Pub Rants

Even When Hot Might Not Be Right For Us

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STATUS: It wasn’t a manic Monday. Huh, how strange.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? BLACKNAIL by Tim Davies Big Band

About a week or so ago, we asked for sample pages from a query we had received. Then on Friday, the writer sent us an email letting us know that an editor had offered for this YA project and that the writer also had several offers of representation. The author would like to decide on Monday but we could have the weekend to give the novel a read.

Professionally handled. Courteously done for all parties involved. I just want to take a moment to thank the writer for that! Always appreciate given time to read. (side note: interestingly, we weren’t even behind on reading. I had read the partial the night before and was planning to request the full so good timing all around.)

Both Sara and I gave it a look. And we passed on offering representation despite all the obvious excitement around the project.

Should be a slam dunk for ALL agents to throw their hats in the ring, yes?

So why not? Do I think the manuscript will sell? Probably.

I didn’t go for it for one simple reason: I didn’t feel passionate about the manuscript. I could see what was generating the excitement but it wasn’t right for me.

I know I’ve mentioned this before on my blog–that agents don’t just take on projects that they think will sell or be saleable—but I think it’s always worth repeating.

It really does come down to the right person and the right fit.

34 Responses

  1. Simon Hay Soul Healer said:

    I think you have to love something to give it your full attention. I don’t know about other writers, but I’m in a relationship with my writing. As much as I strive to be a good writer, I love my babies, whether they’re ugly or not. I’d want my agent to love changing nappies as much as I do.

  2. Dustin said:

    This might be my favorite post on your blog to date. There is a lot of comfort hidden between the lines here.

    Writers write because they need to, it’s great to see that you have to feel passion same as an agent. I only hope to someday be rep’ed by someone that has these same ideals.

  3. Marva said:

    Kristin, I have great respect for both you and your agency. I’d kill my firstborn to have you as an agent.

    But this “must love” thing bothers me. The reason: I’ve been a contractor on lots of projects, both programming and documenting software systems. Did I take the job because I “fell in love” with the project? Nope. I took the project because I saw it was a viable concept. No, I didn’t have to sell it. That was somebody else’s job.

    At the same time, I have to think that if I passed on a project because it wasn’t something I loved, I’d simply be out the bucks.

    Passion is great for your personal life, but I wonder if agents have to much attachment to that passion when they could be earning a nice chunk of change from the less than passionate projects.

  4. Bronwen said:

    I totally agree with Kristin on this.
    A writer and an agent work together for the mutual benefit of both parties. I’d want an agent that loved my work (and luckily I have one). It doesn’t mean I don’t think an agent that passes on my work is not a good agent. Just as I am sure an agent passing on my work doesn’t necessarily think it is not saleable. Sometimes there just isn’t a fit between what has to be a mutually beneficial working partnership.

  5. Huntress said:

    An agent who loves going to their job every day (or most days) should love the manuscripts they choose as well. Otherwise, getting up to go to work would be a real killer. There are more important things than money alone and passion is one of them.

    Course, money doesn’t hurt either.

  6. Leah said:

    Marva: I’ve freelanced too (graphic/motion design), and I often take projects I feel no passion for, because it’s possible to do professional design work without being emotionally invested in the project–in fact, it’s often better *not* to be emotionally invested. Clients will demand changes and impose their vision in ways that supersede your own ideas. On most projects, I am more of an interpreter of ideas than a creator.

    The agent/author relationship is completely different. The author isn’t coming to the agent for help realizing their idea–they’re coming to sell it, after whipping it into shape. So if the agent isn’t enthusiastic, who would buy it?

  7. Wendy Delfosse said:

    I agree – there is comfort here. And I like the thought of an agent bowing out rather than not knowing who’s truly passionate about it.

    Marva: The difference is an agent IS out there to sell your work. Part of their job is to “sell it” to editors. And few agents seem to suffer from a lack of clients – the spots the have available I can understand wanting to be passionate about them.

  8. Anonymous said:


    I’ve been a contractor, and I’m a published, agented writer. When I take a contract job, I have a contract that says I’ll be paid when I deliver X. Agents have no idea if the ms. is going to lead to money for the time spent trying to sell it. After two rounds of submissions to editors and plenty of rejections (and not a penny made for the effort), it’s the agent’s passion for the project that will make them try another round. If it’s strictly a business proposition, they’d probably give up after round one.

    Imagine selling something you think is a good product, versus selling something you think causes the sun to rise and set. You’re going to be a much better seller of the second product.

  9. Karen Carr said:

    I agree with Marva. I worked in entertainment for ten years and I can tell you the studios don’t make their decisions based on passion — it all boils down to how much money they can make on a movie. There’s a whole department that sits around and crunches numbers for the execs so they can make a decision about greenlighting a film. For an agent to go with passion instead of money is admirable, and I guess books are a little different, but from my experience people who sell things truly don’t need to be in love with them. Think about all the other industries who market things and have to sell things to the public–why is the book industry so different?

  10. Kristi Helvig said:

    Good for you, Kristin. We’re told as writers to write from the heart and not follow what we think will be the next trend. Obviously, we want our books to sell, but I personally can only write what I’m passionate about. It’s very encouraging to know there are agents out there who work from the same mindset.

  11. Anonymous said:

    I get this a good example for your blog but I can’t but feel a little bad for the author if he or she is reading this. Probably took the air right out of the party balloon.

  12. Anonymous said:

    Just this week an editor I’ve had a long a positive working relationship with passed on my most recent novel. Not because it wasn’t good enough. Not because it won’t make money. It just wasn’t a good fit for his house. He sent me a kind note mentioning several things he loved about the text and a suggestion about where I might find the most responsive editors.

    I’m grateful. He recognized that this book would always be the misfit in his house and that the book and I deserve better. Editing is a labor intensive art and I’d rather not sell a book at all than let it go to someone who will do a half-hearted job. Passion shows in the finished product.

  13. Anonymous said:

    “There’s a whole department that sits around and crunches numbers for the execs so they can make a decision about greenlighting a film.”

    But the agent isn’t the exec in this scenario. She’s the person who has to convince someone a few rungs below the exec just to take a look at a ms. Then that person has to get 2 or 3 of her peers to give it second reads. If the ms. makes it that far, it goes to ed board where sales and marketing have to approve. Then it goes to the number cruncher who provides the P&L statement that the exec uses to determine whether to buy, and the exec rarely does. All the while there are hundreds of other agents sending thousands of other mss. through the same process. There are many choices of sodas, cars, DVDs for consumers to be pitched, but nowhere near as many mss. competing for so few slots. A passionate agent is more likely to jump all these hurdles multiple times than one who just sees the money.

    There are stories of agents who send a ms. out and if it doesn’t sell after a handful of editors, they’re out. Then the writer has to look for another agent, hard to do for a book that’s already made the rounds, even if only a handful of editors ever saw it. That book is doomed unless he’s lucky enough to find an agent so passionate about the “tainted” book she’s willing to take it on and try to sell it. Might as well find the passionate agent from the get-go.

  14. BorneoExpatWriter said:

    Agree. In writing, without the passion, there’s no patience to complete it, draft after draft, and without the patience, there’s no perseverance to see it through until the end when it gets published.

    This applies to selling it, too. Passion, like enthusiasm, is infectious. I’d rather have someone who is passionate and enthusiastic about selling my novel, as I was while writing it, then it’ll have a fighting chance to attract a passionate and enthusiastic editor, who’ll then have to convince everyone else on her side of the operation.

    Otherwise it won’t happen and everyone suffers for it.

    Yawn, here’s another book. I think it’s OK, it’ll sell, you’ll make a few bucks, so what’s the problem?

  15. Joseph L. Selby said:

    I get this a good example for your blog but I can’t but feel a little bad for the author if he or she is reading this. Probably took the air right out of the party balloon.

    While I would be thrilled to the moon and back to work with Kristin, if my manuscript had already received an offer from a publisher and was getting multiple offers of representation from other agents I had queried, my balloon would still have plenty of air in it despite Kristin’s post.

    Who would want to focus on that when so many great things are happening?

  16. Karen Carr said:

    “But the agent isn’t the exec in this scenario. She’s the person who has to convince someone a few rungs below the exec just to take a look at a ms.”

    I’m not convinced this is a valid argument. Why are the agent and the acquiring editor the only ones who must feel passion for the ms? Theoretically once a manuscript is purchased, the rest of the company has to support it. Marketing can’t turn down the job because they don’t feel passion. The agent only has to sell it to an editor, one person. What about marketing and PR, aren’t they the ones who truly have to feel the passion to sell the MS to thousands of people who will potentially buy the book? What if the agent finds a manuscript that isn’t right for her but knows the perfect editor for the project, do they pass?

    To me selling a book to an editor seems easier than selling something like Greased Lightening to the public. Books have many different layers, they are complex beings with plots and characters and hooks. There is much for someone to glom onto and for someone to be able to sell to someone else. What if there were thousands of Greased Lightening products out there, how would you enter that market as a debut? I might be incredibly naive, but what if the dialogue between agent and editor were to change? What if the agent crunched the numbers and said ‘this is why you can sell it’ and kept the passion out of it? Maybe they already do this, and I hope I can still query the Nelson Agency after this post, but I feel very passionate about this issue and I’m not the kind of person to go anonymous.


  17. Rachel said:

    I enjoyed reading this, and knowing that on that wonderful day in the future when I will get an offer of representation (positive thinking, see?), that my agent will be as excited about my work as I am! Thanks Kristin!

  18. Anonymous said:


    “Why are the agent and the acquiring editor the only ones who must feel passion for the ms?”

    Because those other in-house people will never see it if the agent can’t convince the editor to read it(not buy it, they have close to no buying authority unless very high up the editorial chain). Then that editor, who has no buying authority, must go and convince her second readers (other editors with little buying authority) to read it, give positive feedback which helps acquiring editor sell it at the ed board review, where she then must all sell it to S&M. Most books don’t get that far, so the sales/marketing department’s enthusiasm to sell the book into accounts (B&N, etc) is moot until the agent can sell it to the publisher.

    Believe me, I wish it worked out the way you describe, but I’m relaying my experience through a few books deals, which is why I remain Anon 10:05. I’m just grateful I found an agent who was passionate enough about my work to stick with me until I finally landed those deals.

    We would need an agent or editor to tell us from their side of the game how often it plays out your way.

    Now I think I’ve exhausted my two cents.

  19. Anonymous said:

    This is all very great and mature and wonderful, but for the projects you do take on — what if the author’s NEXT project just isn’t something you love?

    It gets “kind of” shopped and given up on? Or sort of” shopped and the client leaves because you (collective you, meaning agents) have lost the love?

    That’s why I hate, hate, hate all the I must BE IN LOVE crap. Because it stands to reason that an agent ISN’T going to love every book by a client.

    I’ll go with flat out professionalism and knowing editors who’ll love a book even if it’s not your favorite every time.

  20. Susan Spann said:

    Speaking from a writer’s perspective, I am grateful that you refuse books you’re not passionate about. I appreciate your honesty in that regard.

    I tell other writers (and friends who don’t write) that they should never get frustrated with an agent who doesn’t connect with the material. The truth is, you wouldn’t want to marry someone who dated you and said “well, you know, you don’t smell too bad, let’s get hitched.” You want to marry someone who says “you shine like the sun, I love being around you.”

    Although agency is a business relationship, people connect with books on a personal level. If an agent just doesn’t feel the fire, you don’t want them representing your work. You need to find someone for whom your novel is more than just the ‘absence of suck.’

    Thanks for being the honest resource you are.

  21. Laura Drake said:

    Thanks for the reminder. When I get rejections telling me, “Just not right for me.” I tell myself that I want an agent who is passionate about my MS, but after a couple of these, you start second-guessing yourself.

  22. Anonymous said:

    I too, do not get the love thing, although Kristin you are the bomb Wonder if you pass on this book and her next book is something you are passionate about, because obviously she has the talent, and wonder if she is passionate about having you as her dream agent. Or vice versa, (like someone else mentioned) you loved this one and not her next MS, but it is still totally saleable.

    I like a lot of books I read. I only love a handful, which pretty much are the bestsellers. Where would we be without the likeable books? You know maybe the one about nosebleeds and how to stop them-who could be passionate about that?

  23. Anonymous said:

    I think this also underscores the fact that no matter how much the agent thanks us for “the look,” writers are the ones who have to hope and pray someone clicks with their mss.

  24. Anonymous said:

    I often wonder when the agent who reps x-celebrity penned ego exercises such as titles like “How I got famous and look after my dog at the same time!” which you occasionally see on the shelves, if they are repping it for the “love”. Yes. It seems the only ones who are rejected for lack of love are the unknowns, but for the knowns, well, we’ll just rep them because we know they’re a gold mine. Sorry unknowns, we just don’t “love” you as much as Tiger Wood’s 37th mistress.

  25. Anonymous said:

    I think what’s important to note here too is that this author already has serious interest/offers from both publishers and agents. Given that, it frankly doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for Kristen to put her time and energy into trying to win this author when she’s likely up against people who are simply more passionate about the project than she is.

    It’s a no-brainer really. If you are the author, who would you choose? The agent who is madly in love with your work or the one who is lukewarm? One of the biggest assets an agent brings to the table is their enthusiasm, their GENUINE enthusiasm for a writer’s book.

  26. Roni Loren said:

    This seems to depend on the agent. I went to a conference last year where there was an agent panel. All the agents said they needed to feel passionate about a manuscript except one. One male agent said it was much simpler for him–can he sell it? Period. So if you want an agent that is just focused on the sell, they are out there.

    I personally am happy that I have an agent who is passionate about my story. If someone loves your book, it’s going to come across in their sales pitch. It’s also going to keep them motivated when they have to read your manuscript over and over during the editing process.

  27. Courtney Milan said:

    I think one of the things that the “how come you can’t sell something you don’t love?” people are missing is that an agent does a LOT more than just broker a sale and then step back and wash her hands of the process.

    The agent is the go-to person anything goes wrong.

    I generally abhor calling books babies, but they are like babies in this sense: If you didn’t love them, you would sometimes contemplate murder.

    The passion matters not just for the sale, but to keep up the energy to make sure the book gets the attention and treatment it deserves to do well down the line.

  28. Karen Carr said:

    “The passion matters not just for the sale, but to keep up the energy to make sure the book gets the attention and treatment it deserves to do well down the line.”

    Yea, but isn’t it passion for the job, not passion for the book that we want? I want an agent who is passionate about her job, who loves doing what she’s doing so that she can stay dedicated to me for years. Sure, she can love my book, but if she doesn’t love her job what’s the point?

    I’m passionate about my day job, I sometimes work 60 hours a week on it because it’s very important to me. But, I’m certainly not that excited about the products I’ve built over the years (online stamps, whoopee) I guarantee I’ve given my projects attention and dedication for years and years because I enjoy my work, not so much because I enjoyed the project. This is what I’m looking for in an agent, someone who loves their job and not necessarily my book. That kind of dedication shines through.

  29. Laura said:

    A good decision, if passion for the writer’s work is what it takes for you to be committed through the long haul. I wish my various former agents had made decisions on a similar basis.

    I now work UNagented by choice, and this is probably permanent, since it’s going very well. But of my four former agents, I’d say only one of them really liked my writing; one thought it was professional and saleable, but had no more invested an attitude than that… and the other two, it eventually became clear, never read my work–not even the published books on which they were earning commissions. (One of them read my synopses; I’m not sure the other one even bothered to do that.)

    However, by the time I first started working with agents, I was already a steadily-published professional (having been unable to get an agent, like most aspiring writers, I sold 8 books on my own before hiring my first agent)… and looking back, I really think that every agent who took me on (including two who approached me and courted me at times when I wasn’t looking to hire another agent) simply saw me as someone who could generate income for them without any heavy lifting on their part–rather than as someone whose work they loved. And in each case, of course, that meant that as soon as I needed the agent to do some actual WORK… we had problems. (Hence all of them being my EX-agents now.)

    Indeed, at this point, I’m completely convinced that one of them (my fourth/final agent) ONLY took me on because I had a good multi-book offer already on the table at the time; collecting the commission on that deal turned out to be the most interest that agent ever showed in my career… and therefore, hiring that agent turned out to be a VERY expensive mistake for me.

    So here’s hoping that more agents will be rational and ethical enough, as you have done in this instance, to pass up a commission just lying there on the table if this is NOT a writer and writing career they can commit to for the long haul, over bumpy and smooth ground. Certainly it’s MUCH better for writers when agents ask themselves the questions they SHOULD be asking before taking on a client (ex. “If the deal is canceled, will I still be committed to representing this writer? If the option book isn’t picked up, do I want to do the work of placing the writer elsewhere?” etc.), rather than just grabbing the easy money that’s on the table simply because it’s there, without thinking professionally and seriously about entering into a new client relationship.

  30. Norma Beishir said:

    I know from experience that this can be frustrating to the writer searching for representation, but after 25 years and 16 books, I can honestly say that the agent’s enthusiasm is essential. When my first novel sold–for a much higher advance than I’d expected–I wasn’t stupid enough to believe that it was the manuscript alone that sealed the deal. I had someone in my corner who was talking to editors as if my manuscript contained the key to world peace.