Pub Rants

When It’s Not Hot, Passion Can Carry It

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STATUS: Why does the phone ring only after I’ve stepped out of the office?

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? YOU SANG TO ME by Marc Anthony

Clarification: Adult SF is currently not hot. YA SF is doing just fine. Sorry about the confusion!

This week I went on submission with an adult SF novel. Ask any editor and they will tell you, adult SF is not hot. Fantasy is hot—particularly urban fantasy. I’m sure this comes as no surprise to blog readers if you track PW or NYT bestseller lists.

It’s not like I’m revealing some deep and hidden secret here.

And here’s where my passion for the project means everything. If I were smart, I wouldn’t take on an SF novel from a debut writer. Even if I do sell it, the money I’ll earn from it will barely pay the agency’s electric bill for three months.

Plain and simple. That’s the reality.

But I love SF. Grew up reading it. In my mind, some of the most important novels published in the last 20 years have been in this field so I did it anyway. Because I felt a passion for the story that I didn’t feel for the YA project I decided to pass on earlier this week (and will probably sell for more money than this SF novel will).

That’s the only way I can be in the game. I know writers hate hearing that agents or editors need to feel “the love” but folks, selling novels is not an easy biz. (Which, by the way, is why most agents don’t specialize in fiction but instead focus on nonfiction to build lucrative client lists).

We also want to take on authors for their whole careers. If we agents can connect with their writing at the passionate, visceral level, then chances are good we are a good fit for future work to come.

Last year I took on a YA author for a historical novel that I could not sell (and I still think editors were crazy not to buy it). But the writing… I still can read that unsold novel and fall in love with the author’s talent all over again. So we pushed on and got going on the next work. And it was that next project that sold. At auction.

Passion was the key—for me and for that author. And if I can’t sell this SF debut, then I already believe in the next work.

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36 Responses

  1. Joseph L. Selby said:

    So when the second title sells at auction, do editors looking for a possible two-book deal go back and look at the previous one you love so much? Or is that thing dead forever?

  2. Rachel said:

    This writer doesn’t hate hearing that agents need to feel “the love” — I am just praying that I’ll be blessed enough to be one of the writers the agents are “loving” one day.

    Thanks for this two part series. I really enjoyed it!

  3. Livia said:

    Hey Kristin,
    To follow up on Joseph’s question, do you ever discuss with your authors the possibility of self publishing those books that don’t sell?

  4. Katherine C said:

    Isn’t dystopian stuff technically SF? Akso, do you think the upcoming Across The Universe would be considered dystopian or just plain SF? Because I’ve heard good buzz about that book and I think it’s just SF …

    Hopefully this genre will get big in YA because I love it too and I’d love to see more of it.

  5. Krista V. said:

    I love to hear about agents who are passionate about their clients’ writing. Seems like that’s the number one question we writers should be asking when an agent offers: Is this agent as passionate about my work as I am?

    If the answer isn’t one-hundred-percent yes, that agent-author relationship probably isn’t going to last long, anyway.

    Great follow-up post, Kristin.

  6. Terry said:

    I grew up on science fiction too and would love a post on 5-7 current non-ignorable titles. This is a great post that shows the very personal nature of agenting, which many of us don’t often understand at first. We authors think it’s a business, but given the literary backgrounds of most agents, it’s more a passion for ideas and even (as we see here) genres – often tied to what reading meant to us as a young person.

    Great stuff! From a fellow Boiler,


  7. Madison said:

    I wrote a Post-It note to remind myself when I write: ‘People cannot afford time machines, rocket ships or private labs. They buy SF books instead’

  8. Amy Sue Nathan said:

    This post inadvertently (or not) explains rejections. I always think the rejections that say an agent didn’t love a book “enough” are the best, and the worst — and there is nothing we can do to change those because it’s a head and heart thing, even though this is a business. Fabulous post, Kristin. Thank you.

  9. Anonymous said:

    I’m also really interested in an answer to Joseph’s question. Are unsold novels that you love really dead forever? I’m not talking about bad books, but something you thought was publishable and saleable, even if it didn’t work out the first time?

  10. erin said:

    This post, and the one just before it, are such a lovely glimpse at how passionate some agents are about the work they choose to represent. I only hope I am lucky enough to one day land an agent who so firmly believes in (and loves) what I write…

  11. Ariana Richards said:

    I love hearing things like this. For a writer, their work is their passion, their art, and their outlet. Then they get to the part where they want to sell it, and they’re subjected to the fairly harsh world of business. Knowing that an agent/business partner will share that passion makes the ‘real world’ side of the coin much easier to face.

  12. Megan said:

    Writers everywhere would give an ear (what? You can write without one.) to have an agent who believes in them and their work––who falls in love with the book, not the check.

    So you see, Kristin, posts like this is why you get so many query letters.
    You bring it on yourself 🙂

  13. jazzyzazzy said:

    I’m currently revising a novel in which the main characters happen to be superheroes. I was very curious–are superheroes sci-fi? In my documents, I classify them as SF, since you usually pick up superhero movie in the SF section of the movie store. But is that different in the literary world?

  14. Kristin Laughtin said:

    I love SF and hope it will be hot again. All I can hope is that you’ll be able to sell this book and it’ll make the genre hot again.

    Thanks for following your passion.

    I, too, am curious about the idea of selling a first novel after the second is sold. I swear I’ve heard of cases where it happened (and really, nothing’s impossible, so why not?), but is it typical for publishers to want to see the trunk novels if the debut does well?

  15. David Kearns said:

    Meantime, publisher’s weekly just announced Snooki of Jersey Shore to publish a novel.
    Tell me someone isn’t trying to ruin our culture.
    Apologists? Hellooooo? (chirp, wind chimes)

  16. Elizabeth Poole said:

    I was wondering how a writer knows if an agent offering representation is passionate about their writing. Obviously if the agent is ranting and raving about how wonderful the book is, that’s a clear indication. But not all people express excitement in all caps. What about the more subdued agents?

  17. Karen Carr said:

    So now I understand. It’s simply that the agent gets to choose which manuscripts she represents and which she does not. In most professions, you do not get a choice. I have to work on the projects my boss gives me, doctors have to work on the patients that come to their office, marketing departments have to work on the products of their company.

    If I had a choice, you can bet I would only take projects I love and feel passionate about. However, I do still feel that I can be passionate and dedicated to projects that I work on, even if I am not in love with them—that is the nature of a professional. It must be super cool to be an agent and to be able to choose like that. Maybe I need to switch careers.

    Peace out

  18. Marie said:


    There’s such a huge difference between having an agent who is passionate about your work (Agent A) and having one who is only looking at your project in a business sense (Agent B). And the difference is never more pronounced than when that first project looks like it might not sell. Agent A will stay by your side, still ready to be your champion and eager to see your next project. And that value is priceless.

    @Elizabeth Poole: It’s extremely hard to tell sometimes, but usually it boils down to what your gut tells you. Usually you can sense an undercurrent of overwhelming enthusiasm even if the agent is a little subdued in expressing it–it seems to pop up in the number of details they can recount about your manuscript (i.e. “I cried at the part where A confessed her love to B”, etc). Also, it helps if you email some of the agent’s clients and ask about their experiences too.

  19. Elizabeth Poole said:

    Marie: thank you very much for the wonderful advice! The bit about the details makes sense.

    I heard about being able to speak to the prospective agent’s clients, but I wonder how that works in practice? I mean, if I have an agent who’s offering representation, wouldn’t asking to speak to their clients seem…I don’t know, ungrateful? Especially if the agent seems enthusiatic?

  20. MCPlanck said:

    Five SF titles that ought to be mandatory?

    The perfection of weird:
    Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein

    Old-school epic scope:
    Foundation Trilogy – Iasaac Asimov

    Scientific humor:
    The Cyberiad – Stanislaw Lem

    Modern literature:
    Neuromancer – William Gibson

    Ethical speculation:
    The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K Le Guin

    And a sixth, for sheer adventurous fun:
    The Demon Princes – Jack Vance

  21. Anonymous said:

    This response is directed to Karen Carr to help shed some light on why the passion bit is so important. I was once an agent, tons of people told me to do it as I had a great background in sales as a very successful headhunter and I loved books, agenting was just another form of matchmaking right? Um, not so much. I have so much more respect for agents after having been one for a little over a year.

    In headhunting and most sales situations, you make the sale and you are done, you move on to the next sale. That is so not the case with agenting and I’ll honestly admit that is why I didn’t stay in it. You get emotionally invested in your authors and each rejection hurts. The whole process can drag out for months depending on how quickly editors are able to respond.

    Imagine investing all that time and energy in a book and author that you are not passionate about? Most agents look long-term at the entire career of the author and when you take an author on there’s never a guarantee that you’ll sell, especially in the current market.

    So, the key thing is time and energy spent. There’s so much time that goes into managing the process and communicating with the author and editor, why would an agent choose to spend that time on a project they don’t love when there are other project they could be representing that they do love.

    The enthusiasm for an author’s work is so important in generating editor enthusiasm to review it…along with the agent’s track record.

  22. Anonymous said:

    Elizabeth Poole:

    You know the agent is truly enthusiastic about your work by the clear signs. You get a call on your answering service and when you call back, the agent is on the phone immediately. He/she tells you what they like (specifics) about your MS. They should also tell you what they think might be improved. They ask you if you want to sign.

    As for asking to speak to prospective clients, I think you should have done your homework beforehand. With some research (often on the agency’s own site), you should already know some if not all of their authors. Hopefully you’re going with an agency with a track record, even if the agent herself is new.

    Basically, you don’t have to worry so much about this. Kristin was talking about it from her end. You will know when an agent is passionate because they will call you and offer representation. It’s up to you to have narrowed your list to reputable agents.

  23. Shelley Mira Souza said:

    (I removed my earlier post to correct a typo 🙂

    Karen Carr wrote:

    “So now I understand. It’s simply that the agent gets to choose which manuscripts she represents and which she does not. In most professions, you do not get a choice. I have to work on the projects my boss gives me, doctors have to work on the patients that come to their office, marketing departments have to work on the products of their company.

    “If I had a choice, you can bet I would only take projects I love and feel passionate about. … It must be super cool to be an agent and to be able to choose like that. Maybe I need to switch careers.”

    ***Agents get to choose their projects because agents are self-employed: they don’t receive a regular paycheck (unless their clients do well and there’s a steady stream of commissions from royalty checks).

    Whatever client or project agents choose to take on, they then have to sell- essentially, to a company that wants only a product that will reap a substantial return for the company. Which was the point I think Kristin was making: sometimes, it’s important to try and sell the project you love; even if it won’t make any money.

    Because the sell can be so hard, every so often, agents needs to try and sell a story for which one feels great passion, for the sake of the story itself; not just for the money it might bring in.

    Every job you cited is essentially derivative. The people working on the projects you listed are not inventing something new, though they may bring a certain creativity to their efforts. Writing, or any other art form, creates something that didn’t exist before and that we didn’t know we needed until it did. (At least, that’s the theory.)

  24. Shelley Mira Souza said:

    corrected one typo, created another two…oops.

    should read:

    Because the sell can be so hard, every so often, *agents need* to try and sell a story for which *they feel* great passion, for the sake of the story itself; not just for the money it might bring in.

  25. Astrid said:

    I know you said writers don’t like hearing that it’s ‘the love’, but I like hearing it. For me it gives me hope. If this is someone I’m going to be interacting and working with for the length of my career (hopefully it’ll be a long one once it gets going :P), they need to connect to my writing, and believed in my work.
    Thanks as always for your honesty.