Monday, June 18, 2012

Agents and Starbucks

Back in the sixties there were about 50 agents in New York. Now the Guide to Literary Agents lists 550 and that was in 2010. The list only grows longer.
This is not to say there’s anything wrong with that. Writers for the most part are believers in free enterprise, but what the devil do agents do for the money? The late Donna Summers had a song - “She Works Hard the Money” but can anyone say that about agents, especially the new crop?

First, it would help if they knew what they were doing. Contrary to popular belief a MFA degree does not confer automatic competence to becoming an effective literary agent. Second, an effective agent needs to have reliable contacts in the publishing industry. Someone to whom they can talk and to whom they can sell a manuscript. And it would help if they were well read.

Alas, these days nobody has contacts in the publishing industry. Publishing editors all too often are neophytes clutching MFA degrees who are here today and gone the next in a never ending game of musical chairs.
Recently, we did a random survey covering editorial changes over a seven days period. The changes included new hires, promotions, firings and setting up yet another new imprint. In seven days there were 63 changes, an average of nine a day. That projects out to 270 editorial changes a month or 3,240 a year. Let’s be generous and cut that by half, it still portrays an industry that lacks stability. You can't make this up. What other industry can operate like that?

This instability affects authors whose book was accepted by one editor or which may be in the process of being evaluated. Now the author finds herself with a new editor who may well have different ideas of what makes a good book. Worse, the new editor  doesn’t even know your agent.

Unfortunately, the real editors were fired years ago.

The business types who plundered the publishing industry didn’t want anybody around who actually knew what he or she was doing, especially if the editor was earning a decent salary. They were replaced with cheap hires. So give today’s agents a pass on knowing editors. Chances are even the editors don’t know who they are from one day to the next.

But it would be helpful if today’s crop of Starbucks agents were aware of life beyond the narrow one of their own generation so that it would not seem strange to them that people did not always use drugs or go to bed with strangers or recognize that homosexuals and women and minorities are people entitled to the same rights as everyone else. In other words, novels take place in anytime and in any place where there are people and they involve any imaginable mix and match of human beings, emotions, motives and outcomes.

And strangest of all, one wonders whether or not this new crop of agents realize that in the far away and misty past, adulthood actually started when one graduated from high school and that nobody was horrified at actually growing up? Strange though it may seem, it takes an adult to appreciate and understand adult behavior good, bad or indifferent.

What can this possibly have to do with agents?

Plenty. Once upon a time an author would contact an agent and if the agent were interested, the author would send the entire manuscript. Compose yourself, there’s more. The manuscript would be returned with comments explaining why the agent did not want the work or how it could be improved for further submission. And that was for a book that did not work for the agent.
You think I’m making this up?
Cut to recent times. Now agents are so “overwhelmed” with submissions that they cannot possibly read your MS! How dare you even think such a thing. You may, if you wish, submit 50 pages. No, that’s too arduous. It’ll be better if you summarize each chapter. No, wait; make that the first ten pages. Better yet, just summarize the book but do not exceed three pages and be sure to include a bio and a query letter.

Finding even this disruptive of their blogging, tweeting and Facebooking at Starbucks – authors are asked to explain what other book is similar to yours. Who has time to look at something new or creative? And be sure to enclose all of this within an e mail to foil nefarious hackers. And if for some reason US mail is involved, include a SASE provided the envelope is self-adhesive.

And be sure the first chapter “grabs” the agent. Who has time to read past that? Let there be explosions, rapes, beatings, tears, anger and maybe a murder or two.Every single book that is written must have a first page that shocks, thrills, titillates, strikes one with wonder or the rest of the book is worthless. And of course they have dozens of examples to back this up. Yeah, right.
Finding themselves still too overwhelmed to actually have time for you, agents demand you simply send them an e-mail query but don’t be so impertinent as to actually expect an answer. Agents are much too “overwhelmed.” They will only answer your query if they are interested in what you propose. Otherwise – go suck.

In fairness, agents may well indeed be overwhelmed.

Everyone wants to write a book. And everyone is encouraged to do so from grandparents to kids in middle school. They send off their masterpieces with scant knowledge of the “rules of the road” (like double spacing, use of quotes, spelling, numbering pages, etc., etc.). But then why do these “overwhelmed” agents spend time going to one writers’ seminar and workshop after another looking for manuscripts when they may well have a dozen masterpieces sitting in their office if only they had time to read them?

The bottom line is, if being an agent is the path one has chosen, then there is a moral obligation to learn what an agent does and to do the best that one can. There is little evidence of that today. Someone somewhere seems to have bruited the idea around that being an agent is an easy gig that does not require much more than a laptop. A knowledge of literature or social history or manners, morals and mores beyond one’s own insular group is superfluous.
Just read the first page.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Romance Writers New Direction
In Self-Publishing?
A number of romance authors have formed a collective to create a brand to help readers find “high quality self-published books.” Their brand, Rock*It Reads, will appear as a logo on the book jacket.

According to USA TODAY Rock*It Reads is a group of New York traditionally published authors who are also self-publishing romances. The difference is, according to a spokesperson for the group, they will only produce books that can match or do better than books produced by the big publishing houses. Their goal is to correct what they perceive as sloppy to non-existent editing in many self-published works which seriously detracts from the reading experience.

There are 11 current members in the collective; they expect to expand. Monica Burns, Cheryl Holt, Vanessa Kelly and Mia Marlowe are a few of the members. They have a website: and they will be publishing a column to keep everyone up to date at

Never Too Old to Write
When does a writer stop writing? Herman Wouk, author of The Caine Mutiny, Winds of War and many other novels is 96. His latest novel, The Lawgiver, is due out in the fall of this year (Simon and Schuster). By the way, his agent is Amy Rennert of the Amy Rennert Agency in case anyone is interested.

 Here’s What’s Selling
Continuing the copycat tradition of agents and publishers, Dollbaby has been picked up by Dorman Books. The novel by Laura L. McNeal was pitched “in the tradition of The Secret Life of Bees and The Help.” “Tradition of” is the new buzz word for agents when they ask writers trying to sell their work some variation of - “What book is it like?” Whatever happened to original?

Another novel “pitched in the tradition of” is Adelle Waldman’s, debut The Love Affair of Nathaniel P. It is apparently copying the themes and or the format of Benjamin Kunkel and Claire Messud. Book is due out in summer 2013.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


Anyone who tells you to delete any of the eight parts of speech is full of you-know-what.

The best writers use the English language the same way a conductor uses an orchestra. Each instrument in an orchestra has its place; together they create beauty and magic.

That is what good to great writers do with words. They make you wish you had said that or thought to put words together in that particular order. They intermingle words to create melody, mood, beauty and magic.

A writer can be a technician or she or he can aspire to be an artist. Technicians can write what you want when you want it and they can do it very well.  An artist cannot. A good technician can earn a decent living and gain enormous renown while most artists are known only to their girlfriends, boyfriends and mothers and fathers. And sometimes not even to them. They end up saying “Wait till next year.”

So, too, if  Amberson, the editor, wants a thing written without using an adjective or the word suddenly or the word actually or the word that; if she scorns all words ending in  -tion– she can find many writers who will give her what she wants  and she will reward them for their attention to detail. More, she will make it an ironclad rule and spread the word that such words are to be forever banned because she does not like them.  Such words are to be likened to shingles or acne or God forbid - AIDS.

Anyone wishing to come to Amberson’s attention and to earn a living writing for her would be foolish not to heed her dictates or the dictates of any of a number of such guardians of the English language such as speakers at writers’ seminars and instructors at MFA factories and so-called book doctors.

 Holding truth before us, it is fair to say that many writers become willing acolytes to these heresies and make a good living  avoiding –ly endings and adjectives and adverbs and –ing endings even though such prohibitions collectively would prevent  anyone from uttering more than  a grunt.

Yet, no one would dream of telling a painter that he or she may not use red. Or blue. Or any other color. A sculptor is at liberty to chip away at marble or granite or anything from paper to plastic. Who will say to her – “You can’t use marble because I say so.”? Going back to our orchestra, will anyone be heard to say –“Get rid of the drums, they detract from the music” or “No one listens to the piano anymore - a keyboard is better.” ?

But writers? They, none of them, are artists apparently. Rather they are snot nosed kids to be pushed around and made to stand in corners. And they do. Here is a litany of all of the elements of language that someone somewhere decreed are obsolete or a hindrance to good writing.


 –ly endings



show, don’t tell

-tion endings

-ing endings,



prepositional phrases

the verb to be.

Try this - write a paragraph on anything at all.  At least 30 words. Now strip out each adjective, adverb and each of the items above and see what you get. If it is not gibberish, you are beyond being a genius.

Artists create. What they bring forth is unique; it is a part of them and their very being just as a woman’s baby is a part of her blood and flesh and being. No one should ever tell a writer what to write creatively. An ad for soap powder, an article on radiation or the prison population lend themselves to the technician or the journalist. They are not making things up or trying to create an effect or an emotional surge.

Artists, like mothers, create. Can we tell an expectant mother that her child may not have blue eyes or a certain color skin? 

A more extensive discussion of the basic ignorance surrounding the don’t use this can be found at

In future we will look at the use some famous writers have made of language and the prescience of George Orwell.