The problem with literary agents

20 November 2014

From The New Republic:

Looking for literary “representation”? Have you written, oh, let’s say, a collection of linked essays about poets and poetry, published in online journals, that would make an elegant and modestly remunerative little volume to be shepherded through the publishing process by an astute and learned literary agent? In that case (or as you might have guessed, in my case) you might consider recasting your mediations on Sylvia Plath and Catullus as a teenage vampire novel or as a memoir about your triumph over bad parenting, because, as far as the vast majority of American literary agencies are concerned, the book you’ve written is radioactive.

Everyone’s trying to make a buck and literary agencies can hardly be faulted for interesting themselves in what sells rather than in what doesn’t, or at least not so much. The problem, as one bracingly honest agent confided to me in the course of one of my innumerable rejections, is that the notion of “sales” has narrowed nearly to the vanishing point. Almost all agencies, he told me, are looking for one of two things: bestseller potential or the possibility of media adaptations. Although Edmund Wilson once contemplated a movie version of Axel’s Castle that would have featured Adolphe Menjou as Marcel Proust and the Marx Brothers as James Joyce, he could afford to joke about it. Would Axel’s Castle even be published today? I’m not so sure.

Let us hope that what that agent told me was a gross exaggeration born out of personal disenchantment. (Everyone in the publishing industry these days seems pretty disgruntled.) After all, good and serious books still manage to get published. Yet after plowing through hundreds of agency websites, I find it hard to believe that many other good and serious books aren’t being stopped dead in their tracks. The nomenclature is the first tip off. Nothing wrong with a little business jargon, but must they call themselves “boutique agencies” or, even worse, “full-service boutique agencies,” which, rather than lending the snob cachet so obviously intended, makes them sound like massage parlors? Far worse than any unfortunate phraseology is the resistance to ideas that contradicts the otherwise high-sounding claims made on so many of the agencies’ websites. “Character driven fiction,” “concept driven nonfiction,” “narrative nonfiction,” “exceptional stories,” “inspirational memoirs”: all of these things have their place in the literary universe and have made for many, many wonderful books, but with one or two honorable exceptions, you will find no equivalent wish lists for “language driven fiction,” or “tightly reasoned argument,” or “uninspiring memoirs.”

Unlike furiously anti-establishment bloggers, I have no problem with the role played by literary agents as cultural gatekeepers. There are far too many writers out there, and if the good ones are not to be buried by the bad ones, agents have an obligation to recognize and nurture talent that might otherwise go undetected.

Link to the rest at The New Republic and thanks to Nate for the tip.

My Computer is Trying to Destroy Me (And Other Writing Fears)

1 November 2014

From author Megan Grey via The Fictorians:

With Halloween only a few days away, this is perfect time of year to explore the fears we writers often face. And if my own experience is any indication, we writers have lots of things that can strike terror into our neurotic little hearts: Rejections. Pitch sessions. Criticism. Rewrites. More rewrites. Our laptops deciding to drunk-query our dream agents.

Maybe I should explain that last one.

With my first novel (at least, my first submission-worthy novel) written and rewritten and rewritten again, I faced the much-dreaded next step. It was time to query agents. I spent weeks crafting the perfect query, and researching which agents would (in my estimation) be the best fit. Then I spent a few extra weeks procrastinating sending it, for a host of what seemed like perfectly reasonable excuses at the time, but really boiled down to one: fear.

Late one night, after bolstering my courage with approximately 8.3 pounds of dark chocolate M&Ms (as a Mormon, I don’t drink alcohol or smoke, so I heavily abuse chocolate instead), I readied this perfect query email to one of my top agents, took a deep breath, and hit send.

. . . .

A quick scan revealed it had indeed sent, and seemed to be formatted fine. I was just about to close it and ease my paranoia with a few extra M&Ms when something horrible caught my eye. At the end of my query, where I could have sworn I had written “Thank you so much for your time“, this email read “Thank yo.”

Thank YO?!? After about a millisecond of debating whether I had the street cred to pull that sort of nonchalance off (I don’t), I quickly decided to send another one. Surely if agents see two of the same queries in their inbox, they’d only read the most recent, right?

. . . .

 This time, when I checked the sent folder, my horror doubled. Not only did this one also end with “Thank yo“, but my computer had somehow deleted the latter half of several of my sentences. So now I had two queries to one of the top agents in publishing, both of which made me appear that I was querying while intoxicatedOr a complete idiot. Or, most likely, both.

Link to the rest at The Fictorians


Wylie the jackal becomes Hachette’s running dog?

31 October 2014

From TeleRead:

Never one to bear a grudge or indulge in overly aggressive, unreflective self-promotion, Andrew Wylie can’t seem to forgive Amazon for the failure of his Odyssey JV with them – or in general, for failing to acknowledge that nothing moves until Andrew Wylie says so. And now he’s blaming Amazon for depriving writers of a decent living. “Writers will begin to make enough money to live,” he claims, according to his keynote address at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors, if only the Big Five have the cojones like Hachette to stand up to Amazon, who he doesn’t hesitate to compare to ISIS.

. . . .

And remember that back in 2010, Wylie was garnering support from authors for his Amazon tie-up because they claimed traditional publishers had been paying too little in royalty rates for ebooks. And now things have turned round and the Big Five are the heroes again? Forgetful creatures, jackals.

It’s no surprise that Wylie also chose to unload on self-publishing, which he described as “the aesthetic equivalent of telling everyone who sings in the shower they deserve to be in La Scala.” After all, if authors can publish themselves, who will ever want to go through Andrew Wylie. Or even listen to him?

Link to the rest at TeleRead

Andrew Wylie talks about the state of the publishing industry

30 October 2014

From Quill & Quire:

Andrew Wylie has much to say about the book business, but it’s not for the faint of heart. In his keynote address at the International Festival of Authors (and in the Q&A with CBC’s Carol Off that followed), the internationally renowned agent of Martin Amis and Salman Rushie offered up his characteristic zingers, calling Amazon “the equivalent of ISIS,” 50 Shades of Grey “one of the most embarrassing moments in Western culture,” and self-publishing “the aesthetic equivalent of telling everyone who sings in the shower they deserve to be in La Scala.”

. . . .

On the future of Amazon

In fact what’s happening is a continuation of what used to go on with the chains. It is a set of terms dictated by a digital trucking company, and the publishing industry, up until now, has cowered and whined and moaned and groaned and given Amazon pretty much everything they want. Now I think that’s going to stop. I think Hachette, to their great credit, drew a line in the sand and didn’t fold…. The deal that Simon & Schuster cut with Amazon – and no one is allowed to know anything about the deal, and nobody has any idea what it is – but basically, it’s back to the agency model. And, it’s pretty good for authors. And there is a good chance, in my view, that Amazon will be told, “You either do business on our terms, or we’re going to develop other channels of distribution.”

. . . .

On publishing books that matter

You can buy your clothing at K-Mart, or you can buy your clothing at Hermès. You have to decide what you want in life. If you want disposable razors, that’s one way to approach it, or you could buy a razor that might last a little longer. I think what a culture depends on is what is best about a culture. And what a book depends on is what’s best about books. Those are the books that last, those are the books that sustain the industry. Not the sort of high-level bets that are placed on short-term profitability, and is all led by shareholder interest and pressure.

Link to the rest at Quill & Quire and thanks to Michael for the tip.

Self-published authors – Please Quit Picking Fights!

29 October 2014

From agent Scott Eagan:

I was talking to one of my clients this weekend and she was saying how her chapter had a guest speaker who was once again preaching the line, “Fire your agents and fire your editors! Do it yourself!” I have to say, since RWA this year I am getting pretty irritated at this mantra we are hearing from authors out there.

Look, there is room for everyone. If you have this desire to self-publish then go for it! No one is stopping you!

I think what a lot of these authors are missing in their argument is that not everyone wants to take this approach. Not everyone has the knowledge of the business. Not everyone has an already built in following from their careers in traditional publishing. And yes, when we talk money, not everyone has the cash to pay for: an outside editor, a cover artist, a marketing manager… and so forth.

When I talked to my author about this, it was interesting to hear a few facts that might have been missed by those in the audience:

  • The speaker WAS previously published and already had a following.
  • The author was spending a lot of her own money to take care of things normally covered by a publisher.
  • The author was spending close to 100 hours a week on the career just to keep it afloat.

When this first idea came out, there was indeed a huge fight (or maybe just a verbal war) between those who wanted to go on their own and those that wanted the traditional approach. But in recent years, that war has seemed to shift to a more one sided approach. The editors and the agents on the traditional side have pretty much stopped. No, this is not because, what I do believe some would think, “they realized they were wrong.” Instead, they realized there was a place for everyone.

. . . .

What I am saying is that if you are a person who wants an agent. If you are a person who wants to take the traditional publishing approach, please don’t let those other authors discourage you from taking the approach that works for you. Just remember to really listen to the variables the author is using when they talk of their successes taking that self-pub approach:

  • Are they selling their back lists from traditional publishers?
  • Are the using this as a supplement to an already existing writing career?
  • Are they still bringing in royalties from those traditional publishers?
  • How many outside resources are they having to pay (editors, cover artists, etc.) are they having to pay.

Link to the rest at Babbles from Scott Eagan and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Literary agents look to change ‘distant’ image

24 October 2014

From The Bookseller:

Literary festivals can “provide help and support for new writers” and enable them to ask questions in a “relaxing, happy, supportive environment”, event organisers and literary agents have told The Bookseller.

Festivals can also bring would-be authors closer to the publishing process by connecting them with agents, who want to move away from the perception that they are “very distant and difficult to meet”.

Earlier this year, the Battersea Literature Festival and the Literary Kitchen Festival included dog walks led by literary agents as part of their programme.

Agent Jo Unwin, of the Jo Unwin Literary Agency, said she started the dog walks “because it seems to me that the people who find it easy to submit to agents aren’t necessarily the best writers”. She added: “Some people feel more entitled to write than others, and it’s just a way to open things out a bit. Of course the danger with being too open is that you get inundated by unpublishable work, so it’s all a bit of a balancing act.”

. . . .

Andrea Mason, founder of the Literary Kitchen Festival, agreed: “Agents are people like us and they want your manuscript.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

No, I don’t want to read your self-published book

2 October 2014

From Ron Charles at The Washington Post
Roger Sutton, editor in chief of Horn Book magazine, has had it with what we politely call “indie writers.” Yesterday, he posted “An open letter to the self-published author feeling dissed.

Dear self-published author:
I can imagine how frustrating it is to have your book refused possible review coverage by the Horn Book simply because it is self-published. But here is why that situation is unlikely to change anytime soon.
If we met at a party or something, I, and I think my colleagues at the other review rags, would tell you that we don’t review self-published books because there are too many of them. More than half a million such titles are published every year in this country, and I’m guessing children’s books account for at least 100,000 of those. Right now, I’m dealing with about 8,000 titles a year of traditionally published children’s books, of which we review approximately 5,000. If we were to commit to giving self-published books the same level of scrutiny we give to what we already cover, I would need to increase our staff exponentially, which is not going to happen.


Thus my final point. Self-published children’s books seem remarkably ignorant of the great history and scope of children’s literature. You don’t need this awareness to write a good or even great book for children (I know several worthy children’s book authors who pay no attention to the field or its heritage) but you do need it to publish a good or great book for children. (Or even a terrible one. Trade publishers publish bad books all the time, but they publish them for good reasons.) An editor isn’t there to “fix mistakes.” His or her most important job is to understand what contribution your story makes–or doesn’t–to the big world of books and readers. That’s what is most missing from self-published books for children today.

He begins kindly enough: “I can imagine how frustrating it is to have your book refused possible review coverage by the Horn Book simply because it is self-published.” But then he lays out the case from the review editor’s point of view. He’s bracingly blunt.


I contacted Sutton this morning for additional comment (and to see if he’d been assaulted yet). As I suspected, his open letter had been inspired by an e-mail exchange with a “self-pubber.” Those of us in the business know these exchanges well. They’re pretty much why I don’t answer the phone anymore. There’s always some aggressive or depressed “indie writer” on the other end insisting that his book is spectacular, unlike anything else being published today. If only I’d read 25 pages, I’d be hooked.
I asked Sutton, “What do you say to the indie writer who reminds you that Walt Whitman was self-published?”

“You are not Walt Whitman,” he said


At The Post, we’re getting about 150 books a day. A day. And these are books that had to find an agent. And then a publisher. And then were professionally edited. And now are being professionally marketed by people with money on the line. Many of these books, of course, are bad, but many — far more than we can review — are interesting, engaging, informative, moving, timely and/or newsworthy for various reasons.

All the winnowing and editing work that went on before a galley ever arrives at our door make this job possible. The idea of dumping several hundred thousand additional books on our small staff every year is terrifying.
Are there great, truly great self-published books being produced — and ignored — every year?

I’m sure there are, and that’s a tragedy. But it’s not a tragedy that I can solve by reading 25 pages of every one of the 300,000 self-published book that would land in our office if we opened the door.

See the full article here at The Washington Post (Link may expire)

From Guest Blogger Randall.


25 September 2014

From agent Natalie M. Lakosil:

HATE – Non-publishing lawyers

I cannot tell you how frustrating it is when I have a potential client have a non-industry lawyer look over our agency agreement. Primarily, this is because a lawyer not familiar with the industry is likely to suggest changes to industry standards (like commission rate).

. . . .

Be sure to check out the AAR Canon of Ethics if that agency is a member; if they are, there are standards they will adhere to.

. . . .

If you have someone looking over the contract, and the agent responds with: sorry, this is standard, don’t automatically feel like you’re getting a bad deal.

Link to the rest at Adventures in Agentland

PG qualifies as an industry lawyer and he will attest that some agency contracts are terrible. They will seem doubly-so for an attorney from the reality-based world outside of traditional publishing.

The statement about the AAR Canon of Ethics is laughably naive. If a member violates the Canons, is there an AAR court that will force the agent to compensate a wronged author?

PG scanned the Canon for about sixty seconds and found over a half-dozen provisions that at least some of its members ignore. The Canon may be most charitably described as aspirational.

There are intelligent and competent literary agents who diligently and honestly serve their clients. The problems are that anyone, competent or not, can call themselves an agent and authors, particularly inexperienced authors, often have a difficult time distinguishing between the wheat and the chaff.

Be Diligent and Let Your Agent Do the Talking

20 September 2014

From Books & Such Literary Management:

Publisher mistakes happen. Oversights occur. Disagreements with your publishing team take place. Delays cause negative ripple effects. Any one of these can have a detrimental, sometimes devastating, effect on your book during the production process. Not if, butwhen any one of these happens, it’s best for the sake of your career to be diligent and let your agent do the talking.

. . . .

Staff changes and publishing house acquisitions cause upheaval, not to mention staff reductions, which pile more work onto those who remain. It’s a prescription for trouble. That’s why it’s increasingly important for authors to be enthusiastic, cooperative, gracious, prompt with your due dates…and quietly diligent.

An author’s diligence is key because once the contract is signed, the communication shifts to the publishing house interacting with the author directly. Your agent, who can’t be everywhere at all times for every client, relies on you to notify him or her at the first hint of trouble.

. . . .

Author issues over covers can be sticky situations. Covers are within the publisher’s realm of responsibility. However, a good agent will negotiate wording in the contract, providing a client the right to give input on the design. Designers occasionally are resistant to perceived criticism of their work and to the extra time and work a redo will mean to their schedules. Agents are experienced at negotiating these situations delicately toward a win-win solution, allowing you, the author, to retain your positive, warm and friendly relationships with your publishing team, which is of prime importance.

. . . .

The editors found so many errors that the publisher decided their only recourse was to recall the entire first printing from all the distribution channels and shred the books. Of course, by that time some of the books already were in readers’ hands. In the time it took for the publisher to correct and print new books, marketing momentum had been lost, and was later reflected in poor sales.

The agent stepped in again to press the publisher to find a way to overcome the debacle. That chapter still is being written.

Link to the rest at From Books & Such Literary Management and thanks to David for the tip.

When the editor, cover designer and book formatter work for the author, these situations are less likely to occur in the first place and easier to deal with if they do.

Row over literary agents’ ‘transparency’

15 September 2014

From The Bookseller:

Industry database Agent Hunter has accused the literary agent community of appearing “elitist, exclusive and hostile to outsiders”, and has released a Transparency Index (TI) rating every agent and every agency.

But Sam Edenborough, president of the Association of Authors Agents, has hit back at comments made by the group, formed by crime writer Harry Bingham, saying that Agent Hunter is offering “shrill criticisms”.

Agent Hunter, part of the editorial consultancy The Writer’s Workshop, said its research is the “first authoritative guide to the world of literary agents”.

It found that 66% of literary agents are women, 86% of them are based in London, and less than 3% are black or Asian. Agent Hunter said: “Those data might suggest an industry out of touch with broader society, so it’s concerning to note that many agents release strikingly little information about themselves, thereby discouraging approaches from new writers.”

. . . .

Bingham said: “At present, the literary agency industry can look elitist, exclusive and hostile to outsiders. I don’t believe it is any of those things in reality – but the lamentable standard of disclosure tends to disempower writers and discourages them from seeking conventional publishers. We urge literary agents to bring their communication practices into the 21st century – and we praise those agencies who have already done so.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

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