I’ve just responded to an aspiring author on this topic, and thought it was worth sharing my advice (such as it is) more widely. Here’s what I told him:
Here are a few thoughts based on my own experience of getting publishers/agents to be interested in my work.
It’s always a struggle, as you have clearly already found out! What we as writers find fascinating – and it’s generally obvious to us why we wrote, or are writing, a particular book – often seems to leave the potential publisher or agent cold.
What they are always looking for is what they call a ‘hook’ – by which I suppose they mean both: what will reach out and ‘grab’ the reader, and what can they ‘hang it on’ when they’re describing the book to others? While we, the authors, are wondering what will engage a publisher, they are in turn thinking what will booksellers (i.e. the buyers in book stores etc.) respond to. And unfortunately, our expectations often differ, in that authors tend to think in terms of being original, doing something no one has ever done before, whereas the booksellers (at least as perceived by publishers’ marketing departments) want the tried and tested, something familiar, something ‘like’ something else, so that they know where to put it on the shelves. Sounds stupid, but I’ve had that kind of response so many times.
What we somehow have to try to do is achieve both those things – be different, and the same, simultaneously.
So, in a covering letter and synopsis, what ideally should come across is that your book just had to be written, that you are the person to write it, that, yes, it is original but at the same time it can be ‘placed’. Which successful authors/books is it in line with, which existing audiences will it appeal to? Does it have some particular relevance to world events now? To ‘entertain and educate’ is too vague. There are millions of books already doing that – or trying to – so why is yours especially worth reading? Why wasn’t it enough for you to read other people’s books, come to that? If you can give convincing answers to those kinds of questions, you may be on the way to being heard.
Then, once you’ve got something you’re happy with and believe ought to convince others, the only other thing to do is not to give up. Pick an agent that deals with your kind of topic and, when they reject you, try the next on the list and keep going!
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Bellow wrote things in the 1960s one couldn’t write now, without howls of protest, more’s the pity. Here’s an example:
‘”My childhood was a grotesque nightmare,” [Madeleine] went on. “I was bullied, assaulted, ab-ab-ab … ” she stammered.
‘She nodded. She had told [Herzog] this before. He could not bring this sexual secret of hers to light.
‘”It was a grown man,” she said. “He paid me to keep it quiet.”
‘”Who was he?”
‘Her eyes were sullenly full and her pretty mouth desperately vengeful but silent.
‘”It happens to many, many people,” he said. “Can’t base a whole life on that. It doesn’t mean that much.”‘
Wise words on choices from Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point:
Lucy shook her head. ‘Perhaps it’s a pity,’ she admitted. ‘But you can’t get something for nothing. If you like speed, if you want to cover the ground, you can’t have luggage. The thing is to know what you want and to be ready to pay for it. I know exactly what I want; so I sacrifice the luggage. If you choose to travel in a furniture van, you may. But don’t expect me to come along with you, my sweet Walter. And don’t expect me to take your grand piano in my two-seater monoplane.’
Brompton Oratory, a hot lunch-time in July,
a baby being received into the Catholic Church
and Catholic upper-crust society;
dressed-up, a group stands round the font.
Otherwise the building’s almost empty, save a
scattering of oddballs dotted round the nave,
the occasional stray tourist fleeing from the sun.
A little girl in blue and white-striped dress
escapes the cluster of family and friends.
She patters down the aisle towards the wardrobe-like
confessionals – archaic Wendy-houses –
which lure her to explore their dark insides;
drunk with happiness, she crawls along a pew;
ecstatic – the Oratory one unimagined playground.
Behind her plods the solemn uncle.
Determined not to make a sideshow of himself,
he doesn’t chase – but holds himself on guard
till the moment she stands still. She totters,
absorbing wonder, dizzies herself with space…
He scoops her up, bears her back towards propriety –
the serious expectations of family and Church.
[Published in Ironing the hankies: a selection of 20 poems, Pikestaff Press, 1999]
Subtitle: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina Rating: **** (4/5) Published: St. Martin’s Press, 2011 Format: Hardcover Genre: Nonfiction Source: Personal Collection I have read a number …
[Balthazar] had been a fellow-student and close friend of the old poet, and of him he spoke with such warmth and penetration that what he had to say always moved me. ‘I sometimes think that I learned more from studying him than I did from studying philosophy. His exquisite balance of irony and tenderness would have put him about the saints had he been a religious man. He was by divine choice only a poet and often unhappy but with him one had the feeling that he was catching every minute as it flew and turning it upside down to expose its happy side. He was really using himself up, his inner self, in living. Most people lie and let life play upon them like the tepid discharges of a douche-bag. To the Cartesian proposition: “I think, therefore I am”, he opposed his own which must have gone something like this: “I imagine, therefore I belong and am free”.’