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Empathizing With Literary Agents

3 October 2012

From The Millions:

If it sounds like I’m saying, “It’s all about who you know,” that’s because that is exactly what I’m saying. You can rail about how unfair that is, and how it makes publishing into an incestuous little club, and to a degree you would be right. But that’s the way the machine is built, people.

. . . .

Imagine that one night you have a dream in which you are in an enormous bookstore lined with shelves upon shelves of books, each bound in the same plain white cover displaying only the author’s name, the title of the book, and a brief description of the book and its author. This is an anxiety dream, so it turns out that your livelihood depends on your ability to search this enormous bookstore and figure out which books are good and which aren’t. The thing is, in this bookstore, the vast majority of the books are bad – trite, derivative, poorly written, or simply the sort of book you would never read in a million years. You know there are some really good books in this store, maybe even one or two genuinely great ones, but from the outside they’re indistinguishable from the terrible ones.

How do you choose? Do you sit down at the first shelf and read each book all the way through? No way; you’d starve, if you didn’t kill yourself from boredom first. Do you glance at the descriptions of the book and author on the back cover, and then read a page or two of the ones that sound more interesting? That’s better, but we’re talking a huge room here – thousands and thousands of books – and what can you really tell from a couple of paragraphs, anyway?

So you begin to look for shortcuts.

. . . .

For several hundred people, most of them living in New York City, this dream is their daily reality. They are called literary agents, and if you are a writer with one or more unpublished books on your hard drive you have probably received a terse note from several dozen of them telling you that your novel is “not a right fit” for their agency at this time. In that moment you tore open that thin self-addressed envelope or read the two-line return email, you probably hated them. Not just that one agent, but all literary agents, as a class. How could they not see the brilliance in your manuscript? How could they possibly guess at the quality of your manuscript based on a one-page letter and a synopsis? And what the hell does “not a right fit” mean, anyway? Is that even grammatical English?

. . . .

If your book isn’t selling, literary agents are not to blame. It may be that your book doesn’t really belong in mainstream commercial publishing, in which case you should consider self-publication or send your book to an indie publisher like Ig, Two Dollar Radio or Small Beer Press. Or it may be that your book would appeal to a mainstream publisher, but you haven’t done the groundwork you need to do to get out of the slush pile and onto a literary agent’s radar. Or perhaps your book just isn’t ready yet. Whatever the case, you would be wise to pay attention to what literary agents are trying to tell you, even if all they’re saying is “no”.

. . . .

Most writers when they show their work to someone – a professor, a friend, a spouse – they have a reasonable expectation of getting encouragement or at least some useful feedback. But an agent isn’t a friend. An agent isn’t a teacher, either. An agent’s job is to find an author whose novel is ready for publication, or so close to ready that it makes economic sense for the agent to put the time into helping make it ready, and connect that writer to a publisher. That’s it.

Link to the rest at The Millions


29 Comments to “Empathizing With Literary Agents”

  1. “But.”


    Should one place any faith in the words of a writer who begins a sentence with the word, “But?”

    “that’s the way the machine is built, people.”



  2. I don’t know. This whole article makes me feel like some sort of literary prostitute. I hate the idea of pimping myself out to a bunch of agents who are not needed anyway.

    I think the more a writer navigates the turbulent seas of literary agencies, the more risk the writer has of losing his/her voice. Who do you end up writing for? The reader or the agent?

  3. Ever since the rise of the indie writer, we’ve heard a common phrase from several establishment-model persons: “The worthy works will get buried beneath a pile of self-published dreck.”

    Now we know what those persons really meant to say: “I kissed the proper ass to get published, so I should not have my work get buried beneath a pile of non-asskissing self-publishers.”

  4. Hmm. I’d be more impressed if agents actually worked in the interests of the writers they seek. My understanding is that many have only a handful of publisher contacts and hundreds of writers they “represent.” They value the two according to the principles of supply and demand: the rare and necessary win every time.

  5. I wish this laugh had come later in the day when I undoubtedly would have needed it more.

  6. So, this article alternatly made me mad, and sort of embarrassed me on behalf of the writer. By the end of the article, he’s like a puppy dog, romping for praise from his new agent friends.

    I hate when writers allow themselves to be infantalized. Please have some dignity, you’re an Artist.

    I stopped being mad at this article, though, when I realized that it’s likely to do quite a bit of damage, in terms of finally waking some writers up to the reality that the query system is a game.

    If you are a Publisher, and you have literally thousands of writers who are not going to be able to be published, what do you do to stop them from banning together and protesting the system?

    You create the query letter. You give writers the illusion that if they just wrote the perfect letter, they would be published. So, it’s not the Publisher’s or the agents’ fault, hey you just didn’t write a good enough letter. And besides, agents have to go through hundreds of letters, so of course they can only spend 16 seconds on the letter it took you a year to write, you can’t fault them, writers just have alot of competition.

    It distracts the writer, it gives them the illusion they can get through that door (they can, at the rate of about 1 out of 11,000), it invests the writer in the system, it sometimes pits writers against each other, and it has the additional benefit of taking the heat off the Publisher and putting it on the agents.

    It is a game. Alot of agents don’t even realize they are participating in a game.

    It is a destructive game as well. The tragedy is that it’s a game that wastes the time of the writer, who could instead be working on their craft. There’s also a loss to society, in terms of works that could have been written. And I have less sympathy for agents, despite the call in this article to empathize with them, but it is an enormous waste of time for the agent.

    Agents are even more clueless in terms of how badly Publishers treat them than writers are. Publishers waste just as much of their time, play as many games with them and take just as much money out of agent’s pockets, as they do writers. And agents defend them to the teeth.

    • There’s a difference between knowing what will sell and knowing how to do so. Sadly, a lot of agents don’t seem to know how to do either.

  7. Maybe we should all go get an MFA in Writing LITERATURE before we attempt that query letter, to get the agent to read 30 pages, to get the agent to read the whole ms., to get the ms. submitted to the Publisher, to get the Publisher to acquire the book, to get the book produced, to get the book into bookstores, to get the book into a reader’s hands.

    Or we could just skip all that, and go directly to the reader.

  8. “The thing is, in this bookstore, the vast majority of the books are bad – trite, derivative, poorly written, or simply the sort of book you would never read in a million years.”

    You would have hoped they had stopped repeating such obvious lies by now……..

    Kris Rusch, who actually read the slush pile when she was an editor, wrote that most books are not terrible or badly written, but just boring. And even boring is subjective, depending on your tastes.

    JA Konrath had one of these “terrible” books rejected by almost everyone. Its now of of his best sellers, earning him in a month what most writers earn in a year.

    Hollywood has been putting out movies that appeal to the Lowest common denominator (LCD). They dont make excuses or blame the script writers. That is what sells, so that is what they make. Hey, I personally love many of these LCD movies. Transformers anyone? One of the greatest movies ever.

    Why can’t publishing say the same? The LCD wants vampire romance, so that is what they publish. They are a business, so they can publish what they want they want.

    Instead, publishers have to act all “Oh we are the defenders of culture, ooh la la!” So they have to swallow their own bullshit, and pretend the books they rejected were genuiely bad, rather than just not being the flavour of the month.

    Other than that, the whole article is a suck up to agents. Hope the author is rewarded for his “loyalty”.

    • I think that you’ve hit the key right here. I’d have an easier time with lit agent empathy if they didn’t seem so duplicitous. While their rejection form letters and blog posts state, “work on your craft,” we then go onto read reports of Hillary Duff and Snooki getting six and seven-figure deals. I’d have more respect for agents if they were honest and said, “It really isn’t about craft. We can’t sell your damn book because publishers aren’t buying what you’re writing. You might want to try other venues for publication because this will never be marketable. Sorry.” Is that so hard?

      In fact, I think “Snooki” is the greatest thing to happen for self-published writers everywhere, as it is a one-word proof that being traditionally published does not equate to “high cultural quality,” no matter how many editors and layout people have touched it. With every new iteration of “Twilight” that pubs peddle out, they increasingly eschew their status as self-appointed arbiters of high culture.

  9. “An agent’s job is to find an author whose novel is ready for publication, or… to put the time into helping make it ready, and connect that writer to a publisher. That’s it.”
    Nice spin, but not quite there. Their job is to find a novel that is ready AND will fit with one of their editor-connections. A good novel that does not fit to any of the agent’s contacts would not (and ethically should not) be accepted because the agent would be hard-pressed to sell it. No reason to get angry with an agent’s rejection. It may mean that your work is awful but it may just mean what it says, it does not fit with any of my contacts so I can’t sell it even if it is fantastic. This is a business, people. You are not back in school trying to win friends among the in-crowd. I have no pity for that poor agent (they chose their profession) nor do I have any animosity towards him or her. Frankly, I have decided to go without one for now. That is simply a business decision. Sorry agent, but “You are not a good fit for me.” Don’t take the rejection personal; I honestly just made a business decision.

  10. He’s talking about literary fiction here, not popular fiction. And he’s right about the networking getting you places.

    Having said that, there is a tiny audience for literary fiction, and not very much money in it. Here’s a typical response you might get when trying to discuss literary fiction with Joe Average.

    “Gabriel Garcia who? Didn’t he pitch for the Yankees?”

    And I’m not saying this to put down Joe Average. Let’s be honest, literary fiction is an acquired taste, and very few people acquire it. Here’s the nut of his story, buried in the last paragraph. Yeah, he’s a literary snob. But his advice is not wrong if you want to get your literary fiction published.

    “Mainstream publishing is a Rube Goldberg machine of perverse economic incentives, in which large numbers of mostly idiotic self-help guides, diet books, and airport thrillers subsidize an ever-shrinking number of mostly money-losing literary novels and books of poetry. But just because publishing operates on a crazy economic model doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense. There is a market, however tiny, for good books, and there are a small number of smart, hard-working people who live for the thrill of finding a talented author. If you are one of those talented authors, then it is your job to stop whining and figure out how to make it easy for them to find you.”

    • I thought he was talking lit fiction, too, but I read it more than once, and his book is commercial. I was more willing to forgive him when I thought he was lit fict.

      Unless I read it wrong!

    • large numbers of mostly idiotic self-help guides, diet books, and airport thrillers subsidize an ever-shrinking number of mostly money-losing literary novels and books of poetry.

      Snobbery was never more nakedly on display. So, everything except literary fiction and poetry is idiotic trash? The guy needs to read outside his genre.

      • “So, everything except literary fiction and poetry is idiotic trash?”

        No. “large numbers of mostly idiotic self-help guides,”

        The adjective idiotic only modifies the noun self-help guides in his sentence, not the other types of books listed, as they are set off by commas.

        • Actually (in my best Simpsons’ comic guy voice), taking the adjective “idiotic” to be distributed among the three types of books in that noun series is a legitimate reading of the sentence. In light of how the author has juxtapositioned “self-help guides, diet books, and airport thrillers” against “literary novels and books of poetry,” and knowing that the author of the article holds literary works in high esteem, it is reasonable to assume that he meant “idiotic” to be distributed among the three types of books listed there.

          Not that you are necessarily incorrect, Peter, but Tom’s reading of it is understandable.

          See: http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/79402/using-an-adjective-with-a-series-of-nouns-a-broken-nose-jaw-and-ribs

  11. “The thing is, in this bookstore, the vast majority of the books are bad – trite, derivative, poorly written, or simply the sort of book you would never read in a million years.”

    I seem to recall that bookstore, what did they call it? Borders? Yea, sounds about right.

    “Empathizing With Literary Agents”

    Well yes, I could also Empathize with the Tax Collector. The sad part is that both of them are only interested in how much money I can make. After all, both of them want their cut.

  12. It would be easier to emphasize with agents if they weren’t vampire squids* who thrust their blood funnel again and again into the carcass of authors until they’d extracted their 15%.

    *With due credit to Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone, who used this imagery to describe Goldman Sachs.

  13. Huh. Odd. Maybe I’m odd, but I have zero trouble finding good books to read. If I have a problem it’s that I have too many good books that I want to read and not enough time to read them all. Hence my towering (though now virtual) TBR pile, which strangely enough now consists of about 80% indie books, none of which required a literary agent to help me find them.

    Maybe that article’s author just doesn’t know how to shop.

  14. Agents are commissioned sales people. They work in their self-interest first, and yours only second if they decide to represent you and sell your book. Their function is no different than any other commissioned salesperson selling a commodity to a limited number of buyers, like a real estate agent. I’ve had three agents. The first two were ineffectual. My current agent persisted with trying to find me a publisher after I told him to quit, and got me a deal. He has been honest and transparent in his dealings and promptly forwarded payments from my publisher. Hating a category of people because you’ve been rejected is childish, though I’ve been there in the past. I grew up and learned to get over it.

    • Peter, whether you believe it or not, it has little to do with the bitterness you ascribe to it. Some of us researched and decided in advance that agents weren’t worth our time, so we went a different route. Where’s the rejection bitterness there?

      The consternation you see here comes from a class of people that claims to represents writers but seems to go out of its way to side with publishers. I’m glad you found a good one – I’m sure there are also good politicians out there if you look hard enough.

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