elapse between querying different projects--better to grab attention with one good, strong query than fling fifteen projects at someone and risk creating the impression that you're just pumping out stories (presumably, of lower quality if they're coming so fast).

Nathan Bransford said...

anon@7:25-

First, please check your spam filter -- sometimes my e-mails get trapped there. But if you haven't heard from me, please try again.

William-

When I decide to represent an author I definitely try and get a sense of what they've written.

Anonymous said...

Nathan,

Do you accept short stories? If so, should you query one short story at a time? I wonder if short stories and poems might be an exception to your rule. Would agents want you to bundle a couple together?
Thanks, Mary

freddie said...

It's necessary for me to have a couple of projects going on at once. If I get stuck on one, usually the other will go well.

But I don't think I would query two projects at once.

JES said...

By predisposition, I'm probably more one of those dreaded midlist or "commercial fiction" authors than I am a straight genre writer. My one (sadly) unclassifiable Big Project, repeatedly back-burnered for 15+ years -- well, the likelihood of its seeing publication (even once revised to my satisfaction) is small.

So I figure, I can either (a) work on it every now and then, thinking about it more often, praying to have enough (any) success at genre writing eventually to convince a publisher to bring it into the light, or (b) mope.

Would I love to catch an agent's attention with THAT book rather than something more genre-specific? You bet I would.

But life's too short. Seeking an agent, let publication, is a gamble. Get the foot into the door, hang around the living room long enough, and if you're lucky maybe you'll get your own bedroom later.

Michele said...

Thank you for this, Nathan.

Just_Me said...

How can you work on just one thing? Especially during the editing process prior to querying?

I intend to only query one project at a time. And I agree that some of my early stories, as much as I love them, aren't publication-worthy.

But while I'm on the final draft of one story I'm: working on the first basic edits of a second, writing the first rough draft of a third, and drafting an outline for several others.

The manuscript closest to finish gets the majority of my time, but when I need a day off or a new idea attacks me I work on one of the others. The outlines are mainly to keep me from forgetting a good potential story and the rough drafts keep me from going insane when I can't figure out how to fix Chapter X in my main WIP.

To use your sports analogy:Tiger Woods is a pro golfer. It's something he works at every day. But when he's having an off day or wants to relax he might go swimming. Or maybe he'll go for a run to warm up for a round of golf. Or maybe he'll lift weights. He doesn't confine himself to only swinging a golf club.

janeyolen said...

May I respectfully disagree somewhat. There are some authors (I am one) who are able to work in multiple fields. And we need agents and editors who understand.

I am a Curtis Brown client (though not Nathan's) and they have no trouble selling my picture books, nonfiction, novels, books of poetry, movie scripts etc.

Now if you are JUST starting, better not to flood your new--or perspective--agent with stuff. But once you are tootling along, there is nothing wrong with writing in several genres AS LONG AS YOU ARE GOOD IN EACH OF THEM. (For example, I will never write hard science fiction or doorstop Ludlum adventure novels or dark mysteries a la Rebus though I may enjoy reading them. Just not my writing style.)

Every year genres and sub-genres dry up, and it is important to be able to switch to something else if you want longevity as a writer. (My first books were published in 1963; I had 8 out this year.)

Jane Yolen

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks for weighing in Jane! I only meant this advice for the initial query for unpublished authors. Once past that point there are certainly authors such as yourself who are successful with many projects across multiple genres.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...
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Arovell said...

I can understand why people would want to do this, but yes, it's best to go with the best! For now, I'm glad I only have one baby. ^.^

Anonymous said...

I recently broke up with my agent. A couple of years back he sent out the book that I queried him on to editors (a small group, I think 7 people). It did not sell, but I still think it's a strong project and am considering querying other agents with the same book. What's would the protocol for this be? Do I mention in the query that it's already been "out there?"
Thanks!

Katy said...

Jane/Nathan -- do you use the same agent across different genres, or do you have different agents depending on the type of book?

Andromeda said...

Opera. Magna opera.

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