Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Agent Fairy

Today I heard that a friend of a friend, an already published children's author, is ditching her agent. As she was talking, I spaced out, the three little words 'ditching her agent' hopping from ears to brain to eyes where they stuck, like blinkers, as I cut all else out. What did she mean 'ditching her agent'? It means nothing to me. Authors look for agents, write to agents, talk to agents, long for agents, pray for agents, beg for agents, they do not ditch agents, right? This is the stuff of oxymorons, as available as a reliable plumber or a tall Tom Cruise; as real as Beverly Hills without cocaine or beauty adverts without digital imagery. Yet it's all true, I heard of a published author who is ditching her agent. Said agent, a supposedly reputable one going by the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook and make of that what you will, has exhausted all of her contacts in the chick lit arena, a grand total of nine. When I short-listed my agents I crossed out very many; I write lifestyle narrative non-fiction which can mean one permutation of very many different styles. Not all non-fiction agents represent this type of non-fiction, even when they supposedly represent all non-fiction. There just cannot be one agent that represents ALL non-fiction, you'd think an agent should know that's impossible? But, as usual, I digress.

This author I am speaking of is writing chick lit and her agent has a total of nine contacts in the business. Blimey, chick lit is not lifestyle narrative non-fiction. Heck, it is not 2nd century Bulgarian religious poetry. Surely there must be more publishers to tackle for chick lit than nine? As I was driving through the countryside on the way to horsey, I reflected on this point. I thought about the market and its requirements. You'll find agents that tell you it's difficult to publish your book in the current climate, but judging by what I see in Waterstone's I would say it's not that hard to publish anything at all these days, for anything goes, from supposedly inspirational diaries to memoirs of misery. I thought about the dumbing-down of popular culture in general, something that I feel super-qualified to bring into the picture as I am finishing a PhD on it, but then I always defend popular culture, for I appreciate its potency and know that it cannot be reduced to mere idiocy. I also thought of the agent as signifier of success, as the speed-lane to a profession that most of us regard as the Holy Grail of all professions, the profession that so perfectly fits the old adage 'find a job you enjoy and you'll never have to work one day in your life' (thanks Mr Confucius), at least for me. This is what I thought an agent was, and was for, until I started contacting a few. Immediately life appeared in front of me as seen through the lens of clarity, my own preconceptions about agents distorted and burlesque to begin with.

The consensus is that without an agent, one cannot get a book published. Aspiring authors re-focus from publication to representation and leave the quest for the publishing deal to the agent. Books, articles, forums, writing groups are all adequate sources of information regarding the 'how to approach an agent' issue. Yet, reading through the checklists often left me wondering whether agents were a different breed of professionals, professionals one should approach with water-marked, headed parchment, laser-printed DO NOT BEND envelopes and Smythson business cards, professionals impressed both by style and substance. I have both (and modesty, as you can tell) and have recently begun a ride that has prompted me to post this, hoping that it will help new writers to re-evaluate themselves and their work. Stick with me to the end and you'll see why.

What does rejection mean? The word rejection goes hand-in-hand with writer as much as 'pop/stop/Pringles' or 'love/hate/Marmite'. Do a little bit of research and you will find that even classics have been rejected countless times. I find that starting on this can be both depressing and re-assuring. This is because zooming in on agents' (and publishers') ineptitude at recognizing quality in its rough state is a worrying prospect, yet, at the same time, it makes authors feel like they are in good company and we all know that a trouble shared is a trouble halved, right? Wrong.

Wrong because the sub-text of rejection is that there must be something awry with the submission itself. Writers beat themselves up about this all the time when, effectively, they are blindfolded in a darkened room, trying to put together a jigsaw they can find no pieces of.

I got a rejection letter but I don't know what I need to change in the proposal…

I got a rejection letter but it didn't say very much…

I got a 'with compliments' rejection slip and that was that, so I am re-writing my introduction now…

I didn't even get a reply which, really, is a mute rejection. So I am re-writing the spec letter…

And so on forever. What articles, books, forums and countless other outlets always do is looking at the rejection from a bottom-up point of view, where the author is a quivering, fearful and often shy wreck waiting to be slashed into by the agent's knife. Often, one ends up reading rather entertaining stuff sent in by writers and divulged by agents. I am not entirely sure what the agents' purpose is on this one, if not showing what a hard, gripping life they do lead, leafing through crap for a living. So I recently chose to look at the problem from the top-down, for a rejection is more likely to tell me something about the agent, and not so much about my proposal or my letter.

Consider the rejection that came from the agent who wrote:

'The proposal you mentioned was not included in the letter, but I can tell you that it would not be something that I can represent anyway'.

This is an agent who cannot distinguish a speculative letter asking whether the agent would like to see the proposal, from an offer to read an enclosed proposal. Next!

Consider the rejection that came from the agent who wrote, following promising phone conversation:

'I am afraid this is not really for us. I hate to disappoint you and I really hope I am proven wrong'.

Come on, are you kidding me? Why would someone hope to be proven wrong when turning down an author? So that they could later kick themselves silly when said author is doing really well at racking them while represented by someone else? This is one of the many agents out there who does not even catch the contradiction within a stock-reply that they really ought not to give. If you find an agent who uses clichés in rejection letters, or any letter, be grateful it is not your agent. Next!

Consider the rejection that came from the agent who compared a popular culture critical work to the Dummies guides. Does this agent not grasp the difference between TIME magazine and Heat? Would he compare Umberto Eco to Dan Brown? Does he even know the difference? Next!

Consider the rejection that came from the agent who thought said popular culture critical work was a health title and that on that basis he could not represent it. Next!

Consider the rejection that came from the agent who was interested in a book about an English king and later copped out with:

'I found it really interesting but I am afraid I just cannot get my head round historical fiction'. Next!

Or how about the agent who rejected an 'autobiography' of someone who has been dead for 556 years on the grounds that the agency only represents fiction writers? Who did she think wrote the book? Next!

Or the rejection of an historical novel whose ending was deemed as 'too sad' and should have been changed, throwing historical accuracy out of the window in favor of a happily-ever-after scenario? Next! Next! Next!

I am not suggesting that an author should become a nuisance to an agent who does not, for any reason, feel passionately about the writer's work; that would be career suicide. But I do take exception to agents who place themselves on the proverbial soap-box when they only have nine contacts. I take exception to agents who want a perfectly packaged work from the word 'Dear' and who are not prepared to work with the author as it was customary years ago. I take exception to agents who do not even read perfectly presented material and return it without a word because they are the only busy people at work. I take exception to agents who do not take leaps yet seem quite comfortable representing mediocre work on the basis of a friend's recommendation. I take exception to a lot of other agents, and I am certain you have your own reasons to take exception to lots of them as well.

Fact is, we need to take ownership of our work. We need to know better. We need to be able to make the judgment on our own writing. We need to let go of the misguided assumption that The Agent Knows Best, that the advisory service knows best. Recently, a friend submitted a sample to two services; one recommended one course of action, the other recommended exactly the opposite. This is symptomatic of a great disease: when writing, we are treading into the eggshell-covered no man's land of subjectivity where one person can say all and its opposite and still make sense of it. It is of paramount importance that we, writers, can make that judgment unaided, for only this will be our salvation.

This quest does a disservice to us all, but especially so to the less experienced writers who write and talk about agents as if they were the be-all and end-all of the writing profession, as if they had more understanding of writing or of how the world spins around than you or I have. Remember that there are agents (and editors of course, but first, agents) who allow 'the huge monk' or 'the fact that' to go into print. While I personally would not write a work off because of these two lapses in judgment, I would expect, require and demand a capable agent to work with the writer in order to ensure that s/he becomes a better one. By the same token, an agent should be willing to receive new submissions, never too busy for a new proposal. This would equate to being too busy to expand one's horizons, to learn about new trends and perspectives; it would equate to a refusal for personal growth that I, as a person, would never be able to live with. I certainly would have little faith in an agent who can live with the refusal of intellectual stimulation and curiosity.

I do not operate under the ill-advised supposition that there is a lot of talent out there. Actually, there is not. There is an awful lot of trash piled high on agents' desks. But while there is not a lot of talent from the writers' side, I can tell you there is even less talent from the agents' one. Out of the seventy I should tackle for my work of non-fiction there are probably five or less who could take it on and successfully land a deal for it. Whatever you do, do not let your work and your self-respect be crushed into doubtful resignation by an agent's rejection that indicates s/he cannot distinguish a letter from a proposal or fiction from non-fiction. To elevate such a person above yourself would pay a disservice to intellectual development at large. If you are the writer whose output needs a lot of re-work, by all means re-work it until you're at the stage of being able to suss yourself by yourself.

In his ebook about the query letter (which I cannot recommend enough, although I would advise you, as a writer, to know the difference between 'it's' and 'its'), agent Noah Lukeman writes that 'Writers will think of — and try — anything, and for that, I salute them. I salute their creativity, their ingenuity, their energy, and most of all, their optimism'. It seems a good time to salute agents. I salute their ignorance, their thoughtlessness, their incompetence and, most of all, their self-importance.
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