I got a letter from an aspiring writer the other day with a question about the marketability of her work. Basically, she’d written a book that might be sold as an adult novel or as a YA novel. She’d written it as a YA novel, though, and was concerned when a bunch of other writers (who hadn’t read her book) told her they thought it would be a hard sell in that market. So she wrote to ask my opinion.
My opinion was, in short, that given that neither I nor these writers had read her work, and given that neither I nor these other writers were in any position to publish her work, that what we might say on the matter wasn’t worth a whole lot. The only person whose opinion actually matters is the editor who has received the book as a submission. And, given that the work was written and edited, there is absolutely nothing to lose than trying to get it to one of those editors.
The writer wrote back to me to say that her next step was to get a few more reads by critique partners so that she could get more opinions about how best to market it.
Not to get all Dean Wesley Smith here, but as great as I think critique partners are (and I do think they are great) they are helpful in an editorial way. NOT in a marketing way. They are writers. They are NOT in any position to buy your book, or to sell it to publishers. In the end, the only person whose opinion about the marketability of your book that matters is the one holding the checkbook.
(And, for those of you without agents, let me tell you: there will be times when you disagree with your agent. When you send them a project that you think is great and they tell you they don’t think they can sell it. And then it’s up to you to decide if you’re going to agree with them and try something else, get a new agent to sell it, or sell it on your own, or what. I’ve known folks who left agents over projects that the agent wouldn’t sell that went on to become NYT bestsellers. I also know writers who thank their agents every day for steering them away from projects that would have been a bad move for them.)
So if this is a book that is written and edited and polished, then stop asking other writers what their opinion is as to its marketability. Other writers can’t do anything for you. FIND AN AGENT who can sell your work to an editor. Agents can be much better than you at figuring out where your book best fits in the market. Maybe they had lunch with an editor the other day who said, “I’m looking for a book just like XYZ.”
When I sent the proposal to Secret Society Girl to my agent, I called it a YA novel. My agent in her infinite wisdom said, “Hey, I bet an adult house would really go for this.” And they did.One of the reasons writers need agents is that agents can sometimes see better ways to position a book than a writer can. It’s their job to do so. And sometimes, what is a YA novel in one market is not a YA novel in another. The Curious Instance of the Dog in the Night-time is a YA novel in the UK and an adult novel here. There are other books that are vice versa (like the Book Thief).
Here’s a short list of best selling, award winning, and critically acclaimed YA novels that have come out recently that, according to articles or blog entries I’ve read about their inception, either began life as adult novels in the writer’s brain or were originally marketed as adult novels before being sold or marketed as YA novels: The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, Ballads of Suburbia by Stephanie Kuehnert, Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr, Madapple by Christina Meldrun, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes (ETA: Shadowed Summer, by Saundra Mitchell)…. guys, the list goes on and on.
And what you take away from this is that sometimes, what “the market” is is only definable by what one particular editor at one particular house decides he or she wants to pay money for. We’ve all read books where we thought, “What brain donor paid money for THIS?” Heck, we’ve all read bestsellers where we thought that. But someone holding a checkbook thought it was marketable, and they were right. Which shows what I know.
I repeat: If you’ve written and polished the book, what a bunch of writers think about its marketability is not important. Submitting it is the only way you can get a real answer.
But, you may ask, how can I submit it without knowing where exactly it fits in the market? But that’s the best part! You can submit it to both places! You might be scared, because you’ve read agent blogs where they complain about having completely inappropriate work submitted to them (Vietnam-era sex memoirs to a YA agent) — but your situation doesn’t apply. In good faith you are submitting to a YA agent a book that you think is a YA novel. She might agree with you. She might not. In good faith you are submitting to an adult agent a book that you think is an adult novel. He might agree with you. He might not. It’s no different than you submitting this book believing that it’s the best book ever — they might agree with you, they might not. And what do you do if the agent reps both kinds of books?
“Dear Agent, I am seeking representation for my book TITLE, which is a blankety-blank thousand word novel about blah blah blah.”
Yes, if you are CERTAIN that you are writing a young adult contemporary fantasy adventure or a hard sci fi space book or a cookbook, or a memoir, or a memoir about a cookbook, then say that. But if you aren’t, there’s no rule saying you have to. To start with, an agent might disagree with you (mine did). Also, if you put yourself in a box from the beginning, an agent’s thought process might not even get so far as to disagree with you — he or she might just say, “Oh, I don’t think this works as a YA — reject.” But there’s no rule that says you have to check every single little box about your novel before you submit it. It’s okay to say “a novel” and let the agent decide that it’s a paranormal historical romance.
The important thing to remember is not to take yourself out of the game. Don’t avoid submitting a finished, polished novel because some writer who has no ability to pay you any money for said novel has told you a priori that it’s unmarketable. And if you get a bunch of rejections from YA agents or houses saying this isn’t a YA novel, then maybe look on the bright side of that — perhaps it’s an adult novel. Try submitting it there.
ETA: I’m bringing up Julie Leto’s comment here because it’s just so darn good:
“It kind of perplexes me when writers will come up with a thousand and one excuses for not actually submitting their work. Rejection doesn’t kill. All successful authors have had their share of rejections. If JK Rowling had worried about marketability, she never would have found a publisher for Harry Potter.
“I think some writers become so obsessed with getting it all “right” (to that dreaded rejection) that they make elemental mistakes. There’s one thing to research the market…but it’s quite another to use the market as an excuse not to submit.”
This is so true. When it gets to the point that you’re just asking a bunch of other writers for their opinion about something you haven’t submitted — this is different than “can you crit my work, can you help me with my query” — then what you’re really doing is called stalling.
Accept the fact that you WILL get rejections. EVERYONE gets rejections. You have to learn to accept rejections, because let me tell you, the number of rejections you get before a book sells? NOTHING compared to the number you get after a book sells. Afterward, you get rejectiosn from: 1) foreign markets, 2) Hollywood, 3) Any media outlet who passes on doing a story on your book, 4) Bloggers 5) random people on the internet with Goodreads, Twitter, and Amazon accounts, 6) and every single person in the world who does not buy or read your book. Get used to it now. Accept the fact that every rejection is nothing more than one person’s opinion. There could be 99 agents who tell you your work isn’t marketable, and one agent who says, “I can sell this to an editor with a checkbook” and does. Whose opinion matters there?
ETA: Also, everyone read Saundra MItchell’s follow-up post on the subject, because she had a similar experience.