it really is. occasional thoughts on how to make it survivable and keep from losing your mind in the process.

On Wishlists

On Wishlists

I get asked all the time, by editors, by other agents, by friends, but most of all by writers: “what are you looking for?” Here’s the big secret, folks:

I have no idea.

Okay, let’s talk a bit about how this all works. As a publishing professional, my goal, at the root, is to get a book to market that will sell a ton of copies. When we look at the market it’s easy to say, oh look books about girls on trains are hugely popular, let’s publish more of those! Or look, postapocalytic stories featuring teenagers are selling boatloads of copies, let’s go find another one of those!

Now, it sounds cynical when I lay it out like that — and sometimes it is. But more often, we chase trends because we like those things. We, editors and agents, are fans of the stuff we work on. And when something is big and exciting, we love that for lots of the same reasons the rest of the world does and we jump at the opportunity to find more of it and publish it.

We do this, or at least, I do this — let me stop speaking for my many wonderful and smarter than me colleagues at this point — because I have no idea what I want. I am often reactive in my tastes. I see a thing, whether it’s a movie or a news article or another book, and think “hey, I’d love to read a book that’s like this.” The problem is by the time I have that thought, it’s probably too late.

From the point of signing a client, we’re usually about two years out from a book hitting the shelves if everything goes according to plan. That’s two whole years for the fifteen other people who also had the same idea to get their own books out and your mini trend has come and gone by that point. Or if you’re reacting to a big trend like YA fantasies, for example, then by the time you reach the market, the trend is waning or is oversaturated.

Chasing the market is a fool’s game.

And, more to the point, the longer I do this, the more I realize that it’s not that I want a book that has the same elements — it’s that I want a book that gives me the same feelings. I think of things that go into a wishlist as the set-dressing but what I’m really looking for is the heart of the project.

So, I tell writers all the time, be weird. Do the thing you’ve always wanted to do. There’s no right answer. There’s no perfect trend. There’s just you telling a story that we all want to hear. Sometimes that means you’ll write an urban fantasy right when the market turns away from them. Sometimes that means you’ll come out with a vampire story just as they’re coming back in style.

I have predictions of what’s going to happen next and I’m just as happy to pontificate on why I think I’m right as anyone else in this business. But ultimately, I only have some guesses as to what’s going to happen next. And more than that, the thing I’m interested in, isn’t “does this story match a trend that people want,” it’s “is this an interesting, well-presented story that I connect with?”

So, when I go to make a MSWL, there’s stuff I can say but I’m never sure how much I mean it. It’s hard for me to list attributes of a story when what I’m really looking for is something undefinable and hard to spot. My true wishlist is “make me feel things” and “make me see an audience for this.” Other than that, I have expertises and histories and interests, but no wishes.

Sometimes market conditions are perfect for a kind of book to work or to be unsellable. But the only real answer is to be true to the weird story of your heart. The book that only you can write. We all have to try and lead the market not follow it. Aim to start trends, not chase them.

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Jamie Larson