Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Agents and Other Elusive (Mythical?) Creatures

I am told there are such beings as literary agents. I’ve even seen their footprints and heard their apparent calls in the great wilds of the internet. But man, they are wary creatures and so far I have no firm physical evidence of their existence. Much like Sasquatch, all the sightings come from other folks, and even though I believe many of those folks are generally reliable witnesses, there is always the chance of a misidentification. Perhaps it was a wandering minstrel. Or a politician.

Let me tell you about my own hunt for the legendary agent. It began in 1994. I was in a writing group with a fellow who had one. He recommended me and one of my friends, who was also in the group, to his “connection.” We both sent query letters at the same time concerning our newly finished manuscripts. Both of us had PhDs, and both of us had published before, although I had many more short story sales under my belt than my friend. After 3 weeks my friend got a personal phone call from the agent asking to see his whole manuscript. After 3 months I got a form rejection saying, thanks for your manuscript but it’s not right for us. Uhm, I only sent a query there. Did you even read the letter?

I then sent a query and sample to a local New Orleans agent who I’d met at a book signing for one of her authors. She was quite gracious in saying “no,” and that she didn’t represent Science Fiction, although this was for Cold in the Light and the SF elements are pretty minor. I think it might have been the gore. Still, it was refreshing to find someone who’d actually read the thing and I was gratified at my progress.

Then I got a call from an agent who was interested in my work. I was quite enthusiastic, until I found from a quick internet search that the fellow was being sued by several of his clients for stealing their money and was generally considered scum by many writers. I turned him down, although in truth it was kind of hard to do.

Well, remember my friend from the writing group who got the personal call from an agent? That agent ended up not signing him, but my friend soon got another agent to represent his work. And now, he recommends me to this agent. Eagerly, I send off my query. Months pass. I email. Nothing. I email again. Nothing. Finally, I hear through my friend that the agent has decided to get out of representing fiction. Perhaps a gentle line in my direction would have been appreciated. I never heard a thing.

Over a year passed before I tried again to acquire an agent. And I got one. She seemed enthusiastic about my work. I went around with a smile on my face for a couple of months. Then came the morning I opened my email and found a note from her saying that, because of health reasons, she was retiring from the literary biz. Turns out, she’d never sent my manuscript out to anyone. Or, was she only another of those UFO sightings that turn out to be weather ballons?

I immediately began querying other agents, or at least those who "claimed" to be agents. One wrote me concerning a partial of Cold in the Light and she also seemed very enthusiastic. I sent her the whole manuscript at her request, and at least she read it and paid attention. But in the end she decided it had too much horror in it for her. Alas, she had obviously never experienced the horror of searching for an agent or she would have thought “CITL” was pretty tame by comparison.

After that, I gave up on agents and started submitting “CITL” to small publishers myself and sold it to The Invisible College Press. Several years later, when I was starting work on a new thriller, another friend from a writing group recommended me to her agent. I got a personal phone call from that agent and we seemed to hit it off pretty well. I thought. I sent her a copy of “CITL,” a copy of an anthology that had a story in it by me that had won an award, and information on the other thriller project, as well as stuff about the first two Taleran books, which by that time had been published as magazine serials. I also included some ideas that I had concerning nonfiction, primarily because I wanted the agent to know that I’d made quite a bit of money over the years from NF. I’d heard that agents like writers who might make them some money.

That was over three years ago now and I still haven’t heard another peep. Well, as all Bigfoot hunters know, you set up your recording devices in the forest and you listen and listen, and once in a while you hear a "cry" you can't clearly identify. But then everything is silence and you wonder, was it really Bigfoot? Or maybe just a mocking bird?

So there you have it. Literary agent? Reality or myth? Perhaps what I heard on the phone those times was only a ghost. Or a mimic. Perhaps the footprints I think I’ve seen are really cardboard cutouts constructed by some clever and creative writer.

To heck with those shows where they try to find Hogzilla or Nessie. Why don’t they track down something really elusive, like the literary agent? I’ll believe in them when the evidence is right in front of me. Until then, they remain a fascinating possibility, but I’m not quite ready to buy their existence. I certainly wouldn't bet on it.

Shazbot, Nanu Nanu

53 comments:

Monique said...

The story of my life. I'm glad I'm not the only one.

I have had several poetry pamphlets published by the Small Press and was really chuffed about that. It was only after trying to get my new writing career as a script writer on board that there were major hick-ups.

Agents are myth. I've had some on the phone but only after trying again and again. I have had many promises and there is where it stayed.

Also many of my scripts have disappeared in transit. Where are they? Even special delivery ones have gone astray. ???????? written all over my face.

Charles I'm becoming one of your followers if that's okay.

Shauna Roberts said...

Sounds as if you have a great concept for a short story, at least.

Better luck in the future. Surely one day an agent will see what Your Loyal Readers see.

Charles Gramlich said...

Monique, it is helpful to know there are other sufferers out there. And glad to have you.

Shauna, definitely a short horror story.

Lana Gramlich said...

I still say that calling back a bigfoot you haven't heard from in a reasonable amount of time is better than just sitting in the woods, waiting.
I think the agent's role is becoming even more marginalized these days, anyway. I doubt one would do more for you than you've already done for yourself. Not to mention that you're already too swamped with stuff, again, as it is.

CrazyCath said...

Oh so cleverly written. You must be SO frustrated. I have never even considered the minefield of what you guys go through to get stuff published.

So, in theory, what IS an agent and more importantly, why would you need one?
Truly. Genuine question.
If you're already published, what's the benefit of an agent?

Miladysa said...

Another interesting and enlightening post Charles. This one also surprised me!

I would have thought that the elusive agents would have been knocking down your door.

Never mind, their loss not yours :-D

Crushed said...

And the problem is, it's next to impossible to get published these days without an agent.

It's a closed shop and theese guys control the market.

One likes to think the internet can change that a little.

Democratise writing somewhat.

I think it already is.

David Cranmer said...

Charles, You have written a great post. This is something many of us have thought about but have never put to words. I agree with Shauna. It sounds like a great idea for a story.

Lisa said...

I have never tried to find an agent, but I do read quite a bit on the subject and it's clear to me that the overwhelming consensus is that an author represented by a literary agent will do much better financially than one who is not. The M.O. that authors who find dream agents seem to most often take is to consolidate a list of reputable agents who represent their genre (for you horror and sci-fi?) and methodically query and query and query again. I would not dream of offering advice as I'm woefully unqualified to do so, but based on what you've written and what I've read from those who have secured representation that they're happy with, I get a sense that there are more avenues for you to pursue. I've got the 2009 GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS (which I do not need) and I'd be happy to email you the agencies and agent names that claim to represent horror and sci-fi, if you want.

Christina said...

Haahaa! That was great! I guess I'm ready to throw out the self doubt and go your route. Small Press can still get me to conventions! Maybe I can do talks beside you and Rick! That would be fun, though I don't know if I write horror. I'm having a hard time placing myself.

Lana Gramlich said...

Yeah...what crazycath said!

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana, I should have but I kept waiting and waiting, and then it seemed like too long to call. You never know quite what to do.

crazycath, more then than now. But still sometimes it is frustrating.

Miladysa, door still intact unfortunately, with nary a scratch.

Crushed, that's often the case with novel length fiction but not so much of a problem with short fiction. Thanks for visiting.

David Cranmer, I have a longer essay on something of the same topic which I'm going to submit. It can be pretty funny.

Lisa, Much appreciated. I do have access to that book too and when I finish some nonfiction stuff that I'm working on and get around to trying another thriller I'm going to go through a round of agent queries again. Right now it wouldn't be cost effective for me I don't think.

Christina, I see quite a few unagented authors with small press pubs at the conventions. It's the only way for them to get noticed.

Lana, it's not so much getting published as it is about making more money and being introduced to a broader range of readers.

Scott Oden said...

At the risk of sounding like the guys who found, not bigfoot but a collection of roadkill in a gorilla suit: I have an agent. I have a damn fine agent. I do not say this to brag or to make myself sound superior, but rather to confirm that these elusive beasts do indeed exist. And to confirm that they are indeed a necessary evil.

What's more, I used to work for one! She was a small agent outside the NY circle, and I was the guy who read the queries and requested more. Or the guy who crushed your dreams with a sparsely worded "not quite right for us." As tiny as this agency was, we still received a massive amount of mail.

Some of you know this already: publishing companies are inundated with manuscripts, query letters, and synopses. I forget the exact statistic, but someone figured out that something like 1 in 3 Americans (just Americans; this doesn't factor in our neighbors on this continent and across the Pond) harbor a desire to write a book. Though a small fraction of that number will ever see it through, that small fraction is still something on the order of a million people. A million manuscripts, just waiting to be lauded as the next Big Thing. In today's market, publishers use agents as the gate-keepers; they pan through the flood of manuscripts in hopes of finding gold.

98-99% of the manuscripts received are utter dreck -- poorly written mary-sue fiction from people who have never really made a habit of reading, or those hoping to cash in on Harry Potter or the DaVinci Code without realizing both those trains left the station quite a while ago. But, 1-2% are stories that sparkle -- tightly-written, interesting, engaging. All that's left is matching those stories with an agent's personality (because the agent has to not only love your work, he or she has to love it enough to champion it to some very hard-nosed and pragmatic business men). THAT'S where the madness creeps in. THAT'S what people talk about when they say "it takes more than a little luck." And it does. You, in the guise of your query/synopsis or manuscript, have to be in the right place at the right time. When that happens, you're golden. To find one of these elusive agents takes perseverance and an inflated sense of self-worth: when people keep telling you no, you have to keep telling yourself "what do they know? I'll show them!" If you give up, you've lost the fight. It's back to square one. Fair, not fair . . . that's just the way it is.

Crazycath asks a very good question: what does an agent do for you; why are they worth 15%? A bad agent does nothing. A bad agent, or simply the wrong agent, is worse than having no agent at all. But a good agent -- and my definition of a good agent is one who either served his/her apprenticeship in the ranks at one of the handful of uber-agencies, or who came to agenting from the upper ranks of a large NYC publisher -- opens doors by virtue of their own personal contacts. A good agent doesn't have to submit, rather he calls up interested editors and lets them know what he has. Though they no longer need reside in NYC, a good agent is plugged into the publishing machine -- they know who wants what and who is overstocked in a certain genre.

My agent came from editorial -- he was editorial director at S&S and Crown. Beyong helping me get to where I want to be career-wise, he also was able to get another zero added to my book deal, made sure I wasn't signing my soul away, pursues alternate streams of revenue in the form of subsidiary rights sales, and has an IP attorney on speed-dial should something come up. That's what a good agent does, and why they're worth their 15%.

How to get one? Be in the right place at the right time, have something publishers want, pray, research, and cast your query net not widely, but selectively. And keep writing.

(Gives Charles back his soap-box and creeps away, red-faced . . .)

Shauna Roberts said...

Lana, I should have but I kept waiting and waiting, and then it seemed like too long to call.

I used Katrina as an excuse to follow up with some agents who had requested material and then not gotten back to me for a very long time. (It's plausible they tried to email me during the weeks my ISP's server was down, or write me when there was no mail delivery, or phoned me when the phone lines were out.) I still didn't get any response, though. Some people are just plain rude.

Sidney said...

I wish I could remember where I heard it, but there's an old joke. I may have told it before.

This writer comes home, finds his wife dead on the lawn and his house a pile of smoldering embers.

"What happened?" he asked his neighbor.

"Well," said the neighbor. "Your agent came by. He dragged your wife onto the lawn and shot her dead. Then he set your house on fire, and jumped back into his car and drove away."

All the writer could do was look on with an amazed and perplexed expression and say: "My agent came by?"

Heff said...

Agents are scumbags. Take my word for it.

Paul R. McNamee said...

What Scott said!

I've heard the agent's role isn't necessarily to get you money up-front, but to ensure that you get the back-end, which often (intentionally) has neglected details.

But, you're right - they are elusive creatures.

Rick said...
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Rick said...
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Rick said...

As a former national sales manager, I can tell you without any hesitation that literary agents are manufacturer's reps for writers. At home they wear a lot of polyester. And sometimes plaid. Most, but not all, believe that the movie "Night at the Roxbury" was a docu-drama.

We are the manufacturers of the product, the publishing houses are the re-packagers, and the literary agents are just commissioned sales reps in the middle. They're like the guys in gorilla suits on TV ads trying to sell cars. Them reselling your stories once published is like them hawking used cars.

Like all professional sales organizations, they must convince us how valuable and unattainable we are so that we will work hard to convince them that we are the best. This rather Chaplainesque charade has turned too many writers into backstabbing, primping, pawing, clawing, and sometimes strutting sometimes sniveling beauty queens. But winning the pageant and having an agent doesn't mean that they spend any time on our product and so after all the indolent pageantry a writer prostrates themselves to participate in- that doesn't mean they will ever sell our books. They're just salespeople, after all. So we try to sell them to sell us.

Literary agents just have a snobbier name than manufacturer's representatives. And frankly, they generally make less money than your average Whirlpool appliance salesperson.

Having said this, I've never looked for an agent, but will start working on it in the morning. After all, birds of a feather must be lemmings together.

Steve Malley said...

Agents aren't fake, like Bigfoot. They're more like fairies: real, but elusive.

FANCY said...

Maybe that is a reason why there is 55 million bloggs only maybe ...;) Great writing and for you to know ...just by reading your posts I learn moor English every day...You are a good teacher and you did not know that...:)

ChrisEldin said...

You are so funny and so honest. I love this part:
until I found from a quick internet search that the fellow was being sued by several of his clients for stealing their money and was generally considered scum by many writers. I turned him down, although in truth it was kind of hard to do.

Hahahahaha! That's about how I am feelign right now.

Travis said...

After reading Scott Oden's comment, I thought that an agent would be the guy (or gal) who was doing all the research and legwork into the market so the writer could concentrate on writing. Sort of like the MBA who runs the business side of the practice while the doctor or lawyer does the doctoring or lawyering.

Then after reading Rick's comment, I though...oh bother. A writer is going to have to resign himself (or herself) to the fact that selling oneself and one's work is always going to be a part of writing.

Scott said...

Charles, this is an eye-opening post. I want to find an agent when my book is finished...looks like I better not hold my breath on finding one right away.

Barbara Martin said...

The long and lonely trail of hunting an agent. I, too, am working on finding one. Your post came along at just the right moment where perhaps I should consider a small publisher rather than fight a losing battle for one of New York houses.

Rick said...

Hi Travis and all. I was went over the top in my post to make the point that agents really are just salesman trying to make a dollar selling our books. Nothing more. There are good ones who can provide invaluable input, and these can be incredibly helpful and encouraging. But I have known so many quality writers who give up because they can't find an agent. They take it as a judgment against their abilities and their writing, and that's a shame.

I actually completely agree with Scott, but the fact is that most new writers view agents as judges and jury over their work and, by extension, their talent. That is quite simply wrong. They're business people trying to make a living.

The same applies to us. Granted we love our craft and it is most certainly not just about the money, but let's not elevate literary agents to a pedastal they don't belong on. Writers that do, eventually give up and drift away. And that applies to talented writers, not just hacks, because we all have rather fragile egos.

writtenwyrdd said...

You're published and you can't land an agent? That's just nuts!

Charles Gramlich said...

Scott Oden, if I can't get an agent for my next thriller I'll probably just pack it in. That's the only way I'm going to get my work into a mainstream press and open up to a wider audience.

Shauna, I definitly should have called the last agent I mentioned, but in previous cases I always did call or email and still typically didn't get responses.

Sidney, LOL, that's a good one. I've gotta remember that.

Heff, I bet in the music biz it's even worse.

Paul, helping you get your foot in the door at the bigger publishers is such a crucial role for agents.

Rick, I know that except for the few big name writers and big name agents who represent them, there's just not that much money in publishing. As for your follow-up comment, you're right. Ultimately, only the writer really can support their own work through thick and thin. We're the ones who have to believe the hardest.

Steve Malley, I believe you're right and hope one day to verify.

Fancy, thank you. I appreciate the kind words.

ChrisEldin, it was hard. It's like "but he's an agent." Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, after all.

Travis, that's definitely always a part, and I'm getting somewhat used to that, but getting a writer's work through the doors to the bigger houses is what I'm looking for from an agent.

Scott, some folks don't have near the problems I have. After all, in "On Writing," Stephen King said finding an agent was easy.

Barbara martin, I don't know what the answer is there. It's like gambling, the next roll could be the one that wins big for you. But you never know, you could roll forever.

Writtenwyrd, you know, I was also naively expecting that having earned a Ph.D would be of help in landing an agent, since it would prove that I was disciplind. Afraid that hasn't panned out. Besides, even though I'm published I'm still not making a lot of money and that is the ultimate bottom line.

eric1313 said...

I gave up hope a long time ago, and now I'm free to write whatever I want.

Yeah, I think I'll just keep saying that...

At least for poetry, I don't have to worry about this, as literary agents don't give a sh*t about art. Money and getting between you and it for a breif moment is their primary concern.

Seems that, at least career wise, you have been your own bigfoot. You are the one in the surgeon's photo cutting a wake through the ripples. You are the missing link, the dinosaur of the Great Rift Valley, the North American Black Jaguar and Ogopogo (love that name) all in one.

And you have made a career of it, to boot.

Ivan will love this blog post.

eric1313 said...

Even if it hasn't made you a rich man, at least you can say you are doing what you want to do and not what somebody else told you to do just to chase the money.

But I, too, know that it would be nice...

Jack said...

That is some story. My son has made a few attempts at getting an agent with no results. I've always been leary of them, but I was never sure why. Now I have good reason.

the walking man said...

I've heard the of the possibility that this creature does exist. Not in my world mind you but in the far and distant universe of Agentria.

I am fairly certain that like all other alien species in the cosmos that there is regular contact between them and the human race, all myths have to have some basis in reality after all. I've never been taken by a UFO(it was the blue acid man!) and I've rejected the smoke blowing claims of them supposedly from Agentria in the literary realm. I do believe there has to be some basis for the many sightings.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Agents. As bad as I may feel about being rejected by publishers, it is worse when agents reject me. What next, their spouses? Wait. What?

BernardL said...

I don't believe in the existence of 'Pulp Fiction' agents, Charles. I think if Mickey Spillane hawked manuscripts today, Mike Hammer would be buried to his eyeballs in slush piles. :)

Rachel said...

Who said Bigfoot wasn't real?!?!

steve said...

I once got a letter from the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. "Too good to be true," I thought before I opened it. It was. They wanted $400 to look at any manuscript I sent them.

Charles Gramlich said...

Eric1313, yes, especially for short fiction and poetry, agents aren't going to even bother. Short stories are really my first love but there's not much money in 'em.

Jack, agents are more dangerous than first loves.

Mark, I'm sure the government knows for sure and is covering the whole thing up.

Stewart, plenty of rejection to go around in the literary world.

Bernardl, maybe that's true. Maybe agents have evolved into unrecognizable forms.

Rachel, not me.

Steve, wow, and I'd always heard they were a pretty respectable bunch.

laughingwolf said...

shazbot, indeed!

ivan said...

Hi Eric 1313

Yep, I love this post. Been there in following the spoor of agents.

And I commiserate with Steve, though I was lucky rather than smart with one agent's ways.

They are indeed elusive, mythical creatures.

You can trap some in an inverted bushel basket if you spread enough bread on the ground below,or you can be sent to one by your own publisher who, craftily, says he is not authorized to take unsolicited work and so you have to retrace your steps and go to an agent he recommends agent so that he or she can re-send your work to the publisher to make everything kosher. "We're not supposed to take manuscripts unless agent-supplied."

Huh?

Go figure.

Well, I'm not the brightest grape in the vinyard sometimes.
Almost heard him saying "Sucker" as he lit his Havana.

But sometimes stupidity helps (if I can introduce an oxymon...heh.)

But the dynamics of sending stuff out and trying to get acceptance is more like quantum physics than popular mechanmics.

Here is where my naive streak helped.

I had sent my script to something called A.L. Fierst Literary Agency.
Got the address from Writers' Digest.

I sent them my Black Icon novel
and they suggested a rewrite by them which would cost me about $360.
What the hell. I was proud. You're suggesting something like remedial writing to a guy who's got a million words in print already?
Well, I was rich in those days
and said, what the hell as I forked over the money.

Back came the script. My writing was suddenly at Grade Eight level.
I was insulted an annoyed. I asked for my money back. Heh Good luck.

But in any problem, we always ignore time, and respect not our own determination.

I got a job as a columnist with something called TOPIC Magazine here in Central Ontario.

Ploughing some furrows as a literary writer, I got the gumption up to offer my Black Icon
to be published in serial form.
Hell. I was a staffer. Screw the columns. Would you take a used novel from this man?
So I gave my original Black Icon, in pristine form before A. L. Fiers had gotten his and on it.
Whoops. Too raw. Topic was a family magazine.
So then I sent Fiert's verion, the one at grade- eight level.
"Marvellous," said the editor. "Can you supply some artwork to go with the book?"
So I scoured the encyclopedia and got a picture of a Russian farmer ploughing. (No, not the cartoon, where Ivan had eight inches into the furrow because Natasha was down to bra and pants, pulling the plow ahead of Ivan).

It was standerd muzhik ploughing a field.

Well, dog my cat. The magazine had a circulation of 40,000 and I kidded myself that I could boast a sale of 40,000 copies...Not quite.
It was two chapters at a time. The large circulation belonged to the magazine and not my book.

And this time I, got the $360 and not the literary agent.

Broke even. phew

But life. Stupid life.

At about the same tim I got my Master's degree.

Going off at both ends.
I began to put on airs, lecture my wife.

She soon got tired of the local god and said I piss on you, your Master's degree and your serialized novel. Get out of my house.

Ah well. Gain a publishing and lose a wife.

...If I'd only remained failure.
...If my work hadn't been watered down to be accepted by a family magzine.

Makes me think of the Talmud, or somewhere.
"Life lays down strange paths for men to tread on in the dark."

...You might even step on an agent.

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, you may be the only person who got it.

Ivan, shady dealings under every bushel basket. Even trapped, the deal goes on.

L.A. Mitchell said...

I'm sorry you've had such a rough go finding an agent. As with mythical creatures, you increase your odds the more times you get out there and look :)

Virginia Lady said...

Okay, I feel much better about my lack of success. I haven't been trying as long, and I have no published work, and I don't have a PhD. Seems amazing that I even try given your experiences, but I have faith. And I can't not write.

Sarah Hina said...

This is a heroic quest most of us can sink our teeth into.

You should write a book or something. ;)

X. Dell said...

I had an agent, once. Didn't do a #@$! thing. Had to do all the #@$! work myself, and got turned down a lot of places because the agent didn't send it herself.

Of course, maybe she wasn't really an agent. Come to think of it, she was kinda shaped like a weather balloon.

Erik Donald France said...

Clearly there's a niche for more accessible and helpful literary agents. The changing landscape is weird, though. Editing is virtually do it yourself (I actually get paid a small fee to edit or "advise"), or farmed out and barely minimal.

On the other hand . . . the internet may trump all of it.

Good luck!

Greg Schwartz said...

sounds to me like you're better off without one of those agent-thingies. you seem to be doing pretty good so far!

Charles Gramlich said...

L. A., once I start another thriller I'll definitely begin the search anew for an agent.

Virginia Lady, good luck. There's definitely some being in the right place at the right time factors involved.

Sarah Hina, I never thought of that! ;)

X-Dell, yes, another masquerade as an agent, no doubt. Just like some people pretend to be bigfoot.


Erik, if my grammar was better I'd hire myself out as an editor for sure.

Greg, I guess you always want what you can't have.

Travis Erwin said...

I feel your pain. I've been on the search for a good six years now and have had quite a few close calls.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis Erwin, it seems neverending.

JR's Thumbprints said...

You've confirmed my worse fear, but at least I'll save money on postage.

Josephine Damian said...

"....was it really Bigfoot? Or maybe just a mocking bird?"

Charles, the writing in this post is so strong you should submit it to a writers magazine.

From the strength of the piece alone - you should land an agent!

I too had big enthusiam from an "agent" who was listed on the Predators and Editors list.

Sadly, writers are so desperate they sign with anyone that asks and they don't take a step back to check them out.

Charles Gramlich said...

JR, don't take my experience as likely to be you're own. Every experience differs.

Josephine, thanks for the kind words. I know, I've felt that desperation at times myself but have been able to keep some self control up till now.