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Absurdly Long Rant On Topic You Don't Care About

So, this literary agent has a blog, and on his blog he holds a contest. Pick the best first page of a manuscript. So being the fun-loving guy (asshole) I am, I have to submit a page, hoping for comic mayhem to ensue. The agent doesn't know that I have replaced the usual aspiring-author first page with Folger's crystals.

I submitted the first page of GONE. In the industry parlance, GONE was a "major deal." For those of you who don't speak Cryptic, the jargon for describing deals goes like this, in descending order:

1) Major Deal
2) Significant Deal
3) Not Bad Deal
4) Beats a Sharp Stick Deal
5) Dude, I Hope You Got a Reach-around Deal

Anyway, there were something like 600 entries, and a handful were chosen as finalists. And to my great relief, my entry was not among the chosen. Had it been, I'd pretty much be screwed out of a chance to tweak the agentocracy.

And now, a pause for backstory. Imagine that I am stroking my chin thoughtfully and gazing at the roaring fire while the camera goes soft focus. Or I guess I could just stick it all in block quotes:

I've been through six agents in 18 years as a writer.

First was a woman who repped our Harlequin crap, back in 1989. Swore she'd get us a good deal. Got us the standard advance. Hey, surprise! Then she was so slow getting manuscripts considered we decided we'd never make a living. We dropped her and we bailed out on Harlequin. Thank God. It was awful work. I'd have needed a smack habit to get through it.

We established our ghostwriting thing (Sweet Valley Twins, Girl Talk) on our own, then brought in an agent who was so out of it he kept asking whether our names could be on the cover in lieu of Francine Pascal. He didn't grasp the basics. But he grasped 15%. (Later, of course, we had ghosts writing under our name, so turn-about, etc.... But the point is that on agents we were 0 for 2.)

Agent #3, long story short, had a problem deciding whether she worked for us or for the packager we were ghosting for. So bye bye agent #3.

Then we sold a hit series over-the-transom, on our own. We were still involved with Agent #3, and she was out on pregnancy leave. We wrote the pitch, we mailed it, we got the offer. On our own. No help from agent #3, and incidentally, we could not have been more relieved to have an excuse to bypass her. (We still ended up, out of my wife's misplaced sense of feminist-pregnancy-sisterhood solidarity, cutting the agent in for 10 books.)

So at this point we -- Katherine and I were still writing together at this point -- were at about 150 books, (maybe 35 million units all told,) only two of those books actually sold by agents as opposed to either over-the-transom pitches by us, or continuations of existing relationships. And no deals improved by agenting, although agents managed to take a piece of maybe 40 or 50 books.

We retire for a time. We do various stupid things to waste time and money. Then I write an adult novel on spec and go agent-shopping.

Agent #4 I met at a book thing in California. Loved my book. Loved it. Agreed to rep me. Three days later the guy has no idea who I was. So . . .

Agent #5 was a heavy-hitter. Loves it, loves it, I remind him of someone, I can't remember who. Promises, promises, blah, blah, blah, hey what's this about a kid series you're talking about, that sounds interesting. No submissions, six months wasted. Six months of my life, (and at my age, how much time to I have to waste?) and not one submission. Amicable split. If by amicable you mean me in a cold fury.

I shelved the adult novel, having become enamored of my new project. (Attention span measured in . . . sorry, what were we talking about?)

Agent #6 was someone I knew in another context, but well-established. I ran GONE past her. She told me to age the 13 year-old characters up to 18 and cut the length by 50%. No answer on what market the results would sell to. I actually asked, "So, where does this go when I do all that?" No clue.

So I ignored her and went over-the-transom to people I knew I could pitch in kidlit. 5 submissions, 4 expressions of interest, quick sale for my asking price to the exactly right publisher.

So. To summarize. 99% of my career successes have been either without agents or despite agents.

Now, I have a publishing lawyer. Him I trust.

I'm not dissing agents as a group. (Well . . .) Maybe I've just had very bad luck. But thus far agents have been a major net financial loss. Lets say at least half a million dollars in round numbers. Money I might as well have burned. I mean that literally. In fact, given the way agents have poisoned my relationships with editors and wasted my (theoretically valuable) time, I would have been better off burning the money.

And if I had listened to the last agent? I'd have destroyed a book series that looks set to keep me in Macallan and Macanudos.

End flashback. Snap back to the present day:

So, anyway, over at the agent's blog I do the reveal. I write an anonymous post (I was honestly just trying to avoid looking like I was poaching his readership) telling Agent Dude that he missed the submission that would have made him a hero at his agency had he spotted it. (You know, when it was for sale. In our imaginary, alternative time line.)

The agent tells me that's not the point, it's not really his job to spot every good or potentially lucrative first page. I respond with something like, "Um . . . yes, that is your job." So he deletes my remarks and th remarks of the others who attack me.

The thing is, writers work for months or years on a manuscript. Then, with their little hearts in their mouths they send off a cover letter and maybe a few pages. To an agent. The agent skims the cover letter and glances at the first page. On that basis the writer either moves to the next stage of the game, or goes home to cry bitter tears. (After a 12 week delay, of course.)

It's an exquisite bit of torture. Those of you who aren't writers, imagine that you do your regular job for, let's say, six months. At the end of six months you have 30 second's of your boss' time, during which you have to convince him that you should be paid for the time you just put in. And not just convince him that you should be paid, but that you are more worthy than the next 200 employees in your same situation. If you don't handle your 30 seconds right, you don't get paid. At all.

And here's the thing: because the submission system is clogged with hundreds of thousands of submissions, 99% from people who have no chance of ever getting a paycheck, the publishers have eliminated the slush pile and outsourced the job entirely to agents. Unfortunately agents ain't necessarily that bright. I'd much rather take my chances with an actual editor than an agent.

Which brings us to my modest proposal: we eat the agents. Kidding. Just a little Swiftian reference there. I actually do have a proposal, but under the time-warp rules of blogging it will appear to appear before this post which I actually wrote first.

I know: freaky.

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“Absurdly Long Rant On Topic You Don't Care About”

  1. Blogger Melinda Says:

    Thanks for an informative post.

    Apparently, I've missed my calling. I should have been a literary agent having my maternity leave underwritten by 10 books I didn't sell.

  2. Anonymous Anonymous Says:

    Hello, Michael! I missed seeing the hoo-ha on Nathan's blog, and I wish I hadn't, but today I was busy keeping my elderly mother from dwelling on depressing things (while cleaning house.) I think you're right--agents are NOT the same as editors, and I believe they are missing a good number of books that the reading audience would enjoy and that editors would love to publish.

    Hey! If one of your readers is an editor who buys YA fiction, let's post the first page of MY YA novel, a dark urban fantasy! I guarantee I like it better than any of the six "winners" of the blog contest. (Two of them were about funerals, yuck, and one was very distancing and opened similarly to _Gone With the Wind_ ["Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were"--compare to the opening of his #2 winner!] without the charm. The sixth one, the SF one, has been said to be like "_The Beans of Egypt, Maine_ in outer space.") I could not tell what it was that these entries had that was so special as to make them be picked out of that HUGE pool. I preferred several of the unremarked-upon entries. What do you think was the appeal of these openings? I asked my journal readers, but they couldn't care less (actually, they just didn't know.)

    More to the point, who can tell how the whole book would be by just looking at the toenail (to use his own analogy)? Agents have requested my full manuscripts based on my partials and STILL have come back with, "Didn't love it enough," and even "Won't sell in this market." Some books have sagging middles. Sometimes the endings don't satisfy. You can never tell which books will be keepers just from the first page.

    So sorry to hear about your agent difficulties. I'm going to run out to B&N tomorrow and buy one of your books. Visit my journal/weblog at shalanna.livejournal.com for more ranting. *GRIN*

  3. Blogger David Says:

    Shit. Now, I give up. For real.

  4. Blogger siamese Says:

    Finally someone speaks the truth! You would think with all the crap that is being picked up it wouldn't be a full time job to get your work in the right hands. I have been at it for just over four years and counting. No agent and a couple of whiffs of interest. Check my blog.