Literary Agents Are People, Too

March 8, 2011

Writers seem to have a love/hate relationship with agents. It’s understandable. We need them to open the doors to the traditional publishing world. They are the ones that accept or reject our marvelous creations. Given the sheer numbers of people writing, it’s safe to say we, as individuals need them far more than they need us.

Agents all say, quite truthfully, that they need us. They need our words. But they actually only need the words they can work with. For myriad reasons, your masterpiece might not work for them. It might be, frankly, a lousy piece of writing. Their form rejections spare us this knowledge, though it might be better if we heard it. They might have another book in the works that is too similar, and they feel they can’t do well by two at once. They might like the idea, but not the development. They might not be interested in that style, or genre, or topic. We never know. So we feel vulnerable.

This is simple enough to understand, but then we go to a conference. “Send us anything,” some of them say. Others say, “I know I list specific genres, but if it’s good, I’ll take it even if it’s not on my list.” “Never send me anything that’s not on my list. Well, I have taken other works, but I’ll automatically reject anything I didn’t specifically mention.”  “Only send me truly excellent writing.” I love that one. Whether it’s humility or ignorance I don’t know, but I wouldn’t dare send that agent anything. Maybe that’s her screening filter?

Then there’s the query itself. Every day of the conference one heard the plaintive cries of the writers: “What do you want?” “What format do you require?” “How do we know what to do to avoid automatic deletion?”

And every day the answers were: Agent A wants this format and no other. Agent B doesn’t care as long as it’s correctly addressed. Agent C wants either this or that font and query only. If you send pages, they’ll be trashed unread. Agent D says the same, but then adds, “Well, if you send me pages I’ll probably read them.”

Agents are people. That’s the total picture. They have quirks, likes, dislikes, moods, and foibles. That we, the writers, seek to pigeonhole them is as absurd as we feel it is for them to pigeonhole our books. But the nature of the business requires labels, if for no other reason than to cope with the sheer volume of material passing back and forth.

I cannot resist adding this personally experienced demonstration of their human fallibility. I asked agent A how to query a novel where ideas are important, given that one always reads that to mention ideas is the kiss of death. An expression of incredulous horror filled the agent’s face. I was given to understand novels were for entertainment, not ideas. Funny how my favorite novels are both. Anyways, later, I was querying another agent. Agent B wasn’t interested, but suggested I go to Agent A, who liked novels with ideas. I bit my tongue and moved on. What else could I do?

Agents don’t know everything. I was at first shocked at some of the questions or comments agents made, comments that showed real ignorance of a subject. And then I thought, why? Why should a literary agent be expected to know all about cell biology, or religious controversy in the Classical Greek era? That’s not their job. Their job is to recognize a book that is readable and marketable. No more, no less. That so many of them do so much more – work with their authors in editing, holding metaphoric hands as the author crashes, celebrating when things go well – these agents are an inspiration.

Don’t expect more of them than you would of any other expert in their field. You don’t go to a doctor for literary advice; don’t expect an agent to understand arthroscopic surgery.

So what do you do? Alas, you do the best you can. As all the agents said, do your research. Know who you’re querying and why. And don’t take rejection personally.

By the way, I don’t know about others, but for all the talk about chatting with agents in the halls during the conference, I saw one agent walking free. I think the others holed up somewhere. I did see a few sitting at tables during meals, but of the 5 meals provided by the conference, I never had an agent sit at a table where I was. Maybe I’m not aggressive enough, or my timing was always off, but do bear that in mind if you go to a conference. If you have questions, look around diligently, and take advantage of any fleeting opportunity to talk with an agent.

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