Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What I've Learned From Literary Agents

I've been to a few talks by literary agents now; met a few of them, corresponded with some of them, listened to them lecture and I think I finally understand these mysterious gatekeepers to publishing heaven. 

Last week, I went to a talk given by an agent at a very esteemed agency and he explained his job very succinctly. You need a real-estate agent to sell your house and you need a literary agent to sell your book, unless of course you go rogue like I did and self-publish, but that is another story. The problem with that analogy is that it's super easy to get a real-estate agent and damn near impossible to get a literary agent. The agent last week said that agents want to like your book as much as you want them to like it. This makes sense from a business perspective, but alas, it's still not that easy because the vast majority of our books suck ass or else we aren't already famous, in which case it doesn't matter if our books suck ass (Snooki has published a book, alas). So while literary agents might want, in theory, to like the books that authors query, they don't. 

Over and over, I've seen the same things happen at talks given by literary agents and they frighten me because a.) I see how weird people who want to be writers really are and I'm scared I may actually be that weird too and b.) because it appears to be impossible to get a book published. Add a to b and I end up weird without a book published. Pretty bleak future there.

This week the AWP conference in Seattle begins and one day I swear I will get to go to it. For everyone else who wants to be a writer and can't attend the conference, I thought I'd distill every workshop and lecture given by a literary agent into one, tidy blog post for you. Here it is:

Q: Is there any chance you might love my book, represent me and get me a book deal?

A: No. 

While that is the basic gist, literary agents are far, far too polite and adept with words to ever be that blunt. I give them tremendous credit for that. They understand that they are dealing with people's dreams and it must be very hard to constantly have to let people down, even when, as is often the case, the people being let down are totally cray. Because I've seen a lot of that at these talks.

  Let me give you an example of a typical Q &A session with a literary agent in a room full of aspiring writers:

Q: Do you think you'd be interested in my 20,000 word YA, dystopian, vampire erotica? Everyone on my fan fiction site says it's the next 50 Shades.

A: Well, that sounds fascinating and I'm sure you've worked very hard on it. It sounds like it could possibly be a tough sell, but congrats on your fellow fan fictioner's compliments. Perhaps you might want to flesh out the story more, take a few creative writing workshops and get some additional feedback. It sounds like it may not be ready just yet.

Translation: Fuck no, I'm not interested in that.

Here's another one:

Q: How about my 900 page post-modern epic? I think it's easily the next Gravity's Rainbow, except, you know, longer. And more spare at the same time. It's about several people and a trash can having a deep conversation about the United Nations and the plight of an imaginary, endangered sea snail and then 70 straight pages of ampersands to really drive the point home and to demonstrate to the reader that the world we live in is a pointless construct of our imaginations.

A: Hmm. Again, very interesting and I commend you for sticking with your manuscript through 830 pages of text, plus the 70 pages of ampersands. It sounds like you're very committed to your ideals though this too sounds like a difficult sell with a major press. Perhaps look into a more obscure press once you've edited the book down. I have concerns about novels that go on past 120,000 words, even with 70 pages of ampersands, but there are always exceptions, so you never know. Good luck!

Translation: Are you nuts? Who the fuck wants to read that crazy ass bunch of nonsense? 

Then there will always be a cluster of old people who have either written memoirs or have a daughter in Santa Fe who has written a New Age, self-help book and they always believe that they have the next Angela's Ashes or that their daughter in Santa Fe has written the next Eat, Pray, Love and the difficult thing with these people is that they do not want to hear otherwise. When these people start asking questions they often get pushy and the agents will begin to clear their throats a lot and look at their watches and shoot pleading "SAVE ME!" looks to the event hosts. They always end up telling the old folks that they should self publish their books and what a lovely heirloom their memoirs will make for their families. As for the daughter in Santa Fe? That wacko's on her own. Tell her to go harass Wayne Dyer the next time he comes to town to give a talk and ask how he got published.

I feel for these poor agents. I really do, so let me spare them the hard feelings and the carefully constructed, compassionate let-downs.

Here are the real answers to the questions you may want to ask a literary agent, and which literary agents are too kind to give:

Q: My daughter in Santa Fe wrote a book about -

 A: NO.

Q: Do you think I have a chance at -

A: NO.

Q: Do you really read the queries in the slush pile?

A: Purely for entertainment on Friday afternoons after we've had martinis for lunch with the editors at Harper Collins.

Q: Have you ever signed someone from the slush pile?

A: HAHAHAHAHAHA. No. We basically just say we accept queries to make it look like we're nice. And for Friday afternoon interoffice entertainment as mentioned above.

Q: So if you don't sign from the slush pile, where do you find new clients?

A: We only sign our friends and friends of friends and other people already in the publishing business. You have to know us already or let us find you because you are already famous.

Q: What are you looking for in a new author?

A: They should be famous already. If they aren't famous already, I'd be willing to sign a new client if they have a BA from Harvard, MFA from Iowa, went to Breadloaf, have been published in the Paris Review, Glimmer Train, Ploughshares AND Creative Nonfiction, had an abusive childhood, gypsies for parents and were raised in abject poverty. If they are a woman they should additionally look like a Victoria's Secret model. If they are male, an Abercrombie model. But mostly, they should just be famous already and not for writing because that's boring.

Q: What do I have to do to get published?

A: Write a really good book. An exceptionally good book. It should be better than anything we've ever read before and we all have English degrees, so we've read just about everything. Which means that your book must be better than everything. Literally. But like I said, if you're hot and famous then forget all that. It also helps to have a cool name. How do you think Junot Diaz got published? You think he'd have had a chance if his name were John Smith? Hell no. Change your name to something cool.

Q: What aspects of writing should aspiring writers be focused on?

A: Self promotion

If you have any additional questions, please leave them for me in the comments section and I will be happy to answer them for you in the voice of the imaginary literary agent.


Melissa said...

You lost me at AWP in Seattle. Why AWP? Why not something like Surrey or the Whidbey Island Writers Conference or even PNWA?

Diane Laney Fitzpatrick said...

There were dozens of agents at the San Francisco Writers Conference that I was at. There were agent sessions where they gave advice about how to make your in, there were private 8-minute sessions where you could get one-on-one advice, and there was a "speed dating" thing where you gave your pitch to all of them, one at a time. What I learned from that is a lot. The key is your pitch. There were writers here who spent months writing their pitch to get an agent. It's a writing project in itself.

After all that, I was all pumped up to go home and write a kick-ass pitch and get myself an agent. And then the subsequent sessions I attended were all about the future of publishing, e-book publishing, self-publishing and I was convinced that an agent is not necessary, nor is a mainstream publisher. Self-publishing has grown and evolved so much even in the few months since you and I self-published. There are hybrid publishers who will publish your book with shared risk and profit with you. So I wonder if it's worth all the effort and anxiety to grovel before this group of people who are on their way out.

Johnny Virgil said...

I think the future of publishing is the same as what happened to music -- you do all the leg work, build a following, do the marketing and promotion, and then after you sell 10,000 copies on your own, a publishing house notices and thinks, "We can make some money off this person" and comes knocking. I've had friends in bands get signed to a major label on the strength of an indie release that was re-released -- completely unchanged, not even the artwork -- as their major label debut.

Vic said...

Loved this one.

Anonymous said...

This is kind of like the case that "20 Feet From Stardom" makes -- some of the GREATEST talent never headlines. Just one of those paradoxes.

Yes -- agree with latter comments. Hubby has self-published on Amazon (where any idiot can do it, right?) But it's selling. Enough that we get royalties. Literary agents seem to be going the way of newspapers, movie studios and record companies. There's just so much technology and DIY available that it's a little self-defeating to rely on an agent from a dinosaur publishing house. Build a brand for yourself and watch your work grow. If it's good (or marketable -- ooh, that's another conversation: define "good". Lots of CRAP is marketable. "50 Shades," anyone?), there will be a groundswell and you'll get the chance to do the work you love. And get paid.

My biggest gripe (not at you, actually furthering your observation that lots of would-be writers think their work is PROOOO-FOUUUUUND) is that more and more of the population thinks that just because they can put pen to paper it makes them a writer. Eh, technically, that's true. But not a Great Writer. Someone's grocery list might be pretty, interesting, and scribed on parchment with an antique quill... But that don't make it great literature. And, conversely, just because one is a Great Writer, it doesn't mean they MUST be published. Again, another conversation for another day....

...How the hell did SNOOKIE write a book?

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