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.

3 Comments:

Blogger Anastasia said...

I'll definitely stay tuned. It can be really difficult in terms of getting that novel out there for an agent to look at. Many do 'okay' submissions, that's all fine and well but it can be perplexing. I find that many US agents are very forthcoming in terms of listing titles they have accepted/sold and they list their authors. The huge market as well is a huge plus. Here in Australia it's depressing in comparison.
Only two literary agents here actually bother with a website, one of them is 'telephone first' so the author can tell them what their work is about and as long as it's not a collection of short stories, poetry, children's fiction, they'll say 'yes' but others don't even bother replying to a query. I had one agent do this and decided 'screw' them. If an agent can't be bothered replying to 'What kind of fiction do you accet' - one sentence - when they specifically request this, then there's no point. The remaining agents here don't even have websites or list their preferred publications and many here upon rejection state that they aren't accepting any new authors. I suspect because they have no real luck 'selling' stuff (sour grapes threefold for me lol).
In saying the above, because many agents can be 'snobs', I find that it's probably good to start small, getting short stories published and so on in 'good' periodicals and build from there. Frankly I'm peeved that hookers can get book deals for the rubbish they write (which is embellised more than anything else) but it is what it is.

I wrote to an Australia fantasy thriller author after coming across his own website. He wrote about the reality of publishing and replied to my email. His take? It took him seven years to publish the types of stories he writes.
With JK Rowling, she scored rejections from just about every agent in England and the first Harry Potter novel didn't 'get going' until some time.

I wish you all the best of luck and will keep my eye on your blog.

3:38 AM, May 22, 2005  
Blogger klunphclown said...

Why don't you just publish it yourself?
In today's high-tech world, surely there would be a way to bypass the "usual" forms of publishing, such as the massively huge and obvsioulsy ignorant (of unknown writers)---OR the desire to even read unsolicited manuscripts---by agents and publishers: why not just do it yourself?
There are the "vanity" presses, which have always been around and then there are the "Publish yourself" companies that have sprung up over the recent years that are somewhat "vanity" but not completely.
I have had experience aplenty with attempting to get my trilogy published since 1990, with no success---even having it gone over and edited twice by a friend who is an editor at a local newspaper (to correct all those "horrid little mistakes.")
One must ask the question though: if it is this hard to get published, then why are there so many insipid and ludicrous books out there by authors with very little imagination or creativity?

12:59 PM, May 24, 2005  
Blogger W. S. Cross said...

The problem with self-publishing or POD (print on demand) books is distribution: do you want a garage or apartment full of books? Bookstores don't like POD books because they're:

1.) expensive
2.) can't be returned

The Beyond You & Me web site is building a pre-sold audience for the book with excepts and fun stuff. The agents keep saying "we're looking for books that sell," yet I find very few agents are Web-savvy.

Now, it will probably be my luck that one of the agents who read the mss. will pop up here and say how bad the book is, and all the reasons why they turned it down. But as even they are the first to admit, "it's a subjective business."

A few years back, an agent promised me a "six figure advance and first crack at the screenplay" for a sports book. Two months later, she dropped me when it didn't sell. Who's the fool there?

12:17 PM, July 06, 2005  

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