We all do it. Profiling. We make assumptions about a person based on certain traits they possess, filtering that information through our personal experience or preferences to make decisions about how to act or what to do with respect to this person. We all do it, whether we’re willing to admit it or not.
When we are asked to “report anything suspicious” to the police, or transit officers, or movie theater personnel, we are profiling. We see a person that looks “out of place” or is “acting strangely” and, based on some deep-seeded instinctual drive (the proverbial “gut feeling”), we take action to protect ourselves. It is what humans have done for millennia – and will do for the rest of our existence. It isn’t always right, but it is efficient.
Profiling is merely a quick and oh-so-dirty method to navigate a vast amount of information thrown at us every second of every day. Time is a valuable commodity and we look for ways to maximize the value we get from our interactions.
Book agents profile as a way to protect themselves from an avalanche of bad manuscripts and untalented writers. It’s only natural, I guess, for them to concentrate their efforts on writers with certain tried-and-true characteristics – those who fall into the category of already proven writers or those who write about already popular subjects. Agents have a tough job – they need to get the positive attention of inundated publishers. What better way to do that than to represent a work that meets certain criteria already proven to be a hit with publishers.
Therefore, based on personal experience or what they see happening in the book market, agents may decide to only represent memoir writers who, by way of example, experienced the horrors of war first hand, who led a life of crime on the streets of Los Angeles, or who already have celebrity status. Perhaps they will only take clients who have an interesting and bigger-than-life back story or a personality that will wow an audience on late-night TV. Hip, young, edgy tellers of tales, perhaps. People who naturally attract attention. Attention sells books – good or bad. Any agent would want to represent that kind of author.
I suspect every agent has established a set of criteria by which they judge a submission, allowing for a quick decision on whether or not to green light a project. The nature of that criteria is never obvious. I suspect that is because SOME of what is used to judge worthiness is profiling at its nadir: “I only work with twenty-something males with an MFA who are from war-torn lands or who live, work, or write about New York or car racing.”
Of course, the agent can’t put that on their website – that would be showing their prejudices and predilections and any number of other ugly profiling descriptions.
Well, I’m afraid I don’t fall into any of the exciting categories. I am a white, middle-aged American woman who has achieved a modicum of success in a boring career, who has turned to writing historical novels and one very personal memoir (for which I’m currently looking for an agent – did you guess that already?). The “horrors of war” I faced were of a very confined nature, the situations I survived were not sensational by today’s standards, and I am by nature quiet and shy (except around my closest friends).
I sent my memoir manuscript, An Ordinary Tragedy – a memoir of crimes and shattered lives, to ten agents this past weekend, carefully culling through the possibilities to contact only those who were interested in memoirs. Less than two days later, the book has already been rejected by two of them. Those agents cite their respective workloads and interests as the reason they declined to pursue my project. I suspect it was something more.
The description of my work is “Scott Hart was a handsome, intelligent, talented boy – and a convicted felon by the age of eighteen. An Ordinary Tragedy is one woman’s quest to unlock the motives for the tragic choices that lead to her brother’s life of escalating crime and depravity. From the intimate perspective of eldest sibling, Lori Hart Beninger explores the dynamics of her perfect All-American Family and the secrets they kept. An Ordinary Tragedy is the true story of one family’s love and despair in California of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.”
By those very words, it is clear that I’m not twenty-something, I’m not male, my homeland is not at war, and the story isn’t about New York or car racing. And since I didn’t brag about an MFA in my query letter, its absence can be assumed. What I have going for me is not instantly marketable.
Smile! I believe I’ve been profiled.
Sure, it’s a useful mechanism for some things, but should be used with caution. After all, think about the saying from The Imitation Game: “Sometimes it’s the very people who no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”