An Open Letter to Literary Agents Who Think They’re All That
OK, OK, we get it. Your job is a tough one and, admittedly there are idiots who aren’t qualified to play with sidewalk chalk who are sending you shit that even Sarah Palin wouldn’t post on her Facebook account even on her laziest day. Between the perfumed, glitter-laden, colored stationary, the bribes of chocolates, coffee cups that say, “World’s Greatest Literary Agent!” and even money, not to mention the dreck that ludicrously tries to pass for evidence of baseline literacy, a literary agent's lot, to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, isn’t a happy one.
These are the peckerheads, pretenders and poseurs who deserve the form rejection letters, the rabble, the 98% that we all try to avoid getting swept into. We get it. They don’t make your job any easier.
But these people who swell the teeming shores of the slush piles of literary agencies from coast to coast don’t make our jobs any easier, either. And by “our”, I mean us serious novelists who take both our craft and research seriously.
You know, the ones who get a size 10 wingtip pasted across our teeth and keisters when it’s established that our names aren’t Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell, George W. Bush or some other over-exposed right wing quitter, loser or Third Reich-class war criminal.
But in virtually every instance when I do my research I have to listen to what agents will and won’t represent and in many of those instances, I have to wade through what is avowedly their pet peeves and prejudices.
By this, I’m not talking about those agents who refuse to represent the next Stephanie Meyers and Twilight
or a thriller whose title begins with, The Girl Who…
Those agents get a firm salute from me, the proud, the few who insist on not being the first to do something second.
I’m talking about the type of all too common literary agent who pointedly refuses to represent a property in a genre or subgenre that they find personally repugnant or who refuse to even look at a first novel once it crosses the 100,000 word threshold.
First of all, get the fuck over yourselves. No one gives a shit what you like or don’t like. You do not represent the book buying public any more than I represent all novelists. Even if you don’t like a certain genre or sub-genre, you still ought to be professional enough to be able to sell a property that certainly meets or exceeds a high standard in originality and execution. When I read, “I do not represent thrillers, especially when children are endangered,” you’re acting and speaking very unprofessionally and does not exactly fill me with confidence that you even belong in the literary representation business.
Any agent that doesn’t represent a book that features child endangerment is speaking as a mother and not as a professional agent. Consider how many modern day classics have featured children in danger: The Shining, It, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
or virtually every other book by Stephen King. How about Nathan’s Run
by John Gilstrap? Hell, virtually everything by Jonathan Kellerman or Andrew Vachss features one child or another in danger. Kellerman and Vachss as well as their respective protagonists Alex Delaware and Burke have made entire careers on endangered children. Are you saying you would’ve turned down John Grisham’s The Client
because the juvenile protagonist, Mark Sway, was chased by mobsters? If so, then you are a fucking idiot, a pox and a plague upon our nation’s casual reading public and ought to be tarred, feathered and bombarded with unsold copies of The Bridges of Madison County
until you finally take down your shingle.
I actually once had a proposal rejected out of hand by an agent who shall remain nameless (but her initials are D
inch) who told me that American Zen
was much too long to be a first novel because it exceeded her subjective word count threshhold by 20,000 words. I responded that it was fortunate Leo Tolstoy, Margaret Mitchell and Stieg Larssen didn't have her as an agent (an observation that, typically, never met with a rejoinder).
And, secondly, this is the problem: You literary agents have gotten so arch, so arrogant, so fucking hermetically solipsistic that your own personal tastes have somehow supplanted what editors go crazy looking for every day. You have hijacked what editors want and need to your personal tastes and biases. In a way, they made themselves responsible for this self-centered archness and arrogance when they made you their unpaid weeding out process.
Thirdly, another age-old gripe from writers that also references your professional laziness and cowardice: It’s a given to anyone who’s spent even a minute in this mug’s game that you cannot get a publishing contract unless you have an agent. The problem is, more and more agents are working only by referral or taking on clients with a publishing history, making it increasingly impossible to get an agent without the publisher who won’t talk to you except through an agent. Somewhere up in heaven, Joseph Heller is weeping over this real life mutation of his Catch 22
Oh, but that’s not my problem, you all say. There are still plenty of literary agencies out there that’ll accept queries and proposals from firsttime authors. We just don’t want to know what they have to say, what they’ve written and otherwise have no interest in hearing of them being alive.
Remember the authors I mentioned above. At some point, proven winners and money makers like King, Grisham, Gilstrap, & Co were once firsttime authors. Same goes for any author currently on the bestseller lists from James Patterson to JK Rowling to Stephanie Meyer. Imagine what their agents would’ve lost if they’d closed their doors to everyone who didn’t have the secret knock or password to the clubhouse?
This displays cowardice on your part, a fatal quality that would be a deal breaker with any but those writers most desperate for representation. I wouldn’t seriously entertain for a second a proposal from any agent or agency that closes its drawbridge to the unwashed rabble at the moat because they say, in essence, “Wah, wah, you’re untried and untested. You’ll make my job too hard.”
Fuck you. So’s ours.
As I’ve said before, you chose to do this for a living. We do this in our spare time in between shifts at the factory or hospital, walking the dog, taking the kids to the dentist or paying bills. That includes, aside from the time it takes to write a manuscript you insist be camera-ready (there’s no such thing in the business, by the way, as all editors have their own ideas of what someone’s else’s vision ought to look like), the time it takes to research the 400-500 agencies appropriate for our material.
And part of that research involves listening to what the agent will or won’t represent which, if it isn’t an overt turnoff to more professional authors like me, ought to be. It is professional cowardice to an unforgivable degree and all we hear back is, “This business turns on feelings and if the feeling isn’t there, if I’m not madly enough in love with your manuscript and don’t want to take it to bed with me and get half the pages stuck together, well, it wasn’t meant to be.”
Again, it is the height of fallacy and an unforgivable slap to our collective intelligence when you insist that the tens of millions of books that have been sold since agents became the necessary evil they are today were madly, impetuously and recklessly loved by every agent who sold them. At some point, there had to be acting involved.
And if you can’t fake enthusiasm for an excellent property with which you’re not subjectively enthralled, then, once again, you need to buy a train ticket to Bumfuck, Wyoming and get the fuck out of the business. Business is run by a bottom line, a fat, healthy profit margin and publishing, while more illogical than most, is still a business. It is not run on “feeling.” Even mood rings don’t run on feelings. Publishing is a business that’s motivated by money and profit. Stop pretending that you’re literary matchmakers who fall in love with your clients. We all know you do not look a manuscript’s actual literary merit but its salability. You work for 15% commission, not so you could match up the next Hemingway with Max Perkins.
And that’s another thing, a problem in perception: I can understand not wishing to be second-guessed by your clients, most of whom not being nearly as pragmatic as you in the art of negotiating contracts and pitching book properties. But stop acting as if you’re the boss. In the real world, the guy who makes 85% of the pelf is the boss. The guy who makes the 15%, he’s the hired help.
Since most writers have, at most, one, maybe two agents and most agents dozens to hundreds of clients, it’s easy to get arrogant and to assume since you’re richer than most of them that you’re more important than any one of your clients. But to us individually, you’re raking in just 15% of our royalties and to us that makes you our employees, limited partners at best. It is a business arrangement. No one ever flocked to a book store because of a literary agent. No one ever rushed to a movie based on a book written by a literary agent. We are the talent, we are the boss and all decisions have to be ultimately made by us, your clients. You are not the leader of a stable of writers. You are someone who has many bosses. You are the glorified help indentured to genteel servitude six months to a year at a time. That is your role and station in life. Know it.
Form rejection letters and outright silence: As proof that we understand the time constraints placed on agencies that often get 300 or more submissions a week, let me say that I understand the need for the boilerplate rejection letter. If you go back to paragraphs one and two, you’ll note that I fully understand the need to summarily reject the circus clowns who masquerade as writers.
But form rejection letters or outright rude silence to people of obvious talent and conscientiousness is also unforgivable, especially after they play your one-sided game and personalize every query letter with a specific agent’s name, sometimes even quoting the agent from their website and did enough research to make it apparent that a lot of work and time was invested in every query letter and proposal. You do not get to ignore or imperiously dismiss through a flunky those who send you letters addressed to you. No time to do your job? Hire college interns who’ll work for free and would jump at the chance to cut their teeth at a top shelf literary agency. Encourage them to take their work home with them. MAKE the fucking time and stop disrespecting our time and effort.
(A true story: I once got a form rejection letter from some clown named Gordon Warnock at the Andrea Hurst Agency from his Blackberry
. In order to relate getting shabbier treatment, I have to go back 20 years to when I got a poetry manuscript sent back with a shoe print on the title page.)
Another thing that bugs me is that, like serial killers (only without the sociopathic killer instinct of agents), literary agents often like to relive the Big Deals and often expect us, the writers, to help them relive their crimes against literacy by proving they’d scanned their client list and know what they’ve sold. Again, this is rude and solipsistic and almost completely non-germane. I do not give a shit who you’ve helped publish or who you’ve made rich. That just encourages your already out of control arrogance. Such success has nothing to do with me and, with me, respect and awe need be earned, not deferentially given on command as if it was a birthright or entitlement.
In short, get the fuck over yourself and stop thinking you’re the whole show, that everything devolves around your subjective tastes. They do not nor should they. You are merely jaded and tiresome gatekeepers artificially empowered by other jaded gatekeepers. Your time is limited and if ebook sales continue to skyrocket at the same time dead tree publishing is taking a nosedive, then you will, to the delight of many of us, go the way of blacksmiths and buggy whip makers.
Remember: Virtually all the greatest writers who ever lived, including almost all Nobel laureates, did perfectly fine without literary agents. And, mark my words, the day will
come when the literary lions of the not too distant future will be able to say the same thing.