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If you're an unpublished author and can't handle brutal truth, skip this post.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 Many unpublished authors took this as a chance to vent their frustrations at disreputable literary agents, even calling into question the validity of the entire business of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?