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.


Blogger Anastasia said...

I worked for a small press here that published educational study aids. Currently it holds a monopoly here in Australia and although it didn't publish fiction, one thing I did learn was that it was all (unfortunately) about the 'sale'.
I agree. It's easier for a serial killer, a hooker, anyone that uses their sexuality (after they inflate it), to get a book out there. One fiction 'biggie' here was The Naked Husband. The author thought he'd write a novel in fictional and base it on his own experiences as a wayward husband whose wife, after reaching her psychological limit (due to his transgressions) commit suicide. It sold and got really 'great' spin doctor reviews in the trade publications here and it really makes me wonder. He won't be the first or last husband to cheat on their wife but?

3:44 AM, May 22, 2005  
Blogger W. S. Cross said...

Don't you have the Bizgirl blog down under?

It's a weird publishing world where novelty reigns supreme.

12:18 PM, July 06, 2005  

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