Field Guide for the Pursuit of the Elusive North American Literary Agent — Part Two

        (Part Two — Who You Know & What You do)

I’ve leaned heavily upon friends at this point of the search. “Am I doing the right thing?” and “Who the hell would want to represent me?” are two of my more common questions I ask. Fortunately, my friends usually remind me that agents only get paid if the author gets paid, and theoretically they should really want to represent me due to the aforementioned habit of “getting paid.”

One of the more interesting things I’ve noticed is the recommendations coming from friends for different agents. “So-and-so is a terrific agent” and “Have you heard of so-and-so?” It’s both helpful and not, but for the same reason: the agent doesn’t know me from Adam. Not yet, in any case, because I am about to drop a few hundred enquiries in the coming days.

Don’t ever think that a carpet bombing run is ever ineffectual.

I’ve visited dozens of literary agencies already in the short amount of time I’ve been hunting that elusive litterae procurator americana and so far have noticed that every single agency wants something slightly different. Be it a query letter and outline, a small sample (50 pages), or simply a biography and your backlog, the diffuse yet exacting nature of the wants of the literary agent are enough to drive any author bonkers. I understand that an agency can ask for formatting and samples and whatever else they like in order to gauge the skill and competence of the writer submitting, but is it too much to ask for some sort of uniformity amongst you, agents? Either font, format, file type… something. I have 17 different versions of the same novel because 17 different literary agencies want to see it 17 different ways.

Then there are the agents who still want submissions through the mail. No, not email. USPS mail. You know, snail mail? Yeah, that. It’s still a thing and a shockingly high number of agencies still prefer it over email.

(Those houses? Going to go out on a limb here and say that those houses are not going to mesh well with me, and since I’m not the one to waste paper, I probably won’t be submitting anything to them.)

Part of this search is about just knowing yourself. Knowing what you are like, and what you need to best further your own career. That’s what this is about. If you only want to see your name in print and not make a career out of this business, then that’s fine. You don’t need an agent to do that. Unless you’re gunning for the larger publishing houses, you really don’t need an agent at all. Heck, I’d recommend against getting one, simply because it is a loss of 10% or your money if you’re just doing it because.  Why give away your money if you have no need of an agent? Not a want, but a need?

Okay, gotta be careful here. Litterae procurator americana is easily spooked and the hunt has barely begun.

9 Comments

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9 responses to “Field Guide for the Pursuit of the Elusive North American Literary Agent — Part Two

  1. Eh … I’ll wait for them to come to me. But it’s a good thing that I’m not holding my breath on that.

  2. I’m still unimpressed with a business model that requires me, the customer, to run after them, jump through hoops of fire, and beg them to take my money.

    Not really much for hoop jumping these days.

  3. Question: How do you find an agent who is actually qualified to give advice on complex legal documents? Every publishing contract is just that.

    I have been amazed for many years that agents don’t wind up in prison for practising law without a licence. (Link leads to example with gory details.)

    • I’ve heard rumors of one agent that is actually an IP lawyer as well as an agent, but that was several years ago and an “I heard from [name] that his writing partner’s agent . . .” sort of thing.

  4. TRX

    > 10%

    Back in the ’80s and ’90s, the agents I contacted mostly wanted 15%, except for one who wanted 17%. I managed to sell a couple of books anyway, though one was a British publisher who insisted the manuscript be printed out and sent to them by airmail…

    The magazine market seemed to mostly use CompuServe, and almost all of the ones I dealt with wanted submissions to be in WordPerfect format. I wasn’t interested in spending substantially more than they were paying just so they could avoid importing plain ASCII text…

    • Josh Griffing

      Compuserve? WordPerfect? You bring back memories! I don’t think I’ve regularly used WordPerfect since the eleventh grade, when it was WP 6.0 (MS-DOS GUI and all!) in the late ’90s. The only major use I made of any WP version thereafter was when I needed my first MS translated into PDF for Outskirts Press in 2006, and my WP install (I forget the version) was cheaper than MS Office and did what MS Word could not then do— export a PDF file, although all of my custom fonts were lost in the translation. Darn it.