Before we get started, I advise you to ignore everything I say; I haven’t the foggiest idea how to write commercial books or get an agent. Sorry. But I do have a piece of advice I got from someone much smarter than me. A brilliant fantasy writer and wonderful person said something to me years ago that has stuck with me. It’s been helpful, and the fact that I’ve ignored it most of the time has been to my detriment. That’s why I bring it up now, in the discussion of getting an agent — because I think it might be the most important thing you can know in seeking an agent.
What she said was this: “Genre readers want 90% of the same stuff they’ve been reading, and 10% new.”
What she meant, obviously, is that people who have read Lord of the Rings want something like Lord of the Rings — but enough different from Lord of the Rings that it gives them a new experience. This doesn’t address the overall quality of the work, just its marketability over and above its being (hopefully) a damn good book.
I like the 90%-10% rule. You don’t have to accept it, obviously, and I’ve already admitted I don’t know what I’m talking about. Agree or disagree with me; the discussion is sure to prove interesting. I think plenty of people may yell and scream that I’m distilling genre writing down to product. I couldn’t agree with them more. It’s a highly dangerous enterprise to do so, because genre writing, to my mind, is where the true innovation in the literary world and in life actually comes from nowadays.