Notes From A Literary Agent

Originally Published:  July 24, 2011

Jennifer Laughran is an agent with Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc. The article below first appeared on her blog in May, 2011. For more information about her, check out her blog:

Q: People say when you’re researching agents, you should look at the acknowledgments of books like yours to find out who reps them. But yesterday I saw you tweet that sometimes books are “too similar” and you reject them for that reason. What gives?

Yes. You should find an agent who reps the type of books you write, has similar taste to yours, and seems to “get it.” This probably means doing research about some of your favorite writers and finding out who reps them.

But also yes, when you get right down to it, an agent’s list can really only have so many of one type of book before it starts getting boring and repetitive. And as far as specific plots and such, one will do. As @earthwards on twitter said, “Think complementary, not competing!”

Some for examples:

1) I have two mermaid books. They are very different. One is contemporary and has to do with the world of Northern California surfing. One is romantic and historical and very much a fantasyland story. They are not competing with each other. But I also don’t need any MORE mermaid stories.

2) Or, to use a made-up example, maybe I have a funny and heartfelt contemporary YA about an Arab-American girl struggling to fit in and get out from under her controlling family. I have tried but so far haven’t been able to sell it. I don’t need another story about an Arab-American girl struggling to fit in, no matter how good it is, because I haven’t been able to sell the one I’ve already got.

3) Or, let’s say I do take on two similar folks. Illustrator A draws super-cute retro characters with a high-action, cartoony feel. I love his work. I’ve repped him for two years. He’s busy, but always looking for more illustration work.

Illustrator B draws super-cute retro characters with a high-action, cartoony feel. I love her work. I say, what the hell, it is like A’s work…but I like it! I’ll rep it. She’s new, and building her resume.

Editor calls. “I need a cool illustrator who does super-cute retro illustrations with a high-action, cartoony feel. Can you send me samples from your best illustrator who fits the bill?” But I have two people like that. Who do I send? What if I pick one and the other one finds out they didn’t even get considered because I didn’t show their work? What if I send both but one of them finds out that they didn’t get the job because my other illustrator did? Ew. Not good.

4) Or, Author A writes a comedic paranormal about zombie tap dancers. I love it! So I take it on. I shop it a bunch of places, it gets a whole lot of rejections, and finally I sell it.

Author B writes a comedic paranormal, about zombie ballerinas. I love it! So what the hey, I take it on. Oh but…where do I shop it? I can’t sell it to the same publisher that just bought A’s book. Nor can I send it to any of the editors who passed on A. I am sure I could find more folks with some footwork, but then what if I sell the book, and the two are published at the same time, by different publishers?

Now Book A and Book B are directly competing with each other. Of course ALL books are competing with one another…but there is no way that these two authors in this scenario will not feel like they are each other’s biggest competition. Every book review will mention the fact that there is another Zombie Dancing book, every publisher will look at the numbers next to each other, and one of them will probably do better than the other. Recriminations fly. Zombie Tap Dancer feels like his publisher didn’t do enough to sell the book. Zombie Ballerina is angry about all the Goodreads reviews that call her a copycat.

I’m the agent, who is meant to take the author’s side…but…they are BOTH my authors. Awkward. There is really only room for one comedic paranormal Zombie Dancer on the list.

Get it?

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