Who Needs a Literary Agent Anyway? Do They Deserve That Percentage?

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

As last September ended, a report from the Association of American Literary Agents painted a bleak picture of the American literary agent — working long hours and struggling to pay the bills, worrying for their future.

Among the members of the author community who had ever received a rejection slip from an agent, reactions ran the gamut of emoticon abbreviations, from LOL to RAOTFL to LMAO.*

These people get paid to read books! What are they whining about?

And who needs an agent anyway? One rejected the sample chapters of my interplanetary erotica fantasy, Fifty Shades of Venus, without even reading it, despite me sending a great query letter. I even used the spell-checker! But they emailed back the same day to tell me they only repped children’s books. These people just cannot move with the times!

So the next time, I sent the full 400,000 word manuscript, even though they only asked for the first two chapters. I figured it would save them time later, and helpfully told them that the action doesn’t really start until chapter 38, so they might want to start there. Rejected again. What do agents know anyway?

. . . .

Yeah, we’ve all been there. Most authors only see agents from the rejection slip end. It’s no wonder we don’t like them. And believe me, I accumulated a suitcase full of rejection slips back when I was querying.

Along the road, my books attracted the attention of two agents. One New York agent, having found my self-published book in the best-seller charts in three countries, made vague promises of movie deals and the like. And then they lost interest.

The other agent, a fellow Brit, was really excited, and had the manuscript being read by top commissioning editors at big publishing houses. A gazillion-digit publishing deal seemed to be just an email away. And then nothing.

That was disappointing, of course. But it didn’t turn me off agents. Because years previously I had worked in a London literary agency for a week as part of a journalism deal. My editor was sending me on week-long “job challenges”, most of which were not fun in any way. An abattoir… An undertakers… A fish factory… A sausage factory…

And just when I was ready to quit the magazine and strangle the editor, a literary agency. In London!

I was ecstatic! Every journalist wants to be a book writer, of course. This was my chance to spend a week drinking coffee, reading future bestsellers, mixing with big-name author over expensive lunches, and casually bringing into the conversation the two books I’d got sitting in a drawer at home that less reputable agents had foolishly turned down.

Maybe I could be a literary agent myself? No qualifications needed. Just stick an advert in the paper (yes, this was back in 1999), wait for the unpublished books to arrive in the post, call a publisher with the good news, and collect the commission. Money for old rope! My dream job had arrived!

. . . .

By the end of my first day all my illusions had been shot to pieces. Not a single famous author passed through the doors with a lunch invite at the Savoy. Lunch was a sandwich and a coffee from the greasy spoon café next door. In fact, famous authors never seemed to get mentioned at all.

Watching the daily delivery of unsolicited manuscripts was a revelation. At least 200 over the course of the week (this before email submissions and before self-publishing), and each one was dutifully opened and scanned for potential.

Sometimes the query letter was enough to warrant a rejection slip. As a writer myself, I was initially appalled. A rejection without even looking at the manuscript? A manuscript some poor soul had spent months, maybe years, slaving over, rewriting, revising, honing to perfection? Then I read the query letters and realised the standard of English on just one page was often more than enough to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

This in the early days of home PCs and MS Word, when many wannabe authors were still typing manuscripts through worn-out ribbons and with gallons of correction fluid.

Then came the first chapter reads. So many authors would send the full MS despite clear instructions to only send the initial chapters, but every package was unwrapped and glanced over. One of the agents has a memo framed above her desk: “Think JK, Every Day.” This was the year Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was published, and the legend of the agents and publishers who had sneered and told JK Rowling not to give up the day job was discussed in hushed tones in every corner of every agency and publishing house around the world.

. . . .

But despite every package being opened, and every query letter scrutinised, many author careers stalled at this point. Some manuscripts showed no promise, some were simply derivative, some just came in at the wrong time. Agents had to judge what would be hot in the market years down the road. The speed the publishing industry operates at makes the South American three-toed sloth look like an Olympic sprinter.

And then there was the actual reading of the manuscripts – not finely polished books with pretty covers, fine type-setting and all the typos edited out by Spell-Check, but raw paper and faded double-spaced ink drowning in correction fluid on dog-eared pages that had spent days in the postal system in a flimsy envelope.

Then would come the redrafting and the re-redrafting and the re-re-re-drafting for those that cleared the first hurdle, the agent. All while trying not to upset the prospective future bestselling author that still had a lot to learn. This was happening over weeks or months — having to read and re-read the same manuscript.

And the agent all the time was losing the will to live as the wannabe author insisted their work was already perfect and the agents didn’t deserve the commission that at this point was far from guaranteed. And all the time trying to explain to said author that being repped was no guarantee of a publisher agreeing to actually publish. Let alone handing out the mega-advances newbie authors fantasise about.

This was happening in between the existing client representation, fighting for better deals, trying to find foreign rights (and nowadays audio and translation rights – not so common back in the nineties). Plus the agony of having to tell a one-time bestselling author that the market had moved on. Their latest book would not earn out the advance, and that their next book would not find a publisher.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris