Recently, I’ve had several prospective clients pitch me books that fall into categories I don’t represent. In response to my “I’m sorry but I don’t represent that genre,” I’m often faced with a look of disappointment or a counter-argument like, “But it’s really well-written!” or “But you said you like compelling characters and timely themes, and my book has both!” I thought it might be time to dissect the reasons why agents choose specific categories of books to represent and also why they tend to stick with them.
If you’ve read my bio on this website or at a conference I’ve attended, the categories I’ve chosen may seem random. What does a contemporary YA novel have to do with a nonfiction guide to food safety? How does a commercial thriller fit in with literary memoir? To some extent, I made these choices based on personal preference – they are the kinds of books that I am interested in reading, the kinds of books I was reading long before I became an agent. However, they are also based on business decisions.
As an advocate for my clients, I need to know the market that their books fit into and the editors who are publishing books within that market (just like agents, editors have particular categories that they publish). If I’m going to sell a historical novel, I need to (1) cultivate relationships with the editors who publish historical fiction and (2) know the historical fiction market – what’s out there and what’s coming out in the near future. Knowing the editors helps me decide who to pitch the novel to, and knowing the market helps me convince editors that the book has something new to offer to historical fiction readers.
Once a book comes out, knowing the communities that support certain categories of writing helps all of us (client, editor, and agent) find ways to promote the book most effectively. For example, mystery readers might attend a mystery conference to meet their favorite authors or follow mystery review blogs; whereas, literary fiction readers tend to give weight to reviews by prestigious publications or consider awards that the book has won. There’s a great deal of variety in the way that different kinds of books find their audiences, so agents need to know as much as possible about each category they work within to advise their client on how to reach their audience. And that’s also why – once we know an area of the market – we tend to stay there.
The good news is, if a writer hears “I’m sorry but I don’t represent that genre,” there’s no reason to take it personally. It’s better to find an agent who works on the right category than to convince one who doesn’t. Ultimately, an agent who’s tuned into the right area of the market will be able to do much more for your book!