I’m one of those folks who grew up telling myself that one day, I’d write a book. I’m almost 30 now, and while I don’t seem to hold any of those ‘big birthday’ reservations that many of my friends went through, getting a book published was the one thing that niggled at me. I soon realised that fiction isn’t my forte. So I put together a concept based on my approach to impending thirty-dom and I am currently six months into it. I’m diarising through a blog (a rough first draft, I guess) and am starting to wonder how this is going to translate into a memoir when I have completed the year.
My main question is – and I’m pre-emptively shielding myself for your response - is it too early to approach agents with the idea? I know it’s a cardinal sin to send a first draft of anything, let alone an unfinished one. But a friend who has dabbled in this stuff suggested that there was no harm in sussing out the market, particularly as an interested agent may have ideas on how to ‘steer’ it. A couple of the things I’ve experienced while doing this project have already generated some media interest in the form of radio interviews, and I want to know if I can use this to my advantage at this early stage.
[I have removed details of the author's project to protect her idea - AS]
The part of your message that leapt out at me was: 'am starting to wonder how this is going to translate into a memoir when I have completed the year'. That's exactly what I would wonder, too, if you sent me a submission about it.
It's one thing to be an expert or almost-expert in a subject that has been established to have general appeal to the public, to then write a proposal about a book on this subject and try to find a publisher. That's what journalists, academics and Ben Cousins get to do. But it's another thing altogether to be attempting to find a publisher without these elements behind you.
You can get away with it under the following conditions:
Your idea is strong and different (not original - there's no such thing, really). The idea you sent me was interesting but not that different.
Your writing needs to be great. Thus whatever is on the blog can't be your rough first draft - it has to be the draft as that's what you'll be asking a publisher/agent to look at. And it needs to be so great that the agent/publisher would be prepared to overlook the fact that your story isn't finished and may, in fact, never be finished. There's a risk that you won't complete your mission, you see. Not a big risk, but a risk. You could lose interest. Or die. (That's NOT morbid - the mortality rate is still 100% so it's a viable risk, and it's a risk that's written into publishing contracts.)
The radio interviews are nice but they're not useful yet unless they can promise you coverage at the time of publication. Also, there may be harm in sussing out the market too early - you can really only submit with that kind of thing once, unless an agent loves the idea enough to say 'come back and see me when you have more'.
So if your idea is great or your writing is great (I'm not presuming you'll have both - you don't necessarily need both) then go ahead and give it a try. But don't be surprised if an agent says, 'Come back and see me when you're finished'. And, really, why can't you wait until then? This probably sounds tough but it's less tough than having your heart broken by querying people at the wrong time. You're likely to think it means that your project has no merit and it will probably just be the case that is was the wrong time.
Also just to clarify a little point: agents aren't here to steer unless you're already our client or we think you're a genius who just needs a little reining in. Quite often I'm sent submissions by people which consist of them saying they have an idea and what they really need is for me to tell them what to do in order to write up the idea and get it published. Regrettably, I don't have the time. The good news is, though, that writers' centres can help you with this and there are links to them there somewhere -------------->