Somewhat Hysterical Musings on the Topic of Literary Agents
October 20, 2018
I’ve just begun querying literary agents for my third novel Backstory. It’s literary suspense, I'm told.
These days, querying agents is a dogged process of researching thousands of agents on Querytracker.net, AgentQuery.com, ManuscriptWishList.com, and especially the agent's Web site, then sending them whatever they require. Many accept email queries, but each wants something different, so you can’t simply do a cut-paste pitch and email it to 500 agents at once.
An Author in Wonderland
The varied submission requirements can be maddening. In past experiences, one agent required a manuscript set in 18 pt. type (that’s big), single-spaced (the standard is double-spaced), and then sent via email as a PDF, which is odd.
Another accepted emailed queries, but then required a 300-page hard copy mailed to her door by that weekend, at my cost of $30, only for her to reject it with a curt form email first thing the following Monday. Could she not have rejected it just as easily by reviewing a Word .doc sent by email?
After you jump through these widely varying hoops, you wait for agents to reply, which does not happen often. Many agents simply say, “No reply means ‘no,’” which is infuriating after you’ve done everything each agency required.
Why Bother? I Wonder.
Those Who Try is a revision of a novel I wrote in the mid-1980s. (Yes, I’m old enough to have written a novel back then.) At that time, email was not common. So, authors mailed in $75 for a printed pamphlet from the Society of Authors Representatives that listed about 75 literary agencies in New York City, seat of the American publishing empire. From there, you wrote each agent a query letter and attached a synopsis and first chapter.
Life was easier then. I quickly landed an agent with Sterling Lord Literary Agency, now known as Sterling Lord Literistic, which I think is a riot because “literistic” is not a word. After all, this is a world-beater agency, and one would think its name would be a real word, but then, they are the tops, so I guess they can name themselves whatever they'd like.
Summer of 1988, I visited a friend in Connecticut, about two hours north of Manhattan. Because I was in the area, I called the Sterling Lord agency to present my then-agent with my latest novel, but turns out she had retired. However, a young, eager agent agreed to meet me.
I took the train south from New Haven and marched down Madison Avenue, feeling very much like Joyce Carol Oates with my book manuscript under my arm. Trouble was, the moment I met the young, very stylish agent at Sterling Lord, she took an immediate dislike to my concept.
"Oh, is it letters? Editors don't like letters," she said.
With that, my manuscript felt like a dead body in my lap. Then the agent asked if I had anything else in the works, to which I mumbled an embarrassed "no." So she quickly sent me off to have lunch in Chinatown, telling me to ask my cabbie for the best restaurant.
"He'll know," she promised with a sly grin that said, "I can’t wait to get you out of my office, you base amateur."
With my face blushing, I rode the packed elevator down how-many floors and hailed a cab. When I asked my driver what was the best restaurant in Chinatown, he looked at me like I was nuts. That’s because he was newly arrived from Iran.
Fast Forward to Now
Since the advent of the Internet, landing a literary agent has become a quagmire of emailed queries, hard-copy mailed queries, in-person pitch sessions at writers’ conferences, and even pitch sessions on Twitter with #PITMAD and #MSWL leading the pack. Everybody and their brother claims to be a writer now, and it’s almost impossible to get an agent’s attention.
When I go on #MSWL (Manuscript Wish List), the agents' wish lists sound like movie producers on cocaine. Here's a sample: "#MSWL alt-reality dark ages YA #F w/kick-butt female protag knight wielding sword & magical powers, but prefers sword. Equally bad-a male seeming antag who end up fighting the same force, one darker than any one imagines. Dark tumultuous rough raw setting & full-tension romance."
Hello? I'm not even sure I know what that means.
Spend a Lot for What?
I’ve attended four major writers’ conferences at a cost of $750 admittance, just for the chance to pitch in-person to literary agents. That fee doesn’t cover transportation, hotel, and food, so you’ve got to have some bucks to attend these events. At conferences, however, most agents are relatively new ones, looking for a quick sale in genre fiction, like young adult or romance.
Although mixing and mingling with my fellow authors and editors at conferences gives me energy and optimism, when I return to the "no's" from literary agents, I succumb to despair. Thanks to the Internet, I’ve been rejected on the beach in Hawaii, at dinner out with my husband, and even while swimming laps at the pool.
#PITMAD or Bust
If my upcoming traditional queries don’t land a new agent this time around, I’ll try out the next #PitMad session on Twitter on Dec. 6. That’s when thousands of wannabe authors and hundreds of agents supposedly connect by using the #PITMAD hashtag.
Stranger things have happened. I met my second husband on the Internet when we were both age 50-something. Who knows? I might meet my next literary agent there too.
Wish me luck!
Again, many thanks for following me, and especially for reading and rating my work!