So…. here I am looking for an Agent again. I’ve got Princess of Asylum. Bloodsucker has been submitted to a Tor Imprint. The Mermaid’s Tale’s rights have reverted back to me, and The Luck was contracted but never published. That’s four novels in play.
Might as well bite the bullet. What am I going to do? Write another novel? I’m actually working on two right now. Release another ebook? Four or five are done and in the pipeline.
It was, and still is, a catch 22. To get an Agent you needed a book deal with a publisher. To get a book deal you needed an Agent. Round and round we go on the merry go round, no way on.
How do you find one? Well, back in the day, when I was first trying to break through, there were publications. SF Chronicle and Locus for the speculative fiction genre, there was Writers Digest Magazine, there was an Annual Directory of Publishers and Agents. I had subscriptions, I bought the Directories. It was all like reading tea leaves, it was all inscrutable and frustrating. Names of Agents who had sold novels to publishers, but they were names in a vacuum, phrases connecting here to there in emptiness Even the Directories were frustrating, the Agents write ups, or interviews in magazines being maddeningly frustrating.
“I want well written novels, with compelling characters and interesting plots.”
That seemed to be every one’s default. That really set them apart from all those other agents out there who wanted badly written novels with dull characters and boring plots. Gosh!
Oh and then there were the ones who really narrowed it down.
“We look at fiction and nonfiction.”
Gee whiz, that’s helpful. Seriously, that’s so goddammed helpful. Really, zeroes in, narrows it down.
I kind of get a laugh at the Agents who were irritated at getting generic query dumps. What the hell did they expect?
So you take your best guess, have a wild stab in the dark, send out query letter one at a time, and the first few chapters, or the whole book. Not easy in Canada, you’d be putting together these giant packages, trying to find American postage. I quickly learned to say ‘manuscript disposable, regular stamped envelope for reply.’
Then you’d wait a few weeks, or months, or a year, to get a response back, which was usually a ‘no thank you’ form letter.
I did get one personal response back from an Agent, who mentioned that she’d gotten to about page fifty of The Mermaid’s Tale, and was absolutely horrified and didn’t want to read any more, and that I was a terrible person, and really, she hoped never to hear from me.
Apparently, I’d traumatized an Agent.
That’s not good.
The Mermaid’s Tale went into a trunk for ten years.
A decade later, Robert Runte, Editor at Five Rivers Publishing said it was “Fucking Brilliant!”
But mostly, the pursuit of an Agent through query letters and the mail wasn’t really catching fire. The truth is that there was a wall of impersonality on both sides. The Agents and their profiles were vague and poorly described, they were shots in the dark.
And for the queries received, there was so much to wade through, you looked for shortcuts. Most letters can’t really give you a sense of the person, the most professional ones made no impression, and the most vivid ones usually left you feeling in need of a restraining order. A synopsis, a few chapters, that was a lot of reading, and reading in a vacuum. There was a tendency to just plow through the Agent’s slush pile, look for reasons to say no to everything, usually it wasn’t hard, and then get on with the productive part of the day. I’m honestly sympathetic, I can see their point of view here. Doesn’t do me any good or make happy, but I can see.
Once in a while, someone got through the slush pile. But it was more luck than anything else, the right person, the right time, the right mood, a slow day, maybe all of those things. It was like a lottery ticket. Mostly, you weren’t going to get an Agent or a book deal that way.
So…. the trick was to make that personal connection. Have a friend or relative who was an agent, or a publisher, or in the industry some way, where they could maybe connect you or introduce you. It helped probably to live in New York, or Chicago, or places like that. By the way, that happens a lot. You talk to a lot of writers, it’s that connection, friend of a friend, cousin, relative, knowing someone who knows someone.
I didn’t know anyone.
So that left conventions and conferences.
One year, I was Guest Liaison for Dean Wesley Smith and Kris Rusch for Keycon. That’s the local Winnipeg, fan driven, Sci Fi convention. It’s okay, it works for the people who form it’s community, and that’s all it needs to do. I’ve always had a peculiar relationship with Keycon. But that year, I was a liaison, so I threw into it. I took Dean and Kris on a tour of Winnipeg, we chatted, had fun. They are marvelous, talented people.
They gave me their advice. Basically, there are these things called Writers Conferences. Big get togethers for writers, agents and industry professionals come together, you can actually book time with an Agent, get your fifteen minutes to pitch.
Okay, so the thing is there’s a bunch of these Writers conferences all over the place, Hawaii, Vegas, Atlantic City, wherever. Cities have convention centers, so they have to book conventions. There’s convention hotels. So there’s a cottage industry of these things.
It’s expensive. You factor in the Convention membership, the hotel, the airfare too and from, the cabfare back and forth, meals, ancillaries, that runs you a few thousand dollars. If you’re living in nowhere Canada, and you’re travelling to the US and getting brutalized by exchange rates, add another thousand at least. That’s one. How many of these things can you afford to go to a year? Three? Four? That’s a chunk of your annual income.
Let me correct that. That’s a chunk or your annual upper middle class income. That’s a big chunk of middle class income – income that might not be free to use if you’re raising children, looking after relatives, if you’re paying a mortgage or car payments, if you’re on the credit card treadmill and just staying ahead of debts. If you’re working class? It’s really tough. If you’re minimum wage, or working poor, or just poor, then forget it.
I read someplace that 60% of the population can’t pull together Four hundred dollars in an emergency. Which makes you think. If these things are your best shot, then that door is closed for many aspiring writers.
It’s ironic, writing in a sense is the cheapest art form – it’s just you, a paper and pencil.
Maybe not totally cheap – computer, software, printer, internet access. It starts to pile up.
But actually trying to get anywhere, to break through as a writer is really expensive and challenging. Because no matter what, you have to end up jumping through a lot of hurdles. There’s writers conventions, the ones I’ve described. There’s trade conventions, like the World Fantasy Convention, just as expensive. At the last one, Ellen Datlow recommended that people attend a half dozen in a row, so that they can fit in, get noticed, become part of the community. Christ! So, great, commit to a half dozen conventions, fifteen or twenty thousand dollars over a half dozen years, in the hopes that somewhere along the lines you’ll talk to the right person, get the right invitation, and maybe break through.
That’s the traditional route of course – mainstream publishers, and medium presses, agents, manuscripts, bookstores, all that sort of thing. But even self publishing is expensive – if you pay for editing, and covers, formatting, printing, marketing, advertising. Even ebooks can be expensive. And let’s not even talk about Vanity Presses, or the variety of services, both legitimate and illegitimate to drain a bank account.
I feel that in a real sense, that writing is lined with barriers to keep people out, particularly financial barriers. I think that people have made this conversation about other art forms. People like Ecclestone and Carlyle have talked about how difficult it is for working class people to break into acting. I think that this is a real thing, not just for writing, but in a lot of areas, that the system operates to exclude people of limited means. And that disproportionately excludes a lot of people, not just poor, but people of colour, women, minorities, aboriginals, trans. If we’re all just trying to survive, and there are these institutional barriers, then these voices often get filtered out.
There are some that get through. J. K. Rowling, who wrote while on welfare is the famous example. And there are black, and trans and aboriginal writers, all with more and more to say. But there are so many barriers to so many, and the financial barriers are often the first and most implacable.
It is frustrating.
But where was I?
Oh yeah, writer’s conference. Anyway, taking the advice of Dean and Kris, I decided to sign up for one: The Surrey, British Columbia, Writer’s Conference. Was it a good choice? Was it a bad choice? I dunno. It was the one that I could afford to go to. And frankly, I was operating from a blank slate, I wasn’t a regular at these things, didn’t know one from another. I didn’t have the personal or financial investment of years, or opportunities to research. I just gave it a try.
It was an interesting experience. It was like being at an Amway Convention. Everyone was smiling. Everyone was upbeat. There was a palpable excitement and enthusiasm in the air.
I think part of it is that what we do as writers is so lonely that even the opportunity to hang out with people like ourselves, that share our passion is kind of thrilling. You’re just plugging away, and doing this thing, and really no one understands, no one cares. You’re lucky if you can get friends or family members to read it out of a sense of politeness, but they’re not really into it. Then you come to something like this… Wow! People just like you! People that understand! That people that share! And there are workshops and speeches and presentations that are actually on topics that you care about.
What I remember most were the success stories that continually circulated, almost like air, through the convention. I don’t exaggerate. It was like they inhaled. Someone got an agent! Someone got a book deal! This person who was just like me has a bestseller! I think that’s why it reminded me of Amway, all these success stories, and the palpable sense that success for each of us was just around the corner, we too could have an agent, a deal, a bestseller, fame, fortune, whatever. There’s a loneliness and a desperation to the writing life that made people just glom onto these stories, as if it was validating them, validating their life, their choices, somehow reassuring their inner doubts.
I wasn’t really buying into it. I’ve always been kind of a lone wolf, suspicious of crowds, always swimming against the current. So I wasn’t really swallowing the happy miasma, because when I talked to people, everyone seemed like me deep down, confused, uncertain, floundering. We weren’t winners, just people trying to find our way. It seemed to me that the fact that someone got a winning lottery ticket didn’t really have any bearing on my success or failure. It seemed that the common factor of all these stories was luck, and you can’t count on luck.
But I was happy that people were happy.
I met a young man who had four young adult novels published, and he was looking for an agent… and getting turned down, because they weren’t impressed with his sales figures. Well, that’s depressing. It felt like the bar had been arbitrarily set higher. Meet a target, oops, new rules, screw you. No matter how good, no matter what accomplishment or achievement, there’s just a new demand, a new reason to say ‘no,’ and ‘piss off.’
I met another guy who had spent six thousand dollars having professional editors workshop and edit his novels for him. I had to ask him, what’s the point? Even if he sold the novel, most of his money would go to Editor’s fees. How was this cost effective? But he was optimistic, he figured he’d make his money on the back end, with subsequent novels. I hope that he succeeded.
The highlight of the convention for me was meeting Matt Hughes, a gracious charming gentleman, and one of the finest writers I’ve ever met. We ran across each other, in person and online for years afterwards since then. I always feel enriched by our encounters. I can’t say that he’s a friend. But I love his work, and I’m happy to have met him. He was struggling a bit then, and he’d published two novels. He’s struggling now. And frankly, he should be famous and rich.
And I met my first Agent.
He wore leather pants. He was tall and good looking. He had some kind of background in child therapy or something, but he’d transitioned to being a literary agent. I had fifteen minutes booked with him to pitch. I’ll never forget the first thing he said to me.
“I only represent best sellers. Do you have a best seller?”
What the hell?
I was speechless. I literally did not know what to say. I had what I thought was a very good fantasy novel about an Orc solving a murder. It had been important to me. I thought I was saying some stuff in it. But a bestseller? How do I respond to that? Like, was this the DaVinci Code? John Grisham? Tom Clancy? Did he want Carl Hiassen? Elmore Leonard? Sylvia Tam and the next Eat Pray Love? Steven King? Dean Koontz? Dave Barry? Doctor Freaking Seuss? What????
“I only represent best sellers. Do you have a best seller?”
What the hell kind of question is that? Who says yes to something like that? And honestly, how would they know, really, if their work was best seller material? Did Rowling know? Did King know? Or did they just write and write and pound away to tell their story and hope for the best?
Believe it or not, I’m shy, almost pathologically so. I’m very good in adversarial situation. I’m very comfortable with that. But a non ‘F*** You, throw down sonofabitch, and show me what you got.’ situation and I’m tongue tied.
I do have a personality lying around somewhere, and once in a while it kicks in, and I’m charming as hell. But just as often, I’m trapped in excruciating awkwardness and self consciousness. Which was what was happening then.
So there I am, and Mister Leather Pants Florida Tan Agent is looking at me.
So I go “I don’t know,,, but this is what it’s about.”
“Doesn’t sound like a best seller, not interested.”
I had a few other projects, I stumbled through trying to pitch them. But you could see the light going out of his eyes, he was palpably bored and uninterested.
Ten minutes into my fifteen, I crawled away, tail between my legs, utterly humiliated and ashamed of having wasted his time.
My first encounter with an agent.
I think if I had it to do over again, I would like to have answered his question with “Fuck you, it’s a goddamned good novel.”
Or maybe just “Fuck you.”
Might have gotten things off to a better start. Or it might have ended the session really fast. Either would have been fine with me.
I have no idea what happened to that guy. Maybe he just faded away, his Agent career going nowhere, hamstrung by exaggerated expectations and no real ability. Maybe he succeeded, top of the game, and he’s now a famous New York Agent. Who knows.
If I ever met him, I’d still like to tell him ‘Fuck you.’
But honestly, politeness is pretty ingrained in me. So I probably wouldn’t.
He was still a condescending dickhead.
Since then I’ve come away with a particular dislike for men in leather pants.
Who knows why?
I suppose that what was needed was to do a detailed study of all the Conventions and Conferences in North America, and getting the names of all the Agents who were appearing at them. There’s no central directory, and certainly not a calendar anywhere. You’d just kind of have to do a lot of ongoing legwork, including looking for the periodic updates for all these conventions, to see what Agents they’re confirming, if they even release that information sufficiently in advance. And then, once you know the Agents, or they confirm, then you could try and research the Agents through their generic profiles or inscrutable track records, make an informed decision as to which ones you really wanted to meet, try to book your fifteen minutes in advance if possible, or if not, just cross your fingers when you get there, hope that they don’t cancel at the last minute, and then go and make your pitch. All of the research, and finding, and figuring out, and booking you do starting from scratch with an absolutely blank slate and not a clue. Of course, after you’ve spent the time and money to go to three or four of them, or maybe three or four a year, for years, then you’d get the hang of the landscape, how things worked, and figure out how to navigate it, but at no point, there’s no guarantee, there’s just hope… that desperate, Amway Convention hope that you can see right through. What it really gets you is just a better lottery ticket.
That’s the business of writing basically. It’s exactly like buying lottery tickets. Except with a lot more hard work, time, money, heartbreak and humiliation. Never forget the humiliation. Because when you’re in this isolating, isolated, lonely path, that humiliation really makes it all worthwhile.
If they could find a way to make it buying lottery tickets lonely, tedious and throw in some humiliation along the way, then lotteries could really capture the writing experience. It would probably be a lot cheaper and easier than writing, so hell, sign me up.
The first time at a Conference? Right at the start? No matter what, you’ve got a learning curve to climb. The best you’re going to do is a shot in the dark. Which is what I had, which is what I did, and which is how it turned out. So that was Surrey, my big shot in the dark. Too bad, so sad.
I suppose I should have kept at it, gone to more conferences. But then again, I’m working full time at a demanding job, which is getting steadily crazier, I’m on the credit card treadmill, and there’s family on the other side of the country, that I should make time to see. Go to the conference or pay the rent, go to a conference or pay the wife’s tuition at university, go to a conference or go spend a couple of weeks with my parents or grandmother before they die. So little time, so little money, trying to keep it all together, and maybe go for that next stab in the dark, because you’re still learning and trying to figure it out, and the information is hard to search out and you don’t even have enough time to do that thoroughly, so you climb the learning curve slowly, and you know that it’s just no more and no less than another stab in the dark, a lottery ticket that you will struggle to justify. Life gets in the way, what can you do?
Looking back, that was my pattern. I’d go to something – Surrey, Ad Astra, Conversion, Can Con, World Fantasy Con and I’d stumble around in the dark as best I could, learning a bit, and I’d be much better prepared to go next year and really take advantage of it, but I’d end up not being able to go, so it would be a one time thing. If there’s any advice I have for people on these things, I’d say, stick to it, go the next year, and the year after, and the year after.
A year or so after Surrey, I did find another agent at Conversion, or a wannabe agent. I think she’d decided to be a Literary Agent and was trying to break through, but didn’t really have experience or connections. She represented me for a year or so, and then threw in the towel. I don’t have it in me to resent her, she tried hard. I’m sorry my work wasn’t more successful for her. She deserved more.
That was my Agent experience then.
Now, here I am, back on the Merry Go Round.
In our next thrilling installment, I’ll tell you about the contemporary experience, searching for an agent. It may or may not eventually have a happy ending. I won’t be able to say. But I can talk about the journey.