Friday, May 14, 2010

An Unnecessary Evil: Part One

"Dear Author: After careful consideration, we regretfully come to the conclusion that your submission doesn't meet our needs at this time. But thank you for thinking of Og Literary Agency and good luck in your future endeavors, etc. etc. etc."

The pre-published (as the landed literary gentry generously call us nowadays before sniggering up their cuff-linked and well-starched sleeves) who think that literary agents are necessary evils are increasingly becoming the most optimistic of us. I would submit that literary agencies in general are unnecessary evils that are ruining the publishing business.

Of course, those who have agents would readily spring to the defense of their particular agent but largely on the strength of their having followed a predatory hunch that their client could put some coin in their pockets. It's the most purely mercenary of relationships. The speed with which a writer gets his/her phone calls taken and the odds of being put on hold are directly proportionate to the amount of moolah they're bringing in to their literary agency. It would be amusing to ask for some honest feedback of what these now-represented but multiply-rejected authors thought of agents in general before getting picked up by one. But of course, an honest analysis would never be published because politics forbid telling the truth at all costs.

Yet if one could face palm every published author in the US today and do a Mr. Spock mind meld, you'd probably find that the majority of them came to the same conclusion that my most recent experiences with them had led me: That literary agents in general are the greediest and most solipsistic sociopaths this side of Wall Street and Capitol Hill. And generally they have a literary IQ hovering somewhere between the idiot and moron levels.

It wasn't until roughly a generation ago that literary agencies began becoming indispensable. Just as companies increasingly use temp agencies as their unpaid weeding out and vetting out process, publishers decided one by one that they no longer had the time or even the fortitude to deal with the ever-rising tide of writers and wouldbe writers.

Now, with one exception (Farrar, Strauss and Girioux), there is not one major publisher in the continental US that will even consider reading a synopsis if it isn't submitted by an agent. Through some bit of creeping sociopathy, publishers grew to loathe and despise dealing with writers so much they decided to put up another major stumbling block separating Us from Them. That stumbling block, of course, is the literary agent.

Before, when authors could still approach acquisitions editors and executives directly and get to keep 100% of their royalties, now one must get through the first gate, which is the literary agency, before one even has a chance of getting through the True Editorial Gate, which is the Publisher. Furthermore, one must now pay a minimum of 15% of their royalties to these people who treat us as if we're the hired help and they the boss and not vice versa.

As a consequence, this artificial indispensability, which looks more and more like a massive kickback scheme (many agents are former big time book editors, Bob Mecoy at Simon and Schuster being one of the latest examples), had created a class of literary super being and light-giver. In fact, one who's currently and regularly in the swim sees more and more agencies (and I'm not talking about the biggest, snootiest cocksuckers such as ICM, the Gersh Agency or William Morris but some of the smaller outfits) who won't accept any submissions whatsoever except from previously-published authors or work by referral only.

Yes, more and more, we're seeing "You can't get a book published unless you have an agent but you can't get an agent unless you have published a book." Captain John Yossarian is raining tears down from on high at the tribute.

OK, you may say, this is a capitalistic society and harried, low-paid editors have a right to make tons of pelf as agents and you'd be spot on correct. But here's the problem:

These guys are like the tax collectors of olde: They leech 15% here, 15% there from individuals in a client list that can number in the hundreds and pretty soon they wind up making more sheckles than most if not all of their authors. Money buys some pretty big egos and a sense of elitism to match. We're supposed to be grateful to these parasites that once upon a time used to be optional. This is because we're supposed to worship at the altar of literary agents with the legendary Swifty Lazar as their golden icon. Their expertise and wisdom is never supposed to be second-guessed or questioned while that of we the authors, the ones who actually, you know, write the fucking books that sustain our nation's literacy, get questioned all the time.

And unless you're some flavor of the day with a burnt-out light bulb for a brain, like Sarah Palin, Joe the Plumber or Karl Rove, to name just three recent examples, your chances of getting a fair hearing from an agent are roughly proportionate to Pat Buchanan being the Grand Marshal at a Gay Pride parade in Provincetown in a mesh shirt and short shorts.

And this self-centered, avowedly mercenary elitism has given rise to the form rejection letter and the most monstrous set of double standards. Let's talk about the so-called necessity of the form rejection letter:

"Please forgive this form letter" some of them begin although many of them don't even begin with that iota of mass-produced remorse, "but we get so many submissions in any given week that time forbids us making a personal reply to each one."

OK, fair enough, you may say, especially in light of the very true fact that many agencies get 300+ submissions a week. If they personally write to each and every one, no books would ever get sold and the publishing business would come to a grinding halt.

And there are some very good reasons why the rejection rate is about 98% at every literary agency. Many writers don't submit appropriately and send off their Christian novel to someone who represents only nonfiction or send their gay erotica novel to a Christian literary agency. Some people are so desperate to get into print, they've been known to shotgun 300 or more queries to virtually every agency without researching or vetting them for legitimacy. Some of them, like the aforementioned ghost-written Sarah Palin, are so addle-pated they can't string together two coherent consecutive words. Some of them actually resort to gimmicks like brightly-colored stationary to stand out or resort to outright bribery. They're the post-literate version of the talentless psychopaths you see in the first 4 weeks of every American Idol.

Those are the people who deserve the form rejection letters. They decided to break or disobey ground rules that have to be observed for the common good. They send out misspelled boilerplate cover letters beginning with "Dear Agent" and deserve all the disrespect they have coming to them. If I was an agent, I'd react in a hostile manner, too, or begin ignoring them outright.

But there are those of us who do our research, follow the rules, proofread, personalize our cover letters, observe submission guidelines and submit quality writing samples and get kicked in the teeth for our efforts and hard work. My experience is that 60-70% of my proposals get completely ignored while roughly 95% of the rejection letters I get are boilerplate.

What incentive is there to obey the rules if you're a good, talented or promising author and get treated the same as those who choose not to follow the rules?

More often than not, I'm finding that my personalized cover letters that clearly identify a specific agent get either ignored or answered with a form rejection letter by some flunky assistant I didn't even know existed. It's as if once the agent makes a rash judgment that we cannot put some cha-ching in their pocket, they no longer think we're worth the two seconds to send out the rejection with their own two well-manicured hands.

Because time forbids.

Well, here's my answer: Hire more agents. The more agents, the more properties you acquire, the more money your agency makes.

Or hire more interns to do the scut work. They are unpaid or work for a small stipend and there are, I'm sure, thousands of college students majoring or minoring in English who would love to intern at a top agency.

Or get the fuck out of the business entirely. If you set up ground rules that demand personalization, you do not get to bitch and moan about not having enough time to reciprocate in kind in a profession you chose to pursue.

All the time I read in agent listings pissings and moanings from agents who list among their clients from Hell those who do not respect what they do for them, what it takes to sell a book, the expertise that goes behind it. While I'm positive such authors exist, I and many like me are not among them. I know all too well what an agent does. In fact, I used to have an agent back in 1996 (more on that later).

Yet what you'll never see are agents who reach out and want to know what it's like on our side of the desk, to know what writers go through because agents are by necessity and by and large soulless sociopathic husks of humanity who do not care to know that we do what we do in our spare time while they do what they do professionally.

But it's true. Most agents are not writers (and I refuse to count among our tribe those who are published authors but had their works represented by others in their agency and used the cozy contacts in the publishing biz that were denied decades ago to the rest of us). They don't care to know that the 400,000+ new titles that come out every year were written between shifts at work, picking up the kids from school or band practice and visits to the dentist, vet, service center, supermarket, etc.

If we're lucky, we get to devote perhaps more than 1% of our day to actual writing and putting together query packages. Agents routinely get to devote up to 66% of their day to their chosen profession.

The form rejection letter and the imperious attitude that meets a writer second-guessing their judgment can also be psychologically devastating in a variety of ways. Beyond the obvious, the crushing weight of unrelieved rejection, is the doubt and uncertainty that's more effective than a hundred hours of the Chinese water torture.

With no explanation other than, "does not suit our needs at this time", one by necessity must begin to look inward and wonder what it is they did wrong. But that's when the imagination begins to feed on itself. "What did I do wrong?" It's the ultimate Zen riddle, one with no answer or one that's incomprehensible.

So you run through the list:

  • I personalized my query letter and perfectly spelled and punctuated everything. Check.
  • I submitted no more or less than what the agency had specified in their submissions policy. Check.
  • I tweaked my synopsis and sent out the best one I could muster and did not go over the word limit. Check.
  • I've tweaked the actual manuscript for years and know I've made it as good as can be. Check.

    Next thing you know, you're dangling from the end of a rope and following the route of Thomas Chatterton or John Kennedy Toole, with a note scrawled in your own blood saying "Goodbye, cruel world" pinned to your jizz-soaked pants.


    At May 14, 2010 at 7:12 PM, Blogger D. said...

    I fear I detect Burned Bridge in that essay.

    I hope your luck changes soon.

    At May 14, 2010 at 9:12 PM, Blogger Lanz said...

    Y'know, JP, the one thing that you can look to for consolation is that the internet is leading to the demise of such creatures as you describe. Publishing is becoming a self-defeating death spiral, largely for the reasons you outline. Same thing is happening to the music industry, tho for slightly different reasons. You can publish your first work yourself, on the web, for virtually no cost. You may even be able to get it distributed by Amazon on their Kindle eBook. You can grow a fanbase. Book publishing as we have known it for the last couple centuries is headed towards being a boutique business, as print-on-demand and electronic distribution make publishers irrelevant.
    In short, don't give up.

    At May 14, 2010 at 10:17 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...


    Even creatures as inherently stupid as agents publicly admit the market won't be the same in 10 years or less. I don't see Kindle catching on and replacing dead tree publication or books going completely out of style. I prefer to publish traditionally, between covers, on paper.

    People continue to read that way, too. Vanity or subsidy presses are no good because they usually involve lots of start up capital plus you have to sell them yourself. I'm a writer, not a salesman.


    I don't see lit agents reading my blog. Hell, they refuse to read my sample novel chapters. I say fuck every one of them. I'm tired of kissing their fat asses and getting farts in my face.

    At May 18, 2010 at 2:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


    have you considered non-traditional publishers? in the past 2-3 months, two different friends of mine have had their books released (on dead trees) by two different record labels who were both looking to diversify, or because they liked the stories/content.

    below are links to interviews with both of them. check 'em out if you want to step outisde the machine a little.


    At May 18, 2010 at 2:39 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

    Thanks for the tip. I'll certainly check it out.

    At July 2, 2010 at 11:01 AM, Anonymous Mary W Walters said...

    Thanks for reminding me to check out your blog. Yes. We're on the same wavelength! So is Dean Wesley Smith -- his site offers lots of good thoughts on the publishing industry today -- e.g.

    At July 2, 2010 at 11:11 AM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

    Perhaps this is a synecdoche, Mary, perhaps not but it's typical that my even more fiery condemnation of literary agents has received far, far fewer comments and hits than your post (and, yeah, I know yours has been been up for about 15 months, but, still- 4 original comments over such a span of time?).

    Then again, this is a political/social blog, and my readers generally don't give a shit about my ongoing war with lit agencies or temp agencies.

    It just astounds me me daily as to how few people "get" me and what I'm trying to say.


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