This was a particularly good week for manuscripts. I had about half a dozen to catch up on. All of them were good to very good; I enjoyed reading all but one of them. But I did not offer a contract on any of them.
It occurred to me that, as an industry, we should be better about telling authors (and agents), whose hopes we have raised, WHY we turned down a book. But who has the time? Or the energy? We've got to keep moving ahead... and it's always easier to say "It just wasn't right for me" or "I didn't fall in love with it."
So, herewith a blog post outlining why those six books didn't get contract offers from me.
All of the manuscripts were well written. That goes without saying for any manuscript that gets to the "full read by an editor" stage. So why didn't I take any of them on?
My favorite one (of the rejectees) was quite wonderfully written. Oh, what command this writer had of his subgenre. The turns of phrase were pointedly and sometimes hilariously world-weary. Every page had an observation that made me think of the writer as a kindred soul. The plot was serviceable enough, even interesting, with nice twists and turns.
But...there was nothing NEW there. All of the characters were well-drawn, but I've seen all of them before. They were nicely fleshed out, but still the "types" that are a staple of that particular subgenre. Looking ahead to the publicity and the ARCs, I struggled with how I'd describe the book, what I'd promise readers. "If you like X, Y, and Z writers, you'll like this one." That seemed damning with faint praise.
In a couple of others, I felt that a strong premise - and equally strong opening chapters - fizzled out by mid-book. This is an area fraught with dangers for writers, I think. The premise ("high concept") is what gets an editor's or agent's attention...and thus sets up a high expectation, which then raises the bar HIGHER for the author than a book whose concept is not quite so smart or innovative. I know this about myself, so I try to compensate by cutting the author a bit more slack as I read through. I feel that readers deserve not only a good opening, but also a good middle and a good ending. These manuscripts had great openings; OK middles; and not-so-great endings.
I quite enjoyed another manuscript, found it to be the perfect balance of light entertainment: fast, fun, but not stupid or hackneyed. A terrific central character combined with an above-average plot gave this one legs, I thought. But then...I asked a couple of my female colleagues to read it. They were underwhelmed. I then asked a male colleague to read it, and he liked it. So, based on my small sample, I had to come to the conclusion that this was a man's book, not a woman's book. And since women buy most books, I had to think that we wouldn't be able to sell enough copies of it. (There is credible research, somewhere, that says that women are much more likely to take chances on new writers; while male readers--who DO make up large numbers--tend to buy books by names they know, such as Baldacci, Connelly, Patterson, and the other big names).
The last manuscript was one that I liked precisely because I had not expected to like it. It is in a subgenre that isn't one of my favorites, and one that I'm not particularly interested in. When I finished reading it, I thought: "Wow, that was much better than I expected, and much better than the usual fare." But, sadly, this line of thought makes me the wrong editor for this book. I simply didn't think I'd be able to provide the best editorial guidance to the author; the house I work for isn't particularly strong in this subgenre; and our publicist isn't necessarily in love with this type of book either. Rejection letters often close with "we wish you the best in placing this with another house," but in this case it was clear that our house was NOT the right publisher for it, that the author would be better off elsewhere.
Of these 6 books, I will not be surprised if at least three of them end up with contracts. And I'll buy the final copies to support the authors, who deserve to be published.
One thing that occurred to me after my week of reading was that this part of the process is absolutely my favorite part of my job. One thing I love about reading works by unknown writers is the tabula rasa I bring to the table. I open the manuscript with little to no expectation or experience with the writer--therefore the work must stand on its own merits. I have also come to the conclusion that one criterion has come to the forefront in terms of my requesting a full manuscript or taking the book on: ABSORPTION. If a first chapter completely absorbs me, the author's chances of a contract have just increased exponentially. In a way, this absorption can be aggravating: I'm wanting to breeze through that first chapter, I'm looking for reasons/excuses to toss it into the rejection pile, but it just won't let me. I want to rush through it so I can cross it off my list of things to do, but it won't let me rush. I read the first page and want desperately to hand it off to my assistant because there are so many other things to do, but that little bell goes off in my head: No, Agatho, YOU must read this.
A lot of the books I've raved about on Mysterious Matters in the last year or so are those that offered me instant absorption: Burial of the Dead, The Lock Artist, Mr. Peanut, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. None of these books is perfect, but at the end of the day they provide me with that all-absorbing reading experience that is the mark of a fabulous book.
Hmm, and what leads to this all-important ABSORPTION? I'll have to think about it, and perhaps post at a later date.