C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

Write and publish with love and fury.

The Author Selects the Agent Scam

Writers’ magazines occasionally run stories on “how to select an agent” or some such nonsense. Sure, you can check Preditors and Editors and ask around about particular agents, but the power differential between authors and agents is, well…the word “egregious” comes to mind. (In fact, that’s the same word that came to mind for Kristine Kathryn Rusch. See below for that most excellent link.)

When you submit work to an agent (note you’re already in submission and they are in dominance from the get go) it’s kind of like applying for a job. You send out a resume (your manuscript proposal) and agents say no. And more agents say no. Repeat until doubt and self-loathing kicks in.

When you do finally get the call, you’ll say yes to anybody.

Pick your metaphor: 

1. It’s the end of the world and don’t you want to experience the act of physical love just once before you die?

2. You’re a serial killer/diabetic and the warden says they’re fixing the electric chair and would you like your first and only chocolate éclair before they electrocute your ass?

3. The vampires have risen and this is the last sunset before Dracula’s armies of the undead close in on you, the last human survivor on the roof of The Mall of America. Suddenly Carrie Moss shows up piloting a helicopter. Do you jump on the rope ladder to safety? Or do you negotiate so she wears an even tighter leather outfit like the one from The Matrix?

Answers:

1. Of course, devirginize!

2. Eat that éclair. The sugar won’t have time to migrate to your rotten pancreas.

3. Board that helicopter and maybe you’ll live long enough for the sequel!

If you’ve run the long gauntlet of trying to find an agent, or just heard a few horror stories to that effect, you sign that contract as fast as you can. You’re closer to publication than you were, so an agent calling must be good, right?

“Must” is a strong word. In fact, read The Passive Voice  and you’ll be running to publish yourself after all. It’s about enslavement via contractual obligations that go on forever. This is scarier than anything Stephen King could possibly dream up. 

Passive Voice also links to Kristine Kathryn Rusch, which you should also read before you do anything. Don’t even poop before reading this.  

Before you put on that electric collar and tie the leash around your genitals, read your contract carefully. Make informed choices. Show contracts to a lawyer. Negotiate the egregious. Take responsibility so you hire the agent, not the other way around. And always be willing to walk away from any deal. Walking away may be the only way to get a decent deal.

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Writers: Craft your pitch carefully.

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It’s very difficult to summarize your novel. When we pitch a story, we talk about broad strokes and the rest is about theme. The reason is that when we summarize in depth, the story often sounds dumb.

Let’s try it with a popular movie and you’ll see what I mean:

In the mostly great and totally watchable  A Few Good Men, a Gitmo soldier is killed and two Marines are charged with his killing. So far, so good.

The base commander goes to great lengths (all behind the scenes) to cover up his part in the crime. The rest is about how a young lawyer who has never stepped inside a courtroom goes against the military establishment to get the commanding officer to admit in court that it was he who ordered the Marines to attack the soldier as a training exercise. The commanding officer will admit his guilt proudly and then be surprised he’s under arrest. The two Marines don’t go to prison but do get discharged dishonorably. The young lawyer feels good about himself in the end. And no, he doesn’t get to sleep with Demi Moore.

Were you to pitch it like that (and if you aren’t actually Aaron Sorkin) it’s very hit-and-miss…uh, no, actually it’s all miss. The context and detail is necessarily missing in a summary. The person you’re pitching won’t know about the nuance that the young lawyer will try to live up to his father’s courtroom legend. The clever sarcasm won’t be much on display to sell the idea of the script.

You would pitch about visiting the base and the sinister base commander. However, the subplot about the deputy-commander who can disappear because he’s former Special Ops (and turns suicidal) stretches credibility. It’s a spot where you could easily lose your audience. The pitch won’t get into the nitty-gritty of the interplay among the defense team. Kevin Pollak is the glue, but his role’s power would be difficult to flesh out in a short meeting and could derail you. 

When you pitch a movie, play or book, the odds are stacked against you in a huge way. It is statistically very unlikely someone will invest in your art. Put a lot of time perfecting your query letter (or your pitch) so you cram in your art and style.

The inherent difficulties of the pitch reduce your work so you want to look for ways to show your competence and still stay within the parameters of the pitch (e.g. format, brevity and economy of communication must be balanced by characters whose motivations are compelling and narrative arcs that make people want to hear more.)

If you don’t pitch it well, they won’t get it. If you have no track record, the only evidence that they have that you can articulate and execute an idea is confined within the straitjacket of a pitch meeting or query letter.

That’s why so many unknown writers, directors and artists of all sorts stay unknown.*

*Or, as we’ve frequently discussed, you could reject the premise of The Man’s hierarchical paradigm and find a way to DIY. (See yesterday’s post for further thoughts on that.)

UPDATE: Here’s a great survey on the things that drive agents away from you.

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Introductions: Sending your manuscript the right way. Meeting editors and agents.

Fragment of M. Lomonosov's manuscript "Ph...

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Do you have a manuscript you want to submit? Here’s your check list. Do not try to stand out by breaking these industry conventions.

Now suppose you’ve sent off your manuscripts but you haven’t had any luck yet (and yes, luck is part of the process.)

You decide to head off to a writers’ conference and actually meet agents and editors personally. If you can meet them in person, you reason, you can turn them on to your work. Slow down on that plan. The Kill Zone gives you tips so you’re ready to meet those industry professional as equals.

The power differential in the agent/editor/author relationship drives writers crazy. There’s much more drama around meeting editors and agents than there needs to be.

You are an equal. You’re a human being, neither above nor below. Don’t go hat in hand.

It’s a friendly business meeting. Think of it that way.

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Tuesday Publishing Links for You

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5 Ways to Make Your Blog Posts Outstanding | Social Media Examiner‏

The Slush Pile: Enter at Your Own Risk | Steve Laube‏

Writer Unboxed » Blog Archive » What NOT to do at a Bookstore Signing‏

What does self-publishing cost?

How to Get an Agent for Your Book‏

InDigital | Twitter and the Publishing Industry‏

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Friday Afternoon Reason to Live: Publishing Links that Help

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Famous Bloggers: Where to Find Free Stunning Images for Your Blog

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Writing Critique: What’s Reasonable?

The other day I recommended Nathan Bransford’s blog (especially the publishing wrap-up on Fridays.) On Mondays he provides an excellent service in showing how he thinks as he evaluates a manuscript. I often agree with his opinion, but this Monday’s critique post struck me as hypercritical. Check it out and see what you think for yourself.

On this one, I didn’t understand most of his problems with the writing sample. When Mr. Bransford professed that he wasn’t understanding the story, I was thinking, “Why? I get it. Wouldn’t everybody get this? Sounds interesting. Tell me more.” (Dean Koontz wrote a book and there were a couple of TV shows with a similar premise.) As I read I thought, if they don’t get it, they’re probably not readers, anyway.

Larger point? It’s a subjective business. Keep submitting. Writers can’t hear that message often enough. Somebody will get it.

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The Subject is Subjectivity

Editor and agent submission guidelines can sometimes be silly and  hyperbolic. “Blow me away! I want to be transported!” Then you actually read their lit journal or the books they published and you think, “Really? That blew you away? I’d rather read a cereal box.”

Agents will tell you what they don’t want, which is reasonable. If editors who handle fantasy aren’t in their network, that’s fine, they don’t handle that. That’s a business decision that says nothing about your work.

Editors and agents want something that appeals to them and they’ll call whatever appeals to them “good.” Bookstores and libraries have lots of books that don’t appeal to me. I don’t assume that means they’re bad books, however. I just think, somebody must love that stuff and I don’t. I have no interest in birdwatching or golf. Still lots of people are into that.

The best rejection slips simply say, “Not for us.” That’s most accurate. Everything else is just an opinion. Don’t take your rejection slips personally.

Now go mail your manuscript again.

Want to commiserate with somebody about rejection? Meet  Writer Rejected at Literary Rejections on Display.

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Don’t dream about the look of the story too long

I’ve met with a couple writers lately. They had designed elaborate worlds. One guy had invented new physics and had some interesting ideas about gravity.  He made notes, but he was much farther from publication than he thought he was.

The problem was that neither of these writers had a story in mind at all. There was no rising plot boiling characters whose needs cross swords. Complications did not ensue. There were no people/aliens/sulphur-based plants doing anything. When these writers do some further inventing, they might have interesting environments for their protagonists.

When you’re thinking about your book, ask yourself, “What’s the story?” These folks had a where but no what. Where is less important.

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Winner of Writer's Digest's 2014 Honorable Mention in Self-published Ebook Awards in Genre

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