Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The mysteries of agents

Writing and attempting to publish a novel is certainly an education. Sometimes you just don't know what's really up, even when you are sure you do. I've had mystifying reactions from agents over the years, but none so mystifying as the one I received from one New York agent in recent months. Last spring, I worked quite closely with this man and his agency as we moved through the usual writer-agent introductions and on to a regular, sustained back and forth about my Van Gogh novel. Some background: Based on my original query letter, the head of the agency called me at home one night early in 2011 and we had a great conversation. He's an older gentleman; a world traveler; quite dignified; and quite a pleasure to talk to. He asked me to send him the entire manuscript of Days On Fire (then called Yellow). Soon after our conversation, I mailed the agent my manuscript, and his office began a careful scrutiny of its contents. The agent eventually wrote me to say that they were impressed with the novel but would like to see a vigorous rewrite, and he sent along a list of specific suggestions. The suggestions seemed reasonable, and so I conducted a substantial revision, more or less staying faithful to their wishes. I mailed the agent the new version, which he and his staff scrutinized just as carefully as they had the first one. As a result, they pronounced it closer but not quite there yet. They asked for additional rewrites, again listing specific concerns. I threw myself into the next revision and tried to make it as exactingly perfect as possible. I have to say that over the course of months of working with this agency I felt the book getting tighter and better; I felt certain this last revision would be the one to put it "over the top." No other agency had expressed such sincere interest in the novel; and I had never engaged in such an ongoing, cooperative, mutually respectful relationship with an agent before. That alone was significant and satisfying, but more significant and satisfying is the benefit it had for my book, which is finally all that matters. Near the end of May, I mailed to them what I hope would be the "final" version of the book, at least the final version before they agreed to represent it to publishers. I felt good about the whole project and about the relationship. My writer friends agreed that the fact the agency kept wanting to see the book and wanting me to work on it suggested a strong interest on their part. After this third manuscript made its way to the agency's office, I received a warm email from the dignified older gentleman--the one whose name is on the agency--saying how glad he was to receive the latest version, and while it would take them "several weeks" to review it and respond, he was looking forward to doing so. So far so good.

The summer passed. I taught a class. I went to the pool some. I took a vacation. I began writing new short stories. Fall came. The semester started at the University of Central Arkansas, where I teach. Students began turning in assignments. I became involved with all the usual teacherly busyness. It took me until the beginning of October to realize that the "several weeks" had become a rather significant period of time. Four months to be exact. I decided to send a polite, brief email to the agent to see how the review of Days on Fire was going and to ask if perhaps I had missed some communication from them. I sent the email from my office at school. I got up, walked across the whole to my wife's office (yes, she's on the same floor) and said something like, "Well, now at least I'll find out what's going on." I had some business in another building, business that would take an hour or so. So I headed off, looking forward to my return, when I would open up my email and find out where matters stood for my novel. (Up to this point, when I had emailed the agent I always received a reply within an hour--sometimes faster. And their examinations of the novel typically took five weeks or so.) Well, when I next checked my email there was no reply from the agent. Hmmm. I gave it a couple weeks, emailed him again from a secondary email address I use, but again I received no reply.

At this point, I was completely befuddled. If they were still reviewing the book, why not just tell me? Or if they were ready to say "no," why not tell me "no"? If they had in fact already said no, and I just missed the message, why not tell me that? No uncomplicated answer to my questions presented itself, but one thing seemed obvious: No one ignores emails from a person they want to have an ongoing business (or personal) relationship with. Apparently, they had decided not to represent the book but also apparently had decided not to tell me. Some writers I've talked to reject this notion as cock-eyed. "They wouldn't reject your book and not tell you," the writers say to me. No, of course, you wouldn't expect any agent to do that, especially not an agent with a fine reputation and storied career as this one has had. (You'll just have to trust me on that characterization.) But, considering all the facts, and applying Ockham's Razor, that's the only answer I can come to. For the heck of it, in December I sent the agent a Happy Holidays message, along with a reminder that I had not heard from him yet about the book. I didn't expect any result from the message, and I got none. So things remain as muddled as ever.

A rather old-fashioned agency in many good ways, this agency is also old-fashioned in that it has no web presence to speak of, and does not even advertise a phone number. Email is their preferred method of communication. So in case you are wondering why I don't just pick up the phone and call, that's why. Clearly, the time has come to start fresh with new agents. This isn't really a problem. As a writer you have to do that any time you get a rejection from an agency. But what stings this time is that as of last May no rejection seemed to have been imminent--and then none was ever sent. Exactly nothing was ever sent. A colleague of mine, who will publish his book of short stories with a British press next year tells me I should just give up on American publishers and turn my attention to England. While I haven't "given up" on American publishers (no American publisher has even seen the book yet!) I probably will follow my friend's advice, not because of his success, but because I had been thinking the same thing myself for some weeks and even years now. My wife has just published her study of university creative writing programs with a British press, and she has nothing but good things to say about the experience. [Stephanie Vanderslice, Rethinking Creative Writing, Professional and Higher, 2011]. Yes, I'll move on--both to other American agents and to British ones--but as I do so I know I'll recall my relationship with this agent with wistfulness and regret. Not for his (implicit) rejection--rejection is to be expected in the writing life--but for the confounded mystery of it all.


  1. I have to admit that the idea of agents is probably the single most terrifying part of the entire writing process. I enjoy writing and am working on a novel (in the first rewrite at the moment). That said, I have no illusions about how incredibly difficult it is to get published and obviously I'm miles away from that point anyway, but it makes me wonder about the allure of traditional publishing versus the rising trend of e-publishing. Certainly, I can see there being a sense of honor in being traditionally published (as publishing houses have held the reigns for ages), but as part of this younger generation, I can't help but feel like they're a little outdated (or quickly going that way).

    For sure, e-publishing has it's downsides - more self-promotion required and there's a lot of junk that ends up on Amazon - but from what I've heard of traditional publishing as of late, it's not that much worse (smaller promos for authors, and as for crap, I've browsed the books at B&N, I'm not all that impressed). Plus, e-publishing has the benefit of not needing all the extra pizzazz although if you can afford to pay for PR and so forth it would go a long way.

    I admit, my information is based on what I've seen around "town" (the Internet), but with such difficult of this, and especially since you think you have a finished product, why not take the e-route instead?

  2. Hi Shannon,

    No worries. I've thought a great deal about e-publishing. I self-published an earlier novel called Burnt Norway through Lulu because I simply felt it was time. I'm glad I did. And that may very well be my route for Days on Fire also. But I'm willing to give it a bit more time with the traditional route. Only a bit!