Agentspeak

by Alex

As Dusty and I are apt to joke, we (and JT and RGB) share the most awesome and the most laconic agent in New York. Scott can say “I’m excited” (and mean it) in the deadliest deadpan you’re ever likely to encounter. I often wonder if he makes such great deals for his clients because editors assume from his tone that he’s so underwhelmed by their initial offers that they panic and double the price before they lose out on the deal completely.

This can be a disconcerting thing about Scott, until you get to know him. Because as we all know – writers need feedback, they need enthusiasm, they need approval, they need validation, they need, well, love.

And the truth is that we spend so little time with our agents, even on the phone, much less in person, that we tend to obsess over and parse every word they utter. And if that’s true of published authors, it seems even more true of authors seeking representation. Every rejection letter is mined for that hint of gold that means you really are the next Stephen King, or that spot-on criticism that will take the book to the next level.

Because I’m so used to working with my film agent, who is a prince among men and a gentleman among agents, I think I’m somewhat less likely than most new authors to assign baroque interpretations to what Scott has to say. It’s pretty much face value. When he says he likes something, he likes it. When he says he’s excited, he’s excited, even if his voice never rises above a monotone.

Sometimes in workshops people ask me about my first phone call with Scott, what was the most thrilling thing he said to me about THE HARROWING. And everyone is always shocked when I say the most thrilling thing he said was, “Yeah, I think I can sell this.”

But you see, I know agentspeak. It’s a very refined code, and you need to be able to interpret the nuances. And in agentspeak, “I think I can sell this” means – “I think I can sell this.”

And that’s what you want your agent to do, right? That’s their job, and you want them to feel they can get their job done with your book.

In general I find communication in the book world pretty low stress, mainly because agentspeak in publishing (and pub-speak in general) is so much less florid than Hollywoodspeak. Screenwriters are regularly assaulted with phrases that seem to be passed around in a secret manual for producers, executives and agents. Every so often there’s a new phrase that gets added to the manual and you will hear it in every meeting and on every phone call you have for months. “I have to run this up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes.” “What’s our way in?” “We need that character to have a sexier profession” (“sexy” having nothing whatsoever to do with sex). “It’s time to start thinking outside the box.” “Let’s make Chicago (Austin, Cleveland, St. Petersburg) a real character in this script.” “We’re looking for a Hallmark ending for the fly-overs.”

My theory is that editors generally know what they’re talking about, therefore they don’t have to use cryptic phrases or words du jour to communicate with their authors.

But lately a word keeps coming up from the agent and editor front that has thrown me.

The word is “fun”. As in “It’s a fun book.” “Wow, we love it, what a fun story.”

Now, I guess that wouldn’t bother me, except that I write pitch-black suspense. So “fun” isn’t a word I immediately associate with my writing, or that I would want associated with my writing. I have found myself obsessing over this word, to the point of slipping back into screenwriter neurosis. Do they mean that they want a more fun story here? Are they gently urging me toward a lighter tone? Did they actually read my first two books as comedic romps?

I know this is mental craziness. “Fun” is in all likelihood the word du jour in publishing circles. But since as authors we don’t have constant contact with a wide variety of agents and editors in the way that screenwriters have a constant contact with numerous producers and executives, we might not be as aware of the industry buzz words.

So I wondered if you guys could give me any buzz words that you’ve been picking up from your peeps. Is there a secret manual of pub-speak?

Or… gulp… do they really mean “fun” when they say “fun”?

14 thoughts on “Agentspeak

  1. billie

    Alex, you’re so right about the agent speak. We try to mine every sentence for meaning but the best (and most mentally healthy) thing to do is take it all at face value.

    I don’t have much info wrt buzz words right now – am in between querying efforts. The last response I got from an agent was the most detailed I’ve ever gotten, in real language, that gave me the answer to why the book hasn’t yet sold. It was quite possibly the best gift I’ve been given thus far in the publication process.

    My take on “fun” – apropos of nothing – is “won’t it be fun to sell this and market this and spend the money it will make.”

    I’m nothing if not optimistic!

    Reply
  2. R.J. Mangahas

    Well, it’s good to know that I really don’t have to be mining those rejection letters too deeply. Thanks for the valuable insight.

    Reply
  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    R.J. – I think that while once in a while you will get an outstandingly useful comment from a rejection letter, as Billie described above, all rejections basically boil down to one thing: for whatever reason, the agent or editor doesn’t think s/he can sell that book AT THAT TIME. The agent or editor may be able to articulate the reasons for this, or may not – but that’s the bottom line.

    Reply
  4. guyot

    I once saw a “fun” picture of Scott Miller… he was half-naked in a fountain.

    When my film/TV agents say “fun” they mean “Does it skew to a young enough demographic?” I once gave them a very dark screenplay about a high school pimp. They said, “Yeah, this could be fun.” Fun it was not. But they thought it might sell to the movie going teens and tweens.

    My pet peeve with the agents that keep me employed is that, to this day, they are still afraid to tell me someone didn’t like my stuff. I could not care less if a producer/exec/writer reads something of mine and thinks it’s crap. But my agents are so conditioned to baby clients that they will still say things like:

    “Oh, they just didn’t think it fit with the direction they’re looking to go right now.”

    Or:

    “Yeah… they just felt that it wasn’t really the best way in to that subject matter.”

    I would buy them steak dinners if just once they said, “Oh, they hated it.”

    Reply
  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    G, that wasn’t a fountain, it was a lake.

    Freezing, too.

    But yeah, that was fun.

    I could see “fun” meaning “appealing to a younger demographic”. But this one isn’t a particularly young story…

    Must…. not…. obsess…

    Reply
  6. pari

    Alex,As someone who writes “fun” books, I can say that it has many meanings.

    In your case, I bet it’s the plot — or the twists — that are intriguing in a good way. That makes it “fun” to work with, to sell and watch people react to it. Think “fun” as in “cool,” as in “something special,” and “unique.”

    The word that used to drive me up a wall when I was in the querying phase was “compelling.” It meant nothing the way agents and editors used it — a catch all. I had a friend who was an editor at Harlequin and she told me, “If they use ‘compelling’ in any sentence — positive or negative — RUN in the other direction.”

    Great advice.

    AND to the NEWBIES who are querying –If you get a detailed response like the one that Billie got — send a short hand-written thank you to the agent. I did that a couple of times and those agents, when we met in person, remembered me. Plus, it’s just a nice thing to do when someome takes the time to give you valuable advice.

    Reply
  7. Louise Ure

    In this case, I think Pari and Billie have nailed the definition of “fun.”

    What I want to know about is the concept of a “big book,” and I know that doesn’t mean number of words.

    Reply
  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks, Pari. I think you’re right about “fun” in this case, and it’s true, it’s a cool plot. But I am weirdly finding myself taking a lighter tone with this book anyway, and I have to think hearing “fun” so often is having an influence, whether that was what I actually intended or not. Words have, you know, power.

    Louise, “big” in relation to “book” has got to mean “high concept”, right?

    I just saw a “big” movie last night – I AM LEGEND. (Extremely great until a very rushed and disappointing end). It had me thinking that Richard Matheson is one of the most high concept authors I can name – that’s why so many of his books have been adapted into “big” movies.

    Reply
  9. JT Ellison

    Our Scott is brilliant, and funny, and the greatest agent in the world. He celebrates his clients highs and encourages during the lows. He is wonderful.

    Alex, I’ve been hearing the “fun” application too, and it’s definitely what Pari says, something that the house can get excited about because it’s unique and different in the world of numbingly same stories and voices out there, a book they can push from all quarters, get the sales staff and booksellers revved up and editorial and art meetings are enjoyable instead of a drag. I’d take it as the highest compliment.

    Reply
  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks, JT. I did know it was a compliment. (Better to hear than “This is a drag”, right?)

    But you and Pari are confirming exactly what I suspected – “fun” is a pub-speak code word.

    And I think Louise is right – “big” is, too.

    And it’s got me wondering what other words they’ve got in that secret manual.

    Reply
  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    – An archeologist races to find the mystical Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s minions can use its power to conquer the world.

    – An archeologist (sorry) is hired to find a treasure the whereabouts of which is detailed in a map on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

    – A scientist struggles to survive as the last man on earth after the world population is destroyed by a virus that turns all human survivors into vampires (or zombies, depending on which movie version you’re seeing).

    What’s high concept about these premises?

    Well, you’re immediately familiar with a lot of the elements, right? Who hasn’t heard of the Declaration of Independence? What bigger villain is there than Hitler? What’s more exciting than a treasure hunt? What bigger stakes are there than the destruction of the world? The elements are familiar, the stakes are monumental, and the action of the plot is pretty much dictated by the setup.

    Plus, a majority of people who hear it say – wow, cool, I want to read/see that. That’s high concept.

    Reply

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