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.

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