To get an agent's attention, you need a well-polished query letter, but if your story is tired it won't matter how brilliant the letter. In these days of the blockbuster mentality, all or nothing, an author needs plot devices that come straight out of current events.
Read a piece of debut women's fiction and you'll find distant parents who are overworked at their yuppy jobs, a teen-aged daughter who's been targeted by an online predator, and some tragic illness that's getting lots of press. Jodi Picoult has made a good living at writing about things that have appeared in the news or been bandied about on Oprah or Dr. Phil.
There's other ways to be different and fresh, of course. Write about something that hasn't been done to death by other authors in the past ten years.
When debut author Sherry Jones got "the call" from agent Natasha Kern, you can imagine her excitement. She had an agent. She was on her way.
Then Random House said yes. Her manuscript was picked up, sent off on its journey to publication. There was buzz created, marketing getting into gear.
The Jewel of Medina was fresh and new, with its exotic setting in the harem of the Prophet Mohamed (peace be upon him). No one writes about Muslims, about the formation of the religion, and certainly no one in the western world knows a thing about it, beyond the terrorists, and aren't readers clamoring to know more?
Denise Spellberg, a professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas, Austin, was asked to blurb the book. She thought it was more soft-core porn than textbook, and she got the ball rolling. This is explosive stuff, she said when she warned editor Jane Garrett, it's more dangerous than Salman Rushdie's writings and worse than the Danish cartoons.
Publish or perish might be the watchword in academia, but it's become a threat to mainstream publishing. Publish a book that has anything whatsoever to do with Islam, unless it's a call to jihad, and some shadowy group will threaten mayhem and death. Once Ms. Spellberg got the word out, the threats came back in to Random House.
Can't have that, said the publisher. Don't want to appear politically incorrect or insensitive or anything like that. Danger to employees, have to pay for more security, psychological counseling, too costly. Rather than stand up to a bully, Random House turned over their lunch money.
Ms. Kern is free to shop the manuscript to other publishers, but she'll be hard pressed to find one that isn't well aware of the potential risks and has the courage to defend the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
There's always self-publishing. At least a large portion of the marketing and publicity has already been done.