One of the first things you learn as a writer is that the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook is your bible. It lists agents and publishers, what they're looking for, how to contact them, and often who they represent as well. I have a suspicion agents and publishers hate the book for the easy access it gives all-and-sundry to add to their slush piles, but that's by the by.
So, as an author looking for representation, I dust off my copy, hope it's not too out of date, and go looking for anyone who represents the sort of thing I write. But, hold on! How do I classify what I write?
Cat Marsters is easy. Erotic romance. Erotic paranormal romance, to be more precise. But Cat doesn't really need representation. She already has somewhere to send her books.
Kate Johnson is difficult (if I had a penny for every school report that said the same!). She's published the Sophie books, which come under chick-lit/mystery. And she wants to publish romantic comedies, both with contemporary settings and paranormal ones.
Ah, but there's the rub. That one important word. 'Paranormal'. It's a slippery fish, hard to define, and although across the pond paranormal romance raises no eyebrows whatsoever, over here in the UK, it's as wacky and unpublishable as a history of toothpicks. Is that going to change? Could I be the one to change it? Well, maybe, but first I need a damn publisher. Enter the W&A Yearbook.
So, here's the thing. To a lot of agents, science fiction is anathema. The ones who represent romance don't represent SF, and vice versa. They're two totally different markets: romance is aimed at women where SF is (mostly) aimed at men. Whining that they do it differently in the States isn't much help. Neither is searching for an American agent, when what I'm writing is inherently British (yes, I know my publishers so far are American. But I have to tailor my writing differently. Sometimes, I'd rather write about people who drink tea and don't consider pants suitable attire for leaving the house in).
I've been reading a bit of science fiction and fantasy recently, the proper stuff that is, with nary a heaving bosom in sight. It bears absolutely no resemblance to anything I write. With a few notable exceptions, there's a huge lack of humour and romance in the UK fantasy market. If an agent represents fantasy, they're looking for the swords-and-wizards stuff. If they're looking for science fiction, a Star Trek bent is preferable. They don't want jokes and romance.
This leads to a second problem: how do I describe my writing? While it's romantic, that's not 100% the focus of the book. That usually leads to a 'women's fiction' tag. Women's fiction with paranormal elements? Bit of a mouthful. What about funny? Should I tell them I'm funny?
But what does 'paranormal' mean? Definitions range wildly from the very specific to the terribly vague. To a lot of people, futuristic and science fiction are two totally different things. High fantasy and science fiction might be considered very similar by some, and poles apart by others. Then there are the people who call anything with a mildly paranormal element sci-fi, regardless of whether it's set in modern London or Middle Earth. (My mother calls everything I do 'sci-fi' or if she's been reading Sherrilyn Kenyon, 'Dark-huntery'. The thing is that it's my urban paranormals she calls sci-fi, and my high fantasy she calls Dark-huntery. Which is upside-down, inside-out, and not at all surprising, considering my mother. Anyway.)
When I very first started querying agents and publishers with my fantasy works, I was told repeatedly that I didn't have the right 'voice' for it. My voice is decidedly chick-lit/romcom. In large part, so is my content. Which would lead me to query agents who represent romance and women's fiction. But according to my W&A Yearbook, very few of them will touch SF/F. For the same reason, I very much doubt the agents who represent SF/F would be interested in such unashamedly girlie books.
So my problem is this. When an agent says 'No SF/F, do they mean the traditional stuff, or is it a catch-all for anything paranormal? Is it a waste of time and money to query them--especially when they want three chapters, by mail? If I described my books as 'paranormal and contemporary women's fiction with humorous and romantic elements' would they have stopped reading by the third word?
I bet Shakespeare never had to put up with this.