Monday, January 28, 2008

On Literary Agents

If in the world of writing you are a relative nobody, as I am, you are familiar with the pas de deux of dealing with agents. It's a frustrating game, because the agent holds all the cards despite the fact that it is your work that is at the center of discussion. When I was shopping Bleeding Red I had an agent for a while. At first she was enthusiastic and supportive. And then she discovered that some very big names were also publishing books on the Red Sox, and she became distant and silent. Before long, the relationship ended -- she called it off, but only after I had threatened to do so. My view is that what seemed like an easy sell and thus quick profit turned into work for her. Since then I have had tentative forays with agents, but it has usually gone nowhere, or where it has gone somewhere it has been with someone who seemed little more clued in to the world of publishing than I am. I anticipate flying solo for a while, as I'm not important enough to need an agent even if I'm self-important enough to want one.

All of these thoughts crossed my mind when I read Gina Barreca's fabulous post on literary agents at The Chronicle Review's blog Brainstorm. A generous excerpt:

Maybe it’s not impossible to get an agent who is responsive, responsible, intelligent, well-read, witty, and competent, even if you’re not selling a book that will immediately be made into a blockbuster Hollywood film. And maybe it’s not impossible for me to flap my arms and circle the moon.

Ask any writers — working authors, especially those known as “midlist,” meaning that they’ve sold books but have not had action-figures based on their characters — about their search for the perfect literary representative, and they will clutch you by the collar and, as their eyes narrow into gimlets, they’ll launch into a saga that makes the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” sound positively catchy.

You’ll hear versions of “Although I sent my manuscript to an agent recommended by a colleague and haven’t heard back from her in 27 months, I’m afraid to send a follow-up e-mail because I’ll sound too pushy”; “My agent said even though he’s never actually read anything I’ve sent him, he’s sure he can place something as soon as he gets around to it and that I’m a valuable member of his circle of authors”; “My agent told me she loved my book, just loved it, and that I shouldn’t take another contract for a different manuscript because this one was a sure-fire-winner until, oops, two months later she read the rest of my book and decided she wouldn’t be able to sell it after all and, umm, terribly sorry about that whole not-taking-the-other-contract thing.”

My favorite illustration of the relationship between writers and agents is as follows: After a difficult day a struggling writer returns to his neighborhood and is shocked to find a cadre of police and fire trucks surrounding the smoldering remains of his house. Explaining who he was he asks, “What happened?” “Well,” one of the officer’s says, “It seems that your agent came by your house earlier today and while he was here he attacked your wife, assaulted your children, beat your dog and burned your house to the ground.” The writer is struck speechless, his jaw hanging open in disbelief…. “My agent came to my house?”

Read the whole thing. Including the comments, where there are a couple of almost-but-not-quite plausible defenses of agents.

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