Would I Lie To You?

Enter the world of literary agents at your peril…

It really takes courage to go out there, you know?

My friend was recently on a super-competitive fellowship residency, and she told me that she was getting rejections from other things even while she was at that one. The vaunted “thick skin” is a necessary trait for a life in any creative field. I understand and accept.

The thing that gets me, though, is when the gatekeepers are so actively demeaning. We already know that it’s hard, right? We don’t need to be told, along with that, that the people who run the show are cynical and cruel.

Let me back up.

I had a little time one morning, no live project on the desk that I could make progress on in the 45 minutes I had available, so I thought, “Let me look at the roster of literary agents again. I’m really proud of my most recent manuscript, let’s get it out there.” So I went to the Association of Authors’ Representatives website, because they have a pretty decent statement of professional ethics for their members. I entered a few keywords to narrow my search, and wound up with 39 possibles. The first one had an absolutely abysmal website, a whole can of 2003, so I passed and went to number two, an agent who owned her own agency in LA. No immediate red flags, though her website was nothing to write home about, either. But it wasn’t fully disastrous, so I Googled her to see if she had a web presence or had done interviews, so that I could learn a little about her.

And that was the end of my gumption for the day.

Here’s a selection of quotes from an interview:

  • [How many queries do you get in a day?] I don’t measure them on a daily basis, but I would say that I get maybe 100 a week, and maybe several hundred a month. But most can be dealt with very quickly because in many cases people will send me a query for something… that I know immediately is not something I would be interested in or publishable.
  • [What percentage of queries will you ultimately decide to represent?] Zero to one. If I take on one project from a query that I receive, that’s a lot.
  • [How about conferences? Do you get writers at conferences?] I’m being more selective as to the conferences I go to because the material isn’t always there… Conferences are great but they’re just temporary and they’re evanescent and you come away with some things, but it’s like the people who keep buying all the writing books, but then they don’t write. Or they keep going to conferences and then they don’t write.
  • [What common mistakes do you see in queries?] They haven’t done their research to help crowded marketing… they have no social media skills that they can bring to this platform. No one knows them.
  • [Let’s close with a fun question. Which of these three people would you most like to have dinner with? Alice Waters, William DeVries, Elon Musk.] I probably would want a talk with Elon Musk…. because he thinks so large on so many levels. Even now he is letting people go and cutting his business so he can produce that cheaper car.

So let’s break this down. She doesn’t take any queries, really, but she’s still got her web portal open, and she still goes to conferences once in a while. Why? Why keep up the pretense that unless you’re Khloe Kardashian, you’ll ever get past the receptionist? Just say Closed to New Clients and call it good; if Khloe really wants to work with you, she knows you’ll answer the phone for her. You’ll always answer the phone for someone who’s known, someone with a “platform” that you had absolutely no hand in building but can smell that 15% commission from miles away, like a bear stealing food from a parked car.

She thinks that most writers, even the ones serious enough to go to conferences, aren’t willing to put in the work. When she goes to conferences, she’s giving feedback to writers, which is fine for them, but SHE’s not getting any dough from it, so really, why bother.

And the thing she admires about Elon Musk, the example she uses about him “thinking so large,” is that he’s as ruthless as she is with other people’s lives. [THERE’s a dinner table I can avoid, thank you very much…]

It would be sad if this agent were an outlier, but no. I participated in the comments section of a senior agent’s blog for a few months, an agent who was routinely cynical and bitter and proud of it, imagining that it was among her more endearing traits. As Bugs Bunny once said with a sly grin, “Ain’t I a stinker?” I actually sent SLUSH to her a few months ago, with enormous trepidation, and she replied that she wasn’t taking any new writers. Hmm… not what your web portal says…

And here’s the deal. That same day, about two hours later, I negotiated with a client for a job that’ll be worth about six grand. It took me an hour to write the proposal and an hour to talk it through on the phone, for a job that’ll pay me way more than the advance on a first novel. It’s not about the money. Writing is NEVER about the money. But the people in the industry absolutely sell books for the money, and there’s the fatal mismatch. So the writers say that our job is to write the thing that’s never been written before, and the agents say that our job is to provide them comparable titles and a marketable brand name so that the book sells itself.

A cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, as Oscar Wilde once said. It’s a shame that the wrong people have the keys.