Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Truth About Literary Agents

If you're an unpublished author and can't handle brutal truth, skip this post. If you want the unvarnished truth about agent/editor/author relationships, read on...

A few weeks ago, the SFWA published a list of the 20 worst literary agents. Many unpublished authors took this as a chance to vent their frustrations at disreputable literary agents, even calling into question the validity of the entire business of agenting. Blogs filled up with vehement comments, authors and bloggers gnashed their proverbial teeth and mounted their High Horses and rode off into the sunset.

But in the publishing industry, this was a total non-issue. Nobody cared. Editors didn't bat an eyelash, agents didn't sweat through their shirts. As an editor, I have to know every agent out there who I'd ever want to receive submissions from. That's part of my job. If I don't know an agent personally, I know their agency or am aware of books they've sold. When I meet an agent I've never heard of, they're almost always a new hire at an agency I do know. Bottom line, editors know which agents matter. And I'd never heard of any of these 20 agents. Not a single one. And I'm willing to bet 99% of my colleagues would say the same thing.

So when we saw this list, it was no big deal. If an agent doesn't submit to us, doesn't sell any books whatsoever, 2+2 says they're full of crap. So why are authors all up in arms about this? It's like losing a game of 3 Card Monte outside a filthy bus station and crying foul when the dealer runs away with your cash.

Too many authors see literary agents in black and white. You either have one or you don't. If you have one, you win. If you don't, you lose. That's far from the truth. There are hundreds upon hundreds of literary agents out there, and you're fooling yourself if you think they all run their businesses the same way.

Some agents I consider friends, and even hang out with socially. Some agents, I trust their taste and their submissions go to the top of the pile. Then there are agents who make me slap my forehead, and their book goes to the bottom, never to be seen again.

This week I got a debut novel on submission where the agent irked the hell out of me. I'd never met this agent. Agent X did the following on the cover letter alone:

1) Got my name wrong
2) Compared the book to THE DA VINCI CODE
3) Compared the book to A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES
4) Said it was a cross between THE DA VINCI CODE and A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES
5) Referred to THE DA VINCI CODE as "historical fiction"

Let's just say the book isn't on my "Must read" list.

Editors put faith in agents to varying degrees. Some agents have reputations for having impeccable taste. If they submit a project in their proven genre, you can bet the farm it'll be pretty good. Some agents have reputations for sniffing out commercial projects, or signing up celebrities. Other agents have reputations for signing up every query that comes through their inbox, throwing 15 submissions out a month and crossing their fingers that one sells. Some agents will sell 9 out of every ten projects they submit. Other agents will sell 1 out of every 500. Hey authors, we know which agents are which. And so should you.

There are too many resources out there for authors for them to ever complain that they didn't know any better. There's Publishers Weekly. There's Publishers Marketplace, the bible for unpublished writers seeking out agents. If an agent shows interest in signing you, the first thing you should do is find out what books they've sold, and to what publishers. If despite tons of research and googling you can't find a single record of a sale the agent made, hey, guess what, nobody will ever find a record of your book being sold either. I have no sympathy for authors who sign with disreputable agents, because there are just too many resources available to anyone with access to a library or the Internet to claim ignorance.

Good agents generally only sign up books they believe they can sell. Therefore editors know that the books they submit have been heavily scrutinized and are infinitely better than the stuff that comes in unsolicited. At least once a week I'll get an email from an author who recently fired their agent because their book didn't sell. The emails always have the same message.

Now that I've dropped that extra baggage in my crappy agent, you can buy my book without interference from that incompetant piece of crap.

And the first thing I want to say is, "Way to go. That 'piece of crap' was the helium balloon that carried you above the slush pile. Welcome back to it, buddy."

When an author's book doesn't sell, their reaction 95% of the time is one of two things:

1) The editor is an idiot
2) The agent is an idiot

Very rarely does someone look inward and say, "Hey, maybe my book didn't sell for a reason. The next one I write will be even better." The average Editor probably receives about 500 submissions a year. Of those 500, they will probably buy 5-10, and perhaps acquire a few projects they sought out themselves. The truth is editors DO NOT rely on, or even read, slush submissions. There just isn't time. And the fact is if an author sends us an unsolicited submission, our first thought is, "Well I guess they couldn't get an agent."

Bottom line, if you're a good writer, odds are you'll eventually get a book deal. But authors need to be honest with themselves. If they have a good agent and their book doesn't sell, they can't blame it on external factors. An author can always get better. And note I said good writer, not merely 'ok' or 'competent.' 172,000 books were published last year. Let's just say you need to have pretty impressive chops to stand out.

We understand authors are sensitive, that every rejection is a punch to the gut, that every word of every rejection letter is scrutinized more intensely than the Talmud. Trust me on this, there's rarely a deeper meaning. And if you want to last in this industry, you need to have thick skin. Otherwise either you'll go insane or you'll drive your editor/agent/publicist insane. And nobody wants to work with someone who has to be babysat 24/7.

If you can't get an agent, the next step is not to submit directly to editors. The next step is to hone your craft, then do your homework. It's your career. It's your book you've slaved away on for hours on end. Books are newborn children, they need coddling and nurturing from the right people. Would you hand your newborn child to just anybody who asked?


Blogger Jennifer Elbaum said...

Great post Jason. Though I might have been interested in reading The Davinci Dunces...

10:36 AM  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Fantastic post, Jason. Great advice, something every aspiring author should read.

11:05 AM  
Blogger JT Ellison said...

I agree with Sandra. I just sent this link to a group of folks I know who will appreciate your honesty on the subject.
Great post!!!

11:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know. If both you *and* J.T. can get book deals there's got to be a scam thats working somewhere.

11:22 AM  
Blogger JT Ellison said...

Who, me? Call me Shultz -- "I know nothING!"
Wait, you twenty-somethings might not get that reference. Before your time...

11:37 AM  
Blogger Jason Pinter said...

Actually I'm J.T.'s agent and she's mine. We fooled everyone! MWAHAHAHAHA

11:43 AM  
Blogger s.w. vaughn said...

Jason, you forgot to mention that sometimes, no matter how much you polish your craft and work harder, you won't get an agent or an editor.

Just ask Joe. He says that all the time.

Great post, though. Very illuminating. Hope some people pay attention to it. :-)

12:23 PM  
Blogger Jason Pinter said...

Unfortunately, S.W. this can be true in some instances. The same way the system is not infallable, some writers will never get published. But then some writers take years to just get in the door (i.e. Steve Berry, who wrote NINE novels before THE AMBER ROOM was published) or Frank McCourt, who published his first book in his mid-sixties.

Bottom line, write because you love it, and hopefully if the stars align it will happen.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Brett Battles said...

Fantastic insights. I'm passing this one on.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Allison Brennan said...

Excellent advice. I've been saying this to aspiring authors repeatedly. I never queried editors, I only queried agents, and it took my five books to land a good one (in a top agency.)

I did find a mediocre--not bad--agent with my second book, long story, but I learned A LOT during those six months. Enough to know that when I was in the middle of book five (THE PREY) and I knew this was the best book I'd written to date, I wasn't giving it to her and terminated the relationship.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Flip Dixon said...

I once heard an interview with Joshua Kellerman where he said that his dad, Jonathan Kellerman, wrote THIRTEEN novels before he got his first one published.

And I thought WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS was once of the best debuts I ever read.

3:17 PM  
Blogger JoAnn Ross said...

This was a really great post! Hone your craft; what a concept! Thanks Allison, for sending me over here.

Although I sold from the slush pile (23 years ago, when it was probably a bit easier to get noticed), I always advise aspiring authors to spend their time and energy on an agent safari, rather than submit directly to those few editors left who'll even accept unsolicited mss.

And I think I'll just wait for The Davinci Dunces movie.

3:18 PM  
Blogger Jason Pinter said...

If you're going to make a career out of novel writing (and who wouldn't love that), perseverance is a key. If your first book doesn't sell, write a second. If your second doesn't sell, write a third. I guarantee that third novel will be better than your first. And if not, call up Jonathan Kellerman.

Speaking of which, Steve Berry wrote NINE novels before THE AMBER ROOM was published (and the house that bought it had actually turned it down years before). James Lee Burke's first novel was turned down by FORTY SEVEN publishers before it sold to a tiny press. But nobody will ever tell you breaking is easy. And if they do, I hate them.

3:34 PM  
Blogger Lydia said...

>Other agents have reputations for signing up every query that comes through their inbox, throwing 15 submissions out a month and crossing their fingers that one sells.

Others do something in between. They don't charge fees, and they don't sign everyone, but they sign anyone who has a pretty decent book, and then they mass submit it and charge for only mailing. They are usually worthless with contract negotiations. If you sell, you are essentially paying 15% for NOTHING--not even getting out of the slush pile. But these agents DO have a respectable stable of midlist authors--they throw enough at the wall that some things stick, and they don't send anything out that's actually offensive to editors.

After being burned once, I decided that I wouldn't consider an agent who didn't have at least one NYT bestseller on his/her list.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Lydia said...

>Other agents have reputations for signing up every query that comes through their inbox, throwing 15 submissions out a month and crossing their fingers that one sells.

Others do something in between. They don't charge fees, and they don't sign everyone, but they sign anyone who has a pretty decent book, and then they mass submit it and charge for only mailing. They are usually worthless with contract negotiations. If you sell, you are essentially paying 15% for NOTHING--not even getting out of the slush pile. But these agents DO have a respectable stable of midlist authors--they throw enough at the wall that some things stick, and they don't send anything out that's actually offensive to editors.

After being burned once, I decided that I wouldn't consider an agent who didn't have at least one NYT bestseller on his/her list.

3:50 PM  
Blogger Lydia said...

Ack! Sorry for the double post. It didn't respond, and I clicked twice. :-(

I used to be a professional buyer/negotiator in a Fortune-100 company, but I soon discovered when I tried to negotiate my advance myself that the editors wouldn't take me seriously and wouldn't believe me when I said "no" to an offer. They believed it when it came from an agent, and I got exactly what I had been secretly going after then. *rolls eyes*

3:52 PM  
Blogger Jason Pinter said...

A good agent will not only act as a keymaster, but negotiate contract points, territories, sell foreign and ancilliary rights (film/tv first serial, audio, etc...).

Many agents will broker the deal but then you'll never hear from them again. Many resources will go untapped. That's called a lawyer, not an agent.

A good agent EARNS their 15%, and then some. A bad agent charges for postage, makes one phone call, and seals off the file.

4:52 PM  
Blogger Laurie Wood said...

Thanks for pointing the way over here, Allison! I've learned as much from the comments as from the great post. Jason, I've got you bookmarked now. :) I truly believe in the agent search as well, and once "lost" all my money at a conference when I had an agent interview with a woman whom I later sounded out on some KOD friends who'd heard of her...I didn't send her my MS's but it turned out she was on a hit list, so it was just as well. And I was $1000.00 poorer already!

11:18 PM  
Blogger Vicki Pettersson said...

Great post. I know for a fact that my ms would have never reached my dream editor's desk if not for my agent. A good agent is worth her weight, and then some.

11:59 PM  
Blogger Jason Pinter said...

Hey, good agents can be men too!!


7:54 AM  
Blogger Vicki Pettersson said...

Yes, but as the male agents tend to weigh more their worth can only be measured in silver. Alas.

10:15 AM  
Blogger David Skibbins said...

We think getting an agent is all about getting our book published. Not necessarly! I have pre-sold every book my agent has handled (won a contest and got approached by a publisher). All my agent has done is read, make reccomendations about editing the book, and given me career advice. She is worth twice what I pay her. A great agent is a pathfinder.

10:50 AM  
Blogger Bob Mann said...

I'm a little late weighing in, but I enjoyed your post very much. As someone who has recently put a book proposal on hiatus and parted with my agent, I can identify with the impulse to say that editors and agents are ugly and their mamas dress them funny, but I just can't. I recently helped clean about MY mom’s house (she died about 6 months ago) and found piles of unsold proposals, and yet she had a good run writing cook books. She didn’t stop and she never (well, rarely) blamed her agent! PS- she sold four books and numerous other publications

8:57 PM  
Blogger Jason Pinter said...

Glad so many people have commented. In the agent, bad agents can submarine good authors, that's the truth. As artists, though, authors do need to be accountable for their work. And hopefully in the end art and commerce will meet in the middle, and writers will find the best agents who can represent their work.

1:04 PM  
Blogger K J Gillenwater said...

Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Weekly are not free sources. In fact, for a subscription to Publishers Marketplace, I would have to come up with $20 a month. For some, this is too much to spare (including me, as this point in my life)! I suppose the next argument will be: if you are serious about becoming a published author you will find the funds to get the information you need.

Guess I'll have to go to my small, rural library and hope they have these resources.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Pam said...


If you are serious about having a writing career, then investing $20 in publishersmarketplace is peanuts. You can sign up for a month, do a ton of searches, then cancel your membership. Or you might fall in love with it, like I did and keep the membership going. It's a great resource, and that $20 a month is deductible.

Any business has expenses, and investing only $20, makes writing about the least expensive business in terms of start-up costs!

:) Pam

10:45 AM  
Blogger verticaldancer said...

$20 a month in a business that is producing daily profits is peanuts, but how many new novelists are pulling in daily profits? I'm hoping I can talk my library into carrying the right mags, but there's little hope there since libraries, like most services, cater to the majority, which doesn't include struggling authors.

2:28 AM  
Blogger verticaldancer said...

$20 a month is peanuts in a business producing daily profits, but how many newbie novelists are bringing in daily profits? None, he says tenatively. I'm hoping I can talk my ibrary into carrying publishing resources, but I'm not holding my breath since most libraries cater to the majority, which is a group that does not include struggling authors.

2:33 AM  
Blogger Peter L. Winkler said...

You don't have to spend $20 a month or even $20 once to get plenty of agent listings.


is a tremendous resource for writers and is free, though you can make a voluntary contribution.

6:03 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great post, Jason. I'm one of those "exception that proves the rule" folks, though. If I’d followed your advice I’d probably still be slogging through the hell of querying agent after agent. Lots of great books and writers don’t seem to be able to connect with the right agent, IMO.

I was invited by an editor I met socially to submit directly to her. She pounced on my partial the day it arrived and called with a two book offer that same day. I called my top three “dream” agents, and now have a pit bull from a top agency in my corner who is helping me craft a plan for the long term.

So while blindly submitting to the slush pile might not get a writer anywhere, making the most of every opportunity can.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Carter said...

Virtually every library carries Publisher's Weekly. It's how they know what to buy. Most libraries don't put it out for the public to see, though. Ask for it, they'll be glad to share.

Also, Interlibrary Loan is a good way to get Literary Marketplace, if your library does not carry it.

As the most fabulous Miss Snark says, the first words an author should say to an agent are: "What have you sold?" Any answer other than a list of RECENT sales means you walk away and continue your search.

Great post. Thanks!!!

1:11 PM  
Blogger Devon Ellington said...

Excellent post! I hope the people to whom the info is aimed actually hear it.

Something that drives me NUTS in some of my writing groups is when writers send out a batch of queries and THEN send an email saying, "Oh, X wants my book. Do you know anything about her?"

Do your research FIRST.

I agree, in this day and age, there's no excuse for not knowing a great deal about a potential agent or publisher. And, in order to know if it's the right match, writers need to do the research BEFORE the query process.

I look at it in the same light as finding a soul mate for the project -- it's not going to happen the first time out. You keep trying, keep figuring it out, and, eventually, good work finds its place in the world.

Thanks for such a straight forward post.

Ink in My Coffee

2:13 PM  
Blogger Blue Moon said...

The most punishing aspect of this whole process is watching the outward expression of your heart and soul assessed for it's marketability. Many authors suffer a great deal of resentment when having their beautiful offspring judged by people they consider to be nothing more than literary pimps. The collective resentment from centuries of rejection have sent thousands of authors running towards the inclusive embrace of the much maligned (blissfully credential-resistant) POD phenomenon. For the sensible "artist", eluding the judgement of those fringe Manhattanites of their nightmares who rule the fiction roost, this can be a great relief. Certainly fame and fortune will hardly follow, but the sensible author probably doesn't play the lottery either.
My personal experience with agents is similar to cops. If a crime has been committed and no one is in immediate danger, the victim has to do most of the leg work to even attempt legal retribution. Same with agents. They want a ready made audience they can offer publishers and these days that means Amazon rankings of your POD material. So, if you've moved a few copies, what is the agent offering? Shelf space at the major chains? I've seen my name on B&N shelves. It doesn't change your life. I'm not rich but I've never skipped a meal. What I have is the freedom to write whatever I want and know it can exsist in book form. There actually is some satisfaction in a job well done. Neutering your vision for the marketplace is not worth it. There are ways to express yourself in this form without submitting to the fossilized agendas of New York; you won't go broke if you remain calm. The romance of being an author can inspire great work but being a product developer for the northeast regional culture of the fiction marketplace will only lead you to a life of unendurable pain and anguish relived only by periodic benders until your liver, gall bladder and colon shut you down for good.
And one other thing- the reason men don't read fiction is because of market drift. The over 30 female is the prized demographic which has led authors of both genders to create male characters who are way more emotionally articulate than plausibility can support. In real life, a man reacts, analyzes and either gets a new girlfriend or dies of ass cancer. Bukowski (I know, it's like invoking Bigfoot) knew this and is still popular. Richard(s) Ford and Russo, for example, pander to the market and when the market changes they will be forgotton. But for now, they win prizes for their Oprah-friendly craftsmanship and inspire more twelve step-like remedies for white male angst. Well, you go girls--I'll be at Moe's.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

i am a rejected writer of a POD which has received some attention but no bite from an agency/house. and that's OK. i think i am actually one of those you mention in your post, the writer who knows exactly why the book isn't getting agented, never expected it to, not surprised that it hasn't. my other job is in music law where i receive crappy demos from crappy bands every week. i do receive some real good stuff too, but not everything is "sellable." so i get your post and appreciate it. thanks--

2:55 PM  
Blogger Mad Scientist Matt said...

The reason that list got splashed all over the Internet all of a sudden wasn't entirely because they had defrauded authors. One of the agents on the list had temporarily destroyed a popular writing website in an effort to suppress the list. Needless to say, ticking off several hundred bloggers is not a good way to keep bad information about oneself off the Internet!

3:44 PM  
Blogger Schuckspeare said...

As Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Ernest," said, "Never speak disrespectfully of Society.... Only people who can't get into it do that." Likewise, unpublished authors should never speak disrespectfully of agents.... Only people who can't get published do that.

2:39 PM  
Blogger Kostya Kovalenko said...

Hey, this is true! Literary Agent is author's best friend!

I thought otherwise, but after working a little bit for Russian publisher VES www.vesbook.ru who published my translation of Klaus Joehle books on "sending love" and other stuff I understood, that it's very hard for an editor to make a desigion which book is good and which is not. Agent - is trusted friend of an editor. Editor expects the agent to bring him of her the best.

And I'm helping now Klaus Joehle to search for US agent (for new friend).

9:03 AM  
Blogger Mad Scientist Matt said...

Oh, there are definitely some agents out there that nobody respects - not authors, not editors, not fellow agents. I once played a prank on one of the 20 Worst, sending him a "submission" for a screenplay that was total nonsense. The synopsis read, "A fish of soap reflected green velvet and turned on the wooly log." He asked to see the script based on that. Needless to say, I'm not going to speak respectfully of him - or bother writing a whole scriptful of such nonsense to get him to ask me for money. :)

10:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, this was very direct and eye-opening for me as an aspiring writer. I better start growing that second layer of skin soon. Thanks, Jason.

3:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is it so much more difficult for a writer from a non US/UK country to get noticed by an agent?

1:07 AM  

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