Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Good Advice to Bad Agents

     If you're a serious writer like me, then you've already been to countless literary agent websites. And if you've been to more than two or three, you'll click the backspace button with the growing uneasy feeling that, while they don't look alike, they all begin to sound alike.
     British literary agents, as is typical of the British, tend to be more civil and polite in their submissions pages. However, their American analogs across the pond tend to be insufferably arch, arrogant and sound as if they're ready to reject your next brilliant opus completely out of hand just for your using the wrong font or the wrong value (Not really an exaggeration, as some are so exacting in their specifications that they're impossible to meet).
     After they go on and on about their personal histories ("It all started in a little brownstone in Manhattan's Upper West Side in 1956..."), which no author really gives a flying fuck about, they then start in on what they expect, how selective they are (Like any literary agent is going to brag about representing pulp fiction and subpar work?). They come off as sounding like that Marine recruiter who'd spoken first at a banquet (because he thought speaking first instead of last was a place of honor on the roster, without realizing the audience tends to remember the last guy the most). During his speech, according to my father, the Air Force's representative, the Marine came out and said, "You think you're good enough for the Marine Corps? Well, I don't think you are!"
     This is exactly what literary agents come across as sounding like. If they haven't already slammed their gilded doors in our faces and pulled up the drawbridge to the unwashed masses of the unrepresented, they always seem thatclose to saying outright, "So, you think you're good enough to approach this agency? Impress me, peasant. But I wouldn't, if I were you because you need me a fuck of a lot more than I need you." Which they actually believe with all their black little hearts.
     As you read their submission guidelines, you can practically hear the arrogant sniffing and snuffling between the lines as they archly try to convince you who's really in charge (IOW, the guy making just 15%).
     Essentially, like Republicans, they never admit to wrongdoing or to being at fault for anything. Their decisions are inviolate, unimpeachable, beyond any appeals process short of appealing to another brain-dead agent within the same agency. That doesn't mean, however, they're infallible. Far from it.
     I've sent out what must be, by now, close to 250 queries ranging from just cover letters to proposals consisting of a synopsis and the first 50 pages. Some agencies have been hit as many as three times in rapid succession but I've mainly restricted myself, after countless hours of research into hundreds of agencies in four different countries on two different continents. That means well over 200 agencies are currently mulling Tatterdemalion.
     And after all this research, and the rude, ignorant rejections that have begun trickling in, sometimes as many as six a day, I've made a mental note of all the things I've seen and read that I don't like.
     Take today, for instance: I got a form rejection from some twit who started off the boilerplate with, "Dear Crawford..." I fired off a response that said, ver batim, "Dear Grimm, Next time, try using a prefix so you don't come off as looking more jaded and arrogant than you already are. Crawford." If an agent cannot even hide their contempt for you long enough to add the prefix "Mr." before sending out a form rejection, then that is an agent you plainly don't want or need in your life.
     I've had agents tell me that they no longer accept queries (such as another today) when the tracking website that serves in lieu of an actual website said they were still taking submissions or that they didn't represent my genre. If you change your guidelines and focus, then update your website or advise the tracking websites listing you on them. We're not fucking mind readers.
     The rejections that make me the craziest are the four word ones like the one I got yesterday that curtly say, "Sorry, not for us." This, after getting a personalized query letter free of all spelling, grammatical and punctuational errors and providing exactly the amount of sample material, if any, they request. Their fallback response is, "We get so many submissions a week, whine, whine". To which my answer is, "Hire some more unpaid interns. You don't get to whine about how busy you are when you hung out your own agent shingle then get to cherry-pick who gets an actual response and who gets an irritated, disinterested grunt."
     Another is website design. Without naming specific examples (although I could), I came across one website by a powerful literary agent whose entire site was, no shit, about 90% white space, consisting almost entirely of two useless pictures of NYC and a clip art of a pencil that looked as if it was about to impale you in the eye. And I cannot even tell you how many websites I've been to where the agents or web designers thought it would be a corking good idea to superimpose pale grey text over a white background.
     If you want people to adhere to guidelines for the common good, then provide some fucking submission guidelines. I've been to sites that gave no agents' names whatsoever, despite the fact that getting "Dear Agent" letters drives agents as crazy as "Dear Author" letters make us. I shouldn't need to go to another site just to find a contact name and concrete submission guidelines.
     Agents also archly tell you both on their websites and in their automated response emails (if they use them) that if they "don't get back to you within 2-12 weeks, then that means we didn't even think enough of you and your dreams to tell you to eat shit and die."
     Again: You are the hired help. How dare you treat prospective clients in such a rude fashion? How do you think it would go over if an author was inundated with dozens of offers and chose to ignore all but one? Put yourself in our place, if you can think for a nanosecond outside your solipsistic sociopathy.
     One major way in which American lit agents differ from their colleagues across the pond is that they still seem blissfully unaware that anti-virus software exists. Although a very few agents are timidly sticking up their haze snouts and announcing they're now taking email attachments, the majority of US agents still insist that all material be pasted in the body of the email. This is a bad idea as, #1, shitty email clients like Yahoo tend to truncate long emails containing 30-50 pages of sample chapters and, #2, emails that long can easily get strained out in their spam or bozo filters. But American literary agents still suspect all writers are vindictive cyber-terrorists who are out to give them viruses. That's how much they loathe and distrust us.
     UK literary agents are more savvy and many of them actually insist on email attachments which almost universally ask for what is now a standard first three chapters or 50 pages, so they can make an informed decision. US agents are so arrogant in their own expertise and abilities to smell a rat or a winner a growing number insist on just a query letter no more than a couple of paragraphs. If you can't hook them without them reading a single word of your outline let alone your book, then the fault rests with you. Or so they'll have you think.
     Or, as "Dear Crawford" Katie Grimm said, "The concept didn't grab me." Well, if the concept of Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, Arthur Conan-Doyle and Sigmund Freud chasing Jack the Ripper doesn't grab you then you seriously need to get the fuck out of the business.
     Another pet peeve of mine is one that spans the Atlantic. More and more literary agents, like children begging to open their presents on Christmas Eve, want to know how the story turns out without making the slightest effort to read it. Sorry, it doesn't work that way. You want to know how the book ends? Read it. Make the time. A literary agent's job is to read books. Stop cutting corners and making ignorant snap decisions based on little to nothing. A generation ago, publishers decided they didn't feel like reading manuscripts in the slush pile either, and look how marvelously that's worked out for the American publishing trade < /sarcasm>. (Hint: Agents are supposed to pick up where editors left off 30-35 years ago.)
     More and more, we're hearing editors, agents and authors alike all saying in a bad chorus that "You need an agent these days to get a publishing contract and this is why..." but my research of late has revealed to me a growing number of agents both here and abroad that refuse to read anything unless it's sent through invitation or a referral.
     If there's a more self-interested, useless piece of shit on God's Green earth outside of the Beltway that isn't a literary agent, it's a published author. Authors, by and large, are themselves so arch and arrogant they'll actually unfollow you on Twitter and elsewhere for even daring to ask if they could put in a good word or a referral to their agent. They will never read your work to see if you're the real deal because they're too busy pimping or writing their own books.
     And many authors simply don't have the money to go to the annual Frankfurt Book Fair or to any other (involving air fare, accommodations, meals, gratuities, registration fees, etc) so there goes the myth of working by invitation. So when Sterling Lord Our God Literistic (Yes, they actually coined the word "literistic") says they don't accept unsolicited submissions, take it from me: They literally looked down their nose on you and sniffed as they did so.
     Essentially, the zeitgeist tells us we need an agent before getting a publishing contract although more and more agencies are telling us we can't get their services without a publishing history. Which means unless you began your career back when MC Hammer was making a fool of himself in his parachute pants, you stand no chance of getting officially recognized. The trends in self-publishing today are still finding ways to keep literary agents between the hashmarks no matter how the technology develops.
     But, as the American consumer was fed up with corporations to the point of starting Occupy Wall Street in virtually every major city in virtually every state, eventually writers will tire of being treated like second-class citizens by disinterested scum who are deluded enough to think the person making 15% is actually the one in charge. Eventually, we'll rebel against these parasites and, hopefully, during my lifetime literary agents will become as irrelevant as buggy whips and saddle soap.
     Until then, heed these words and be thou warned.


At March 26, 2014 at 5:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi JP,
I understand your frustration, but you must realize the offhand rejections are not because you're a lousy writer. I'm just guessing, but publishing a book seems to be as impossible as selling a song. No artist, producer, label or publishing company will accept unsolicited material, and if you are lucky enough to get a request, it goes to a 3rd party screener first. Too much exposure to copyright litigation. "You copied that 4 bar melody from an unsolicited 8 track demo I sent your company back in 1969".
Anyway, don't forget what the good doctor says, "a quitter never wins and a winner don't never quit".

good luck,
Mike in Moo Hampshire

At March 26, 2014 at 5:33 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

"a quitter never wins and a winner don't never quit"

I'm assuming that doesn't apply to Sarah Palin and her two book deals.

At March 27, 2014 at 10:03 PM, Blogger MJ said...

Dude, right wing "books" aren't what the normal reading public calls books - they are fund raising campaigns.

At March 27, 2014 at 10:25 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

They still get literary agents, they still get book deals and I'm still getting form rejections from flunkies.


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