Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Searching for an Agent

The search for an agent was harder than we thought. Previously, the fact that we had successfully published many books and were good writers was enough to interest an agent. Since we had found our last agent, we had been nominated twice for an Edgar, won the Edgar once, and written a book that was excerpted in Vanity Fair. Our books had numerous starred reviews, and one of them had been optioned by a British movie company.

But agents were looking for more than good writers. (Actually, they weren't looking for good writers at all; they were seeking would-be writers whose books would come pre-sold.) Agents--and, I presume, publishers--first of all wanted to know if you had a "platform." That means something that had already made you famous. If you were a celebrity, and you decided you wanted to write a book, that was easy. Even if you couldn't write, the publisher could find someone to write it for you. You could also make yourself famous by writing a blog that thousands (preferably millions) of people read regularly. And of course, you might have self-published one or more books that sold well. Amazingly, even though this would seem to have demonstrated that you didn't NEED a conventional publisher, there were self-published authors who jumped at the chance to have an agent take 15% of their earnings, and to have a "real" publisher who would screw them in ways they never dreamed of.

Another new feature of the publishing business was that when you submitted a proposal for a book, agents--and publishers--now wanted you to list all (or most) of the books like yours that had already been published. When I first ran into this requirement, I thought that they wanted to make sure your book WASN'T like any others. Quite the opposite. Publishers wanted to know if there were books JUST LIKE YOURS that had already sold well. Thus, they could feel safe about publishing yet another one. We had seen an earlier version of this phenomenon in the me-too attitude of publishers who tried to imitate the success of another publisher's book by coming out with one like it. Case in point: After Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series became a major best-seller, every YA publisher had to have a vampire book (or series) too. Of course, none of the imitation vampire books were ever as successful as the original. Dare I suggest that the reason was that the writers of the imitation books were not as skilled AT WRITING as Stephenie Meyer? But since editors and agents no longer know good writing from bad (or care), they didn't figure that out. Same thing happened with the Hunger Games series. Publishers then wanted "dystopia" books, preferably with a girl heroine who was skilled at killing.

Well, we discovered that if you were merely good writers who were writing original books, there was another way of attracting an agent: find a friend of yours who was also friends with an agent. We did so, had a brief lunch with the agent, and she convinced us that she was talented, energetic, enthsiastic, and--most importantly--would take us on as clients. I'll tell you about our experience with her in the next post.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Agents: Can't Live With 'em, Can't Live Without 'em

When we first started writing books, a long time ago, you could sell your work without having an agent. Or at least publishers would look at your work, even if it was "unagented." But as the publishers got bought up by big conglomerates, some accountant figured out it was a waste of money to go through all the manuscripts in what they called "the slush pile." Very seldom did anybody find a gem in this pile of slush--or so the argument went. So the publishers decided to accept only manuscripts or proposals that were sent by an agent. This gave the agents enormous power, as you might guess, and they raised their rates from 10% to 15% at around this same time. (That was also the '80s, a decade of serious inflation. My theory always was that agents couldn't get higher advances for their clients to keep up with inflation, so they compensated by taking a bigger chunk of their clients' incomes.)

This meant that not only were authors compelled to find an agent, but once they had an agent, then they had to write something that would appeal, first of all, to that person and no other. In the "old days" if a publisher didn't want your manuscript, you could go to another publisher, and so on till you found one who liked what you were writing. This new way, if your agent didn't like your work, you had to adjust it or abandon it.

Such was the case with us about three years ago, when our agent of about ten years decided, basically, that we were unpublishable. Or at least our work was. He refused even to send it out to a publisher. Waste of his time. His argument, of course, was that our work had suddenly become not good enough to publish. (There was a reason for this, which I'll take up in a later post.)  He rejected our ideas; he rejected elaborate proposals that we wrote to support the ideas. Even when he told us how to improve the proposals, he rejected what we produced. In one case, he told us to put a sample chapter in chronological order; however, it was already in chronological order. He told us to make a chapter outline of the proposed book; when we did so, he rejected it anyway.

The most irritating thing about this sudden storm of rejections, is that we saw that other authors started to publish books that were the same as ones we had proposed. For instance, we wanted to write a book about the "mad bomber" who terrorized NYC during the 1950s. Sounds topical and interesting, right? Not to our agent. Then somebody else stumbled onto the topic and did the book. Got a writeup in the NY Times about the book. Then we wanted to write a book about Oscar Wilde's year-long lecture tour of the U.S. in the 19th century, before he was a world-renowned figure. Our agent told us he found Oscar Wilde "boring." And he was always bragging about his background in the theater! Yale Drama and all that. Well, of course, somebody else eventually did that book too. And believe me, it wasn't boring.

My wife was reluctant to leave the agent, despite all this. I told her, When you have an agent who won't send out your work, you don't HAVE an agent. So we started looking for a new agent. I'll tell you more about that in my next post.