Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Trust: Why bestselling authors can and we can't

I've got my hands full. As an aspiring author, I'm expected to write the very best book that I can, know the market, keep abreast of the break out novels and authors out there, as well as keep up on my reading of best selling authors and why they keep ending up on that best selling list time after time. I'm also expected to hone my craft, get my name out there and support my fellow writers, both published and unpublished. Simple, huh?

It is if you have unlimited time, don't have a day job or don't require much sleep at night.

At RWA National this year, the Golden Network did an outstanding job of preparing a panel of experts to review query letters written by Golden Heart finalists. The moderator would read the query letters and the agent or editor on the panel would say *stop* whenever she would lose interest in that particular query letter. It was widely illuminating and instructive, and, at the same time, disheartening. Because as the moderator read some well-written query letters, I found myself thinking, That's a book I would love to read.

Unfortunately, I may never have the opportunity. Here's what I discovered. Chances are if your story revolves around sports figures, Hollywood stars or rock musicians, an editor or agent is going to deep six your query with very little chance of perusing your partial or full.

And that's a darn shame. Because some of the most unforgettable stories I've read involve those very characters. In Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Natural Born Charmer, she not only has a pro athlete as the protagonist, the protagonist's father is a rock star!

In Sandra Brown's Play Dirty, her protagonist is a down- an-out quarterback who has served five years in prison for throwing a game.

Why do these best selling authors get away with writing a novel that most editors and agents wouldn't represent -- er -- if they were paid to? Probably because we're talking about Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Sandra Brown.

Phillips and Brown have already earned the readers' trust. If I pick up a book by these authors, it's pretty much implied that I'm in for several hours of quality escapism. As an unpublished author, and as unjust as it may seem, I haven't earned that right or that trust. I also wonder after these marvelous books are written, how many not-so-hot stories involving celebrities land on an agent or editors' desk--enough for them to so vitriolically holler, "Stop!"

In the meantime, perhaps we aspiring authors should keep studying the market, learning our trade, and writing the best book that's in us. Just be aware if your protag is a pro athlete, Hollywood star or a rock musician, it could be a long shot, and may be the book that comes out after you *arrive*.

Why not instead make our protagonists handymen.

Oh, wait -- Linda Howard's already done that one.

Keep the faith, fellow writers. It's all about trust. Write the best book that's in you.


Edie Ramer said...

I thought the restrictions were from Harlequin, and were actually outdated. I know Deidre Martin writes about hockey players. Rachel Gibson sold her sports books before she was a bestseller.

My mind doesn't run in the direction of movie stars, rock musicians or sports, but if that was my passion, I'd write it.

Donnell said...

Hi, Edie, excellent point. If that's what an author has her heart set on she should write the book. This panel, made up of both,editors and agents, to my recollection weren't from Harlequin, however. Thanks for the feedback on people who break through that glass ceiling. As I mentioned, some of those query letters sounded like outstanding books.

Debra E Marvin said...

Here's a great case for having a 'brand'. Susan Elizabeth Phillips could write about anybody and make it compelling because we know her brand is quirky characters with big hearts.

Donnell said...

Debra. Exactly. I wonder if that's why some authors choose pseudonyms if they veer from that *brand*. We come to rely on that type of writing from that author. Again, it's a trust issue, and we on our way, have to earn that trust. Thanks for the great point!

Jenifer said...
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Ron said...

One thought on this comes back to the concept of qualification, or "why are you the person uniquely qualified to write this book?" The agent/editor/whatever may have the assumption that a best-selling author may have more real connections with professional athletes, actors, etc. than a first-timer or relative newcomer.

It's a similar situation to two nearly identical police procedurals, but one is written by a carpet installer from Limon, Colorado and the other is by a 20 year veteran of the LAPD.