Thursday, May 26, 2005

The answers (or at least some of them)

The return rate for responses was about 74%. Of that number, 46 agents asked to read some or all of the book (about a 6% rate that did not vary throughout the process). Out of that 46, only 3 finally asked to represent me. A happy ending? Not yet, because one agent had a reputation for bilking would-be writers out of fees (no agent should ask any money up-front), one had a troubled business history, and the third had no experience in the business and was starting out.

What did I learn from my research? For one thing, just because one agent turns you down doesn’t mean his or her office mate won’t be interested. One or two larger firms (e.g., Stuart Krichevsky) got annoyed when I queried each agent individually (“we’ve already rejected you,” the office wonk peevishly wrote to me). And a few biggies (Wm. Morris and Creative Artists Agency) insisted they didn’t accept unsolicited queries, even as individual agents were responding on their own to my mailings and emailings. I also discovered several things to help level the playing field.

1.) Act like a professional: You have a commodity to sell that others may or may not want to buy. While it’s not very romantic to think of your writing that way, I have never forgotten my college professor who told us how he imagined Shakespeare (the consummate professional) sitting down with Ben Johnson for a beer after writing “King Lear” and celebrating.

2.) Don’t be pressured into anti-competitive positions: I know this will get me in hot water with “The Ethicist” in The New York Times Magazine, but when a prospective agent says “I want it exclusively,” your inner response should be, “well sure, and I want a million dollar advance.” Neither notion is realistic for a first-time book writer. I appreciate it that no agent wants to spend time reading your work, only to find out you’ve given it to a competitor. But since this is a business, the odds are far more likely the agent will turn you down. Remember my 756 agents— slightly over 6% agreed to read the book, and only 3 of that total asked to represent it. Other businesses have to compete for clients, why should literary agents be allowed to set rules that work against you?

3.) Time is not on your side: If you let the agent read it for 6-8 weeks (a usual amount of time it takes to slog through a 100,000 word book), and the agent turns you down, you’ve lost two months! Two agents who had my book lost it! After two months of waiting patiently to hear from them, I finally emailed both. Now I send all mailings with Delivery Confirmation. It’s only an additional 45¢ and it allows you to monitor when the package was delivered (one agent wasn’t home when he got it, and didn’t bother to pick it up from the post office until I told him about it). I then follow up a few days later making sure they know the post office says it got to them.

4.) Looking for love in all the wrong places: Giving your work to one agent exclusively is also bad because, without shopping it around, you don’t know if the agent’s right for you. Are they enthusiastic? Have they sold similar books before? What will they do besides market it to editors? For example, do they have any connections in Hollywood for getting an option on the book? Can they create “buzz” around the property in the publishing industry?

5.) Where have you been published? Of course it’s easier to sell the manuscript of the latest darling of The New Yorker, or the flavor-de-jour from Vanity Fair. Yet a surprising number of novels and non-fiction works get written and published by folks both magazines would likely turn up their very haughty noses at. If you’re looking for big dollars and a marquee publisher, you’re going to need those kinds of pre-publication credits, not because those magazines sell books, but because they sell writers to editors.

6.) We have a reasonable handling fee/reading fee/editorial fee: The is no such thing as a reasonable reading fee; the agent is going to make money from the sale of your book, so taking a few hours to read some or all of it should not involve an exchange of money. Those agents who try to convince writers the can “fix” your book for a fee are trafficking in dreams. The notion that anyone is going to “fix” your book for a few hundred dollars is simply outrageous and dishonest. Don’t pay any agent to read your book, the most they should ethically ask for is postage to return the manuscript. Since I found that returned manuscripts were usually too dog-eared to use again, I simply sent along a self-addressed stamped envelope to get any bad news (any who wants to represent you will either call or email if the news is good).

What's next?

Saturday, May 21, 2005

What did I learn from my efforts?

First, that agents are simply swamped by the number of would-be writers-- one snarled at me when I asked if she'd received my package, "I get 5,000 queries a month, why would you expect me to remember yours?" Oh, sure, there are stories about the writer who “chose” her agent by reading the acknowledgements page of books she admired, and then contacted the agent those writers were thanking. It's a lovely idea, not unlike the mom who's just about to lose her home when she wins the Power Ball lottery by playing her kids' birthdays.

My experience, though, is those agents are busy selling the new books of the writers who wrote the books who get admired. In many cases, they aren’t interested in representing one of the fans of those already-successful authors, no matter how talented. Sour grapes? Well, you might think so, except that the huge amount of time it takes many agents to answer queries, or the number of times they simply lose your work indicates there simply isn't enough time to be careful, thoughtful readers. Agents will even admit it in unguarded moments.

The most damning indictment of the “affinities” method of finding an agent became apparent when I approached agents who’d graduated from Yale, where my novel takes place (there were around a dozen). About half turned it down without even reading any of it, and among the two that did ask to read the entire manuscript, both passed. So much for “the right fit.”

Second, while agents aren’t shy about saying “no,” they’re wary about trusting their own judgment, especially the possibility of rejecting the next James Joyce—- or worse, Harry Potter (no agent could live in NYC on the royalties from Joyce's book!). The problem hasn’t been made any easier by several collections published in the past decade of nasty rejection slips sent to the great and famous by stupid editors and agents who couldn't see the greatness factor. With the threat of perhaps being thus exposed, most agent rejection slips are worded in ways that wouldn't offend even a latent serial killer with a short fuse who's been sniffing glue and taking crystal meth.

Almost none of the rejections I received were even a tiny bit helpful, and few offered even general criticism about why they did not want to agent my novel. The average read something along the lines of "I don't feel I could be a passionate enough advocate of your work," or “I didn’t feel this was a good fit with our agency. Another agent might feel differently.”

The key to that idea isn’t just feel-- and it's a "fly by the seat of one's pants" business, after all. No, the real key is “another.” Placing a book is numbers game, even for agents. If an agent doesn’t know enough editors for your kind of book, the chances of selling it drop off dramatically. And don’t think they’re going to waste time knocking on the doors of editors they don’t know. Writers who send their work out to a handful of agents are almost certainly dooming themselves to obscurity, frustration and despair. Worse, the casual ineptitude of some agencies leaves you at a competitive disadvantage. Several agents simply lost the submissions they’d asked for, while others never got (or didn’t remember getting) the queries I sent them. One reader at a large agency left without letting me know, so when I followed-up with her two months later, I discovered I’d have to start all over again with someone else.

I persevered because I knew from my experiences doing direct mail marketing that a 2% return rate is average. That would mean you’d need to query 100 agents just to get two of them to read your work (we’re not even talking about wanting to represent you).

So what were the results of my 750+ queries? Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

"Another Agent Might Feel...."

Conventional wisdom says a writer needs an agent to get a book published.

At least at one of the commercial publishers that actually pay writers for their work, and even with an increasing number of small presses. Walt Whitman wrote about hearing America singing, but today, it would be writing that preoccupies us as a nation. Books, many unread, roll off the conveyor belt of commercial publishing, ebooks and POD (Print-on-Demand) titles have exploded, and an unknown number of weblogs/"blogs" have proliferated on the Internet.

Despite the myths about tweedy men in musty offices searching their slush pile for greatness, publishing has always been a brutal, commercial business. The radio comedian Fred Allen said over a half century ago “you can take all the sincerity in Hollywood, put it in a flea’s navel, and still have room left over for three caraway seeds and an agent’s heart.” While Fred was talking about talent agents, his cautionary words still ring true in the literary realm, too. The consolidation of publishing under media conglomerates interested only in the bottom line has done nothing to make the business any less brutal, nor the hunt for an agent more pleasant than a proctologic exam— and often less rewarding.

When I read about authors who consider their agents their best friends, it makes me feel sad for anyone who needs to pay another person to like them. But then, Americans pay therapists to listen to their problems, so maybe it's something we're conditioned to do? I’m not saying you can’t be on good terms with your agent, but if your books stop selling, don’t be surprised if your “best friend” stops returning your phone calls. When dealing with agents or editors or anyone in publishing, remember that great line in “The Godfather” that goes “it’s nothing personal, just business.”

I'm not surprised the current business climate makes agents cranky and often difficult to deal with. The amount of work to place a first-time author’s book that will generate a small advance ($10,000 or less) is often more than placing a book paying a million dollars up-front. Editors are more likely to open their company’s purse strings for a celebrity criminal or the mistress of a killer than for a novel that might be nominated for a literary prize and sell less than 5,000 copies. Agents often scorn the latter while waiting for the “home run.” Who can blame them?

Knowing it would be hard to break in, I took the conventional wisdom about “casting a wide net” to heart: I contacted over 750 agents. So many in fact, I needed an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the queries, submissions, requests for manuscripts, rejections, and offers of representation. What did my search teach me?

Stay tuned for more in this continuing series.