Wednesday, March 14, 2007

On Agents, Part Two

I have been with my agent, Helen, for over ten years now. Helen is an incredibly smart, savvy, nervy, calculating, ballsy woman (she’s also tall, thin, and pretty; sigh). I like to think I’m smart, but I know I’m not any of those other things. This is why I need Helen. Yet even if I were all those things, I’d still need her. It’s the old ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine. I get to be all sunshine and roses with my editor and publishing house, while Helen—if necessary—smilingly goes for their jugular.

My view of the publishing world is narrow and myopic. Helen sees the broad picture, what is selling, what isn’t. And while I am not one to chase the latest flavor of the month (otherwise I’d be writing paraporn), having her perspective available when it comes time to make decisions is invaluable. I trust her instincts, and as I said, she’s one smart cookie. I also happen to LIKE Helen, and I think that’s important. I enjoy talking to her on the phone, and going out to dinner with her at conferences is a joy (did I mention she’s also a very funny person?). Some people might not think that’s important, but I do. Who wants to work with someone you don’t like? Besides, I’m not sure you can ever really trust someone you instinctively don’t like.

I will admit there was a point when I worried that Helen might drop me. It wasn’t anything she said or did that made me worry, it was the reality of my publishing career. When I decided to switch from historical romances and wrote Secrets of a Dead Trophy Wife, she supported my decision. But I went from a six-figure contract to almost nothing (except for a handful of small foreign sales of my old romances that still continue to trickle in). Something like a dozen editors rejected the Trophy Wife book (many said they loved it, but their marketing departments couldn’t figure out how to sell it; it still hasn’t sold). Then we started sending out WHAT ANGELS FEAR. Once again, the rejections came fast and furious. “Like the story, hate the characters.” “Like the characters, hate the story.” “Historical mysteries aren’t selling well at the moment.” In the end, we did have two editors interested, and I am now slowly rebuilding my career. But through it all, Helen never lost her faith in me. And after Katrina hit, her support was incredible. Whenever I would say, “I don’t know if I can finish this book,” her cheerful voice on the other end of the phone would say bracingly, “You can do it!”

I know I’m lucky. I have writer friends who have run through three, four agents in the course of their career. I’ve seen friends dropped by their agent when they hit a dry spell or their sales dipped. I’ve known writers whose agents went south with their advances. There are a lot of toads out there. But a serious writer needs a good agent. It’s worth continuing the search until you find one.


Charles Gramlich said...

I had one agent accept me as a client. I sent her some stuff but didn't hear, didn't hear, and finally got a form email from her saying she'd developed a serious illness and had to retire. Another agent loved the first three chapters I sent her and was very excited until she got to the gory parts later and said she couldn't take me on. Some day, perhaps.

Steve Malley said...


I'm glad this turned out to be a valentine and not a 'sadly...'

A fine tale of loyalty, too! You've really brightened my day.

Chap O'Keefe said...

Once, the general advice to writers of light fiction on agents was that if you knew your field of operation, your genre, you didn't need an agent until you were so successful that the business side became onerous.

That has changed. Many publishers' editorial departments are shadows of their former selves. Their decisions are made for them by marketing people. In NZ, the local arm of a multi-national told me any decision to publish had to be referred to the buyers for the principal chain stores. If they didn't see a ready demand for your book or proposal, it didn't get accepted.

The stores' buyers seldom read books the way we do; maybe a cookery book, a sports biography, but little else. Rarely fiction. So they have no personal interest. Stationery, DVDs, lottery tickets, Harry Potter and Harry Potter are the directions they want their stores to go.

With less left for them to do, publishers' editors have been "allowed to go", unsolicited submissions go unread and the old slush-pile process has become the province of the agents.

A few years ago, I tried to find myself an agent for the US. The results were disappointing. Three examples:

"I've read through your material and think that you are a talented writer. Unfortunately, the market for traditional western novels is so soft these days that I just cannot offer representation to new western writers. It has become increasingly difficult to sell the projects that my established writers have sent in."

"I am sorry, but I am not taking on any new western writers now, as I already have some prominent ones, and with the industrywide cutbacks on category fiction, taking on anyone else in this field would compete with what I already have going."

"Having read many thousands of Western stories over the years, it is my view that the Western story is the only literary form totally indigenous to what is now the United States. The only exceptions to this are some Canadian authors who have written North-Western fiction. I even went against this conviction some years ago and took on ---- ---- and ---- ---- [English writers]. No editor would touch their books."

The response was only slightly better than rejection slips. The shop was closed, even though the people who bothered to read my work reckoned it might be competition for prominent writers.

I gave up banging my head against the brick walls. The trade in what I wanted to write was allowed to go for the most part in only one direction, as with so much of modern cultural product -- film, television, music, etc.

Today I deal directly with my London publisher, who is always courteous and appreciative despite the limited income the books can provide, and my US presence is limited (I think) to the Ulverscroft large-print editions.

cs harris said...

Sounds like you do great representing yourself, Chap. There definitely are some situations in which agents are not necessary. When you're all over the map genre-wise the way I am, though, an agent really helps. And I've run into the nationalist prejudice, too. The French buy my books unless they're set in France, the British rarely buy books set in Britain by non-British writers, etc.

Farrah Rochon said...

Very good advice! I sorta landed my agent by mistake, but I'm incredibly happy I did. I would have hated going through the contract process without him.