On literary agents

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On This Sunday's Pop-Ups...

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Apr 19, 2018
USA
Are there differences in the way one deals with agents in the UK and the US? My experience here (US) is that multiple submissions are expected. I recently sent out three dozen queries for a new book (email is preferred. I had replies from five of them within a week. (The said no.)

Some time ag I posted this on my blog:

"Literary agents are quasi-mythical creatures, more often spoken of than seen, said to inhabit the downtown labyrinths of New York, Los Angeles, and a few other major metropolitan centers. Writers have been known to spend endless hours trying to capture one.

This is because, for fiction writers especially, agents are a virtual necessity if you want a trade publisher to read, let alone publish your book. For non-fiction writers, working through an agent can be very helpful but is not an absolute necessity.

If you want an agent to represent you, there are three things you must understand:

1. What a good agent does
2. Why he does it
3. And how, given those facts, you an contrive to get an agent's attention and enter into a mutually profitable relationship.

An agent, contrary to popular belief, cannot afford to work virtually pro bono for writers whose books—even some very good books—have little chance of success in the market place.

An agent may or may not love your book, love the literary world, or even love writers. But like you, the agent has a mortgage payment and a car payment, kids to send to school, doctor bills, braces, and all the onerous expenses that the rest of us have. Except that the agent lives in New York or maybe Los Angeles, so his bills are even higher than ours. If he does not bring home the bacon—and fairly large slabs of it at that—he is soon languishing in the financial doldrums.

Agenting is not a business for the weak of heart. One who engages in it has little time to waste in unproductive effort. An agent lives by his wits. He is not salaried, has no company retirement fund, no sick leave, no paid-for hospitalization. He banks on two things, and two things only, to pay his bills:

1. His ability to pick from the many thousands of books submitted to his agency each year those few that he thinks he can sell, and . . .

2. His intimate knowledge of the publishing business, of who is looking for what, of the current needs of each of as many publishing houses as he can gather information about. The agent must choose books that not only get published but sell in large numbers after they are published. That is because an agent lives by commissions alone, getting (usually) fifteen percent of the royalties that the author earns. If the author earns little or nothing, the agent also earns little or nothing.

So write a book that an agent can make money on. Little else will work."
 
I agree with everything that you say, Tom. I sometimes think that it would be better if literary agents were called sales representatives, which is ultimately their function.

Knowing what is saleable is a vast imponderable, though it's easy to predict some future trends—how long before there's a flood of novels about a mad President, who may have been the puppet of an opposing power, a useful idiot?

I've known many an unknown painter, actor and musician who were heaps better than commercially successful artists. The same situation applies to authors, of course, and I've been appalled by the quality of writing in some best-selling books. As I observed in The Biggest Fallacy About Publishing, it doesn't matter that much if you've written a brilliant story, which you've edited until it gleams: what matters is if someone who knows the publishing business thinks it is a product that can be sold.
 
I've tended to chase freshly-promoted agents who are building a list of clients, as they'll be more open-minded and eager—the downside being that they may also be headstrong through lacking experience. It's one the most mind-numbing activities in the world, but stalking agents online, looking at their social media posts often gives you more of an idea about what they're interested in and what type of stories they're looking for, than their profile on their employer's website—which is rarely updated.
 
Keep an aya on the #MSWL on Twitter, the more dynamic agents often tweet what they're looking for. At the moment it appears to be Vampires :eek:
 
But, do vampires floss? And what flavour?

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@Kitty

But ... your vehement outrage got me curious ... So I went to their website and put in the search word 'vampire'. A handful of agent names comes up. When I click on them, the first few want something with a dynamic akin to the friendship in Buffy. So, not necessarily vampires.

MSWL - Website

Then I went to twatter. I dont use twatter but that doesn't mean I don't know how. It looks like the vampire fever was started by Vicki Lame and has set off a fit of nostalgia. Vicki Lame is an editor at St. Martins Press. Whether these agents are serious about buying a vampire book or not I imagine depends on what it always depends on ... whether it's any good. Most of them seem to be reminiscing. Also interested in vampire books: John Cusick, Jennifer Udden, and Lauren Spieller. So, yeah. There are a few. But sometimes Lauren Spieller gets in the mood for dog pics and will post something on twatter to get them. Although, the world isn't short dog pics any more than it is vampire novels.

Paying attention to twatter seems like it would work best if you already had a vampire novel, not as a means of planning what you write. Give it a second and they'll be twatting about other interests. They have imaginations and will twat.

Two of the agents who want vampire novels are also writers who've recently published. I think it's interesting because there seems to be more overlap, more crossover.
 
Vehement outrage MDR

But imagine if it really was a joke!! Agents asking for the maddest thing they can think of and then waiting to see if anyone has actually written it!!!!
 
Vehement outrage

But imagine if it really was a joke!! Agents asking for the maddest thing they can think of and then waiting to see if anyone has actually written it!!!!

Yeah. Well. More the fools us for sacrificing ourselves to the whims of other people.

It is a joke Kitty. It's very much a joke.

But since we've decided to take this seriously rather than as the obvious joke it is, does 24 tweets with the word vampire in them, several of them retweets, several of them using the word vampire more than once, and the participation of three or four agents/editors constitute a trend? I don't think so. It seriously might be a good idea if we (the collective general we) looked at what we were saying before we said it.
 
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