Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Recap #2: How Confident Are You In Your Choices?

I think one of the biggest current misconceptions about "Be An Agent for a Day" involves ignoring this little number in the rules and regulations:

6. For the purposes of this contest you are looking for queries that demonstrate publishable potential, not necessarily your genres of interest.

I was kind of surprised to see that people outright discounted certain genres that they weren't interested in, on the grounds that agents do this as well.

Yes. We are allowed to specialize. To a certain extent. No agent I know limits themselves solely to genres they like to read for pleasure. You just can't make a living that way. Every agent focuses on projects they are passionate about, but agents are passionate about selling. We take on things we strongly believe we can sell. Even if it's not what we would read if we were civilians.

All that said, how do you think you did? If you had to bet, how many of the actually published books do you think you chose? Are you confident in your choices?


writer said...

Hi Nathan,

Hmmm. Could you clarify "to a certain extent" for us? While many Fantasy books are certainly sellable, there remain agents who don't want those submissions--it's clearly stated in their guidelines. Which makes me think that not all agents go for what sells only. (I wish some did!)


RW said...

Wait, weren't there 5 published books we were looking for? How come the poll doesn't have choices for 4 and 5? Have you already counted up and realized nobody did that well? I bet I didn't read something closely enough.

I did see the rule about pretending to take whatever genre comes in, though. At present I'd be lousy at selling (and picking I guess) a lot of those books because I know nothing about the genres as a reader.

Chanelley said...

There were two I requested partials of that weren't in my favourite genre, and three that were. I think I picked two winners. The two I picked looked like interesting stories for those interested in that kind of thing.

Nathan Bransford said...


The "extent" varies from agent to agent. But it's far easier for an agent to not rep one or two specialized genres (i.e. an who reps everything but fantasy) than it is for an agent to rep only fantasy. Most agents tend to rep a range of genres, not just a limited spectrum. There is the occasional specialist, but it's tricky.

David said...

I think I picked one of the books, and I am pretty sure I passed on one that is a real one. Other than that, it was extremely difficult to shut off my personal filter and focus on what would sell.

As I read each one, I tried to think about the Amazon bestseller list or what was occupying the prime real estate at the bookstores. I was basically floundering all the way through.

Annalee said...

I haven't finished going through my maybes yet, but there's a wide range of genre in the ones I'm still considering.

I did discount a few things because they weren't my cuppa, but I didn't mean it in a "this genre sucks" way. In fact, I think I left a reason on one rejection that was something like "genre not my thing," then put the next query of that genre on my maybe list--if a book's good, it's good. Alternately, there were a few queries--even from my favorite genres--that looked like they'd be great for someone else, but not for me. Since I can only request five queries, I'm only considering things that really draw me. That's not a genre thing, just a constraint of the game.

I'm curious to see the results of this contest, but I'm also not sure that the results in themselves will mean much. Kicking yourself because a book you passed on turned into a bestseller is like kicking yourself because someone you decided not to go out with went on to a happy marriage and a successful life. I bet there are plenty of wildly successful books that you as an agent probably wouldn't have chosen to represent, because you wouldn't have been able to advocate for them strongly. Just because a book is a success doesn't mean it was right for your list.

StrugglingToMakeIt said...

I'm pretty confident in my choices, though I could be totally wrong. I think I got at least two of them.

I tried to go outside of my comfort zone. I tried to stay as objective as possible, but it was hard. In fact, for me, objectivity was probably one of the hardest things about the process. For example, at first, my "short list" was very YA heavy until I realized what I was doing.

thin said...

I feel really confident in 3. well, maybe 2. Actually, I'm not sure.

I'm dying to find out. Have you spotted any winners yet? (or are you busy doing real work?)

speaking of real work....

Keri Ford said...

this is a toughy. I know I kinda threw that #6 out the window, but I did request some MG, YA, and some scifi and I totally don't read those genres. (I did mention I also lost count and sort of forgot about that only 5 requests rule, but didn't do many full requests).

Romance is what I read and write, and I don't remember if I even requested those genres. I didn't do any nonfic b/c I have no idea whatsoever about what's popular there--but there was the cancer one that I'd put my money on being published, but I didn't request it.

Shawntelle said...

I am a little confident in my choices. Due to a lack of inexperience in the business I expect to miss a few. This contest has been an eye opener though. I have at least four maybes for my final slot. I plan to use the next two days to narrow things down.

Aimless Writer said...

I take the fifth.

I think it's kind of like owning a store. If I only sell what I like I'm excluding a lot of buyers. So I have to stock varied, yet marketable products.

Ello said...

I think I'll be lucky if I picked 2 - but that's because I thought there were so many great queries in this 50 and it was so hard to choose the good ones and I honestly feel that more of the nonfiction ones are the true published ones but the others just called to me ...

yes I probably failed miserably. But is was lots of fun!

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the cross-post, but I'm quite surprised that so many of the "agents" were immediately dismissive of non-fiction as a genre! I also wish there had been more comments that explained why a particular query was being rejected instead of the way people used form responses. Form emails don't provide any valuable information for the person sending the query, which was supposed to be a part of this contest for those who turned in queries.

Anonymous said...

I probably passed on at least one.

I kept the rules in mind, but I tried to stay honest. There are certain activities, such as scaremongering, that I just can't do for money.

Wandering Spirit said...

Hi Nathan,

I'm not sure if I got it right because I'm only a little familiar with the sci/fantasy/YA genres. I would certainly need to widen my understanding of those markets in order to improve my decision making process in this exercise.

I did consider marketability in my choices and in doing this I think I picked a couple that were not exactly my cup of tea but I could see how they could be marketed successfully. Likewise I skipped over a couple that I felt an interest in but they would be targeted to such a (relatively) small group of niche readers I couldn't visualise them selling in volume.

This leads me to a question for you:

How often do you receive queries for books that pique your personal interest to the point where you would love to read the full manuscript but you have to pass on them because you know there is not a strong enough market for them to sell?

hannah said...

I know I chose at least one because I'm a cheater like that.

I'm guessing I found another one as well.

Maya said...

I didn't actually participate (sadly, grading more than 50 of my students' papers took precedent) but I doubt I'd be that accurate. I read through the queries quickly and some jumped out at me as excellent that were widely rejected in the comments... so what do I know! (Later I'll pretend I was really brilliant and picked all the winners out of the pile.)

After reading this post I'm curious what identifies a query as "sellable" to you. I'm sure every post here indirectly tells us how to make our work viable, but since you say you don't follow trends, what do you indicates that you can sell a manuscript? Do editors tell you want they want to buy? Is it about a writer's voice or about fitting in with expectations in a genre or having a built-in audience or what?

Love the blog! Thanks for doing this!

Court said...

"Well, you do seem confident, and confidence is key."
--Willy Wonka

If I say I feel confident about my choices, I'm sure to end up looking silly. So I'll just say I'm doing my best, and I think the poll needs to have an additional option: the "I have no clue" one. ;o)

Nathan, my respect for you and your fellows is increasing exponentially. This is not easy. Thanks for the great learning experience!

I'm off to narrow down my last 9 queries.

Best Wishes,
"Agent Yard Oaf"

Nathan Bransford said...

wandering spirit-

Once in a while, but for me, passion and saleability are one and the same. It's my job!

Melanie Avila said...

I think I know the same one as Hannah. :P Other than that, I picked queries based on the strength of the writing and how the voice grabbed me. I honestly didn't pay attention to genre.

Bane of Anubis said...

Probably 2, maybe 1, not 3; the problem 4 me was not knowing enough about markets outside my preferred genres to know whether ideas were good or not - though some definitely stood out (e.g., 20). Were I duly diligent, I'd have taken the week to do some more agenting type work and perform bg research, but I SWAGged it a bit and w/ a particular distaste for certain genres, I couldn't accept some - hence one (of many) reasons I'm probably not lit ag material :)

Brigita said...

I have no idea how well I did, but I chose relatively different queries, a non fiction proposal, thrillers, commercial fiction, and YA. Hopefully, at least one of them was publishable.

Anonymous said...

I actually requested a few outside of my usual genres. I requested one I would never read, but felt would be an easy sell. I requested none in the genre I read the most (YA urban fantasy), but a couple contemporary YA, which I read a lot.

The only genre I discounted was non-fiction. I just don't know the market there, so I couldn't say if any of them would sell or not. I think this could have been extended to other areas. If there had been a lot more romance novels, for example, I would have had difficulty saying what is a fresh idea and what's the same old, same old.

It also could be just a matter of saying you don't rep the genre in a rejection is a quick and painless way to let the author know you're rejecting them. I almost breathed a sigh of relief when I got to a NF query after making the decision to reject them. Here was an easy reason to give.

As for my five picks vs. the three published ones:

I'm pretty certain one I requested is being published. Based on a comment someone made in another post, I'm reasonably sure I missed one of the ones being published. As for the third, I won't know until Monday, I guess. But I feel good that one of my other four is a published one, so I'll predict I got two right.

Lots of love,

Anonymous said...

Oh my! I am more confused than ever after Nathan's last comment "certain extent." I thought we had to research the agent to find out what he/she likes then read the guidelines for further information then submit the query for a project that would tickle their fancy. Otherwise, we would get an automatic queryfail for not doing our due diligence. "Hmpf!" says the perplexed writer scratching her head.

Nathan Bransford said...


Yes, that's exactly what you should do. But when you research, note also that most agents represent a broad range of genres. That's what I meant.

bookshop said...

I am kicking myself for writing off #10 as easily as I did. I had valid reasons for it, but going back and looking at that query through the eyes of a big commercial thriller fan, I realize how easy it would be to overlook the things I had problems with and jump at the hook of those first opening lines, almost like a call for the reader to help detect the Final Five. Smart, smart opening gambit.

I still stand by my 5, but upon reflection I think #10 was a superior query to a couple of them in terms of knowing how to hook its audience quickly.

(For the record, I chose #9, #20, #27, #36 and #38.)

Actually, I'm wondering if there is any type of livejournal community or similar forum for this type of thing - where writers can post their queries and receive group feedback.

Anyone else think it would be a good idea?

Matilda McCloud said...

I'm not at all confident about my choices. I did try and pretend I represented everything, but the only way to know if an idea is fresh is to read the stuff that's been recently published and to know all the classics in the genre as well (or at least to be aware of them).

I did try, but I'll bet those sci fi/fantasy plots I thought were so clever were old hat to sci fi/fantasy aficionados!

I'm pretty sure I will be 0 for 0, but still enjoyed doing this!

Ulysses said...

When I looked through the queries, I chose books that sounded interesting to me on the basis that if they caught my interest, they may catch on with the reading public. I was surprised, at the end, to discover that I picked only one in the genre in which I write.

I don't have much confidence in my ability to pick one of the published books. I don't believe I have enough market knowledge to correctly guess what might entice editors.

Wordver: istradi
Def'n: Eric Estrada's fan club.

Heather Harper said...

I didn't base a rejection on a genre as much as I did basic query guidelines like lack of word count or poor format.

But I am concerned, because I discovered the ones remaining have some format issues, too.

Have you ever requested what you felt would be a sellable premise when the structure of the query letter wasn't perfect?

scj said...

I tried to ignore my own preferences and focus on what I thought would sell, but it was tough. One of the books I requested, I have no interest in reading for myself, but I know it'd sell. The problem was, earlier in the day, I was just happy to see a well-written query with a plot that sounded good. Then, as more queries came in, I realized that some plot started to sound alike. Other plots sounded similar to published novel (but would probably sell because of that... although I passed for that reason).

I think I could do a better job picking ones with publishing potential in a 2nd round of agent-for-a-day. If you decide to host another one of these things, I am challenging myself to beating my record this time around!

I actually think most people would do better in a second round of this, simply because we have a better idea of what to look for and what an "inbox" filled with queries looks like!

Rick Daley said...

I violated rule 6, but with good reason. I don't really know what constitutes publishable potential, aside from knowing that I like something, so that's a hard judgment call for someone without relationships with editors and publishing houses to be acutely aware of.

I do know that I am more likely to sell something I believe in and connect with, so that was the primary basis for my decision making.

That being said, I did pick queries outside my preferred genres, it was the story that grabbed me. Three of my 5 were YA, and 1 was YA Sci-Fi. I prefer True Crime and Thriller / Suspense.

Nathan Bransford said...


Absolutely. If I stuck only to the perfectly written queries I'd miss a lot.

I think when the big reveal happens this is what people will realize -- there's a "soft" correlation between book quality and query quality. Meaning, someone who has written a good book probably has a good query, but they maybe didn't write the best or perfect query in the Inbox.

If you judge solely by the query without thinking about whether underlying book idea works you're going to miss stuff.

Amy said...

Oh... You know, I had to think like an agent, and be willing to represent the book, which meant I needed to be able to read it, and I can't read sci-fi. I'm sure it's lovely, but I never read a book and wouldn't be able to represent it.

I probably got one right. It was fun though. It was also a worthy exercise to see what agents look at and what's being shopped around right now.


romoak said...

I requested 5, and I based them on quality and interest, but the only ones I discounted out of hand was Non-Fiction.

I think maybe, I might have picked 1 of the bestsellers, 2 if I was lucky. I guess we'll see.

tionsm said...

I'm not very confident, but here's the thing. Any of us could walk into a bookstore and pick five books we can't believe were published, then pull a crit partner's unpubbed novel that's better. So, you know. I passed on one even though it seemed hugely likely to sell, because of personal distase, and didn't want to align myself with it at all. I wouldn't have repped The Secret either, even had I known it was worth a frajillion dollars. Integrity first. (Especially since this is just a contest and nobody's grocery budget depends on it....)

Heather said...

I get that there's a balance. But I probably erred on the side of "this is what I would want to represent," because I just don't know or understand the other markets.

For example, there was a cop-drama mystery. I haven't read enough of that genre to know if the story is trite or old or over done or whatever.

But I have read a ton in the YA/MG/Fantasy markets. So I know if something sounds old and tired there. I know what's popular and what sells, etc. I also know "the rules" of the market, having researched it for my own stuff.

So, while there was one or two projects that struck me as professional and well done for their genre, without the market knowledge on those genres I was forced to pass.

... isn't that kind of close to what agents do too?

If I really did want to go into the lit agent field, I think I'd have to have a wider understanding of the market than I do now.

Bane of Anubis said...

Also, is that to say that some of the other queries that people liked are not publishable material? Just b/c they haven't been yet, doesn't mean they won't be, right (gotta keep the faith :)?

Nathan, you mentioned in another post that you'd probably take a look at 5 or 6 of the 50 - are there any others that you think other agents might take a look at? (i.e., that you may have discounted for personal preference - though you definitely have a broad spectrum of interest)

Selestial said...

I said two (but it could be less or more, no idea really). I will admit that I didn't request any non-fiction, but a main reason for that is I wouldn't know good non-fiction if it bit me in the butt. Well, maybe if it did that, but otherwise, no. I did request a literary fic piece even though it wouldn't be on my "preferred" list. I picked an urban fantasy (2), a thriller(10), a dystopian YA (27), a literary (36), & a YA fantasy (38). It wasn't incredibly varied, but I'm satisfied (even if I didn't pick any that have sold :P)

Nathan Bransford said...


To a certain extent, what you respond to is shaped by what you've read and what you know have worked. But when you're at it full time you're more aware of the breadth of the business and I think agents are probably better able to have a pulse on what will sell across most genres, even the ones they don't tend to read for pleasure. That doesn't just mean trends, it means the types of books and the level of writing that can make it.

Nathan Bransford said...


Yeah, some of these projects could go on to be published. There are definitely some that sound promising.

reader said...

I only requested three manuscripts but two of them were not in a genre I read very often.

I picked based on clarity of the pitch, plot, and if I thought it had marketing potential.

Most were easy to weed out. If you can't state your plot in a non-confusing way in a query, what must the ms look like? Once I got those boiled down, then it was about style and voice.

The ones with "voice" got lots of requests, but what if your own book doesn't lend itself to that kind of peppy voice? There's the rub, i think.

Janny said...

I think I got two of the pubbed books...and I think I passed on one that may be published, because it sounded a lot like a book I've read a quick synopsis of that was coming out soon, or had come out. But the query I thought might have been that book, I just couldn't bring myself to ask for pages on. To me, it seemed derivative and ho-hum in the execution.

So it will stand to reason that that'll be the miss. :-)

I'm also intrigued by how many "fake" queries there were in the mix--i.e., queries someone made up for this contest about books that don't actually exist. Now THAT'll be an interesting number. And with my luck, my two choices for books that were pubbed will probably be the fakes!

Actually, that sounds less confident than I feel. I think I probably nailed two, and I'll be doing a happy dance if I nailed all three.


P.S. Word validation = "vixfon." Is that a telephone on which one calls a vixen?

Court said...

Done! I requested:

partials on 46, 34, and 20;
fulls on 43 and 50.

Though I didn't note the numbers, I told several authors to re-write their plot descrips so that the central conflict stands out, then query me again. I'm not sure if that violates any rules or not (?), but it suited my gut response to the projects' potential.

Yay for fake agenting! ;o) This was difficult, but fun. Thanks, Nathan!

Best wishes,
"Agent Yard Oaf"

Sheila said...

This was fun, thanks for doing it. Also thanks to the people who offered up their queries - very brave.

I think I got one right, because I recognized it. And I suspected you might be playing with us a bit, so I requested a couple that on the face seemed like instant rejects. But now I feel guilty about that, because they weren't really honest picks.

Maybe I'm projecting my own sneakiness on you, though. Would the crusader against rhetorical questions throw in a query ladled with them? Hmmm. I know that's what I would do.

Nathan Bransford said...


No, I didn't try and trick people with the published ones. I picked two that were yet to be published because I thought the odds were better that people wouldn't recognize them, and one from a NYT Bestseller, because that's just fun.

Kristin said...

I absolutely know I got one, I'm hoping for two. I only requested three manuscripts (two YA, one phsychological thriller/action) and asked for one non-fiction re-query. Seems well-roundedish from what we had to work with.

Casey said...

I know I got at least one correct, but I'm hoping I chose at least two of the published books.

I honestly forgot we were supposed to be looking for the published ones for awhile. I was having too much fun picking what I liked in my favored genre.

When I finally remembered that rule, I chose at least one that I would probably never actually read.

I was never concerned with "winning" though, so I'm not concerned about my choices. It was just a great experience all around.

Anonymous said...

I'm confident in my choices.
I approached this as whether I could champion these books. I'd probably have another job on the side if I were an agent, since I like to go for under represented cultures and stories that some could consider quirky or less mainstream. However, I do enjoy commercial writing, as my tastes are pretty wide. I was even interested in the query that got cut off. It started promising and it intrigued me though there wasn't enough. I'd be the kind of agent who contacts people to feel them out and then try to help them get their writing polished (for free) so maybe that's not what an agent should do, but that's the kind of agent I'd be. I can only hope that a jewel would be found after all the encouragement. The job probably is nothing like that, but I guess that's just how I'd enjoy it.

Agent XXX

Tyler said...

I only ended up requesting three, so my chances are definitely lower, but I felt pretty confident that the ones I picked were publishable.

Interestingly, none of the books I requested were in the genre I prefer to read. They just happened to be the only ones that really intrigued me. Which makes me slightly more confident in my choices.

Robert A Meacham said...

I am in the retail world and have been watching the book or publishing piece of our business for years. Here are the facts:
Mass market has the distinct advantage of what sells. Am I discounting the quality of some author's work that make it into the mainstream market?...Yes I am, at least saying that there are plenty of unknowns out there with as much quality in their work as those that have the grip.
I am not downing NYT best sellers. All I am saying is that the only way to break out in the market, you first need to write a great book, write an extrodinary query to an extrodinary agent, and then do not give up.
BTW, along the way, you must read read read...and listen to those that know the craft- learn and put into action your development to be THE Author.

ryan field said...

I said three.

Mira said...

I'm not done yet! How can people be done.

I'm up to 32. And I have a list of possibles.

I've been looking for marketability. My problem is trying to figure out what is already published from what could be.

But I think that's mostly a guessing game. Without seeing the actual writing, it's hard to know which ideas passed muster.

But - it's a fun guessing game. I'm off to #32. :-)

Tamara said...

I ended up with 12 maybes. That was a problem. I weighed the options, and brought that down to six. Then I rejected one I decided I in fact wanted to keep. It was really tough. I'm hoping I got three (the suspense is killing me), but this is so subjective, I may have completely bombed!

Thanks again for the experience. It was invaluable.

All the best,

Robert A Meacham said...

I feel confident in one query that I chose.
I now have utmost respect for the agent and his determenation of what sells!

NP said...

Congratulations on making Writer's Digest's 101 Best sites for writers:

Eva Ulian said...

After reading this post I am going back to those two manuscripts I think have been published, are being published or will be published and ask for the first 5 pages which I didn't ask for initially since it is not a genre I enjoy reading. I am pretty confident of my choice because these manuscripts are tailor made for their particular genre- like a painting by numbers... so I know they will be successful... that's the irony of publishing!

Jen P said...

a NYT Bestseller - hmmm, missed that one then methinks - I didn't 'recognise' anything. I'm still finalising my top 5 picks though.

Completed vs incomplete work?: I struggled with the CAT scan immensely, because I thought it was great but wasn't finished - so I rejected it on the basis of Nathan's 'can you query without a complete manuscript - no' - however, I wonder with hindsight if that isn't quite the same for non-fiction, if so, I think I missed that one.

Do typos count?: I have to admit I rejected anything with spelling errors or glaring grammar or punctuation in the query or the sample - even if I loved it and thought it sellable - just because I felt that's what agents would do - but again, maybe I am wrong?

Genre struggle: I disregarded genre being an 'open' agent, but found some of the sci-fi queries hard to read, because I never read sci-fi - but my brother would have probably have loved it and he is their target market - so again, I struggled with that, not knowing how sellable that material would be.

Query importance: Wow. I think I've also learned from this you could get too focused on following the query guidelines 'to the letter' and forget that your voice and style should maybe show through too - but maybe not, perhaps plot/conflict/character and showing good writing is first and foremost?

What surprised me: Two things. 1) The extent to which several people totally ignore your own blog query guidelines/FAQs and the subsequent range of standard and 2)the extent to which some 'agents' got too into the swing of sounding mean with their comments. I've been rejected lots but always professionally and politely, if only occasionally personally.

Query feedback:I know it was a game, but these were real people, so I did try and give some feedback - if mine had been included I know I would have benefited from feedback. That said, I tried to be fair to all and comment on each, and it takes forever, so I can understand more than ever writers rarely get a 'real' personal rejection.

However the more I spend on it, the less qualified and confident I feel, so I wonder if my feedback really will be on track and helpful, or just misleading - so I hope everyone who gets feedback takes it as the trying-to-be-encouraging but amateur opinion it is.

This was (is) a great mini-day-in-the-life experience - thanks to all.

jimnduncan said...

I tried to pretend I would take anything that looked good. The problem was, none of the queries wowed me, including my own for that matter. This was the one big surprise for me in doing this. I knew it would be hard, but I figured the queries from the pubbed books would stand out a little clearer.

I think part of the problem may stem from not being overly familiar with the marketplace. If I knew ahead of time what the publishers I worked with as an agent were looking for, I would probably have taken a closer look at some of the queries that lined up with their interests. Agents have a clearer sense of what they are looking for, and we did not have that so much. Still, given that I expected a bit clearer indication of the published queries.

PPP said...

I'm competitive, so I really tried to choose the books that I thought were the published ones, not just books in the genres I prefer.

Out of the 5 I requested, only 1 was the kind of book I usually read.

Anahita said...

Actually I thought the hard part of this was trying to keep my own interests out of the decision. I don’t think I succeeded in doing that though. I came to your blog now to ask the very same thing: To what degree do agents go with their own interests. I got my answer. Thanks. Another question also came to my mind: What percentage of the manuscripts that an agent accepts to represent, proceed to being published. It probably depends on the agent, but on average, as estimation?

Anonymous said...


This was brutal. :) I narrowed it down to 8 and then struggled to narrow it down to 5.

I chose 12,24,29,43, & 50

I'm not cut out for this side of the business. Thanks for doing this.

Lindsey S.

Bane of Anubis said...

Nathan, this is a game you should play with interns/new agents to stress the heck out of them (what they call "pimping" in med-school and residency :)

Jim, great idea and I agree about no query particularly standing head and shoulder above the others for me.

Marilyn Peake said...

Nathan said:
I was kind of surprised to see that people outright discounted certain genres that they weren't interested in, on the grounds that agents do this as well.I found this one of the most difficult parts of choosing the manuscripts for which I requested fulls. I narrowed down my final choices to five manuscripts by looking for details in the query letters that seemed to match suggestions repeatedly made by agents on their websites about how to write a strong query letter. I was very surprised that I requested two books in genres I wouldn’t normally read. After I chose those five, I still had seven remaining query letters for books I would have requested had I not been limited to five. I posted response letters to those seven people, letting them know that they almost made my cut, and I meant it. Had I been a real agent, I would have asked to see their sample pages. I felt that this was all probably very similar to an agent’s job – I made my requests based on what I think agents look for in a query letter, and agents make many of their choices based on what they think the publishing houses will buy. Great learning experience for me. I suddenly realized that a form rejection in no way means, "You stink! Step away from the computer. You should not be writing ever."

I also finally understand why an agent needs to personally feel very strongly about a manuscript, so that they can find the energy to really push for getting it published. If I had been a real agent able to request pages for more than five queries, and if the pages had been strong enough after I received them, I would have wanted to push for publication of most of the seven manuscripts I actually rejected at the end of my selection process. Very ironic.

Jen P said...

jimnduncan - yes,I liked this comment - publisher-agent-interests alignment. I suppose this just goes to show another big learning for me - that one aspect of where the value-add of an agent lies, rather than pitching publishers directly.

David de Beer said...

If I had to guess, I'd say none of my picks were one of the published ones. But you know what, I read through all the queries again briefly yesterday late and I still like my 5 best of all so if I was a real agent those would still be the 5 I'd have gone with.

JSB said...

Part of my issue is that nonfiction proposals can be very different from a fiction query. I didn't have a problem taking on any genre within fiction, but I didn't feel qualified for the non fiction platforms. From what I've read non fict queries often list books which are incomplete or waiting on specialists and are perfectly sellable in a way that incomplete fiction writing is not. So I think that's where I got confused with the rule of how we were taking these on.


Marilyn Peake said...


Where do we post our final choices? For the record, I requested full manuscripts for the following queries:

# 10 – ON ONE HAND
# 17 – INUGAMI

PurpleClover said...

I may have accidentally selected three on the vote and meant to select two but I'm not sure.

Anyhow, I think one of the ones I selected was a premature flick of the wrist and should have waited. I believe I may have captured two. However, it could be two that agents will request but haven't been pub'd yet. The other three I chose were probably personal interests.

However, there were two solid queries that I thought would definitely appeal to an agent but they seemed like their market would be so slim that the agent would probably only pass due to this reason. They had interesting concepts but is what matters in the end. I guess...

Marilyn Peake said...

I said:
I narrowed down my final choices to five manuscripts by looking for details in the query letters that seemed to match suggestions repeatedly made by agents on their websites about how to write a strong query letter.Crikey, I'm tired. It was a loooong day and night participating in this contest. I forgot that I narrowed down my top three queries that way, then tried to figure out two more queries to make my final five choices. By the end, I started fumbling my own name on the keyboard a couple of times and had to fix the spelling of my own name.

I’m awake now ... kinda. Gonna go get some coffee and write.

:)Ash said...


The truth is, I really only know the current trends of MG and YA, because that's what I write. So, while I didn't intentionally discount any particular genre, I simply don't know much about psychological thrillers, for example. I don't know the typical word counts, the popular themes, etc.

Elizabeth said...

NYT Bestseller? Hmm. Methinks I missed that one.

I know for sure I got one, as I recognized it immediately. The other four were a combination of what I thought would sell, and what appealed to me.

One I didn't request, I would, however, buy. That Trucker book sounded really interesting. Always wondered what their life was like on the road.

Mira said...

You know what I find interesting, as I read through the comments?

People are turning down things because they are like other things - Dan Brown, too many werewolf novels, etc.

My understanding is the opposite.

If publishers see that something sells, they will flood the market with copies of the same thing endlessly.

I think agents would be much more likely to take on something that follows the trends, rather than the new and different.

Just my thoughts.

I'm up to 34.

Dara said...

I think I maybe got two. Considering I only requested four, that's probably the best I'll get. :P

After thinking about it, I realize I should have requested one of the nonfiction ones, but I couldn't narrow down which one would be more likely to catch an agent's eye.

BTW, most of the ones I requested were ones I'd probably not gravitate to in a bookstore, simply because they were a genre that I don't find interesting. But I saw something that would make a great story, so that's why I "requested" them.

RB Ripley said...


First, thanks for creating this arena... What a great experience on so many fronts.

Mira brought up something that was repeating in the back of my mind during the entire exercise - lots of readers rejected queries based on familiarity (theme, plot, protagonist, concept). My question is, are publishers looking to buck a trend, ride the wave (or maybe both?!) That impacts your decision making a great deal.

Any thoughts?

Thanks again!

Sooki Scott said...

No second guessing here. I'm still comfortable with my choices, even after a second read. I also requested outside my personal genre preferences.

There were only two entries where my 'this has promise' radar went up, but I passed due to lack of, what I suspect is, an agent's knowledge of the genre and marketability.

Confucius says, "Forget injuries, never forget kindnesses."

Kaiscomet said...

I think I did ok, but it makes me nervous when I see which queries others selected, and I didn't choose any of theirs.
I based a lot of my opinion on the authors past experience, or if there was an editor who had expressed some interest.
For the record, I chose #10. I thought the story sounded great, and I am interested in how a Wal-Mart clerk could be one of the "greats".
#29 was selected largely because of the work I do. I meet with many people who would be interested in a book like this.
I chose #30 even though it was a behemoth (136K) for a first book, but when the author mentioned that someone at Baen books had expressed interest, I thought it sounded good.
#39 was selected because of the authors awards, the length, and the fact that they have other books. Although I do not read books like this AT ALL, it seemed like the type of story that would sell well.
Finally, I selected #43, because I have a ten year old daughter who would love to read this book. And I admit, the idea of a child trying to get a roman emperor to go to war sounded interesting.

Sarah said...

Hi Nathan,

Just wanted to say that while I've not been able to participate, I have loved reading the queries. Definitely gives me food for thought when I come to writing my own. I am so curious to see what grabbed whom, and what was and was not published. It also showed me the importance of hooking the reader in the first line of the query - I paid much more attention then, rather than my usual cursory skim.

It is also great to see you say 'but for me, passion and saleability are one and the same'. It is lovely to see someone enjoy their job so much. Really inspiring. Especially for those of us in the creative professions during this recession.

Thank you once more for posting these! (oh and thanks for replying to my emails re Amazonfail too)

Sarah BB
(who will stop gushing like an idiot and go back to editing)

PurpleClover said...

Mira -

I think the reason the werewolf one was shot down was because of the length. It seemed short even for YA. But also, agents seem to get inundated with these types of stories. So it really has to stand above the rest. I think that is why people were saying they've seen it. Writing about werewolves still sells but it really needs a new story.

Of course we will all feel stupid when this book is released next month. :P

Kristi said...

I will be completely surprised if #27 is not a soon-to-be-published novel, so I feel pretty confident on that one. The other was a sci-fi which I don't normally read but loved the query (#10). I only picked 2, not 5, as I just didn't love anything else enough. The NYT bestseller may not have had to have a stellar query if they were already a best-seller, so I'm guessing it's a different one than the two I picked.

I thought that because reality shows are "hot" now, the one about the child reality show (#6?)would probably be publishable, but I could not find the internal excitement level to want to sell it. That's why you are a great agent - I know I couldn't be passionate enough about some topics that would probably be great sellers.

Scott said...

I said two, but commented when I thought it might be one of the published, or soon to be published, pieces. A few of these were non-fiction or fantasy, which I probably wouldn't represent.

In the end, I decided to make my list consist of those that interested me at least a little that I thought would sell, and others that were close which I knew could go the distance with my help.

So in my heart of hearts, I think I got all five! ;)

Lupina said...

I think I picked three correctly but not 4 or 5 so I didn't miss those poll buttons.

My main surprise was at how many pitches sounded like very tired old plots, without a fresh take to justify them. One, I swear, was a Magnum P.I. episode (not saying which Q or which Magnum).

The ones I chose were ultimately those with plots that intrigued me, and those written well enough to believe some real agent and/or publisher would have offered a contract.

Really looking forward to results!

Nathan Bransford said...

scott and lupina-

There were only three published ones.

Scott said...

Oh. Oops. Well, I think I might've got two! :)

melissablue13 said...

We take on things we strongly believe we can sell. Even if it's not what we would read if we were civilians.Color me confused by this comment. Not taking on things you can sell, makes sense. But, how do you become passionate about a project that isn't something you would read in your spare time? Is this when the theory a good book is a good book comes into play?

Just curious.

Becky said...

Hi Nathan,
This has really been an eye-opening (and intimidating) process to watch. My apologies for the off-topic comment, but I've been trying to send you a query, and it seems like your system is determined to flag it as spam. (I'm getting a hard rejection notification)

The effect on my authorial confidence notwithstanding, is there some way I should be formatting the subject line to ensure it will get past your (well-intentioned and necessary) first line of defense?

EMC07 said...

I have no clue if I chose any of the correct ones. I tried to keep an open mind and at least one I chose was a non-fiction, which I don't really read much. I knew of one for sure that is getting published, but didn't comment on it, as I knew who the author was already. I think I may have 1 or 2 but probably not more than that.

I'm sure there are people that think they are right that are going to be in for a real wake up call!

Nathan Bransford said...


Yeah, in some respects a good book is a good book, but it's also, if there's a market there's a market. I don't take on everything under the sun, but I also don't by any means limit myself to books I personally would read.


I'm sorry about that. You might try removing any links and formatting that you've introduced into the e-mail and try again. Otherwise you might try to send from a Gmail account or something common like that, because sometimes domains are blocked if they've resulted in too much spam.

Laura D said...

I know I'm wrong because I only chose two. Besides, the two I chose are also subject to the saturation of the market, which I had trouble deciding to go ahead no matter the time. In the end, I chose products that I figured would sell despite the market because they are just that well written (and hopefully so is the story) and I had faith that their idea was clearly presented and developped.
How much does the downswing or upswing or trying to get in on the ground floor affect an agent's decision?

KC in SF said...

I don't think I would be a good agent because I would pass on every single fantasy or science fiction query. I can hardly read the queries without losing interest, I can't imagine having the passion needed to sell a book if it felt like a chore reading it.

I guess I better not quit my day job. :)

KC in SF

Just_Me said...

I'm not quite finished. But, out of my list of favorites, not all of them are genres I read.

If a book jumps out at me and says, "I'm special!" even when it isn't my favorite genre to read I really notice. There's a broad appeal in those stories, or at least the queries. But I haven't narrowed it down to 5 yet. Right now I'm still trying to decided what I could rep well. After that I'll decide if it can sell.

Other Lisa said...

You know, I rejected one that I almost requested because I thought it sounded too much like something that had already been published, and now I'm thinking...oops. Maybe because it had been? Heh.

I definitely let my personal tastes dictate my choices too heavily - I mean, I did pick things in genres that I don't read, but there were a couple of the big commercial premises that I knew probably had commercial potential, but I was just tired of seeing books like that. This was a mistake, I'm sure.

lesleylsmith said...

Wow. Thanks Nathan. This exercise was very educational! I do feel like I understand agents a little better. I'm pretty confident I picked all the published/to-be-published novels. :) I did try to pick sellable books that weren't necessarily in my favorite genres. To the query-authors: Thanks for letting us see your queries! I did notice some conflicting constructive take it all with a grain of salt.

RainSplats said...


I found myself passing on non-fiction because I've only studied up on the steps to getting fiction published.

I know non-fiction can be queried *before* the book is complete. Many people didn't even know that much.


Anonymous said...

I think I got at least a couple. I didn't recognize any as published works, so no "cheating" involved. I tried not to look at what other people thought so I wouldn't be overly influenced by their selections. My choices: 6, 10, 17, 35, and 46. A near-miss was #14. Dying to know how I did!

Jenn said...


I thoroughly enjoyed this exercise. As a new writer, it was an incredible learning experience for me.
I think I picked 2 of the published books, but who knows, lol!
Thanks again for this contest and your blog in general. You've captured another faithful reader.


Marilyn Peake said...

I thought this might be relevant here. Stunning video that demonstrates how talent can win out despite overwhelming odds: Susan Boyle, singer, Britain's Got Talent 2009. Wow!

Anahita said...

I just thought of another effect that your contest could have. I always think of ways of exposing my sons to different careers, so that they are not clueless when it is time to choose. My suggestion is to make it a virtual tour, a one day experience, of being a literary agent. Wouldn’t it be nice for teenagers if there was a virtual one day experience available for every job?

melissablue13 said...

First, thanks for answering the question. Second, a few light bulbs lit above my head. Advice I've seen for years makes sense.

thin said...

I noticed a lot of queries for genre / commercial fiction. They were all terrific, well-structured queries, and I got really critical at my own query tries. But then I thought... commercial fiction is often more structured than literary fiction.

Do "literary" queries pale in comparison to those of commercial lit because say, the storyline is more flexible or ... more of a freestyle?

Also, are you more inclined to request commercial lit because it might sell better?

is that a bogus question? 'cause I'm not even sure on the exact classification of commercial & literary. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

You made me think of a trailer I did for my amazon short story Daimon's Disguise

Anonymous said...

I actually was harder on the genre I read than the others and requested things I never thought of reading before but whose queries made them shine.

The part that bothers me is the 'Agents' who are deciding to be the morality police. Rubs me of censorship. I guess if they had that on their agent pages peeps would have the choice to not submit to them. But it still bothers me here.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

Okay, people, due to rule 6, get a gallon of your favorite caffeinated beverage, or CNS depressant, ie alcohol. We're gonna do it all over again!

And next week... 50 agents, a few published, will submit their first 10 pages of a WIP, (novels please). All comments accepted. See if you can spot the published agents, OR, the smart ones who forsook actual writing long ago).

Haste yee back ;-)

AM Riley said...

Hey, I've seen agents give very very specific guidelines about where their interests lie and I've read complaints about authors who submit material outside those interests.

Couldn't participate, too busy at the moment, but are we assuming that the published books were any good? I think that's a huge assumption. Perhaps some of our 'agents for a day' had better instincts than the norm and rejected the garbage.

Nathan Bransford said...

am riley-

It's really not about making a value judgment. It's about determining what will and won't sell.

KathyF said...


I read (in several places) that an agent doesn't really make much money on a single book from an author (unless it's a total blowout, of course). And so they don't take on one-book authors, but concentrate on career authors.

Is that true?


Anonymous said...

Hi, Nathan -- this is such a great exercise, even for those of us not participating, so thank you!

How did you choose your queries from the hundreds that came in -- did you take the first 47 that came in or did you read them and select specific queries? As someone who didn't make the cut I'm just wondering if it was my query or timing. :D

Jill said...

Right or wrong, I chose the five I did because of 1)the clarity of those particular queries; and 2) intriguing novel premise.

So congratulations to authors of #9, #10, #14, #27, and #35. Great job!

And a pat on the back for all who entered a query. I thought most of them were quite good.

Nathan Bransford said...


Honestly, I basically clicked around the inbox at random and chose the ones that had block formatting (because they were easier to copy over).

Polenth said...

I chose ones I thought would sell, rather than restricting it to my genres of interest. But I didn't look up the queries/topics to see if I could match it to a published book, so I'm not too confident I picked the published ones.

kdrausin said...


Do you ever hold on to a query if you're on the fence? You had said you went through 72 or 76 the other day and accepted two. Do you always make your decisions that fast and move on?

I found as a fake agent that I wanted to take my time and wait until the next morning to make my final decisions on some of the queries.

If you see talent, do you help in the editing process or expect works to be polished and complete? I have heard both from different agents.

Thanks, Krista

Laura said...

I'm probably very naive about all of this, but I just felt if a work grabbed me that much, it would grab the public. Especially since, as much as I try to read cult favorites, I'm a bestsellers kind of girl, my taste tends to run that way.

And right now, I bet an agent could focus on YA along and make a killing. Is this incredibly naive of me?

Jane Doherty said...

I definitely didn't pick just things I'm interested in. At least two of them, I doubt I'd read unless compelled to do so.

I can't remember my first pick, but the last four were: 16, 24, 35, and 49.

If nothing else, this has given me a direction for a new WIP - I'm now plotting an actual book to go with my submitted query. The idea went over better than I expected, so I guess the interest is there.

*Does a happy writer dance*

Kristi said...

Marilyn P. - my friend sent me that clip from "Britains Got Talent" earlier today and it actually brought tears to my eyes (and I'm so not a crier and so not a fan of reality television.) Such an inspiration...although I can write much better than I can sing :)

Soratian said...

I'm not confident at all! :) I only have one regret when it comes to the books I didn't pick, which is the trucking memoir (#20). I really did like that one but I'd already given out 2 by then and wanted to conserve.

I guess I wasn't really playing to win. If I were, then I'd probably have read all the entries first and then shortlisted the ones I wanted. Instead, I decided as I read, keeping my quota in mind.

In the end though, my choices wouldn't have differed that much. In any case, an agent decides on a case-by-case basis as well right?


Katy said...

I personally didn't discount any genres except non-fiction, and that was only because I don't know anything about the non-fiction genre and therefore wouldn't know what sells, what doesn't sell, etc. However, I did notice that a majority of what I requested was in the sci-fi/fantasy vein, which is my genre, so I am aware that there was definitely some genre bias going on. But I couldn't help that the projects I got excited about were in my favorite genre!

Jen C said...

I think I did alright, but I have no idea if I picked any at all. I chose to be optimistic and voted for 2, but who knows.

I didn't discriminate by genre, as most of what I chose I don't read or write (YA, thriller), but mostly what swayed me was what seemed like an original premise to me. Perhaps that was the wrong way to do it, but what's done is done!

I am still bummed that I missed one of the ones that I intended to vote for (#17), but it's too late to go back and change it... I checked...

Lucy said...

Mostly I focused on the strength of the writing, but also whether the hook was enough to engage me. I passed on several that had possibilities in terms of their premise, because the query letter was weak and I suspected that the writer could not carry through with the book, or would need so much editing as to not be worth the time.

It's possible that another agent (a real one, of course) would look at the same query letter/s and say, "Hey, I think I can work with this writer."

I'll be intrigued to find out if my guesses were spot on--or not.

Pinkie said...

I tried to judge each query on the basis of the query itself, whether it was compelling and well-written, and if so, I delved deeper into the idea of the novel itself. I also found it was easy to reject queries this way. If they weren't compelling, that's all I has to say. And then it's up to the writer, if he or she so chooses, to either do more research on the art of query writing or to address the idea of the book itself as one that is not so compelling.


Sharon aka Sapphire said...


I truly enjoyed "being an agent for a day," although it took me three days...

I hope the prize for getting the most right is a trip out to meet you and be a reader for you for a week.

Jenny said...

Quite a few people here mentioned thinking the trucking memoir was publishable. That made me realize how important it is to be familiar with what's been published in a genre before you try to sell a book in that genre.

Since I read mostly nonfiction, when I read the trucker query I immediately thought of John McPhee's Uncommon Carriers, a fairly recent book that brings the trucking life alive.

But I don't read YA so I would have no idea if a query I read here was brilliantly original or straight out of another book. I sent my daughter over to look at an entertaining chapter from a novel posted elsewhere on the web only to have her tell me it was almost identical to a scene in a movie I hadn't seen.

So a huge part of an agent's value lies in having the kind of familiarity that lets the agent know what really is new and different.

Diana said...

I was one of the people who said "I am not doing fantasy/science fiction." That is just a genre that I'm not into, and I would make a crappy saleswoman if I was knocking on editors' doors trying to peddle it. An author wouldn't win with me as his or her sci-fi/fantasy champion.

However, I did read the queries, because an idea can resonate with me even if the genre as a whole doesn't.

Nathan Bransford said...


That's a great point. I think you also have to kind of have a sense of what that book would have to be in order to work. That query has a great voice and clearly it's a subject about which some people are interested. But it has to be written with the right angle. If it's going to be a literary memoir the writing has to be truly awesome (i.e. John McPhee level). It also has to either be used as a lens to explore the broader industry, or it has to tell a compelling story.

All of this is to say that voice and good structure alone doesn't necessarily make a query. An agent is thinking about the marketplace and looking for clues about whether the book accomplished what it needs to in order to work.

TecZ aka Dalton C Teczon - Writer said...

Wow, I really enjoyed this. There were so many appealing queries. I was down to tossing back and forth my top twelve.

I believe retail can be tricky because the public can be fickled. Also presentation and timing can be crucial.

For example in the flavor of vampire tales, "Twilight," by Stephanie Meyer, was written in 2005, but became a seemingly sudden hit in 2008. It hit shortly after the tv show in 2007, "Moonlight." I'm guessing the public, was having good guy vampire withdrawals when the show got suddenly canceled. What a great window of opportunity. (Besides the fact that she is a great writer in my opinion).

So, I would think it can be tricky knowing definitely what will sell and when to get it out there.

This exercise has created food for thought on what a challenge it is for an agent to pick the very best project to represent.

Megan said...

I found it hard to keep reading if the genre didn't interest me - i only like specific genres...
i tried hard to stay objective, however I'm not too sure how well that went...

Phoenix said...

The refresh times were getting too long to leave comments, so I didn't. But I crit on other sites, so I don't feel too bad about not taking the time to crit here.

So many of the queries would have been quick rejects for me. Still, I found 10 that would have nudged themselves out of the slush (that's a commendable 20% success rate!), but only 4 I would have requested (which, at 8%, is a pretty high request rate from what I hear).

The 6 runners up:

The 4 requests:

Rebecca Knight said...

I really enjoyed trying to think outside my genre (fantasy/scifi) for what would "sell." That was what made this the most interesting for me. I requested a thriller and some nonfiction, which was definitely something I didn't think I'd do.

It will be fascinating to see how it went!

Calli said...


I think I accidentally stumbled on something regarding the queries and which ones were published. Should I email you about it?

As far as rule 6 goes, I tried to follow it...but there was one book I can think of that I broke that rule on. It wasn't an easy decision, but I figured, had this been real, I'd end up doing a lousy job representing a book in a subgenre that I'm antipathetic toward. Is this often a problem in actuality?

Dana said...

I think maybe I got three... maybe.. but likely- 0 :)
For the record I asked for:
9: full
10: partial
16: partial
33: partial
36: full

It was hard to look at queries in genres that I don't normally read. It was also difficult for me to get past poor writing and grammatical errors. Really hard. But, we shall see. Nathan, I don't know that I entirely envy you- but the job does seem sort of fun. :)

HA! And my Word Verification is Hussie- excellent. Nathan's blog is trying to tell me something. :)

Nathan Bransford said...


Yes, please e-mail me.

Nixy Valentine said...

I guess I followed rule 6... and I didn't, but to be fair, there are few genre I don't read... I like everything from thrillers to sci-fi to crime to romance and also non-fic.

Where I didn't follow the rules was when I had narrowed it down to about 7 maybes and I only had 3 slots left. In that instance, I picked the three I would pay money to read.

I'm confident I found one, hope I found two, and doubt I found three. =)

Jen P said...

Finally finished and I can now say it was immensely difficult to select from my Top 10 to my Top 5. But just had to go for it.

Not necessarily my favourite queries, but what I think has potential. Will be fascinated to see if I even hit one right!

Query 17
Query 24
Query 35
Query 36
Query 46
(and I would have taken the CAT scan if finished instead of....35)

I wonder how much depends on the luck of the day, what else comes in the same day as your query?

Word veri: flair - what an appropriate one for all this creativity - well done all the entrants and fair commentators,a nd to Nathan a huge thank you for managing this beast.

Scott said...

Numbers 6 and 10 are popping up quite a bit, I find.

My selections were: 6, 10, 18, 37, and 48. Again, it was a mix of what I thought would sell and what I thought was close enough that I could helps shape and sell.

And well said, Jenny.

Anonymous said...

Nonfiction does not need to be finished at the querying stage.

Carolyn said...

I am not at ALL confident I did well. If I were an agent, count me as one who would insist on pages with the query. Having pages probably would have changed my opinion on some. Plus, I rejected one query even though I recognized (and had read) the book because I HATED the query. I thought it missed completely what was good about the book.

PurpleClover said...

Nathan -

I think it's only fair that when you tell us the three published books you tell us out of the 50 which ones you would have chosen.


Cat Moleski said...

There was one book that I thought might be an already published, but the premise was just so distasteful to me that I couldn't bring myself to ask for pages.

Joy said...

Phew! Took me four days, but I finished. I voted "two" but I'm really unsure. After reading Nathan's comments in this post I suddenly felt very inadequate as an agent. I do not know enough about "what sells" to make educated decisions about genres I've never read. I guess a lot of bias went in to my decisions, so I may have passed on perfectly sellable material. Ah well.

This whole process is extraordinarily reminiscent of my days grading high school essays. If only I had a rubric for books that sell . . . alas, thanks for the opportunity. I should've done this with my high school students. "teacher for a day" wonder what that would've done to the atmosphere and level of effort in class. Hmmmm.

terri said...

Alrighty, I got my 'fab five' picked.

This was waaay hard and I'm afraid about 20 got 'no response means no interest'. I just ran out of hours in the day.

Finally, had to go with my gut, thinking what books could I be excited enough about to pitch to certain publishers. I admit a preference for action and thrillers, but I tried to pick a variety including YA and urban fantasy.

Tough job. I, personally, would rather take a beating than read a romance novel. However, if I had a good contact with an editor who said he wanted to see romance novels, I'd have to educate myself as to what makes a good romance novel.

This lesson was very enlightening, even though I manage the 'slush pile' of customer service questions for our family business.

word verify: 'slangs' [urban smack for urban smack, as in 'Slangs, I haz 'em.'

Lisa R said...


I was one of those people who didn't take the non-fiction because I really had no frame of reference for it. What is funny is that as I was rejecting the non-fiction I was thinking about the publish-ability factor (i.e. this could be publishable and I'm rejecting it) but I just don't read enough or even browse enough non-fiction titles in my bookstore to know what might be or might not be. I'm sure one of the non-fiction works was probably a published or soon-to-be published book. I really floundered on that whole subject. I think you make an excellent point about agents not focusing solely on what they like and having to also focus on what sells. Do agents sometimes pass on queries that they think may be saleable but don't specialize in to other agents? I think I might consult another agent in those cases, maybe someone who takes on a lot more non-fiction than I did (if I were an agent) but again, I am by no means an agent!

It is hard to turn off your personal filter too. I wanted to request many books because they were what I'd personally like to read but didn't because I wasn't sure they would be considered saleable. That's why I think this whole thing was very instructive. You and other agents do this all the time and have a great knowledge base for what sells and what doesn't.

Also, I have had many agents read my work and tell me that it's great but they aren't passionate enough about it to give it the attention it deserves. As a reader I certainly understand that. I mean I've read books that have left me breathless and also books that are good, solid reads but don't leave me thinking about them for weeks afterward. But should I be reading the "not passionate enough" rejection as "this simply will not sell"? Because if that is the case, I would certainly want to go back and make some changes!

Jenny said...


Your nonfiction manuscript does have to be complete if it is a memoir--unless you are famous.

Memoir is queried just like fiction though the quality of the writing has to be much stronger than what you can get away with in genre fiction.

My impression from that query was that the author did not have the writing chops needed to pull of a memoir and was too wrapped up in his own story to sell the book as a more objective look at a lifesytle.

The only nonfiction here that could be queried via proposal is the CAT scan book. But the huge problem with that query is that the author did not present the kind of credential needed to sell that particular book.

The query also lacked a section of comparative market information--how that book differed from competing books--and a marketing plan. Both are required in a nonfiction proposal.

It is almost impossible to sell a medical book to a big publisher without a very strong medical credential: MD, head of hospital, etc.

Beyond that, health books that warn of dangers don't sell as well as books that offer simple, or let's be honest, simplistic, strategies for healing the common health problems people already know they have.

Just_Me said...

Ha! Done!

Sadly, I doubt I did well accepting books that are already published. I had a few where I read the queries and they sounded too familiar. I passed because it sounded like "it had been done" but chances are those were the real queries.

It was a bit of a trick to ask us to request what we wanted and guess which 5 were published novels. That assumes that all of the blog readers participating also love every book published. I didn't... and I requested some long shots because they intrigued me and I think there is a market for them.

For the record: 48, 36, 29, 17, 16

Hallie said...

I picked 0, because I know I'm attracted to certain genres more than others. It was tough to turn down so many YA proposals that I'd really like to see to make sure I'm not missing something great. I tried to pick a variety of genres and books I thought I could sell instead, including a book with a query that I didn't personally connect with. My final picks were 6, 24, 35, 36, and 37, and the string in the 30s is statistically unlikely, so I wouldn't be surprised to find out I'd missed on all five. But I hope I got two or more.

Melissa said...

Nathan, I picked some books I wouldn't personally want to read, but I also passed on some that might have been good choices within their genres.

For the purposes of the contest, I believed it was a better plan to skip genres I know nothing about. For example, I've never read a single chick lit book. How could I tell if the plots I was seeing were tired or fresh? My best bet was to reject all of those and hope that the published books weren't among them.

If I were a real agent, I would research genres I don't like to gain familiarity with them. But I'm not a real agent, so I just played the odds.

I'm not at all confident that I picked the best books. I think maybe I picked one of the published ones. It would definitely take me more than a day to get good at picking winners.


Melissa said...

One more thing, Nathan. One of your comments says that some of these projects could go on to be published books. Do you have a sense for how many? I'm not asking for names, just numbers.

Vic K said...

Hi Nathan,

As I am one of the 'agents' that claimed personal taste, I'd like to expand on my thinking.

As it turns out - and I've just really come to this realisation tonight, while entering my final choices - my preference is for originality. That, and commercial fiction. Of my five choices, not one was in the genre I write in, (fantasy) and in fact only two were of the same genre. But they all had one thing in common; I thought the basic premise was original and intriguing. So I guess my personal taste runs to seeing something new and exciting, rather than the same old stuff.

I did pass on a couple of things I recognised - which may well mean I missed something that is published that I've read. So I'm guessing I've run zero for zero on this competition. (I also think you may have hidden a few surprises in the queries intended to shock people.)

Can't wait for the big reveal!

TFree said...

Don't you think it's true that most of us don't have the behind-the-curtain insight and experience to know what publishers really consider publishable? That's why we're in need of an agent ourselves.

abouttothunder said...

I'm confident in many of my choices, but realize that I requested one that I shouldn't have. (I would love to be the assistant that weeds out the worst of an agent's slush pile. That would be a dream job.)

Leis said...

11 to go and have exhausted my 5 some 10 queries ago...

Am I confident in my choices? Um, no so much, but then this is only for partial requests. I just can't throw away an opportunity, I guess.

So I'd likely make an awful agent: overworked, over obsessed, overstressed workaholic without a life, eh? (now why does that sound familiar?)

Sasha said...

I guessed two, although it may only be one. I'm fairly sure that one of the manuscripts I didn't request is one of the published ones. One of the suspense novels jumped out at me as likely already published or under contract, but I didn't request it because of being limited to five manuscripts. I wanted to request the ones I would be most passionate about representing if I were an agent.

KareFree Kennels said...

I have no idea how "well" I did in this contest. As for confidence in my choices, none at all, but that doesn't bother me.

If I were an agent, I know that I would pass on many great books that go on to be published and make decent sales. C'est la vie.

Of the 50 queries, only two really excited me. Real life.

The exercise didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know...other than that even with a reasonably written query and publishing credits, I still might pass simply because the subject or themes didn't make me chomp at the bit to read even a partial. Conversely, sometimes a query that breaks all the rules could tweak my interest.

Congratulations, Nathan, for thinking of this contest. Lots of fun and very interesting.

Dawn said...

I chose #9, #13, #14, #29, and #48. It was much more difficult than I thought it would be. It took me about three hours and I left comments for some.
My first read through gave me 15 selections and then I went back and reread, whittled down, and reread the remaining again.
It didn't matter to me how involved the premise was as long as it was explained clearly in the query.

Kathy said...

I wanted to say something about the process.

Even though we were told to pay attention to rule number 6, choose according to the strength of the story/project and whether it would sell...

I have to say that genre does matter to me. I had a hard time choosing 5, not because I liked too many of them but because I DIDN'T like very many of them. I do not enjoy reading science fiction/fantasy as a general rule and saw so many of that type of book. If I happened to BE an agent, I would have to read the entire manuscript if I requested it which would be torture for someone who doesn't like that genre.

As an example of what I DO like, I chose a non-fiction work, #29 I think it was. Medical stuff appeals to me and I think the public likes finding out about things doctors don't want you to know.

Now, just to be clear, I'm sure that some of these writers are very good at what they do, but to be honest, I wouldn't want to read the manuscripts because the subjects just don't interest me.

Jenn S. said...

I just posted something on another thread that probably belongs here: Trying not to accept or reject queries based on my genre interest is one thing; determining marketability is quite another.

Only two of my five requests were close to my preferred genre of SF&F, but were also YA, which I don't usually read. The others were a YA, thriller, and women's lit/literary fiction. I have no idea if any of these books are what that genre's market would buy.

However, I really enjoyed myself. I'm looking forward to the results!

Anonymous said...

Jim Duncan, read your revised query on Brennan's site. That one I would have requested. I didn't get enough of a sense of the story from the first person POV attempt.

I think this new one is a big improvement. (we can no longer comment on specific entries, which is too bad)

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