Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Worshipping The Literary Agent

Russell Galen of the Literary Agency Scovil * Galen * Gosh is the only literary agent that I ever sent a query to that had this on his bio:
I’m the only agent I know of, and maybe the only one in the history of the world, who actually grew up wanting to be a literary agent... I loved writing but was not myself a writer: I was like the clumsy kid who loves the Yankees and wants to be a coach since he can never play center field. So even as early as the age of 14 I figured out that if you wanted to help writers live the good life, rather than write yourself, you could best do that as a literary agent.
You know what?  I think this (for the most part) is true.  And I've sent a lot of queries into agents and yes...I read EVERY word on their website before I put in a query.  From 95% of them, I got the impression that they could give two shits about actually wanting to be a literary agent.  They work there because they need a source of income and it's a stepping stone to their own writing careers.  Why?  Because platform comes easy for them as all they have to do is spout, "I'm an agent" and every writer out there goes and follows them so that before long, they have a thousand followers on their blog. Somewhere in there...they let you know what you would need to do to get representation from them.  Are they doing you a favor? To answer this question, let's take a look at who they are.  When I look, I see a regular old person just like me and you.  They are not entitled to better medicine than me, better food than me, better air than me, better water, or really anything.  All men are created equal, right?

Agents have two arms, two legs, a head, a brain, and an opinion that could be colored by race, creed, sex, education, sexual orientation, and religion.  They could have been raised as spoiled brats in an entitled household where everyone got an Ivy League education and where they speak amongst their friends in whispers at all the "brown" people who are now shopping at their favorite supermarket and cringe at manual labor, instead dreaming of biscotti cookies, live jazz music, and $6.00 cappucinos made at the local bistro. Or, just as likely, they could come from very humble backgrounds.  So what happens then, when you DON'T realize this, and take their word, their advice about writing, and swallow it as if it were the word of GOD.

I would hope that you would ask yourself a few questions about the advice you read.  For one, hmmm...exactly where is this wisdom coming from? Oh...well let's take a look at their bookshelf...I see something in common here as we thumb through all the titles they bought before landing a job.  The AHA moment!  Just to be clear...I define this as them telling you to write what "they" want to read.  There's a ton of baggage that comes with that ball and chain.  If I told you what I wanted to read you would never write in first person again--EVER.  I would send out rejection letters that say, "this doesn't have the 'voice' I'm looking for and wish you luck on your hunt for an agent."

What I want to address in this blog post to my writer friends is this phenomenon of "worship" that I see going on out there.  Don't deny that you follow some agent blogs so closely that if they said, "Yellow today is now blue" you would respond in a comment, "Oh thank you so much for pointing that out.  I never noticed before how yellow really is like blue."  Because some of you would do exactly this.

Do I think that literary agents have a place?  Yes, I do.  They should be selling books, they should let writers know how to write a successful query letter, what ingredients are needed in a synopsis, and what their submission guidelines are.  And...they should be OBJECTIVE--knowledgeable enough with what is being bought that they can recognize if something is MARKETABLE.  What should they blog about?  They should blog about agenting, representation, the business,...PERIOD.  If they don't have something to say about agenting, then they have no business saying it in their blog.  Do they do this? A lot of them do not.  And I'm going to say that the reason is because they are building a platform for some other purpose.
Agents who give writing advice on how to structure your novel no longer have objectivity.

I disagree with all of this "writer" advice that they have when they are in fact "salesmen".  You do know what a salesman looks like, right?  Walk into SEARS.  Walk into BEST will see salesmen working there.  They are there to help you make an INFORMED decision.  But never do they sit down and tell you HOW TO BUILD A COMPUTER or HOW TO BUILD YOUR OWN TELEVISION FROM SCRAP PARTS.  Yet, all you writers out there following their blogs are doing exactly this.  And 90% of those agents out there don't want to be agents.  They want to be rich.  They want to be the one in the limelight.  Oh let's look at a few agents that turned writers shall we?  Nathan Bransford and the Rejectionist are two that I can name.  And Nathan's blog stopped being useful about a year ago because he has no ability to help you because he's an author now.  You may want to read that again--he can't help you.  He needs to focus on his own career now.  He just needs to sell books so that he can quit his day job.  Do I fault him for this? Not one bit, but it's the way the world works.  The only benefit I can even see in following him now is 1) You want to buy his book and 2) You want others that are brain-slaved to reading his blog every day to see you hob-knobbing as if you are some big wheel and pick-up followers that way for your own platform.

Agent blogs aren't that helpful (but they sure do a helluva job as a smoke screen because on the surface, they look like pure gold).  However, as soon as they digress from the business of publishing, they have strayed into a territory I like to call crap.  They are full of conflicting advice.  Why do I use the word conflicting? Because GUESS WHAT...writing is subjective and what's good for Suzie Townsend is not going to work for Robert Gotlieb.  It just isn't.  You may defend by saying, "I build a rapport with an agent and she'll represent me."  I answer..."Okay...but that has nothing to do with writing and that's what you signed-on for right?  You became an author for a write...not to rub noses with the publishing elite so that they'll publish your grocery list."  Because that's what happens when you have friends in high places like that.  Yes, friends could publish your grocery list.  Will it be a bestseller? Only if your friend is Oprah.  So again, my point is, stop worshiping their writer advice.  Either that, or decide you're a socialite and that social networking is your thing.  Suck up, get your nose in there, and things will happen simply because you kiss the right rear end enough. It's not what you's who you know.  that saying has been around for a long time.

I think that the truth is that anyone can get published.  If Stephanie Meyer can get away with a sentence like:

"The green leaves in the trees blew in the wind, greenly."

Then you too can get published.  You just need to find the right person with whom your work resonates.

So who can help you fulfill your dreams?  Who is Mike toting that you would be better off following and creating a relationship with if it isn't the likes of Rachael Gardner, Nathan Bransford, and others with followings of several thousand people?  ANSWER:  US.  YOUR FELLOW WRITERS.  People like Rogue Mutt, Steph Schmidt, Mooderino, CherylAnne Ham, Cindy Borgne, Danette and on and on and on.  Why?  Because we are EMOTIONALLY AVAILABLE.  If you ask, "hey, I'm having trouble with something, can you take a look at it?" We would probably say, "sure".  If your book comes out and you'd like help marketing it, I bet there are a ton of us (having gotten to know you) that would help you market your book.  Reviews on Goodreads, on Amazon, helping with blog tours, and sharing information with you on what is SELLING BOOKS--what is working from personal experience.

If you asked Nathan Bransford to put a widget for your book on his blog, you'd get a big fat NO unless you're someone that hangs out with him in pictures in San Francisco and has his phone number on speed dial.

But really, I think that worshiping every word that the agents drop from their pen is ridiculous.  Personal rejections are also ridiculous because in that, they are just going to tell you what didn't work for them, why they are saying no, and that they won't consider it anyway if you revise it.  So if you aren't going to consider the work anyway...why the hell even tell someone what they could fix?

It makes no logical sense, yet I see writers out there who have become my friends who get these kinds of personal rejections and they are left wondering what they could do to fix in order to be successful.  Let me put this into perspective...this would be like me telling you what you needed to fix in order to appeal to Barack Obama.  I don't even know anything about Barack Obama...yet because I have some title, you are ready to spend months rewriting your manuscript.

STOP IT.  Please. 

/end rant


  1. Hey, I left you an award on my blog!

  2. I guess one day when i am at the publishing stage, I'll come knock on your door! Good advice. Love the rant.

  3. exceptional piece, michael... bravo!

  4. I've always struggles to grasp the importance of agents. I can see some benefits, but it doesn't take too long of piddling around the Internet to start hearing horror stories.

    The two big reasons to have an agent are 1) to sell your books and 2) negotiate a better deal once said book is sold. But I believe most (genre) authors, first time ones at least, make that sale without an agent. And very few agents have any legal expertise. I think large agencies do have boilerplate contracts they've negotiated with major houses that are nominally better than what an individual might get out of the gate, but that's about it.

    Now, I do think the more successful you become, the more likely you are to need someone that functions many of the roles an agent might. But that's a bridge I cross when I come to it.

  5. Great post Mike. I agree 100%. I queried Nathan Bradsford once. He rejected me the next

    Agents will accept a novel that goes against all of their advice if they think they can sell it. I see them doing this over and over. So what does their advice really mean?

    PS: I'm not the greatest blogger, but I am emotionally available. :)

  6. *hug* That was certainly an emotional post you've been repressing. Where taste and objectivity meet is a very fine line and one that I don't claim to toe. Good thing writers don't have to.

  7. Theresa: Thank you for the award :)

    Laughingwolf: Ooo thank you for following my blog from Theresa's :) I appreciate it.

    Rusty: I think again, that agents are important, but they really have no business telling writers how to write when it's a subjective business. It's similar to Wal-Mart dictating what America wants to eat. "We will sell you macaroni". But I don't want to eat that...I want Italian sausage made in a black mission fig sauce. Wal-Mart: "We will sell you macaroni".

    Cindy: People getting chummy with agents on their blogs does nothing for the writer. I've no idea why people flock to them by the thousands...and I mean THOUSANDS.

    Steph: I agree senorita.

  8. Thank you very much, sir, for posting all the things that I've only been saying to my wife so far. I've been meaning to write something like this for a while, now, but my topic list is pretty long, and I haven't gotten that far down it, yet.

    I can honestly say I don't read a single agent blog; although, I do "technically" have a few that I'm following from when I first started my blog that I just haven't taken off my list, yet.

    I did actually consider buying Bransford's book, but decided against it after reading some of his blog. He offers nothing useful and bashes self-published authors frequently. Because traditionally published authors are somehow better.

    The last post I read from an agent was a few months ago when she posted that -all- books -must- contain a love triangle to be a "real" work of literature.

    I just can't play that agent game. I do applaud the publishers, though, for their ingenuity in getting other people to do their work for them for free.

  9. Hi Michael,
    I'm leaving you a hug, because you left me one. You know why. Many thanks.
    As for being published. Hmm. There seems to be so many rules, and things to do, and not do. Some agents want this, other agents want that. I'm dizzy with it all. To sum up, I feel like there's a society out there that I'm not allowed to be a member of. Last week I got three rejections in three days. It made me feel really horrible. Tut. One day, eh.

  10. I sometimes wonder if these types of rants take you so far out of the game that you become a pariah in the industry. But then, you just made a book deal, didn't you? What do I know?

  11. Way to let it all hang out! I do like to look at agent blogs to see if they've got the kind of personality I'd like to have in an agent. Also, some of them put solid information about publishing on their blogs. And some of them are just plain hilarious. But do I worship any? No. I think I could stalk Alex Glass though...very spy-like name.

  12. By the second paragraph, I was already thinking *Nathan.* I stopped reading his blog about the same time it turned into his platform. I agree with all of your points. Everyone is entitled to make a living - an honest one, and I don't deny them that, and I also see the socialites (a nice term, btw) fighting for proper placement. That's their right as well. And whereas I haven't deleted blogs I no longer have interest in, there are many that do. Yours, for one.

    I had to Google Black Mission Fig Sauce. Sounds tasty, but I have never heard of it. Then again, I'm not a chef - pizza is on the menu for tonight.

  13. Good rant Michael.
    Provocative, even handed, and useful.

  14. Brent: They might do just that. They might make me a pariah. But I don't care anymore. And for the record...I don't think I'm saying anything out of line. I'm not saying that literary agents don't have a place. All I'm saying is that I don't think they should be telling writers how to write a novel. And some of them do exactly this with 10-page critiques, etc. Once they do that...objectivity is out the window...and they are telling you what works for them. When someone tells you what works for them, they're taking away what works for other people.

  15. Huzzah! I love how you say how I feel in a way that I'm too chicken to, because I'm still hoping that some nice agent will wave her Fairy Godmother wand over me.

    I adore you, Mike. I do.

    I could write a very long list of things that make me angry about the query process, but something tells me you will do it for me.

    "Really? You want me to read all the crappy books you represent so I can decide which one I'm more comparable to?"

    Or, "Really? I should be spending ALL my time on twitter, just in case you put out a call for a specific type of book I may have already written?"

    I find this idea of "researching your dream agent" to be particularly troubling. Yes, there are some agents I'd give up dessert for life to sign with. But is any amount of ass-kissing seriously going to get me any closer to my goals of seeing my shiny book in Chapters? I mean, if my book doesn't have a catchy gimmick, er, I mean HIGH CONCEPT, does it matter that I know how you like your coffee. (But thanks for posting it, agent, because I like how it makes me feel like I knooooooow you.)

    /okay i have to stop.

  16. I'm always willing to help out another writer. I agree, we can't write to please just one person. Then I hear all these rules. Well, every I've picked up a best seller lately, most of those rules are broken. I don't think it's about rules. I think it's about developing a strong voice and style and telling a story well.

  17. I guess it's all about balance. I think it's a good idea to read agent blogs to have some idea of what they're looking for (if you're looking for an agent, that is), but it shouldn't be the end all, be all. In the end, you have to have your own voice and tell your story in your own way.

    It's like sucking up to the popular crowd in any teen-centric movie. It's the one who has his/her own style that stands out. The rest just turn into mean girls and yes men.

    (That made sense in my brain, but I can't find the words for it. Maybe the words will come to me later.)

  18. I'm definitely in the boat of being conflicted about agents, and the traditional publishing-go-round in general.

    Don't get me wrong, most of the interviews I've seen with agents portray them as fine folks who really love books. Furthermore, I rarely read authors say bad things about their agents. Part of that is good business etiquette, I'm sure, but I also think most agents are good people who are motivated to help books reach readers. Which is awesome and puts me solidly in their corner.

    However, I've also read my share of Tweets, blog posts, etc. that seem to paint a different picture. One of the exclusive, gatekeeping, arbitrary, and snotty variety.

    You can't argue that the agent/writer relationship PRIOR to be taken on as a client is most definitely a 'you need me, I don't need you' situation. While understandable, frankly it ruffles my feathers a bit as a writer. It's a bit like begging someone to eventually take your money.

    I think it's okay that you're frustrated, because most of us are. I also think many agents would understand your frustrations. You (as a writer) have lots of legitimate options now, and some of them don't require you to have an agent at all. So speak your mind, brother!

  19. I enjoyed your writing and learned so much from it. I thought of Jerry McGuire and I think that is also a story that could describe writer-agent relationships..

  20. I guess if a writer is hoping to get an agent, then by hanging around their blog they'll maybe get noticed sometime.

    Like a lot of other writers I visited some agency blogs/agent blogs at the start of my journey, but once I realized I wasn't ever likely to make it past the agency gatekeeper I stopped looking at their blogs and websites and concentrated on finding a publisher. That effort paid off.

  21. I like the heart of this post, because it's about being true to your story, and not caving into anything but the the belief that what you've created has worth.

  22. OK, the Stephenie Meyers quote made me snort!

    I've seen you around the blogosphere but just found out where you hang. I think I'll be found here more often too.

  23. I'm so glad you found my blog Small Town Shelly Brown. /cheers.

    Thank you Lydia for getting at the heart of what I was trying to say.

  24. You're probably over query rants and moved on, but I came across this other lovely rant I bookmarked, and wanted to share with you:


  25. I just participated in Write On Con. What struck me is how many agents actually seemed excited about agenting. I hope to snag on of those kinds of agents.

  26. Okay, old post but I couldn't resist throwing in my two cents! I agree so much with everything you said here. A lot of agent blogs tend to give horrible writing advice, or at least writing advice that's so common sense it's like the Dr. Phil of the writing world.

    That said, some agent blogs are among my favorite blogs, simply because they seem like great people. And I appreciate having access to their blog so I know whether to query them or not. I know that supposedly the relationship is all about auditioning us, but honestly? I think a fair amount of writers uses agent blogs to audition the agent as to whether they're going to both querying with them or not. So they're useful in that respect.

    But you really shouldn't worship anyone blindly. There are so many ordinary people with important name tags in the world.