Thursday, October 12, 2006


Why Agents Must Feel The Love

A note from the comment section.

"I keep encountering agent and editor blogs and interviews where they state they personally have to fall in love with a book to pursue publishing it. Given there's only a few hundred people in these positions and I suspect they generally share the same educational and cultural backgrounds and interests, does this restrict what is being published? I'm not in a position to know - only to guess."

Oi. Okay.

Yes, it is true that it is best if an agent falls in love with an author's work. This is because so much of art, as you know, is subjective, and you and your agent are relying on a certain amount of trust and just plain "like" of each other to make it through the rough patches. And there will be rough patches.

It's sort of like when you have a fight with your partner--a real doozy--and at a certain point you and your partner ask yourselves: "Is it really worth it to work this financial/loyalty/sexual thing out?" And if the answer is, "Yes, because I love you," then you know you are with someone who is committed to your relationship. Your relationship with your agent has to be something like that.

I like to ask people in publishing how a book becomes a bestseller, and while editors and agents might make noises about the usual suspects--the author's level of attractiveness, a book's publicity, a good review--the fact is that no one really knows (and this is one reason why I keep asking the question).

Here's something I've learned from working in publishing that might surprise you; people work in publishing because they *gasp* love books. They do not live to make you feel bad about yourself. Okay, maybe there are a few bad apples out there, but these people don't really tend to develop the kind of track record and history of sales and successes that characterize legendary agents because, let's face it; if you really are the kind of agent who is worried about laughing at other people, then you probably aren't the kind of person who is going to take the time to carefully read your slush and find a hidden treasure.

As cynical as editors and agents and authors become about the process, most of the people I know who work in publishing started in that field and persisted because they love books, plain and simple, and because they want badly to read yet another good book. They are disappointed when a book doesn't pan out. They are thrilled when they discover something new. And, because publishing professionals actually work in publishing, they end up seeing a lot more than the consumer; ie, they have seen numerous book proposals on, say, single fathers raising crazy and troubled daughters or Iraqi interrogators than the average reader or writer, will ever see. This adds to their desire to find something new.

In short, I think it isn't really helpful or even, believe it or not, realistic to think of publishing as being controlled by some sort of mother ship that is keen on keeping you out. Agents, or at least the agents I've met (and I now know a few) desperately want to find something different and wonderful and interesting. They don't want to keep publishing the same thing over and over again. And here's where the "love" thing becomes important.

I was recently feeling blue about my own writing and started to talk about it with an agent friend (not the boss). What the agent said surprised me. She was feeling incredibly depressed because she loves, loves, loves her newest authors and is having difficulty selling their work. She feels terrible. She has the connections she needs to reach very good editors and make sure that her clients' work is being read. She just hasn't made a sale. Everything in the industry is slow, she complains. Yes, people are selling books, but it is getting very, very hard. And this is deeply disturbing to her because she loves her clients and wants to find their work an audience. She knows they deserve an audience. And the slowness in the industry is breaking her heart.

And the love she has in her heart for her writers is important, because, if she didn't love her clients, she might not go that extra mile and do that extra little push that is necessary to get a sale.

Curtis Sittenfeld anyone? How many times did her agent submit her manuscript? I know it was well over twelve. And I was so stunned to hear Colson Whitehead on NPR talking about how his first agent never sold his first book, and so he had to drop the agent entirely (or maybe it was the other way around) and write yet another book, the very wonderul "Intuitionist," which I adore.

Agents get depressed by rejection. That's right. They get almost as depressed as we do.

The good ones care so much that they get very upset when an editor from a well known house calls and says something awful like:

"That was a nice read you sent me recently. But, um, do you have anything written by any celebrities? How about some nonfiction?"

At this point, the agent--perhaps even my friend--will politely say "No," because, like I said, she lives to find yet another good book, and she didn't get into this underpaying industry to represent a book by Paris Hilton. There are agents who will represent books by Paris Hilton, and there will be agents who will throw in the towel and say, "Okay. I give up. Forget Nabokov. Forget Atwood. Just find me the next Paris Hilton." But the agent who loves your work will never do that to you.

Experienced agents know this about themselves. They will look at a manuscript that they "sort of" like, and know that if that if they took this client on and if this manuscript were to be rejected about five times, they'd lose interest in it. They know that they just won't have the energy to keep on pushing to find the right editor. They know that rejection doesn't necessarily mean that a work is bad (very key), but that rejection is bruising even for them, and that they will have to love something to keep working for it.

So, that's the very first part of your question. I'll try to tackle the second, and probably more interesting, part of your question when I've had a few days to digest the question and come up with an honest answer.

You should start marketing your blog as a writer who works for an agent. Yours is a perspective I haven't seen represented yet, and I've combed through a lot of publishing blogs.

Soon you'll be inundated with comments and questions. :)
Ha! Well, we'll see. I don't think I've said anything really all that original yet and I don't want to create any controversy. But maybe I can share some of what I've observed and it will be helpful to someone.

I have days where I'm glad I work in the industry and days when I wish I could just pretend it didn't exist and I'm surrounded by books and happy writing.
Thanks for responding to my question! Your insider perspective is very useful. I understand working in the publishing industry and its offshoots isn't the way to get rich, so those in it must really have to enjoy what they do -and believe in what they represent. There's no conspiracy to keep anyone or anything out, per se. And agents of course are beholden to editors, who are beholden to publishers, who are beholden to corporate accountants - who fantasize about meeting Paris Hilton.

I've posted some additional material relating to the second part of the question at the original post. Nothin new, just a theoretical example, etc.

As always, I appreciate anyone taking the time to provide inside info on the publishing biz.
James--Don't forget about the public who votes with the pocket books. I would say that the one thing I don't now much about in publishing, okay, the two things, are aquisitions and sales meetings. I don't know exactly what happens when an editor puts forward a book to a sales team, and I don't know how a sales team gauge which books will sell to the public and which will not.

I will answer your question more thoughtfully in time, but I would say that theoretically what you describe isn't enough to keep a book from getting represented. Agents all say--and I believe they really mean it--that you can get a great story out of any subject. But, what counts is the story, the characters and the writing. When they say this, I think they really mean it.
Thanks. I've thought about the pocket book issue a lot and in my particular case I think it's covered. But first must come representation and interest by the right people (and that hasn't happened).

As to story quality, no writer can truly judge his/her own. My internet readers give a strong thumbs up - but that's a self-selecting group, of course. (Though it's a broad one, judging from the backgrounds they describe.) I'd like to think someone at a lit agency is making a judgement on my writing quality, but when I repeatedly receive QUICK form letter rejections, I get a strong sense I'm not making it that far in the process very often. The question I've begun asking myself is Why? - and the issue I've raised with you is one (but not the only) possibility. I think what's on the bookshelves today also makes it a contender. I know I may sound a bit sour by asking the question, but so be it. In real life, I'm chipper and hilarious.

(As an aside, I recognize there must be a quick screening process, and I know that even if I do get a more detailed review I'll still likely a form letter -- and that's fine. I understand why. And, yes, I've followed all the query rules, and gotten some advice on it from successful writers, etc. I've tried a variety of short, snappy letters.)

With some of the recent hi-profile, big money publishing flops lately, and some best-sellers not originating out of the NY brain trust (Left Behind series, etc.) I'm not so sure about the sales end of the decision-making process. But that's way out of my element, and far beyond my question.

As always, I appreciate you taking the time to think about this.
Just wondered if you've ever thought more about Part II of my question. (I suffer from migraines too, and know they tend to blot out a lot of things.) In summary, it was:

Question: Are some types of fiction are more likely to be published than others, because agents/editors will find it corresponds more to their own interests (so they will "love it" more)?

Even if an agent or editor fights this tendency (if it exists) by watching the fiction book market, they would be looking at projects approved by others coming from the same outlook.

While my own concern is science & technology (which most literature-oriented folks gave up on in Jr. High), there may be other areas as well where good fiction that takes on significant issues with some meaningful detail might be less likely to be embraced because of its subject matter. Some examples:

The global warming crisis - - and the good and bad of proposed solutions (nuclear, coal, solar, etc.)

Agriculture and food preparation. (Deadly lettuce, anyone?)

Or, in the western half of the US, water policy is a huge issue. (See the movie Chinatown.)

Are stories of human drama that also provide real perspective on issues such as these less likely to make it through the query process than tales of life in the big city or a gut-wrenching look at the human condition that uses location merely as a prop? I don't know the answer to this - and so would appreciate any insights.

Good luck on your own projects.
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