This morning, I was helping someone with their potential submission list, and I thought it’d be helpful to write out some of my thoughts for you as well. So, while you’re researching editors and agents, consider the following:
Nobody wants to compete with themselves.
If a publishing house just bought a book or series about a girl who spontaneously turns into a chicken nugget, they will (unfortunately) not need your book about a girl who spontaneously turns into a french fry. Likewise, I’m sure that anybody pitching a vampire series to Little, Brown between 2005 and 2009/2010 had a very hard time, since they’d be competing with the house’s already ridiculously bestselling Twilight series. (That said, other houses were filling the vampire-voids in their list at the time.)
Some imprints don’t “talk” to each other when making editorial decisions, but before an offer is made for a book, most publishing houses will look at what they’ve already signed up in the coming seasons so that they’re not competing with their own imprints. (Yes, this means that your rejection may very well be an “It’s not you, it’s me!” situation.)
Likewise, an agent that’s just sold a huge series about spontaneously combusting girls, isn’t going to be in the market for a second.
Really? Nobody’s had that idea before?
If you can’t find any editor or agent that’s ever bought or signed on an idea like yours, this could mean one of two things:
1.) You managed to come up with the one idea that is unique among the millions of books already published.
2.) There’s a reason nobody’s publishing/represented that idea.
Everybody can tell their own unique story, but most stories still fall into archetypes, genres, etc. that help a publisher/editor/agent market it. If you can’t find an editor or agent that’s ever been interested in an idea like yours, it could mean that there is just no market for it. If you’re having trouble finding editors or agents for you manuscript, ask yourself the following:
1.) Is this age-appropriate? For example, have you written a picture book about how to use a blender? A middle-grade about what it’s like to potty train? It seems like it should be a no brainer, but when I was reading the slush pile, I would see plenty of children’s manuscripts that wouldn’t appeal to children. Or, in the case of picture books, the character would do something that no parent would let their five-year-old do by themselves (like cook on the stove.)
2.) Has this been done before in another medium? Contemporary remakes of the classics tend to do well, but writing a novel based on someone else’s movie is a no-go. The right to write a novelization of a movie does already belong to somebody, be it the original screenplay writer, the producers, or (eventually/potentially) a publishing house that’s bought that right. Sometimes I would read a query letter, and it would immediately remind me of a movie that had come out. It would be so similar, in fact, that I’d have to wonder if the person was trying to write a novelization of somebody else’s work.
If you’re giving the plot synopsis of your book to a friend, and their first response is, “Wasn’t there a movie like that? I think it had Freddie Printz Jr. in it,” then it’s time to watch that movie and see if you are too close to that particular piece of pop culture. You may not be consciously trying to write a book based on a movie or any other previously produced work, but no publisher is going to want to put themselves at risk for a lawsuit because there are too many similarities.
3.) Is this too expensive to produce? You might have an idea for a gorgeous, full-color replica of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral that is a marvel of paper engineering. It pops up and the bell tower chimes, the next page plays organ music, and if you shake the book left to right, you can even see people rush by on Fifth Avenue. In other words, your idea is expensive to produce, would be expensive for the consumer, and may have a limited audience.
Lastly, some editors have more flexibility than others.
Some editors are hired specifically to edit in one particular genre, so if you notice that Editor X only buys picture books, it’s unlikely that they’re going to be interested in your YA (no matter how wonderful it is.) Some editors (especially those that are higher in the ranks) will have more flexibility, but do still have to work within their imprint’s editorial philosophy. For example, while Walter the Farting Dog was very successful, Philomel wouldn’t publish it because they are looking for more literary works.
So, while it’s true that associate and assistant editors are working on growing their own stable of authors to work with, they may also be limited by the imprint in what they can acquire.
Hope that helps — happy subbing!