I facilitate a weekly Writing Practicum, where a core group of dedicated writers workshop their projects.
One of our members is a very talented writer who specializes in BDSM erotica. The rest of the group -- including me -- are, to put it mildly, "vanillas." We are simply not equipped to intelligently comment on the parts of her writing that make it fall into either the BDSM or erotica genre. We don't read it. And we certainly don't "get it."
We're very good at discussing character, plot, motivation, clarity, structure, and execution. But when it comes to the specialized genre-specific stuff, we implode. We ask what must be very stupid questions. We try gamely, but it's abundantly clear that we're not the target audience.
The experience has taught me a valuable lesson: if this is what happens when I as a reader hit an unfamiliar genre, imagine a what happens when I put an agent in the same position. Agents know what they want. They tend to be very specific in their guidelines. I would be a fool to ignore them.
On any given day, one or more agents that I follow on Twitter will post his or her query stats for the day / week / month / year. A typical post will read:
"Number of queries received this week: 367
Number of queriers who have clearly never read agency submission guidelines: 275
Number of queries for genres I don't represent: 73
Number of partials requested: 2
Number of offers of representation: 0"
Now, while on the surface this may make querying look like the most futile exercise ever devised (and don't get me wrong: on many days I would subscribe to this theory), the numbers actually contain a message of hope instead of despair.
First, it should be obvious that refusing to read and follow submission guidelines is the quickest way for a writer to garner another form rejection to add to his or her collection.
Guidelines tell writers how to help their submissions make it through the agent's e-mail gatekeeper (usually an intern who began as a fresh-faced naif eager to find the Next Great Novel, but who now fights falling down the slippery slope of cynicism on a daily basis from being forced to read queries from writers who flagrantly flaunt the rules). The guidelines exist for a reason. Disregard them at your own peril.
But I digress. For it is the second stat that I want to focus upon.
When querying an agent, it is imperative that the manuscript in question have a clearly defined genre.
[A Short Tangential Digression for the Vocabulary Impaired:
For those who think that I am putting on airs talking in French, rest assured, genre is a perfectly good and necessary word in English. Think of it as "shelving space." It's the category that encompasses your book and all other books of a similar type. The two largest genres are fiction (made up stuff) and non-fiction (true stuff). Which should make it immediately obvious why agents and publishers point their fingers and laugh aloud at people who describe their book as a "fiction novel." It's like calling your Hyundai an "automobile car."
The big genres have smaller sub-genres. Fantasy, steampunk, romance, historical, mystery, western, science-fiction -- these are examples of fiction genres. Further classification can be done by age or specialty (there are many sub-genres of mysteries, for instance), but you get the point.]
At this point, you may be thinking:
"Why is it so important for my book to fit into one of the genres my dream agent represents? I've seen his sales stats, and they're impressive. He could sell BP oil in the Gulf states! So he says he's looking for YA fantasy & sci-fi. I bet he's sick & tired of magic & quests. I'll send him my adult crime thriller. No doubt he'll leap at the chance to read something gritty and new. All he needs to do is see my work, then he'll recognize my brilliance and sign me."
If so, you should reach up and slap yourself senseless before reading any further. Go on. I'll wait...
Imagine an artisan who makes stained glass windows. He's well known for his windows. Those building churches are willing to do business with him because they know they can trust his workmanship.
The artisan is constantly looking for new glass suppliers, searching for those who can provide him with the saturated colors that make his windows a thing of beauty. If you have gorgeous glass, he's happy to consider using it. But if you have leather -- even if it's the softest, most supple leather on the planet -- the artisan has no use for it. Trying to sell it to him will only waste his time.
One reason an agent specifies a preferred genre is because of the professional working relationships that agent has formed within the industry. She may be on a first-name basis with every editor and publisher whose imprint publishes romances. So she'd be the ideal person to shop around a well-written romance novel.
But if you send her a similarly well-written memoir, even if she loves it, she may not be the one to try to sell it. No one in her professional contacts publishes memoirs. She has never worked with the editors who specialize in such things. She doesn't have relationships with them. Accepting your project would set herself up for an uphill climb. It would be like making windows from leather.
Do yourself, your potential agent, and your manuscript a favor. Know what genre your project falls into. Then only shop it around to people who work in that genre. You'll bypass the "wrong genre" line entirely.
Assuming you've also read & followed the submission guidelines, you'll have broken through the masses of inappropriate submissions. Those two simple steps will enable you to distinguish yourself from the hundreds of other hopefuls. You may now offer the agent your beautiful glass. The others are just collecting rejections on their world-class leather.