Soniah Kamal

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'Islam is not Pakistan's religion; Marriage is'

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Literary Agents, Credibility, Publisher's Weekly and Off the Record

Most writers think that the minute they sign with a literary agent all their problems are solved. Not so. While a 'good' literary agent is a blessing, a 'bad' literary agent is a big fat curse. A good literary agent is one who not just tries to sell your novel but advises you about your career and, above all, stands by your side no matter what. I have been assured that such literary agents exist.
 A 'bad' literary agent is one who raves about your work but if one of the big six publishers does not take it on suddenly stops raving, as well as returning your calls, your e-mails and your chances of a writing future. 
How is a writer to avoid signing with a 'bad' agent? Unfortunately there is no exact science of knowing good from bad. In fact the number one problem a writer looking for an agent undergoes is being able to distinguish between 'bad' and 'good' especially in this day and age where all agents sound great in their websites and in interviews (Which agent is going to say:  unless you sell to a really big publisher and your book goes on to do really well, I'm going to pretend I never heard of you).
Some helpful sites for writers are Agent Query and Query Tracker which have forums where writers can discuss the agents. Unfortunately most writers grumble about their bad experiences off the record lest going on the record harm their chances of every signing with another agent since  since the agent world is small and no writer want to become known as a 'untouchable complainer'. There is also Writers Beware and author J.A. Konrath has multiple posts on the writer-agent relationships and things to be wary of.
Another recourse writers swear by when it comes to researching literary agents is the premier publishing journal Publishers Weekly where a subscription allows you to access information on how many sales each agent has made and in which genre. This information is, however, dependent on agents reporting their sales. And why should they not report? Sales sale are a good thing.  
 And this is where I come to the Atlanta Writers Club. A few moons ago one of the speakers was an ex-agent turned fiction writer.  This ex-agent was not very happy with their own agent but didn't know what to do about it because this ex-agent's agent was one of the big ones, and also most writers believe that any agent is better than being agent less, though I disagree. 
Since the writer and literary agent relationship is often compared to a marriage, I  asked the ex-agent how a writer might go about finding a 'match made in heaven.'. To that end, I asked, how reliable and helpful was the information found in Publisher's Weekly? What the ex-editor had to say distressed  me. Apparently the publishing world considers agents who post sales as show-offs and are, apparently, made fun of behind the scenes. This 'insider' detail upset  me because a) I'm naive and b) I'm naive. I thought agents had better things to do than make fun of each other but then here is where it would do well for writers to remember that agents are humans too. Fact is it would be such a shame for writers if agents were not posting their sales figures in Publisher's Weekly since this is one of the few places where writers can get information on sales. Industry insiders might know who is selling best in which genre ( i.e. commercial internal fiction or literary international fiction? yes there is a difference) but the lowly writer is an outsider and as such is in need of this information most of all.  And in the end no matter how much research you do by the time you realize the agent is not right for you it is too late. 


Anjali said...

The toughest part of this business, I think, is that you won't know whether you have a bad editor or agent until it's too late. And it doesn't matter how many book sales they've had, or how many glowing testimonials you can find online. An editor or agent may be bad for your book..

Drunk on Ink said...

Oh. Yes. I. Know. That. Unfortunately.

mary glickman said...

I've only ever had two agents.The first became a mentor, a friend, my only hope in the darkness, but over decades, she couldn't sell my work.She could sell other people's work. She had a great rep.She loved my work.But nothing ever happened.
My second agent made it all happen in a handful of weeks. He's very savvy, his advice is pure gold.I thank God for him.Every day!
Does this mean he's a "better" agent than my first one in her prime? Maybe. Maybe not. The publishing world changed in the last few years and I think he understands it and she's wound down.But why couldn't she sell me years before?
I hate to say this all the time, but I still think this publishing business revolves a lot around luck. Call it karma, if you like. The great wheel turns. . .

Drunk on Ink said...

Mary I think karma and luck are two different beasts. Karma implies you've somehow created your bad luck/deserve it, while plain luck is just blind and can strike anyone at any time. As for success being dependent on luck-- I would say too much. I know it's unpopular to discount hard work (though without that there is NO hope for getting anywhere) but plenty of people work hard and don't even close to their goals. It's an unfair and unequal world and the real challenge lies in learning to accept this with grace and without going mad. In all aspects of life. You're first agent sounds like a fine person, but am glad you are now with an agent who is able to also get you closer to your goals:)

mary glickman said...

Well, none of us are so innocent that we can't imagine karmic reasons for our difficulties and there's always the fall back: I must have been one monster in my last life! :-)
You're right that without the hard work there's NO hope (unless you've got a product there's nothing to sell)and that plenty of people work hard in constant frustration, plenty of talented, accomplished people. That's why it's vital to write what pleases you, to enjoy your process and the conquering of creative challenges. Not only does it give you purpose, but it's infectious.