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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Literary Agents: Bane or Boon?

I just got an email from a friend of mine who's also an author. She's been on the hunt for a literary agent for several months now and was bemoaning the fact it's been a long time since she sent off a packet to a NY agent. I didn't have the heart to tell her not to hold her breath. She's a good writer. That's not the problem. The problem is an industry where common courtesy to authors--theoretically the lifesblood supporting agents and publishers--has gone the way of the dodo bird. All you have to do is pull up guidelines from any literary agent to see what I mean. There's a long list of don'ts. I started in this business like most everyone else. I tried to find an agent. That was a little over three years ago. I've gotten to the point where I don't bother anymore. Would I like someone who could open NY doors? Sure I would. But I also know when to trim my losses.

At the top of the don'ts list is "don't call us". Some are honest enough to tell you if you haven't heard from them in six weeks (or six months) it means they're not interested. I do understand they're innundated with material and probably understaffed since indie publishers and self published authors have taken a percentage of the publishing dollar, but still, the current modus operandi places the author in a serious "one down" position.

I probably shouldn't admit this, but I honestly have no idea why one story of mine is accepted and another that I saw as equally well-written, isn't. Some of it is akin to chasing a moving target. I try to read webzines and magazines and anthology guidelines before I submit to make sure my material is a good fit. Sometimes an editor agrees with me, sometimes not. I've  been told that having ten short stories accepted in a little over two years is a great track record. Maybe. But what about the ten or fifteen other stories. The ones I either never heard back on, or where I got nice, polite rejection letters? That is one thing I'll say for the webzines and magazines I've submitted to: they send me very nice rejection letters with invitations to send them more stories. That is way more than I've ever gotten from a literary agent.

Generally, my responses from literary agents come in the form of "Dear Author". I took months of my time to write something and hours of my time to make sure I sent the agent exactly what they wanted and I either get nothing back, or a "Dear Author" form letter. Occasionally, for those agents still insisting on snail mail, that "Dear Author " letter comes on half a sheet of paper. Guess those rejected authors aren't worth the quarter penny a full sheet of paper would cost. Or, maybe those agents are being environmentally conscientious. Though, it seems if that were the case, they'd go to web-based submissions. Okay, I'll trim the sarcasm.

Literary agents have become such rigid gatekeepers that an entire new cottage industry has sprung up. For a fee, they'll share the secret of how to get an agent to ask for your manuscript. What's that old saying about a fool and their money???

Kristine Catherine Rusch, a well known and respected SF/F author, says she thinks the industry is running scared. Maybe so. But still, a little dash of courtesy would go a long ways. I don't mind rejections. I'm still new to this business and know I have lots to learn. But there must be a better way than ignoring authors or treating them as an inconvenience. If a magazine can send me a couple of sentences with something constructive about my writing, why can't a literary agent do the same? SF/F magazines get just as many subs as agents--maybe more.

This seems like it could be a mutually beneficial relationship. Older authors, who became established before the indie rush, didn't have any problems finding agents. Under the "new" model, agents seem to be working themselves into anachronisms. When I mentioned something about this to the small press that publishes my novels, one of the principals looked at me, raised an eyebrow and asked, "Why would you even want an agent? It's just one more person to give money to."

Does anyone besides me have feelings about this?

7 comments:

  1. Well, I don't have any experience in looking for agents yet. But I have heard that a bad agent is worse than no agent at all.

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    1. Yes, I've heard that, too. In our SF/F field, there are only about 20-30 agents that have solid reputations. I think I got turned down by all of them three years ago. Good to have thick skin.

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  2. I think this, and the statement from Clare is exactly why I've been asked by a few clients to be an intermediary and why I added "literary consultant" to my title. I'm definitely no agent, and don't even want to get into the legalities of contracts and rights, etc., BUT, it seems that having someone write to a publishing company on your behalf actually helps you get a foot in the door. One such (fairly major) company recently accepted my submission on a client's behalf even though they only accept "agented submissions". (I did write to ask them their permission first, but still.)

    The point seems to be that it's got to come from someone other than the writer. On the one hand, based on some requests I've had for editing, I can see why. Many people judge their writing ready for publication when it absolutely is not, sad to say. On the other hand, I think shutting out their bread and butter the way they do is sort of biting the hand that feeds them, to mix some metaphors, wouldn't you say?

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    1. So that's what "literary consultant" means. I wondered when I saw you use the term a few weeks back. And, yes, there needs to be a better way. Just saw a FB post from a friend. She casually mentioned "another rejection" and my heart went out to her. Even if I'm expecting a rejection, there's always a little sliver of hope that goes out with every single one of my submissions. And I'm always happy when someone asks to see more of my work, even if they didn't take the piece I'd sent.

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  3. I've certainly felt the sting of rejection too. I still believe you should feel encouraged. Your track record really is phenomenal. I think it shows your persistance. I have another client who really is a phenomenal writer, but he isn't good at submitting. One of the "lesser" publishing zines recently told him his story was too good for them and he should really try somewhere else first. That's a puzzling response to get, I'm sure. It was still disappointing to him, though, because it was still a form of rejection.

    My advice is to do what you have been doing--keep submitting. Yes, you have a larger portion of stories written and submitted than have been accepted thus far (who doesn't?), but they'll find their homes. Don't doubt it.

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    1. Oops, that was meant to be in reply to yours. Sorry.

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    2. Aw, Jessica. You were my first fan and you're also my best! You'll never know how much I appreciate your support for my writing. It does seem odd that a magazine told someone their story was "too good" for them. Maybe what they meant was it didn't fit the rest of what they print.

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