Chip MacGregor

April 8, 2016

Ask the Agent: What if my novel doesn’t fit?


All through the month of April we’re doing “Ask the Agent” — your chance to ask a literary agent the question you’ve always wanted to ask. Last week someone sent in this question: “If your manuscript isn’t the right fit for the agents you query, should you move on to the next book or self-publish? How do you decide if your project is good enough to go out if it doesn’t have a gatekeeper stamp of approval?”

Your first question suggests there is a right-or-wrong answer. The fact is, if your manuscript isn’t the right fit for the agents you query, perhaps you need to query other agents. Or perhaps you need to tweak your proposal. (I’m not trying to be cruel here, but if a bunch of people have seen your proposal and all rejected it, then it’s always possible the proposal simply needs some more work.) I just don’t see this as an either/or question.

That said, I think your second question gets to the heart of the matter: How can a writer know if his or her proposal is ready to be shown to agents and editors? And the answer is no doubt, “By getting some experienced opinions.” Taking your proposal to a critique group can help, or taking it to a couple of experienced writer friends and asking them to suggest changes. Many conferences have workshops on how to create a good proposal, and most will give you a chance to talk with editors and agents about the proposal itself — not just to pitch it, but to refine it. All of those are good options. And, of course, if you need more help, there is always this fabulous book to peruse… Pitch-Book-Cover-cropped-2

Okay, I’ll admit… I wrote it with longtime editor Holly Lorincz, and I love the topic. There are plenty of good books out there on “how to create a good proposal.” What’s unique about this one? I include actual book proposals from books I represented and sold to publishers. You can order a copy here.

On a related note, someone asked, “When you write novels that don’t ‘fit’ the marketplace… are you doomed? I have had a few agents that did not take me on because I wasn’t quite romance; my books were more literary. With the difficult publishing world, I was told they don’t know where to put me.” 

If you’re trying to get published in a category, you have to fit the category rules or you are, indeed, doomed. Every category (romance, suspense, cozy mystery, police procedural, western, etc) has certain rules that must be followed because that’s what readers have come to expect of the genre. A cozy mystery that doesn’t have the crime solved at the end, for instance, won’t get much love. A romance where the hero and heroine don’t get together in the end is a tough sell. That’s what category fiction is: stories that follow certain rules.

But literary fiction doesn’t have rules. They are novels about life and relationships and the big questions we all ask. The characters may or may not get together, the hero may or may not win, the crime may or may not be solved… because these aren’t standard stories going by certain rules. They are stories exploring people and the human condition, and the rules governing category fiction don’t apply.

Occasionally there will be a novel that combines a literary sensibility with a category — many would consider The Time Traveler’s Wife to be a “literary romance,” for example, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is often talked about as a “literary crime novel.” That may be true because the stories have elements of the category, but in both cases I think most people consider those books largely as literary fiction. I don’t think Eco’s novel appealed to most crime fiction readers, for example. They would simply argue it was too literary.

So to me, it sounds like you may be talking with the wrong agents, or talking the wrong way about your manuscript. Category fiction sells a lot of copies to readers who enjoy the genre, but literary fiction are the stories that change us, that help us to see the world in new ways, that cause us to grow. It’s tough to point to a category novel that most critics would consider great fiction.

Does that help? Hey, if you’ve got a question you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent, stick it into the comments section below. Happy to start a conversation with you!


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  • Heather Stuart says:

    I truly look forward to reading these posts in my inbox! I always learn a lot about the publishing industry and it makes me keen to work on my writing. I find the need for my writing to fit into a category very limiting. While I understand the need to sell books, I feel as though most genre fiction is telling the same story over and over again. I wrote a children’s book (ideally, to include pictures), but it does not qualify as a picture book because it’s too long for traditional publishers. I have already had it critiqued by two published authors and I can’t cut it down further without losing the story. I am sad that after about 10 years this piece still has not found its way into a little one’s hands. I also recently wrote a board book for babies aged 0-2 (and caregivers), but I’m finding it difficult to find an agent who works on board books—is there such a thing? Is it usually only established authors who are successful in publishing board books? Would you recommend trying to find a representative and publisher in a different country (I’m in Canada)?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Have you joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators? (Known by the term “Squibby”?) They’re a great organization, host local, regional, and national conferences, and often have a group of agents who represent children’s books, Heather. That would be my first suggestion for you to check out. But a note on your earlier comment: If you have a book that just doesn’t fit the category, it becomes awfully hard to land it with a publisher. If you’ve been trying for years and it hasn’t landed, my advice would be to change it so that it fits the category (or I suppose you could self-publish and see if it works with readers).

  • Laura Droege says:

    Recently, I attended a writers’ conference, and at a panel discussion, all four of the literary agents present said to be careful categorizing one’s own work as “literary.” For example, I had a writer friend categorize my WIP as “literary suspense” and after the agents had read (and apparently enjoyed) the first page, they said they saw nothing “literary” in the style. “Let other people call your work literary,” they said, referring to my work and several other people’s novels, “otherwise you sound pretentious and egotistical.” The book, though, IS more literary than category if I follow your definition and ideas. It’s about the human condition; it doesn’t really follow the rules of suspense novels.

    So if different agents feel this way about the term “literary,” what’s a confused writer to do?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      It’s true that people will refer to a manuscript that has great vocabulary, fine craft, maybe some focus on the human condition, as being a “literary” novel — so a “literary mystery” or a “literary suspense.” That’ happens, Laura. That’s a descriptive term we all use when we come across a great bit of writing. But my answer was looking at this from a genre perspective — there is “category” fiction and “literary” fiction. That help?

    • Laura Droege says:

      That helps somewhat. The agents didn’t like the term “literary” for genre, either, though. We were hearing 30-40 writers’ first pages (all submitted anonymously) and each writer had had to categorize his/her novel’s genre. One or two had called the genre “literary fiction”, I guess as opposed to category fiction. And again, all four agents on the panel said the same thing–it sound pretentious!–even though the authors were more than likely indicating that their work wasn’t category fiction.

      I used to hear certain types of non-category fiction referred to as “mainstream fiction”. Is that still a term that agents/editors would understand? I really don’t feel comfortable categorizing my work as suspense or women’s fiction, though I’ve done that for lack of a better term that people will actually understand.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Um… I find it hard to believe an agent said a proposal for “literary fiction” sounded pretentious, Laura. I mean, that’s a well-known genre. In fact, it’s the genre that pays the bills; the genre that makes a difference in the lives of people. Huh. Without context, it’s hard for me to comment and not sound incredibly snarky. :o)

      But yes, we still talk about mainstream fiction, and Book Club fiction, and Up-Market fiction, and a lot of other terms — not official genres, just ways for those of us in the industry to try and describe some of the various forms of literature we work with.

  • Lisa Godfrees says:

    Hi Chip. Thanks for answering another of my questions. I really appreciate the time you take mentoring us. I emailed you a few moments ago. 🙂

    The agents I’ve queried so far only want a query letter only or the query and the first few pages of the manuscript. I have yet to query anyone who has asked to see a proposal or synopsis (I’m working my way up to those agents).

    I did purchase your book today. 🙂 Already reading it.

    I also appreciated your explanation of literary fiction here. I had thought literary was in the way it was written, not the topic/purpose of the book. Happy to have learned something new today.

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