The Agent’s Merry Go Round – Part One

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.

So…. Agents?

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.

Oops.

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!”

Go figure.

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.

4 thoughts on “The Agent’s Merry Go Round – Part One”

  1. 1) “I only represent best sellers” says two or three things to the writer:
    (a) I’m only in this for the money and if your novel isn’t going to make ME rich, then piss off;
    (b) are you an arrogant, fast-talking guy just like me who can do the author circuit and push the book really forcefully to make me more money, or are you a shy writer type that I cannot use to push the book to make me money?
    (c) do you write in the best seller genre? -best sellers being a particular type of book written for a particular mass audience, or are you writing for a niche market of, you know, quality literature which could sell to it’s intended audience but is too small an audience to make ME money. Telling you he was only marketing bestsellers is no different than saying “I only do Westerns” or “I only do “Romance” or
    And (d) I suppose he was also saying to prospective clients, “If I take you on, you’re destined to become a bestseller” which is what potential clients want to hear, though the reality is, if they can’t instantly make oodles of money off your book, you drop off the named agent’s desk onto the intern’s desk, and then out the door if the intern fails, because it’s about which clients make the agency money and they are not investing time and energy into someone who doesn’t pay off within six months…Agents like to boast that this or that best seller is their client, but the new client thinks, “I’m going to be like them” when they should be thinking, “If those are the writer’s he’s working for, when is he going to find time for me?” It’s his intern that’s actually doing the work.

    2)I do not believe I said it was “fucking brilliant”. That doesn’t sound like me. Pretty sure I said, “It’s f-ing brilliant!”
    It should be a best seller. At the very least, it should have won a bunch of awards.

    3) The fundamental problem is thinking that writing success is about money. Poets have given up on the idea of making a living from poetry, and it would be best if writers joined them in realizing that the world for writing novels is gone. In the 1930s, writing for pulp magazines or writing pocketbooks in the 50s and 60s, gave one a nice middle-class living. But the per word rate hasn’t changed, and there are not enough paying markets that you can actually live off writing. Movies then TV made a dent, but nothing like video games and internet/social media and on-demand video. There is no moment when anyone is bored enough to read because we are on our cells every second of downtime. So who reads any more? There is only room for a handful of best-sellers that make all the money there is in writing/publishing, and that’s pretty much it. The big publishers take up all of the bookstore space with their various imprints that are still all them; the rest of us are left on Amazon and whatever niche we can find. One can hope to make some pocket money or vacation money or etc from writing but don’t quit your day job. If Matt Hughes can’t rub two nickels together when he is the best living author we know, where is there space for the rest of us? My novel is never going to be on sale at Walmat or Costco, because it is not a novel that demographic would buy. Does that make me a failure as a writer? No. H. A. Hargreaves only found time to write one story every two years because his was a demanding day job, so he never made money from writing; but his writing influenced a generation of Canadian spec fic writers and are still some of my favorite stories, 40 years later. So…that’s fine.
    Not saying that you, Den, are never getting an agent or making it big. I still hope that someone somewhere will see you for the literary genius that you are and pick up your contract. It seems to be happening for Hughes finally, so maybe the very best of us (e.g., you) will eventually become an overnight success after 25 years of writing. Me and everybody else…not so much.

    Reply
    • 1. Robert, I have your acceptance letter framed in my office. You certainly did say ‘Fucking brilliant!‘ with both exclamation mark and italics. Gonna hold you to it, bud. It’s the second nicest thing anyone ever wrote to me.

      2. There’s an old publishing joke: A young editor walks into a publisher’s office, and he says “I have a great idea! A revolutionary idea!”
      Publisher goes “What’s that son?”
      Young editor goes, “I notice that we publish a lot of books, but only a few are bestsellers, and we make most of our money on bestsellers.”
      Publisher says, “That sounds about right. What’s your idea?”
      Young editor says, “From now on, let’s forget these other books, we should only publish bestsellers!”

      At the risk of belabouring the point, no one predicted Fifty Shades of Gray, Harry Potter or the DaVinci Code were going to be bestsellers. No one can predict with 100% certainty, what’s going to be a bestseller. Sure, the next J.K. Rowling or Steven King? Sure thing. The rest of it is just blind men throwing darts at a board.

      As for Captain Leatherpants, that was in my mind when he told me “I only represent bestsellers.” It’s a weird feeling to travel thousands of miles and pay thousands of dollars to come to moment when suddenly, you find yourself trapped in a shaggy dog story. Yes, it was humiliating and frustrating, and oh so much down the drain. But there I was dealing with what some part of me clearly decided was an imbecile, and trying to be polite and salvage something. He may well have been a great Agent. But my read on him was that he was an entitled, pampered Ivy league brat with no ability, and frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if his Literary Agent career went nowhere. Of course, people of that class fail ever upwards constantly, so I can’t rule out that he made it as a successful agent. Pfft. Who cares?

      As for my own writing… well, it’s a writers blog, so I have to spend some large part of it blogging about writing. I suspect that it makes me come across as a narcissist and maybe a bit of a douche. So be it. In truth, I’m probably pretty mediocre, there’s better than me, there’s worse than me, so not a big deal no matter how you shake it. I’m well past the point of ever imagining myself as a literary genius (but I appreciate the compliment) not that I ever did. I don’t see writing as a career for me, it’s more along the lines of a compulsive personality disorder. That’s not me feeling sorry for myself. That’s an assessment. I’d have been much happier and more successful without it. But it’s who I am.

      But it is what it is. This is what I do. The ball is round. The game is ninety minutes. These are the certainties. So I’m going to play it, play hard and play all the moves. At the end of it, whatever the outcome, I did it.

      Reply
  2. I grok. I have had very similar experiences at film festivals, where my own polite shyness prevented me from stepping into a circle of strangers at a party and I struggled to reconcile the optimistic panel debates on how approachable development executives are with the dark reality.

    I would like to recruit an agent for my novel, and have queried a number of Canadian agencies. But I have also begun to study ‘self-publishing’, with all of its options. It’s like a buffet, an equal opportunity path to writing success that has flooded the market with thousands and thousands of titles that otherwise would never have seen the light of day.

    Thing is, writing seems to be the most accessible art form. Everyone is literate, and everyone believes they have a story to tell. Unfortunately, literacy does not make you a writer. Of course, vanity presses and the like encourage people to ‘tell their stories’, and there is no end to the ‘experts’ willing to sell you their strategies to make your book successful. It’s all about marketing and social media. Bullshit.

    I’m looking for a great read. I really don’t give a fuck about who the author is or where they’re from. If I like this story, I’ll see what else they’ve done, but I have no interest in following them on social media. Similarly, as an author, I’m glad you liked my tale, but that doesn’t grant you access into my life.

    I have a potential plan for the self-publishing route, if that is the path I choose, but there is a much simpler way to reach your audience than investing $5000 in a run of 1000 trade paperbacks and spending all your free time coddling strangers.

    I’m happy to share my thoughts, Den, but not here.

    Great piece, though.

    Reply
    • Good luck with your plan, Chris. I’ve had a great many plans myself over the years. Some did better than others. That’s how it goes.

      Reply

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