Jessica Sinsheimer, an agent at Sarah Jane Freymann Literary, did a search in the agency's database of query letters from recent years: 131 of them mention Eat, Pray, Love. (Other biggies in the database: German spiritual author Eckhart Tolle, Harry Potter, and, of course, Twilight. "We're so tired and done with vampires that if I could treat my submissions with garlic I would," Sinsheimer says.)
It's not Eat itself that literary agents dislike. After all, the book has sold more than 9 million copies worldwide, according to Viking. Plus there are now Home Shopping Network products and perfumes and Eat, Pray, Love-style travel adventures.But many of these would-be writers misunderstand the initial appeal of the book. It's not primarily the premise that grabbed people, says literary agent Mollie Glick, who works at Foundry Literary + Media. The premise was "kind of gimmicky." The book succeeded because of Gilbert's precise, playful, and intimate writing style, which is so hard to emulate.
Are there unknown writers out there waiting to be discovered? Sure. And the best writers are not always the best marketers of their own talent. But for every "astonishing new voice," as the blurb might put it, there are many more people unaware of just what the narrative arc of their own lives might be. "If you risk going to your elderly parents' 80th birthday party in a retirement community somewhere in Northern California you will be approached," says Steve Wasserman, a literary agent to Christopher Hitchens, among others, and the former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. The life stories may be fascinating, rich with historical detail, but that doesn't mean these would-be writers know how to weave them into a story. "Talent," says Wasserman, "is unevenly distributed."
Gilbert is an exception. She was known as a gifted writer well before the publication of Eat, Pray, Love. She'd written for GQ and the New York Times Magazine and published a book of short stories, a novel, and a nonfiction book, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Not only did her name make her more marketable; her talents allowed her to shape and find meaning in a narrative construct that could have otherwise felt, well, overly constructed.
Writers who compare themselves to a well known, first-rate talent make agents wonder how much they know about the industry and how rare and unpredictable blockbuster success is (Oprah endorsements being akin to acts of God), not to mention how realistically they view their own talents. "Saying that your book is like Eat, Pray, Love is like saying that your favorite book is The Great Gatsby, says Sinsheimer, who has blogged about the problem of Eat queries. "It doesn't make you look well-read."
So be warned. If your proposal mentions a book that's been on the bestseller list for more than 180 weeks, it may be a sign that your book isn't worth writing.