Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I Want to be a Literary Agent

Don't laugh. Hear me out.

Starting up my own literary agency is an idea that's flitted across my frontal lobe several times before I discarded it for the next shiny object or confection or puppy I see. But today I've been giving it some serious thought for the first time. And getting in the game as an agent is not as far-fetched as it sounds when you consider how many countless hundreds of hours of research I've done on agents over the past two decades.

First off, it would take care of the problem of access. With one exception (Farrar Strauss Giroux), all major publishers had a generation ago locked their doors to both published and "prepublished" authors when they began to implement a pernicious, collusive agreement with literary agencies. Essentially, it consisted of, "Take over our slush piles, do it for free and in return, should you find a gem, you can set your own rates and we'll make sure no author gets their foot in the door without being represented by you."

Not knowing what they were letting themselves in for, literary agents jumped with the kind of alacrity afforded only by sheer, self-interested greed at the chance to get in the game. Now, for the first time, literary agents were longer optional: They were mandatory.

But as I said, they didn't know what they were getting into. Not realizing how many writers and wouldbe writers are out there, when word spread that you had to get an agent to get a publishing contract, they began getting inundated with queries, synopses and partial to full manuscripts. Most any literary agency today will tell you that they receive upwards of 300-400 submissions per week. This, of course, is their excuse to send out the dreaded boilerplate rejection letter that begins with the generic greeting of, "Dear Writer" or "Dear Author."

Then, the more successful literary agencies began closing their doors one by one to unpublished writers and leaving out contact information on their websites. When an agent who makes 15% on a stable of authors that can run in the dozens, if not over 100... Well, that kind of pelf buys a lot of arrogance and ego and you can afford to close your doors to the unwashed rabble unless they have a publishing history or an "in" they can use to cheat to the top of the slush pile.

Since late last week, in my spare time, I've been sending out a long cover letter plus a synopsis, cover art and the prologue of my latest novel to publishers, a verboten tactic that's known as "going over the transom." Publishers by and large think that if you're talented and have a quality, completed manuscript to sell, then you should have no problem getting an agent, that they'll eventually hear from you through "proper channels."

But such a short-sighted view is, at best, naïve and, at worst, career-killing. Literary agents by and large generally represent, by their own dubious admission, only that work that makes them have daisy chains of orgasms, dance on air and make them shit rainbows. In other words, to listen to the typical literary agent, it's "such a subjective business" that they wouldn't have a prayer of selling a property unless they were wildly, madly, impetuously, head over heels and helplessly in love with it.

Gee, and we were all told that true love only comes around once in a lifetime and that's if we're lucky.

So, to get back to my point of access, it didn't surprise me that my kick-ass proposal and long, spot-on letter railing about the evils, inconsistencies and unfairness of the literary representation business met without a single rejoinder (save for a terse email from the recently-retired Random House legend Bob Loomis who wrote, "Fortunately, I'm retired.").

Literary agencies, as with any other profession, have to work their way up the food chain and that starts with knowing who's who in the publishing business, which I do. Hell, some of the editors and executives still around today read my own material when I had an agent myself 16 years ago (Jamie Raab, Kate Miciak, etc). You start with editorial assistants, then assistant editors, then acquisitions editors, working your way up to VPs, EVPs, publishers and other executives.

If access is predicated on being fronted by a literary agency, then what's to stop me from beginning my own? Nothing. I already know some of the business side of publishing and what to watch out for, such as basket accounting (A dirty trick hardly used by publishers, anymore. It's basically a legal way to siphon royalties from a bestseller to help prop up a bad seller. And, with about 90% of published titles losing money, the temptation is always there.).

I know enough not to sign away all rights. You negotiate those separately like you would part out an derelict car for the maximum return.

Best of all, along with manufacturing access, it would be a way to effect change from within the system. The reason I loathe literary agencies as much as I do and why I'd long ago given up on them is because of the way they treat me and other talented authors. In my non-political online life, I get friended and followed by them and they say my thoughts on agencies perfectly resonate with their own experiences so I know I'm not making this up or just being petulant. Agents are self-absorbed, avaricious, career-driven, sociopathic asswipes, period.

We keep both them and publishers in business and I for one do not feel that we have to earn even an iota of respect from these people aside from what our talent should already earn us. If I had an agency, I'd make sure everyone got a personal response and perhaps even a reason why their property didn't pass muster. But there would be none of this, "If you don't hear from us in 6-8 weeks, that's our way of telling you to eat shit and die. Do not call or write to follow up or we'll send black helicopters to your house." In other words, my agency would treat you like a human being whether you're any good or if you're not qualified to write the daily deli specials on a Kroger's whiteboard.

Plus, if I ran a literary agency, I'd still try to sell properties that are simply good on their own merits even if they didn't particularly strike my fancy. Good is good and one shouldn't inject their pet biases so deeply into the equation that selling it shouldn't depend on some dubious schoolgirl crush on it.

Plus, I've got sales experience and I was good at it. Being a writer who's been in the trenches for close to 20 years, I know some of the ins and outs, know the difference between being AAR registered and not being AAR registered (which is, theoretically, none) and I know how to read a manuscript. Hell, 13 years ago, I ran into Alex Kava on a writer's message board and knew even before her agent Phillip Spitzer sold A Perfect Evil and her next two books to Mira that it would be a bestseller.

A lot of former editors become agents (and vice versa). Some agents even dabble in writing. But I can't think of a fulltime writer who ever came out of the cold to become an agent. And what better person to have as an agent than someone who'll treat you like an intelligent human being and someone who's really a writer's advocate and not just some self-interested hustler trying to con 15% out of an editor? And, were I to take on an associate agent, s/he could represent my books, which would permanently take care of the access problem (this collusive agreement in using one's own agency is done all the time.).

So while I'm mulling and investigating this further, if you have the Great American Novel tucked away in your underwear drawer, I'd like to hear about it.


At June 12, 2012 at 10:03 PM, Blogger Reamus said...

You can sign me up! Got rights to two at the moment....

At June 12, 2012 at 10:47 PM, Anonymous Comrade Rutherford said...

How ironic. The publishers cut off access to everyone except a handful of agents who are their friends. And in turn the agents cut off access to all writers except a few that are their friends, or are recommended by their friends.

All this is due to the corporate takeover of publishing, just as they took over the movie business. Nowawdays no movie can get distributed unless it sticks closely to a pre-determined formula that the marketing department has focus-grouped to death.

Just like book publishing, there are a lot of low-budget movies that get made every year and never get an audience because no studio will dare touch it because the marketing department can't compartmentalize it into a preset pigeonhole.

So we get tons of crappy books and tons of crappy movies, almost all of which suck. The publishers and studios scratch their heads wondering why no one wants to read/see the crap they put out. And in response they tighten the entry ports even more to make sure nothing of quality ever gets through.

I think you are on to something, JP. Don't start with your own material (unless you change the author's name), because that will just seem like a vanity project. But if you get a half dozen of great manuscripts, shop them to the people you know.

At June 13, 2012 at 9:59 AM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

Mike: Let me ask around. Right now, this is just in the feasibility study stage. First, I have to find out how different an agent's proposal to a publisher is than a writer's is to an agent. Secondly, I have to find out how to begin establishing legitimacy to hedge against being ignored by publishers like I already am. Then once I learn that, I can go forward and begin registering the agency with various trade publications.

Robin: Of course I wouldn't start with my own work. That would kind of defeat the purpose and I would think a vanity gimmick like that's already been tried by dozens if not hundreds of other authors desperate for attention.

At June 13, 2012 at 11:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm usually here for the political blogging but have to admit your take on the publishing world is just fascinating. I'm currently in a small novel-writing group and it's been an issue we've all tossed back and forth a few times, what the hell do we do with our novel once we finish it? One of our members is a journalist and has some connections in the publishing world but the rest of us are kind of out of luck in that respect. If you do end up taking the plunge I hope you won't mind if I point folks here.

At June 13, 2012 at 11:24 AM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

No, why would I mind? Every agent (unless they're bloated and jaded like some Wall St moguls I can think of) should be eager to read new talent, especially if it is talent and not merely presumed.

But right now I'm still in the feasibility stage of it all and am not even thinking of taking on clients until I convince myself I can make a serious go of this.

I'd gladly look at nonfiction but my heart and soul and greatest interest would be fiction, especially thrillers. I write as a reader (only with a good deal more talent) and I'd be a writer's/reader's agent. I tend to write the kind of books I'd love to see written but don't. I'd be that type of agent, pitching and repping books I'd love to see published.


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