Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Someone asked me the other day who my agent is. For a minute I was befuddled, then remembered — smack! — I don’t have one anymore. Because I don’t need one.
Now that I’m well on the road to self-publication and have taken on the mantle of publisher, I recall with a jaundiced eye my many years of prostrating myself before literary agents — the fabled gatekeepers standing between my book and the people who would actually publish it. I haven’t sent a query letter out in many moons now. It feels terrific.
Don’t get me wrong. Agents perform a valuable function in the world of traditional publication. And to read the testimonials of some authors, they often become indispensable mentors, cheerleaders, even friends. What writer hasn’t looked at the acknowledgment page of certain novels and read the gushing tributes to “my agent, Valeria, who has been like a second mother to me” with percolating envy? Why can’t we get over Valeria’s transom? Why won’t she be our mom?
I think most agents are probably very good at what they do. Thus, they don’t have time for material they think will cost them too much time/money to sell. Thus they will praise your literary novel for its style and originality, then reject it for being too hard to categorize. And thus they will come off as flagrant favoritists who aren’t really interested in “strong characters, strong stories, and great writing.” They’re interested in paying their rent and getting their kids into Columbia or Harvard. They represent what they think will sell easily, based on what is currently selling.
‘Tis a business.
My own experience with agents has been, let’s say, speckled. I’ve had, at last count, five of them, and only one was able to sell a book for me. Each relationship starts out with ebullience and much ego-stroking. Then comes the process of revising the manuscript that the agent is so ebullient over — a back-and-forth that can make the writer wonder if the agent really loves this book or some other, hypothetical book she envisions from the raw materials of this one. Sometimes the revising goes well. Sometimes it’s like an earwig boring through your brain. But you emerge with a book the agent is delighted to shop around for you, and you’re inclined, when the time comes, to thank her profusely on that acknowledgment page.
Then comes the gut-wrenching disappointment when there are no bites on your now-perfect manuscript, and the agent breaks the news that she is finished with it. “Don’t hesitate to show me your next project, and please, please don’t let this experience discourage you. You’re a talented writer!”
Months later she passes on your new book.
It’s one of those sad-but-true things, that where agents are concerned you’re only as good as your last success.
It’s almost worse when you bust your hump to revise a manuscript on spec, motivated by a prospective agent’s enthusiasm and albeit vague suggestions for rewriting. Nine times out of ten she changes her mind about the book by the time you’ve finished the tweaks. It’s not fair, but then again this ain’t no garden party, is it.
With all of the changes happening in the publishing business, I wonder how agents will adapt. Or, more specifically, how they will adapt to writers adapting to the new normal. After all, it’s the writers who make the thing that’s being sold, and we have options today we didn’t really have ten years ago.
What have your own experiences with agents been like? Plus? Minus? Is traditional publishing the real goal, so that agents will be always be relevant?