Ingredients of Successful Fiction: If Your Novel Doesn’t Sell, Consider This

25 October, 2013

From an agent’s perspective, selling fiction can be exciting, just plain fun or heartbreaking.  Exciting because I can’t wait to tell editor4s about a story that moved me or kept me on the edge of my seat, characters I can’t forget, a setting that resonates, language that soars.  Fun because fiction can be so engaging.  Heartbreaking because even for the best agents, sometimes it can be hard to place.

Unlike selling nonfiction, for which I feel I can make a pure argument– the world needs a book such as this one, there is a gap in the market, this book contains groundbreaking information or a unique perspective, this author is the go-to person on this particular subject, “x” number of people comprise the target demographic for this book–selling and experiencing fiction defies logic.

When it comes to fiction, we all read so much more personally.  Editors’ responses can feel arbitrary.  Here are some common reasons why editors turn down fiction:

*I didn’t identify with the main character or voice.  This is the #1 reason why editors reject fiction.  While the author (and in this case, the agent) may love the character, for whatever reason, the editor feels indifferent.   You can’t force someone to embrace your character.  Like I said, it’s just so personal. Maybe the character is a dumpy but loveable country housewife, and the editor is a smart, sophisticated 30 something.  Their lives are just so…different.  Or maybe your character isn’t as well developed or compelling as she might be.

*I lost interest midway.  Translation:  the plot doesn’t move, isn’t interesting enough, or the story is predictable.  Whether you are writing commercial fiction or a literary masterpiece, the reader needs motivation to keep turning the pages.  Maybe the editor has ADD, or just maybe your story isn’t as well thought out and tightly plotted as it might be.

*Great story but I didn’t love the writing.  Maybe the editor lacks sensitivity, or maybe the execution needs work, more care and craft word by work, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter.

*Good read but the author doesn’t have enough of a social media presence.  This especially applies to genre fiction, especially romance, mystery, fantasy and science fiction, which sells well digitally.  Without an author who has been developing a following online, it may be just too hard to market.

So if your novel is rejected, what should you do?  Torch it?  Put it in a drawer?  Possibly, but a saner approach might be to review the comments from editors and see if there’s a pattern.  Are editors saying the same thing or is the feedback all over the place?  If it is the latter, you may want to put the manuscript aside for now and start on something new.  But if you are consistently getting similar feedback, go back to the drawing board.  Maybe these editors are smart and have put their finger on something that you can fix. Talk to your agent about it.  Possibly working with an independent editor to address the issues raised by editors may bring a better result.

I worked with a very accomplished author who wrote a novel I found charming and marketable. The first five editors turned it down.  One consistent theme in their responses was that the plot was a bit simplistic, needed more depth.  The author worked with John Paine (see “About Us”), a brilliant editor who is sometimes associated with our agency, for many months.  The revised version was so good that both publishers I sent it to loved it and we made a sale to the perfect house.

Sometimes, with hard work, there can be a happy ending.

–Joelle Delbourgo