The Agents Merry Go Round – Part Two

So here I am searching for an Agent.

I confess, I feel almost as if I’ve passed through a time warp. The era in which I started trying hard to be a Writer, and the era I find myself in now, seem so different. Yet I don’t feel different. My writing doesn’t feel different. I went on this journey, restarting my life again and again, the time filled up, and yet, returning to this passion of mine, picking up the pen it feels as if no time has passed, but suddenly the world is different.

So what about this new world of smart phones and an amazingly comprehensive internet and online commerce? What does it mean to me as a Writer?

In one sense, it’s been disastrous for Free Lance writers. You hear that a lot from free lancers and former free lancers. The markets have dried up, magazines and newspapers are a dying industry, the world is awash in free content, or low price content. It’s harder than ever for most creatives to make a living at it, or even a successful hobby.

But then again, in the fiction trade, it was hardly ever easy. There were times perhaps when things were more open, where there were paying markets for fiction, where publishers were looking desperately for product to stock the shelves and fill the catalogue. Or where people in just the right places and time could get lucky. Unfortunately, I was never in those times or places.

So be it.

I’ve read that there are more novels around now than ever before, more readers, more books than ever before, the world is awash in print, either manual or electronic. Okay, maybe. Sure. I’m not sure I’m seeing it. I remember when I came to Winnipeg, I counted twenty bookstores, new and used in a half hour walk. Today, I count one new bookstore and maybe a half dozen used. Of course there are the big box book superstores in the suburbs and the ebook market, so apples and oranges.

But if there are more books out than ever, then my god, there are more Writers out there than you’ve ever seen. I’ve read someplace that there are a million scripts floating around Hollywood at any given time. I don’t know whether that’s true. But I wouldn’t be surprised. Every publisher, every editor, every agent has a gigantic slush pile. Looking through some of the literature on Agents, it’s like they get literally hundreds of inquiries a day coming in through mail and email from prospective writers. The numbers out there are insane.

Part of it is that it’s just physically easier to be a Writer. My first stories were pounded out on old Underwoods, or my mother’s portable typewriter. To send out stories, you’d have to labouriously hammer them out, correcting typos as you go with white out, or sometimes having to retype the whole page. Then you’d find the market from magazines or directories, you’d write away for their submission guidelines. You’d mail the submission off, with return postage if they rejected it (or accepted it). If you weren’t in the US, then you needed US stamps for the return. If you couldn’t get US stamps you could send International Reply Coupons, but I’m pretty sure they were counted against you. I learned early on not to bother asking for the whole manuscript back, just the response. By the time I was submitting novels, I was working off a computer, but it was still a tedious manual process.

Now, word processing makes being a writer so much faster and easier. You have spell checks, grammar checks. You save, retrieve, revise files left and right. Now you can send electronic submissions by email – back in the earlier time, this was just starting up, and Agents would struggle to open attachments. Now it’s standard.

But that ease – of writing, of putting stuff together, of making inquiries, means that the volume of stuff in play has increased dramatically, and inquiries from writers looking for agents has increased dramatically. As I’ve said, Agents are now getting hundreds of inquiries a day.

How do you cope with that? How do you plow through a couple of hundred inquiries a day, and get anything else done in your day? Particularly, how do you get useful work that will actually pay the bills done?

You say ‘No.’ A lot. And you say ‘No’ fast. An Agent might spend an hour  or half an hour of the day just plowing through hundreds of queries, glancing, glancing, waiting for that one inquiry that stands out or catches the eye.

That’s tough.

And a bit disheartening.

There’s a lot of effort that writers put into searching for ‘The Perfect Query Letter.’ There’s all sorts of articles. Hell, there are probably books. “How to write the Perfect Query Letter.” There’s an almost messianic dedication to that cause. I can understand that, it’s almost mystical, the write query letter, that one perfect query, is the difference between success and failure. If you can just get it right, then you can break through, you can finally pass through the gate, join that Olympian fraternity, yadda yadda yadda.

The truth?

I don’t think that there is such a thing. Writer’s Digest has this long running series – ‘Actual Query Letters That Succeeded.’ Real query letters written by real writers, that somehow made it through the slush piles and clicked with the Agent. You can actually read them. Along with that, you can read the Agent’s comments as to why they picked that letter, that book, that writer.

Mostly, it’s distressing. Most of the query letters that succeed are perfectly fine, some of them are sort of lame. Some wander and dither, teetering over into irrelevancies. Some have stunning pitches. Most are basically mediocre. They’re average, not extraordinary.

The Agents in their descriptions of why they picked this particular letter are all over the place. The criteria they look at, what struck them, how it struck them. It’s mostly arbitrary and personal. You can easily imagine twenty other agents rejecting that letter, or that particular agent rejecting the letter if he or she was in a slightly different mood, or the events of the previous week were different.

The truth is, there is no ‘Perfect Query Letter.’

There’s no such thing.

There’s good. There’s competent. There are the basics – your title, your word count, need a good pitch line, “Briggite Jones Diary Meets Lord of the Rings.” You need a snappy paragraph or two saying what the novel is about. And then… Who knows. What else helps? A bio note? Prior publications? You can’t tell. A referral from someone helps. Some personal contact, particularly if you’ve met them. But really, there’s no magic. It’s just a lottery. In the end, no matter whether your book is good or lot, or how good it is, it’s luck.

Sure, maybe a heartbreaking work of pure genius might shine through.

Ever hear of the Confederacy of Dunces? John Kennedy Toole wrote that. He tried to find a publisher, failed, and eventually killed himself in 1969. His mother found the manuscript and getting it published became her quest, going to several more publishers. Eventually she browbeat a University Professor into reading it. It published in 1980, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981.

Happy ending?

Not for John Kennedy Toole who ran a garden hose from his car to his garden and sucked back carbon monoxide. He came close a few times, but never close enough, and he lost heart. Not for his mother who spent eleven years flogging that battered novel through rejection after rejection until she found someone who saw its worth. If she’d quit after ten years… Then what? Then nothing. In the end, persistence paid off, and she was validated, eleven or twelve years after her son’s death. But it didn’t have to, the one guy who accepted it could have blown her off. She could have spent her whole life carrying that novel around. There was no guarantee.

So here’s the moral of the story. You can write the greatest novel in the world… and despite your best efforts, all the queries, all the query letters, all the pitches, the Agents, the Editors… it can just end up in a box in you closet. No one will ever read it, no one will ever give a shit. Sometimes that happens. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

But if you go down to the local bookstore, you can find a great many stunningly mediocre novels, even a few actively terrible ones, that somehow made it through the process all the way to publication. That happens too.

There you go. The truth is it’s all a crap shoot. You can write a great query letter, or a mediocre one. You can write a great novel, or a mediocre or terrible one. There’s no guarantee. You can die in a ditch or live like a king.

You have no control over what anyone else in the writing or publishing process does. You’re just at the mercy of the fates. Deal with it. Run away if you must, that’s sensible. Or dive in with insane optimism, and maybe you’ll succeed, or maybe end up heartbroken and on the rocks, running your garden hose from the car like poor Mister Toole. Or put your head down and shoulder into it and march forward.

You need two things. Persistence and luck. Nobody can control luck. So… all you’ve got is persistence and stubbornness. That’s where I am.

In the end the luck, luck decides.

So be it.

The real question is, do you believe in what you are doing? Do you have something you need to say? Is this book, this story, this script, or novel or whatever, is it something that you have to do.

Then do it.

So… Where was I?

Looking for an Agent.


Well, in this brave new world, it’s a hell of a lot easier. There are online directories of Agents now. They’re even searchable. You can plug in a keyword – Fantasy, Horror, Romance, and ‘Pow!’ you can get a list of three hundred and fifty Agents, that you can then start plowing through.

Information on Agents is a lot more searchable. Pretty much every serious literary Agency has a web site with profiles of each agent, lists of books they’ve sold, authors they represent, what they’re looking for or not looking for, whether they’re closed or open to submissions, and how to submit. A lot of them even have submission forms online.

There’s author service sites – Writer Beware, Predators and Editors, Agents wish lists, Writers Digest, Publishers stuff, Blogs. There’s shitloads of advice and commentary on the field, some of it personal, some of it dated, some of it useful. You can read interviews with agents, sometimes you can find the books, movies and television they like.

With half an hour or so of poking around you can get a pretty good idea as to whether a particular Agent deals with your sort of stuff and whether they might be a fit.

This is night and day from the old days, where you basically had to do a lot of legwork, looking up books, trade publications, finding and figuring out an agent involved an investment of time and effort back in the day, and as often as not, your results were pretty crap. Now? It’s all at your fingertips.

Actually, you can find out pretty fast sometime if they’re not. I ran across Christian Agents and people who wanted ‘Inspirational Material.’ Well cross those off the list in thirty seconds. Then on the other side there are agents who specifically want queer, or ethnic, or POC – nothing wrong with that, but I’m not what they’re looking for. Cross those off. There’s an Agent who has memoirs about his crack addiction, forget that guy.

It’s actually more time consuming to research an Agent you think might be a possible fit. Crossing someone off the list is easy. But for someone with potential, you have to dig deeper and take more time to decide, and if they are likely, then you have to think about how to perhaps apply your research to the pitch in your query letter.

That’s an irony, that I suspect, is very familiar to the Agents on the other side of the desk.

Here’s another irony. If you talk to agents, listen to them on panels, or read interviews, one of the things they absolutely hate is generic queries. They just loathe it.

Everyone wants to feel special of course. But a generic query makes them feel like they haven’t been researched, there’s no effort, it’s all just a stab in the dark, and the same pitch is going to a dozen or hundred other agents. They like things to be personalized.

But not too personal, of course. Every agent has stories about the over the top query letters or efforts that have ‘restraining order’ as a subtext. There’s a certain professional format that you have to hew to closely, and they don’t want to read a long letter. So personalizing it is tricky.

But I was talking irony.

Here it is. You know how Agents hate generic queries?

Well, it’s a physician heal thyself kind of situation, because quite often their web sites or profiles are pretty vague.

There are a lot of Agents out there whose guidelines let us know they want ‘fiction and nonfiction.’ Well, holy shit! Way to zoom in. Wow. They’re just intent on mastering a niche, tell you what. Totally narrows it down.

But the usual line is “I’m looking for well written stories with interesting characters and compelling plots.”

You know, to ward off all those people deliberately doing poorly written stories, who set out to create uninteresting characters and unengaging plots. Yes, thank you for that. That really narrows it down. Even more than ‘we want fiction and nonfiction.’

Seriously? “I’m looking for well written stories with interesting characters and compelling plots.” What the hell does that even mean? How does that assist anyone? Here’s a clue. No one ever intends to write a bad book, and they sure as hell don’t want to send one to an agent. Everyone tries to write the best book in them, they do the best stories that they can, they put effort into their plots and characters. They write something that they believe in.

What specifically are they looking for? That doesn’t tell anyone a damned thing.

Which is why you have to dig around a bit more, look up the interviews and wish lists, the TV they like to watch, the novels they like to read, the novels they sell, the people they represent. And then… You kind of guess. You go from a random stab in the dark, to a slightly more informed stab in the dark.

The truth is, that I don’t think that they really know what they want.

Well they do and they don’t.

I’m pretty sure that like Captain Leatherpants, they all want something that’s going to be a best-seller, that will make their name and critical reputation, and especially money. They probably want a writer who isn’t a one off, but can reliably keep putting out salable or best-salable books. That’s cool, no objections to that. Everyone, writers and publishers and agents, everyone wants that brass ring, because there’s no guarantees in the business for anyone, and there’s a risk of a lot of hard miles. But the thing about brass rings is that there’s no guarantee.

They don’t know what they want, in the sense that they can’t seem to articulate it well. That comes across consistently in a lot of places. I’ve been at World Fantasy Conventions, where I’ve sat in at Agents and Editors panels, and they’ll contradict themselves five times in an hour. An agent will be absolutely sincere, thoughtful, careful, genuine… but if you add it up, it’s incoherent mush. They say one thing, then fifteen minutes later they say another thing that completely invalidates the first thing, and there’s not even a sense of self awareness. They have no idea that it’s not hanging together. I’m not slagging them, they’re doing their best.

But then, art isn’t like that. It’s not like a Chinese menu. I respect Agents who say ‘I want Christian fiction’ or ‘I want queer fiction’ because that’s easily quantifiable. It’s tangible. You can articulate that.

But ‘good fiction’? That’s so hard to nail down. That’s so subjective. It’s lightning in the bottle. It’s that Frankenstein moment when a pile of words in a manuscript jolts and comes alive. And every Frankenstein pile of words is different. I don’t think you can articulate that, you can’t, as an agent predict that Frankenstein moment, or articulate for people submitting to help them make that distinctions.

What it comes down to for Agents is that they’ll know what they want when they see it. When a manuscript or proposal crosses their desk and it comes alive.

Or at least they hope they do. I suspect that there are a lot of Agents out there who turned down J.K. Rowling, or Dan Brown, or John Kennedy Toole, and kind of have to live with that blunder. Imagine being the agent who looked at Steven King and thought ‘yeah, the guy has no future.’ I think a lot of agents may have that terror in the back of their minds.

Which, I suppose, is why they’re willing to accept and plow through two hundred queries a day. Hoping for that moment. Terrified that they might miss it.

We all like to think that we’re masters of our fate, in control of our lives, of our careers. Sometimes we get to pretend that we are, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes we have to accept that we aren’t. But if we aren’t, then we’d like to believe that someone out there knows what they’re doing, that they’re running things, or at least have it going on.

But maybe not. Maybe we are all of us, writers, agents, editors, publishers, just kind of stumbling and bumbling our way through life, doing the best we can with the skills we’ve got, hoping and trying. Maybe Agents aren’t any different from the rest of us, they’re just in a different place. Like successful writers they’re in a more secure or prestigious place, and maybe they can stay. But in the end, they’re just wandering in the dark like all of us are.

So what does it come down to?

I have a novel.

I do my homework, finding my list of 350, steadily going through it, researching, crossing off, marking out ‘yes!’ And ‘maybe.’ Picking out the top three, the top ten, the top fifteen to try.

Then the query letter. That scares me. Here’s a true story. Way back when, the first time I went on this merry go round, I was totally fixated on trying to do the best possible query letter. I wrote and then tore it up. Wrote again. Rewrote. I parsed through every word with a fine tooth come. I agonized over font and spacing. Every single word was scrutinized, changed, adjusted, reset, altered. Finally, after going over each component in minute detail, I sent it out.

The first sentence read, “Me am lawyer.”

Jesus Christ. I just about had a heart attack weeks later, when I was going through my file copies and read that.  Too late, the damage was done. I had massaged, and changed and adjusted on a word and punctuation level so many times, so carefully, that I’d lost the ability to read the whole thing. I’d overdetailed, and overdetailed, and I’d lost sight of the forest, in favour of the leafs. Superman they say can polish a lump of coal into a diamond. I’d polished a diamond into a turd.

I’m terrified of that happening to me again. I’ve worked out a query letter template. I try to focus each letter at least somewhat for each agent, keeping professional, not overly familiar, but somehow personalized, trying to tune in to the best guess of each Agent’s sensibilities. So each time the template gets massaged. And I find myself terrified that maybe I’ll have a broken sentence, or a random leftover word, or a combination that goes wrong. It could happen. I could screw myself over with one stupid mistake.

Do your best and move on.

So far I’ve sent out fifteen or twenty. About half of them have come back as rejections. That’s to be expected. If you are doing this, getting an acceptance early on is like being struck by lightning. Mostly you send out, it comes back, you keep sending out. I figure I’ve got about a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty realistic shots.

I have no idea how ‘realistic’ those shots are by the way. The real pool of credible agents for this particular novel in this particular genre might be as small as twenty or thirty, or less. Who knows? Those may be the realistic targets, and all the rest of them are the long shots or simply banging my head against a stone wall.  A lot of them might simply be like the Guard at the Courthouse in Kafka’s story, you send them the query, just so that you can know you’ve tried everything, taken every step, done all you could.

One thing I’ll say about this go round is that the rejections are a lot nicer. Last time out, years ago, I’d ended up traumatizing some poor Agent. I still feel bad about that. This time, the rejections are brief, cordial and encouraging. “It’s just not for me, good luck.” Yeah, they’re form rejections of course. But they lack that sting, that ‘F—- You’ quality that some Editors and Agents used to revel in back in the old days.

Maybe New Yorkers are just nicer these days, more thoughtful, more compassionate and empathetic. Who knows?

Or they’re more cautious about the prospect of well armed lunatics showing up. Or maybe they just don’t want to burn possible bridges.

You used to hear stories back in the old days of the seasoned pros – Writers, Agents, Publishers, etc., some of them really being rude and nasty to the up and comers and the wannabees. Only to find some of these people successful and even powerful years later, and nursing a grudge. I’m sure that resulted in some really unpleasant and awkward situations.

That may be it. Just a recognition that the person you may turn down may be the next J.K. Rowling, so why be an ass.

Whatever. I’m liking the rejections so far. They’re polite, professional. I’m good with that. And honestly, I expect to collect a bunch more. Maybe even fill a box.  I think the thing I resent most is just the sheer commitment of time, both in actual hours spent, and in months, in going through this process. I could take that time and energy, the labour that goes into this, and write another damned novel, or do something else useful. So yeah, I resent it. But it’s the way the world works, so may as well knuckle down.

But you only need one to succeed.

Success being relative of course. There’s no guarantee that getting an agent gets you a book sale. There’s no guarantee that getting a book sale gets you a decent return. Or your next book, or a career. But for now, call that success.

And if none of them work. Well, I’ve got another novel that I can start the process all over again. So who knows, maybe that one will work.

And if the next novel, and the next round of queries, and the next hundred or hundred and fifty rejections don’t work….

Well, then I’ll have made the effort, filled my box with rejections. As in the Kafka story, I’ll have done everything that I could have done.

Of course, realistically, if you read the papers and talk to people, sending queries is a mugs game. Almost no one gets through the slush pile. The real way to get an agent is through personal connections. Being related to one, or having a friend that’s one, or a contact who is related or a friend, or a friend of a friend. I don’t really have that. I’m not really a person who has friends or connections.

Or knocking in person on the right door in the right forum (not showing up unannounced at their offices) through literary conventions or conferences. But that’s out for the forseeable future thanks to Covid-19.

So, for better or worse, this is the path that’s open to me, and to many other writers, for better or worse, as Kafka as it may be.

If none of it works out, then I’ll go on to the next quest, whatever it is, small press, or self publishing. This whole ‘Agents’ thing is not the only pathway.

Maybe I’ll just go back to writing ransom notes.

But for now, I’m in it. It’s a crap shoot, I know that. I could do a hundred other things that make more sense, that would make more money, benefit more people, do more for me as a person, than to be a writer and embark on the merry go round. I know all that. But this is what I need to do.

There are few certainties. The ball is round, the game is ninety minutes. That’s about it. Everything else is up in the air. I’m good with that.

In the end, we do it because we have to.

2 thoughts on “The Agents Merry Go Round – Part Two”

  1. You’re right. As usual.

    There are sooooo many novels and scripts and pilots now, because most everyone is literate and so imagines they could be a writer. After all, the investment is minimal — no brushes, pigments or canvas. No clay or kiln required. All it takes is time.

    Or so people think. But a story — in any format — demands so much more than a sequence of ‘he did, she said’. And so the vast majority of works polluting the inboxes of agents and publishers don’t (and, frankly, shouldn’t) make the cut.

    In fact, I believe that unless you know someone who has an agent who is first willing to read your work and then introduce you, there is but one way for a new writer to become successful. There are hundreds of books and manuals and guides that insist that a blog, an author home page, an instagram account and daily facebook updates are essential. But. Do you ‘follow’ all your favourite authors? I certainly don’t. Not even my very favourite writers. And the only agent-represented authors I know are no longer speaking to me.

    Now, you probably should have at least a landing page on the web, with a short bio (what’s a bio worth if you’re writing under a pen name?), a list of your works, purchase links, etc. I think the best tool would be a star rating system and reader-comment area (to avoid a possible avalanche of emails). OK, since you’ve gone to this much effort, you might as well permit signing up to your monthly issue of wisdom. But anything else is a waste of effort until you make the NY Times bestseller list.

    So. The one way I mentioned. First of all, every story needs an editor. Every story. My novel has been praised by all who I carefully chose to ask to read it, readers whose temperaments and literacy levels I could trust for honest feedback. The unanimous positive feedback convinced me to pay for a professional editor to do an ‘editorial assessment’ — not a copy edit, just an analysis of consistency in theme, characterisation, voice, pace and structure. At 125,000 words, it will cost less than $1000.

    After this process is complete, I will invest another $500 or so for reviews by Kirkus, BookBaby and others, because a good review earns space in their newsletters and an excellent review will draw more readers than thousands invested in amazon and facebook ads. I will also take advantage of those forums of readers eager to get a free advance copy of the novel as an ebook for a promise to review it. Often, in exchange for a review on barnes&noble or applebooks or googleplay, they could earn a signed bookmark or something similar.

    My point is that for a little investment, and relieved of the effort of a pointless social media campaign, I will have positioned my novel where it will be noticed. And once it is noticed, and ranks on one or two lists, the agents will be looking for me.

    • I hope it works out. Ultimately, there are no guarantees. We pays our money, we rolls our dice…

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