How Agents Look at…Agents

…Or, to put it another way: “Know thy enemy!”

What? You thought they were allies/partners/friends? Oy!

“A Right Fit”: Navigating the World of Literary Agents – by Michael Bourne

Imagine that one night you have a dream in which you are in an enormous bookstore lined with shelves upon shelves of books, each bound in the same plain white cover displaying only the author’s name, the title of the book, and a brief description of the book and its author. This is an anxiety dream, so it turns out that your livelihood depends on your ability to search this enormous bookstore and figure out which books are good and which aren’t. The thing is, in this bookstore, the vast majority of the books are bad – trite, derivative, poorly written, or simply the sort of book you would never read in a million years. You know there are some really good books in this store, maybe even one or two genuinely great ones, but from the outside they’re indistinguishable from the terrible ones.

How do you choose? Do you sit down at the first shelf and read each book all the way through? No way; you’d starve, if you didn’t kill yourself from boredom first. Do you glance at the descriptions of the book and author on the back cover, and then read a page or two of the ones that sound more interesting? That’s better, but we’re talking a huge room here – thousands and thousands of books – and what can you really tell from a couple of paragraphs, anyway?

So you begin to look for shortcuts. You decide to only consider the kinds of books you already know you like – mysteries, say, and literary novels with strong female protagonists. Still, there are a lot of mysteries and novels with strong female protagonists in this bookstore. So you look for other shortcuts. If you recognize the name of the author as someone who has already written something else good, you read that one. You might also look for other people in the bookstore so you could ask them what good books they had read lately and start looking for those. You might even take some of them out for lunch – it’s okay, you can expense it – to pick their brains.

For several hundred people, most of them living in New York City, this dream is their daily reality. They are called literary agents, and if you are a writer with one or more unpublished books on your hard drive you have probably received a terse note from several dozen of them telling you that your novel is “not a right fit” for their agency at this time. In that moment you tore open that thin self-addressed envelope or read the two-line return email, you probably hated them. Not just that one agent, but all literary agents, as a class. How could they not see the brilliance in your manuscript? How could they possibly guess at the quality of your manuscript based on a one-page letter and a synopsis? And what the hell does “not a right fit” mean, anyway? Is that even grammatical English?

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The way we look at it is like this. Within the realm of mainstream publishing, agents have a role to play. But mainstream publishing is dying, and we aren’t about to ask anybody to clap their hands and bring it back to life.

E-books, boys and girls. The only way to fly.

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