WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Literary agents = dinosaurs?

I'll sell that book for you, son!

I’ll sell that book for you, son!

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?

14 comments on “Literary agents = dinosaurs?

  1. Max Scratchmann
    August 29, 2013

    I’ve yet to meet a literary agent willing to take me on. I have two who like me, one of whom is very honest and always get first look at any new work, but, to date, hasn’t found anything she’s confident of selling.
    As an illustrator, I had an agent once, and that was pretty disastrous, where the rep constantly wanted me to alter my art into something she could sell rather that something I wanted to do, or could do. That being said, I’d like an agent. Particularly today when a large international publishing house is trying to stiff me on a fee. Agents are very useful in situations like these because they have more muscle than you do.
    I think there’s a Mister or Miss Right out there for me in Agent World – I just haven’t met them yet.
    Perhaps I never will……..

  2. Tammy Farrell
    August 29, 2013

    I am becoming increasingly disillusioned with the querying process and it’s only been a few months! I’m really leaning towards self-publishing, but my number 1 fear is mistakes getting through in publication. I think that’s the only thing holding me back. Does that worry you at all?

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 29, 2013

      I think since you’ve had your ms professionally edited, you don’t need to fret too much over small errors. Some agents are persnickety about typos, but most are reading for content in the initial stages. You have to win them over in the first few pages or they’re on to the next thing.

      By the way, if you’re lucky enough to get a book contract via an agent, the publisher’s copyeditors will fine-tooth the ms before publication.

  3. Tammy Farrell
    August 29, 2013

    I should also add that my ms has been through a professional edit. But still…I’m worried.

    • Max Scratchmann
      August 29, 2013

      Unfortunately being published by the best house in the world is not a guarantee of no typos or errors!

  4. tmewalsh
    August 29, 2013

    That part about the agent 9 times out of 10 changing her mind after you’ve done her suggested changes – I’ve felt that pain!

    It’s interesting to read your thoughts on the agents and the self-pub world. Best of luck with your new work!

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 29, 2013

      Thanks for the vote of confidence! And it can be painful, can’t it? Extremely painful…

      • tmewalsh
        August 30, 2013

        Soul destroying 😦

  5. John W. Howell
    August 29, 2013

    I finally gave up on an agent search. I decided to bug publishers and found one. The item that made me the maddest was the no response response. I would have preferred a rejection rater that nothing. If you are really in the business just take a minute to tell some idiot author that you think his stuff stinks and be done with it. At least the conflict around multiple submissions would go away. Nice post.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 29, 2013

      It does seem like the old courtesies have gone the way of the dodo. Now (and I’ve experienced this myself) you might hear from an agent you’ve queried a year after the fact, if at all — and generally via the form rejection with a little salt and pepper added to make you think she actually read the ms. Seriously, considering that it’s usually an intern who reads the unsolicited material, I wonder what most agents do in the course of a day besides lunch with their editor buds and tussle over who picks up the tab.

      • John W. Howell
        August 30, 2013

        Don’t forget the Yoga class and jog around the park

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This entry was posted on August 29, 2013 by in Publishing and tagged , , , , , , .
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