Thursday, June 26, 2008

Where do literary agents hide their horns and other demonic attributes?

To all those as yet unpublished first-time novelist out there this is meant to be funny. However, the same crowd has undoubtedly asked this question before with a straight face and a serious demeanor. I can say truthfully, I know the answer to the title question.

It would be easier to drop-kick God in the face than to break into publishing. To achieve the former all you need to is faith; then die and possess willpower unknown to any living mortal to follow through with said drop-kick. To achieve that latter perseverance, patience, a computer, some degree of ability: dare I say ‘talent’ and a drinking habit seem to be mandatory but won't guarantee results.

In the publishing world, rejection is part of acceptance for all but the most sensational of first time authors. Rejection is out there waiting for you. Go ahead, try to get published; rejection hit you right between the eyes with astounding alacrity, didn't it? But how do you make sense of it and possibly learn from failure, or at bear minimum console yourself?

Thus begins a really long blog post.

So far I've queried nine agents; six passed after (supposedly) reading my query letter, and the other three teased with the read the query, read the partial, read the full manuscript and then pass in the end with the sure-to-be-classic catch all line, 'it's just not for me.'

The first form letter (rejection/FAIL letter) I received was beautiful. At the time I didn't know it was beautiful because I didn't have anything else to compare it to. Tragically in my despair, I threw it away when it should have been framed and put on the wall as the standard of excellence that all have since failed to achieve.

For reasons that are not in my best interest to get into until published (and perhaps this post isn't in my best interest), agents--as a whole--strike me as funny: wildly contradictory and very hypocritical. Of the four that I've met in person, only one of which I've queried, they have all shown themselves to be wonderful people: anything but contradictory hypocrites. But it's so much more fun to talk/write about the exceptions in life as opposed to the standards.

Professionalism is the word agents love to harp on when giving advice in the query process, be it on their blog, a Q & A panel, or any books they might have written on how to get their attention. "Be professional. Treat the query process like you would if you were a prospect for a new job." So you drop sensational references in the first sentence, pitch a lovely story, mention your prior publications in closing, your formating is perfect and you even spelled the agent’s name right; now when you're rejected let us inspect the professionalism of the form letter.

All agents want a self addressed stamped envelop (SASE) so they can reject you at no cost to themselves. That’s fine by me, it makes complete sense. A few are going green and do things by email. That's fine too but what you can't do is both. If you ask for a SASE respect my resources and use it, don't send an email saying, "No," then trash the SASE. Happily that has only happened once.

The second nicest form letter I've gotten was separated from the one I wish I'd framed only due to the slight difference in the quality of paper: the all-star form letter had a percentage of cotton linen in it. Outside of the paper, it was personal preference that endeared me to one over the other. They both had my name and address in the top left corner. The address line on both read , "Dear Mr. Hull." The name of my book was mentioned and at the very end, the unthinkable happened: the agent (or someone on their behalf) signed it. As in, someone picked up a pen, (oh the effort!) and wrote (or forged) the agent’s name. I'm aware both of these letters were templates, but templates exist to be modified, unlike form letters that are preprinted for everyone.

On to the not so professional form letters...

One was printed on super budget paper bought by the ream from an office supply store. Expect the letter wasn't printed, rather badly photocopied: blurry and hard to read, with a scanned in signature that looked awful--not the actual handwriting but the scan and the copy combined made it all but illegible.

One, was a nicely preprinted, "note card." Presentation and print were very well done, but it was equally impersonal and felt 'cold.'

The absolute worst--or best for the purposes of this post--form letter I got was a super budget piece of paper cut into thirds. But I didn't even get a full third, because whatever Yossarian was stuffing envelops that day awarded themselves bonus points for the rare achievement of rounded edges with the paper cutter. I could read most of it--the gist of which was, "No"--but the crown jewel of this form letter was the grease mark and tomato seed: someone's lunch was dropped, or dare I say, placed on my form letter and then without second thought shipped out to me at my cost. Very professional and a great way to present yourself to potential clients, wouldn't you agree?

I understand that I'm in agents debt for allowing them to reject me, but if that is how they communicate with me, how am I to assume they communicate with their peers, editors and other people in the profession? Next time you get a thank you note from a friend for attending their wedding, study the note. If it looked like the above form letter see if you don't re-evaluate your thoughts concerning this friend and if going to their wedding was really worth it in the first place.

See what agents don't understand (and I can write this because agents and their underlings are too busy mailing me a form letter to read my blog) is that professionalism is not a one way street, it's a revolving door and I can prove it.

Imagine a job opening at a great firm: well established, having a wonderful image, and the best benefits. Your references couldn't be better, your experience over qualifies you, and it is generally known that a Ken Starr led inquisition would be in order if you weren't offered the job. You go to the interview and things are decidedly different: the people you meet don’t bother with personal grooming and smell strongly of hot feet. A young lady on the phone alternates between nudging her screaming infant on the floor with their foot and yelling at a client, and the guy doing the interview is nothing more than a hippie--complete with dreads and a burning bowl of hash on his desk. Nothing about the firm, particularly the image, is what you expected. After seeing the inside you may not be so keen on accepting the job when it's offered.

Infer what you can from form letters because the old adage about first impressions still holds true. In fact, rejection is pretty easy to take. Imagine my horror if the Lunch Stain Agency offered me representation.

Am I being petty? Do I look like the guy that cries about the system while screaming, “It’s not fair!” I don’t think so, because there are some agents out there that invest--both time and money--in rejecting potential clients for no other reason than class and perception of image. While substance is greater than both, I assume a level playing field from all those I query as I do the best I can to, ‘check them out.’ The attention to detail shown by a few validates my concern. And if by chance any agent is reading my blog, has gotten this far, and disagrees (all of which are highly unlikely) feel free to drop your lunch on my form letter.

Where do literary agents hide their horns? All riddles are easy after you learn the answer: the form letter is where to look. Rejection is really easy to take, especially when you learn that it could be preferable to acceptance.


Anonymous said...

I haven't gotten to the point of searching out a publisher. Here's my comment on rejection.

I remain in a comfortable phase called "what might be" or "what is still possible". I'm still motivated by possibilities and untouched by disappointment. It feels good. In a way I'm Charles Willeford's lame artist Jacques Debierue (see The Burnt Orange Heresy): Debierue sits in front of a blank canvas everyday from 8 to noon imagining what he could paint. But he paints nothing, he can't commit, because knows that once he creates something real he'll have to face the truth. In maintaining the fantasy of the masterpiece he'll one day create he maintains the illusion that he's truly a great artist. Thus his studio remains full of blank canvases and un-used paint brushes and he dies never having created anything, yet lived without the disappointment of failure.

Now I'm not suggesting that I don't write. Only that I'm not a failure as long as I don't look for a publisher. I'll cross that threshold soon enough though. When I do fail (and I will because nothing works right the first go; I'm a reviser by nature) at least I'll know I'm not alone. But then again, I might need to reconsider everything. You make rejection look so attractive!

Any thoughts?


Chad Hull said...

Concerning your second paragraph, that guy in the book is a wuss.

It's not that rejection is attractive but you have to find humor in it where you can. In all things, negativity exist whether or not you subject yourself to it or not.

Look at it this way: you write for yourself, because you want to. As long as you keep practicing your craft for self gratification you've already won/succeeded, publication or not.

At least it's easier to think like the above than continually make up excuses for others not thinking your work is a fabulous as you do.

Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

Hi! This is going to be a totally random question--did you go to Roswell High School?

Chad Hull said...

Yes, yes I did anonymous. I take it you did as well? And you are?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.