22. The dilemma of evidence

I’m considering radically changing my approach to getting published. I’m trying to decide whether I should stop pitching my historical novel. A Prize of Sovereigns, and start pitching my mystery novel, The Golden Illusion.

I’m a scientist by training. I like to make decisions based on evidence. Understanding the signals about your work is hard because it’s not clear what’s evidence.

I just got a really interesting response from an agent to whom I had pitched A Prize of Sovereigns. It was unusual, in that it was feedback, not just a template no. This is part of what he said.

You have a lively style, but – you knew there’d be a “but” – the situation you describe, and the language you employ, is in my opinion too familiar to commend your book to editors who are, like agents, even more boringly cautious than usual about new writers in this extraordinarily harsh publishing climate.

[It} needs – in my view, and you will know that all publishing judgements are wholly subjective – a distinctive narrative voice and original twist if it is to commend itself to today’s jaded and impatient readers

As he says, all publishing judgements are subjective. But, this is the twelfth agent who has turned down A Prize of Sovereigns. The problem for an ex-scientist is deciding whether twelve rejections, all subjective, is evidence. It’s not a statistically significant sample. J.K. Rowling had 12 rejections for her Harry Potter series.

Nevertheless, I think there may be a message there. I’m getting clear feedback that I can write. But I may be putting my effort into pitching the wrong book. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very proud of A Prize of Sovereigns. I believe in the book. It’s a story of two realms in peril, of rulers playing for high stakes, of conflict within dysfunctional families, of ordinary folk trying to build their lives amidst war and chaos. But it’s not just an adventure tale of intrigue, war, and revolt. Buried in the story are some chunky issues. Is goodness a function of a person’s character, or the outcome of their actions? Can absolute rulers bend events to their will? Are there prices too great to pay for personal independence? What does war do to people’s humanity? How did propaganda work in medieval Europe? What does a Prince do when confronted by a teenager who claims to have religious visions of her mission to save the country from invasion? How did technology influence conflict and the exercise of power?

The thing is, there’s no simple way of communicating this to an agent or publisher. The elevator pitch is the one sentence description of your book you’d give to a publisher if you shared a ride with them in a lift. Prize of Sovereigns’ elevator pitch is.

‘Two rival medieval princes attempt to bind events to their wills, with unintended consequences.’

It doesn’t exactly convey much more than knights in armour. Compare it with the elevator pitch for The Golden Illusion.

A mystery story with a difference, in which the detective is a hapless conjurer searching for the secret of an ancient illusion, and the crime spans the centuries.

This makes crystal clear the main twist of the story. It may not be such a complex book, but it’s easier to convey what it’s about. My heart is telling me to keep pitching A Prize of Sovereigns, but my head is telling me to switch horses. I still have three pitches out to agents, so I don’t have to decide quite yet.

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