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.