On Queries and Nathan Bransford’s "Be an Agent for a Day" Contest

America's leading management theorist, Scott Adams, has claimed that you have to be popular first before you can start being any good. His examples are mostly TV shows. His argument is that even a really good show will probably be cancelled, unless people can sum up what it's about in a sentence that makes other people curious to watch it.

The analagous problem for works of literature is the problem of pitching. Novice authors imagine publishers will read their books, then publish them if they're good. But the supply of books by novice writers is so large that agents and publishers don't have time to read most of them. So typically, unless you're already somewhat established, agents will decide whether to take a look at your manuscript based on whether its one-or-two-sentence description sounds catchy.

Adams writes, "I have a twofold test for whether something can obtain instant popularity and thus have time to achieve quality: 1. You must be able to describe it in a few words. 2. When people hear about it, they ask questions." From the comments on Adams' blog, it's clear screenwriters don't think this is news.

At a conference recently, a writer friend told me, "I could make up an idea for a book in a minute that I could pitch to agents, and I know it would be a more interesting pitch from their point of view than the pitch I'm actually able to make, for this memoir I really care about that I've been slaving on for years!"

It's always instructive to compare the view from both sides of the gate, so kudos to San Francisco agent Nathan Bransford who will be holding a "Be an Agent for a Day" contest on Monday. On Monday he'll post fifty queries and you have to put yourself in Nathan's shoes and pick the five that'll keep him in business -- there may be a prize for picking the right five.

2 thoughts on “On Queries and Nathan Bransford’s "Be an Agent for a Day" Contest”

  1. Hey James, I think I overheard an Aussie and a Brit discussing this topic in a SF bar the other night.
    I’d say the two sentence ‘pitch’ is appealing to agents because it works all the way down the line. He can pitch it himself to an editor, who can pitch it to the boss, they can put it on the back of the book for the browser in the bookshop, and the readers have something easy to throw at each other all the way down the line. None of these people even have to read the book for the process to work. The book doesn’t even have to be any good, look at the Da Vinci Code or a million best sellers.
    I agree novice authors naively believe that their work will be marketed on its literary merit which unfortunately 98.5% of people including agents, publishers and novice writers have pretty much no idea about anyway. It can work but only for people like DFW and Roberto Bolano. I remember I pitched Infinite Jest to a Canadian friend as being about Quebebcois terrorists which is misleading at best. This same guy’s wife told me that after he’d read a few hundred pages she asked him as he was reading one night what the book was about and he replied, ‘I haven’t figured it out yet.’
    All this of course begs the question what’s more important, drinking in bars or blogging on the internet. James, are you qualified to answer that yet or are you still working on it? John Somerville

  2. Jennifer Barthe

    I wonder how one can create a two sentence elevator pitch for a difficult or complex plot line. Then again, if the author/writer doesn’t know what the piece is about then who will?

    Sounds to me that it all comes down to marketablity. I can think of two really good films that can be summed into two sentences or less.

    No Country for Old Men: Guy finds money lost by mexican drug dealers. Insane mercenrary comes after him looking for the money.

    Chinatown: PI is hired to investigate an affair. Later he learns that the proposed affair is the cover for a much larger secret.

    Something like that I think. Though I’m sure someone else could come up with their two sentences or less film descriptions.

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