Friday, November 4, 2011

To Agent or Not to Agent?

Been thinking a lot about this. In the olden days, 5 years ago (or even 4 or 3), having an agent was a necessity for a writer who wanted to be published and successful. I signed with an agent in New York about ten years ago, but he passed away unexpectedly before selling my novel, Moonshine (which I'll release later this year, much edited and improved). I sent inquiries to nearly every agent and publishing house listed in the Romance genre. I had a few bites - those who said they'd consider representing me if I made changes in the novels I sent them. Maybe I should have done that, but at the time, I opted not to, so no regrets. And that's where it ended. Life and a new job became more demanding, and the search for an agent (and even writing itself) got put on hold for a looong time.

Unlike some folks, for me, writing is painless. It's meditation, it's fun. I love conceiving of stories, outlining them, writing them and then editing and editing them. But trying to get published, or even signing with an agent, is an emotionally taxing thing; not for sissies, that's for sure. I know I'm not alone in collecting rejection letters, keeping careful lists of those I sent manuscripts and those still on the Hopeful List. You develop a thick skin pretty quickly doing this. Of course, agents don't want to see entire manuscripts from unpublished writers, so I didn't send out a lot of those (a handful of times I did, back when you had to print the whole thing out, box it up and go to the post office to wave it goodbye). Most of the time I was invited to submit only small snippets of my novels, praying that someone would recognize the quality of my work through a tiny keyhole.

I'm sure you all know this feeling. It's hard to summarize the brilliance of your novel, its skilled and sensitive use of language, nuanced emotional artistry, its ability to transport readers to a vivid imaginary realm and give them a delicious experience, in a one-page query letter.

Once in a while, you're invited to submit the Whole Darn Thing, and you try not to get your hopes up but you do anyway, it's impossible not to. Once your beloved manuscript, the offspring you lovingly conceived and gestated, nurtured and sculpted, has the good fortune to land on an agent's desk, it then enters a sort of Survivor: Agent Island contest with a vast field of competitors. Quality notwithstanding, the chances of being chosen for representation sometimes seems determined more by the alignment of the stars, what the prospective agent had for lunch and the resultant level of gastric distress, the agency's latest acquisitions or the size of the current slush pile. So your offspring gets rejected out of hand, thrown on the midden heap, often with a frosty form letter or, worse, your own letter to the agent with a stamp or brief note jotted hastily at the top and returned to you. I have a few of those, which always made me feel like: They didn't even want my letter. Ouch.

No one can blame the agents, of course. They're in the industry because they love books. It's just that the numbers work against anyone trying to make a serious go of it. With the planet's population approaching 7 billion, how could it be any other way?

Anyone reading this in a management position, like I used to be? Do you have to screen job applicants or interview candidates in this desperate economy? Pretty soon, your eyes glaze over and you're putting ninety-nine percent of the hopefuls into the rejection pile, because there are just so damn many of them you can't possibly sift out all the good stuff. And while you're doing it,  you know you're doing it and hate it but accept it because you have to. You may have just thrown out Gone With the Wind or Harry Potter, but there's not much you can do about it. You're dealing with an avalanche. Another stack of hopefuls will land on top of you the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. It's no one's fault, except perhaps the family planning folks who haven't been able to convince our humble race to police its procreative tendencies.

So, is the effort to be a successful writer any different now, in the age of ePublishing, when an agent isn't absolutely necessary - or is it, perhaps, even more difficult? Are the numbers even more stacked against us as writers?

I think so.

Publishing electronically is something anyone can do - and believe me, anyone does. The amount of garbage now available from ePublishers is staggering and suffocating to serious writers. It feels like we're swimming upstream, trying to create well-written, entertaining art in a world increasingly unable or unmotivated to distinguish trash from treasure. Five minutes surfing the current television menu proves that our collective standards have taken a plunge, to a depth nearly impossible to believe if I didn't see it with my own eyes (I gave up subsidizing television providers years ago; these surreal experiences have happened to me in hotel rooms in recent years - but that's another story).

Agents have their own worries about this whole situation, of course. The role of agents and editors and traditional publishers is changing faster than anyone can keep up with. Finding promising writers and cultivating them, then hanging on to them in this razor-thin-profit margin world, is getting more and more difficult for agents. This in turn fuels the drive to find that One Big Writer or One Big Blockbuster - and let's face it, there can't be too many of those, by definition. It feels like an impasse - with writers on one side, the traditional publishing world on the other. It's possible that writers in This New World can function and become successful without representation, but it's darn tough to get known, to really be successful, without someone who really knows the business guiding the way.

So what to do?

Well, I'll tell you. As a writer who would love to be in print, even if it means handing over a big chunk of profit, I'm going back on the hunt for an agent. I'm putting my books out there electronically, but if Harlequin or Avon or Penguin would like to share the love, I'm game.

Time is short, but then, I've never had enough time for anything. I have a very demanding full time job plus a part-time gig (neither of which is remotely related to writing), and take care of a chaotic family. I don't even have time to fold the laundry half the time, so we live out of the laundry basket - clean but wrinkled! For that reason, five minutes here and there, compiling lists and composing letters to prospective agents will have to do.

When - not if - I find another agent, I'm going to forge an alliance that will benefit both of us and be used as a springboard into the multi-platform world of publishing in the twenty-first century.

Back to editing Moonshine.

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