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Agents: Rumors vs. Reality

I queried literary agents for the first time in my freshman year of college. I had spent my senior year of high school writing a very confused novel about a girl who goes insane. "Terrible" doesn't begin to describe it. Sweetie found it on an old memory drive, skimmed a few pages, and asked me if I was high on drugs when I wrote it. "No," I said, "but close—I was writing under the influence of adolescence."

Of course at the time I didn't think it was that terrible, and my mom seemed to like it, so I bandied about the idea of getting it published. I read up on literary agents, wrote a query letter based on templates I'd seen on the Internet, and sent it out to the most reputable names I could find.

One was interested in seeing sample chapters. I printed them out in the library and sent them along. About a week later, I received my self-addressed, stamped envelope with a personalized response from the agent. The letter is long gone, but I still remember the opening line.

"I thought this book was going to be better than it is."

Ouch. Then followed a paragraph about how terrible my novel was and how disappointed she was. Now, terrible book or not, there are a hundred ways to say "Sorry, not interested" without being a jerk. A sample:

  • "This book doesn't fit our needs at this time."
  • "This book would be difficult to sell."
  • "We receive thousands of inquiries every month, and regretfully we can pursue only a few."
  • "Our office exploded in flames yesterday, so I'm afraid we're all too busy clinging to the tenuous thread of life to represent you."

And so on.

I'm sure a lot of agents are perfectly professional people, but after this experience with a nasty one, I didn't attempt to query again for five or six years. It's kind of like how I still can't fully trust ham after that one miserable Christmas.

But recently I've opened up to the idea of signing with an agent. Some will tell you the publishers are lying, you don't need an agent, you just need ingenuity and tenacity to cut straight to the editors. But during my efforts to go it alone, the idea of getting help from an agent has become increasingly appealing.

1. There are so gosh darn many publishers out there. The "Big Five" each have many imprints, and then there are countless smaller houses. I can spend many months sorting through them, tailoring my queries to appeal to them, cold-calling their interns and stalking their editors...or I can hire someone who knows the territory to find the best match for me.

2. Agents have connections. I don't. From my painful two-year experience searching for full-time employment, I learned that connections trump qualifications every time. It's just how humans work. Say you're looking to buy a second-hand couch. Who do you trust more: some guy who contacts you out of the blue, saying he heard you were on the market for a couch and he has a great one; or your friend, who says his cousin has a couch he's looking to sell? Even if the first guy has an objectively better couch, you'll probably go with your friend's cousin. Editors, being human, are more likely to buy books from their friendly neighborhood agents than they are from random people who throw manuscripts at them.

3. Aggressive as I can be sometimes, I'm not a hard-nosed negotiator. If a publisher offers me a contract, and I don't like some parts of it, an agency is more likely to have the heft and savvy to change the terms than I am.

4. There's no reason not to try. If it doesn't work out, I can just take my book back and return to self-publishing. No harm, no foul.

5. I'm finding it increasingly difficult to tolerate people who use the word "gatekeeper" in any context other than a discussion of the movie Ghostbusters.

Right now I'm still in the exploration stage. I don't even have a book to sell yet, though I'm inching ever closer. But from my explorations, I've already learned a few things about literary agencies that fly in the face of what people have told me about them.

My old friends in the dark recesses of the Internet painted a portrait of agents as bottom-feeding corporate goons who don't give a damn about originality or creativity; they just want shallow commercial fare to make a quick buck. But searching through the listings at AgentQuery, Preditors & Editors, and Publishers Marketplace, the exact opposite is true.

Your typical literary agent is not looking for genre fiction. She's looking for "upmarket" fiction that "hits the sweet spot between literary and commercial." She's looking for serious books about heavy topics that make the news, win awards, and get the Oprah's Book Club sticker.

Think about what kind of people go into publishing. They are not business majors who say, "Hey, I think I'm going to go into this uncertain and panic-addled industry that makes high-risk products consumers are less and less interested in buying. That's where the money is!" No, they're English majors. Humanities types. People who love Fitzgerald and Faulkner and are drawn to the idea of getting paid to read all day, every day.

If you go to any agency website and scroll down the staff list to the fresh-faced greenhorn at the bottom, nine times out of ten she (and it's usually a she) will be open to literary and "smart commercial" fiction only. She will have received her degree in English, History, Women's Studies, and/or some odd combination of foreign languages from an impressive liberal arts college, and she's raring to change the world by finding the next Margaret Atwood or John Green glittering in the slush pile.

Above her, you may find older agents who accept genre fiction: romance, mystery, thrillers, YA. Usually, though, they're just looking for "literary and commercial adult fiction."

So why did my old friends get the impression that literary agents only care about sales, sales, sales? Well, for one thing, it's an agent's job to sell books. Often, even if agents love a project, they have to turn it away because they can't sell it. But when they tell a writer that their book isn't sellable, what does it really mean?

1. Your book sucks. As I said, there are a hundred ways to say a book is terrible without being a jerk, and this is one of them.

2. Your book isn't sexy. Agents have to snag the interest of publishers, and publishers have to snag the interest of customers. If you come to them with a pitch like, "My Great American Novel is about a girl who takes a walk and reflects on nature for 400 pages," they'll say, "Sorry, no." It may be a perfectly fine piece of work, but who would want to read it?

3. Your book doesn't fit anywhere on the shelf. It's maddening, but people need genres and demographics. Agents need to be able to describe your project to potential editors succinctly and convince them that people will want to buy it. They need to be able to say, "This is a second-chance-at-love contemporary romance that will be popular with middle-aged women who read Nora Roberts," or "This is an accessible literary period piece that will be popular with book clubs and intellectuals."

This doesn't mean that you have to write to genre. It doesn't mean agents will be interested only if you pump out cookie-cutter novels in which the good girl falls for the bad boy and they live happily ever after. It means you have to write something that people other than your mother will pay good money to read, and you have to be able to predict who those people will be. Those people could be English majors who adore Fitzgerald and Faulkner, or they could be teenagers looking for a fun afternoon of feeling miserable, or they could be stay-at-home moms seeking affirmation of universal justice through stories about a granny who owns a bakery and solves murders on the side.

If a story is good, there is a genre and an audience for it somewhere. Even if a story is lousy, there's probably an audience for it. The trick is finding that audience and appealing to it. Is My Great American Novel really about a girl taking a walk for 400 pages? Really? Probably not, or you would have fallen asleep ten pages into writing it. If your book is truly original, creative, and brilliant, but nobody wants to buy it, the problem is probably in the way you're presenting it, not in the agents who are rejecting it.

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