But is it Love? A conversation with Mike Wells.

A few weeks ago, Talking Writing published a version of a post I had written about reader taste versus publishing taste. After it appeared, I got a very nice email from a writer named Mike Wells, an American bestselling thriller and suspense author who teaches in the Creative Writing program at the University of Oxford. His note began a back and forth discussion about whether or not agents really needed to “fall in love” with a novel before offering representation. Mike said no. I said yes–sort of.

We both thought that readers would be interested in this discussion, so we decided to post it on our respective blogs (Mike’s is www.thegreenwater.com) Your comments are welcome!
Hi Jenny,

I just read your article about the difference between publisher/agent vs. reader tastes. Boy am I glad someone had the guts from inside the industry to write about this! I’ve been screaming about it for years but nobody listens because they assume it’s a sour grapes thing on my part. But what you said is so true. I’m one of those rejected writers who has gone out and successfully sold his books (I have 15,000 Twitter followers, developing a very good fan base)…and that’s after having four great agencies unable to sell them (Andrea Brown, Jean Naggar, Marly Rusoff, etc.) Funny, a few months ago I ran into one of your colleagues in NYC and we nearly got into a fist fight over this issue, with him claiming that he has some special gift or “nose for a classic” or some such nonsense!

I didn’t know you were on Twitter and just followed you.

Anyway, a big thank you for that article, I really enjoyed it (especially the bit about the glasses!)


P.S. By the way you might like this post:

What Literary Agents Could Learn from the Girl Scouts

I think this is what set your colleague off! (hope it doesn’t make you mad)
Hi Mike,

No, it doesn’t make me mad—I think it’s pretty funny. More people need to have a sense of humor about this industry.

I think the thing about having to love a book before you can sell it makes a little more sense than you say it does, however. I’m not selling a refrigerator, after all. If I’m selling refrigerators, I don’t have to love them: they’re pretty impersonal—I can judge them on objective criteria. And pretty much everyone needs to buy a refrigerator at some point. Everyone likes them. And with girl scout cookies, you don’t have to like them to know there’s a huge market. But the only way I can even guess if other people will like a novel is if I like it too. It’s completely subjective. Unless, of course, there has been market research in the shape of self-publishing. Which is one of the reasons I like self-publishing so much and have repped so many self-published authors—it takes the guesswork out of it.

Anyway, good post—and thanks for sending it.

Mike’s response:

I see your point, but the first person to sell a new product faces exactly the same problem you face, whether that product is a refrigerator or cookies or or an iPad–the market for it must be created. And the people who create markets for totally new products can do it whether they “love” those products or not, believe me.

Jenny’s response:

Still disagree. 🙂 Maybe “love” is the wrong word, however. Maybe it’s “get” or “understand.” If you “get” why an ipad would be appealing, you can sell it. But if you don’t like a book, where again it is a matter of TASTE, not potential demand, how do you know whether or not it will work in the marketplace? Your argument would work better if I just had to figure out whether or not books in general would have a place in the market. Well, yes, people like reading, therefore books will work. But an individual novel? How in the world can I predict an audience for that unless I myself am responding to it in some way?

Mike’s response:

I’m so glad we’re having this discussion, Jenny, now we’re getting somewhere. You stated it perfectly in your last message: “…unless I respond to it in some way.” Of course you’re right. A good sales and marketing person must be able to understand the needs that any product satisfies in the customer who buys it. But that’s a far cry from “falling in love.” Example: I’m not a huge fan of Harlequin Romance novels, not because of any highbrow snobbery about them, but simply because I’m a man, and after a couple of hours all that gushy romantic stuff makes me feel a little ill. 🙂 Yet, I can empathize with women who love that genre, completely understand the appeal of it, and can certainly recognize a Harlequin Romance that is well-structured and well-written. Could I sell such a book? You bet I could! And so could you, if you wanted to (whether you “love” them or not)

Jenny’s response:

Well, except that I challenge you to go out and sell a romance novel to a publisher. 😉 You might make a great agent, don’t get me wrong, and you might understand that romance as a genre works, that women will love it, but without an affinity for this type of book, how will you be able to distinguish between a good or a bad one? Answer: you can’t. And that’s not even necessarily because you don’t read the genre—it’s because there’s no such thing as a “good” or a “bad” romance novel, it’s completely subjective. And so in the face of that subjectivity, what are you left with as an agent? Your own taste. That’s all you have to go on. That’s what agents mean by “I have to love it.”

Once again we come back to the idea that we all know in general that people like books, and then you can categorize it even further by saying that in general people like romance, or thrillers, or literary fiction. But on a book by book basis there is no way to predict what a reader will like. Even if people like the Beatles a lot, for example, that doesn’t necessarily predict that they will like a book about the Beatles. As an agent, you only have taste to go on.

Everything changes of course, if a book is self-published first, and you know a lot of people have already responded. Self-publishing is the new market research.

Mike’s response:

I totally agree re self-publishing. If I were an agent I think that’s the main way I would find new authors if I needed them, by trolling the self-publishing domain and looking for successes there. At the end of the day, the only way to know if a product has a market is if people will actually fork over their hard-earned money for it. This is even more than “market research”—it’s downright proof that the product is viable. The only question is how large the market will be if a big publisher takes over. I think in the vast majority of cases the market will be 10x larger because we self-pubbed authors can barely scratch the surface with our limited resources. If I can sell 10,000 of one of my books a year, I’m quite sure a big publisher could sell 100,000 of that same book given that they don’t screw up the product or marketing approach.

Any comments, readers?

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