In a Weak Economy, Agents Look For Safe Books

Originally Posted:  June 18, 2009

by Vicki O. Wittenstein

“The good news is that books are still being published and people are still selling first novels,” Linda Pratt said to the relief of the writers who attended the SCBWI Metro New York Tuesday Professional Series in March. Pratt, an agent at Sheldon Fogelman Agency, joined agent Maya Rock from Writers House to discuss the ups and downs of selling books in today’s roller coaster economy.

“But it’s tougher,” Pratt added. So what should writers do in this uncertain economic climate? Both Pratt and Rock agreed that writers shouldn’t try to fit square pegs into round holes. The key, though, is to be flexible. If you’re considering several projects, be pragmatic. “In the reality show “Millionaire Matchmaker,” the millionaire always picks the wrong girl because he follows his libido,” Pratt said as the audience exploded in laughter. “Go for what’s practical!”

Work on the project you think will sell, she advises. Stretch yourself and your creative powers. Even consider writing in a different genre. The agents also agree that the main consumers of books today are no longer librarians and teachers—their budgets are too small. Today’s consumers are parents and kids. In a tight economy, writers must consider how parents and kids will spend their money. For example, will parents spend money to buy a book about grieving when it will only be read for a short period of time? Probably not. In the current challenging marketplace, publishers are looking for safe sells. So, therefore, are agents.

For picture books, safety means a focus on character-driven protagonists. Editors want books with strong story arcs, plots that build to a climax and then flatten briefly at the end. In many successful picture books, main characters are animals, as in Judy Schachner’s Skippyjon Jones series.

Chapter books also are desired, but again, stories with strong characters that have a large following, like Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones series. Is the theme or plot of your book similar to another? Think of ways to differentiate the book or it will be too risky for publishers to acquire. In a weak economy, “middle grade is the most insulated of the genres,” Pratt said. The middle grade audience includes girls and boys, so the number of potential readers is higher than, say, in the young adult market, which is mainly female. In fact, boy-centric young adult books might be very tricky to publish unless there are some interesting girl characters as well. “YAs aren’t over,” Rock said, “but there might be less variety in the marketplace.”

Both Rock and Pratt are interested in finding books that they will fall in love with and that will sell well in these uncertain times. Before accepting a client, Pratt considers the entire body of work, not just one novel, and likes to work on a career plan with her authors. She will help authors work on their manuscripts, if necessary. Rock also helps authors edit their manuscripts before submitting them. Editors today want manuscripts in better shape. “Agents are doing more and more work that editors used to do, and we’re swamped,” Rock added. “Down the road, we will probably see agents relying more and more on freelance editors, critique groups, and MFA programs for editing.”

Vicki Wittenstein’s first nonfiction book, Planet Hunter, will be published by Boyds Mills Press in the Spring 2010. You can read more about Vicki and her book at http://www.vickiwittenstein.com.

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