Sure, there are a lot of things you should probably never say to an agent. Here are some of the things that I’ve heard from writers who probably would’ve been better off leaving these things unsaid:

  • “I am the next J.K. Rowling…William Faulkner…insert bestselling author here.”
  • “Nobody really needs an agent anymore. Agents are obsolete. (Pause) I’d like to talk to you about representation.”
  • “Books are dead. But I haven’t had any luck selling my screenplays so I’m repurposing them as novels….”
  • “I’ve got a 245,000-word novel that I want you to sell for me.”
  • “I know you don’t represent poetry, but you’ll change your mind when you read mine.”
  • “Here’s a (five-pound) hardbound copy of my memoir, just take it with you and read it on the bus/train/plane ride home.”
  • “I wasn’t going to pitch you, but everyone else turned me down.”
  • “God sent me to talk to you, so you’d better listen.”

I’m not making this up

I know you think I’m making this up, but I’m not. Publishing teaches you rather quickly that no adage is truer than “Truth is stranger than fiction.” But we agents are a forgiving lot; we know you get nervous and that it’s not easy to talk about your work. So I didn’t hold any of those statements against those writers, and went on to listen to their pitches with an open mind.

That said, there is one statement that prejudices me against a project and its writer as soon as I hear it. And I hear it way too often:

“There’s nothing out there like this.”

Now you might be thinking, “What? What’s wrong with that? I thought everybody was looking for original work?”

Think again. As is written in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

And there shouldn’t be. Everything comes from somewhere, everything has its precedents and its influences, everything can be compared to something else—and if your work cannot be compared to similar successful works, then there is no way to prove there is an audience for it. And what publishers want books for which there is a proven audience. That is, readers who like this kind of story and are willing to pay for it.

The all-important comps

This is why comparable titles are so important. Comparable titles are stories that are similar to yours that have already proven their ability to find an audience and make a profit. For example, if you’re writing a cozy mystery, then you might say that your story falls within the tradition of Donna Andrews and Tamar Myers and Katherine Hall Page. Or that your amateur sleuth is a cross between M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin and Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swenson. Or that your novel can be thought of as Laura Durham’s Better Off Wed meets Leslie Budewitz’s Killing Thyme.

Agents need comparable titles to pitch editors, editors need them to pitch their publishing boards, and salespeople need them to pitch booksellers. So when I ask you to compare your work to that of similar successful stories, and your response is that your work is like nothing else out there, then I immediately suspect that 1) you have no idea what else is out there, and 2) you have no idea who your audience is, much less how to reach that audience.

Which means that I can’t sell it. And if I can’t sell it, I won’t rep it.

So the next time that you talk about your book to an agent, an editor, or even your mother, do not say that there’s nothing else out there like this. Whatever else you may say, this is the one thing you should never say to an agent. Or anyone else.

Say it’s a story anyone who loved insert similar successful story title here will love.

Here’s hoping they love it, too. And if they do (or not), let us know on our facebook page.

Photo credit Chris Greevebiester