Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire

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Of authors and agents.

So I'm merrily cruising around my reading list—amusingly enough, and you'll understand why in a moment, right after composing a lengthy letter to my agent—when I discover that a friend of mine (hi, Jim!) has linked to an essay about literary agents. Now, I'm a big fan of literary agents. I go to have a look. Hmmm. The essay in question is titled "The Talent Killers: How literary agents are destroying literature, and what publishers can do to stop them." That's a mouthful and a half. I proceeded to read the essay, that being what one does in such a situation. Then I read an essay from Beth Bernobich about why agents are not, in fact, servants of the devil. And then I read Jim Hines's post on the topic.

And then I thought about it for a while.

And now here I am.

(As a digression: titles are important. I realize that not everyone aspires to grow up perky, pithy, and easy to say, but seriously? For an essay title? One that actively insults a large group of people whom you admit have the ear of the person or people you're trying to reach? This doesn't work for me all that well. Just saying.)

Look: many authors do not have agents. The agent-to-author ratio is scary, especially since you don't have to have some sort of training before you can tack "author" onto your name. Most agents are already representing several clients, and may not be able to estimate how many clients they can take in any sort of firm number. I, for example, am relatively self-starting; point me at something, tell me it has a candy center, and I'll check in with you next month. Olga over here, she needs daily contact or she starts to freak out, and when she freaks out, she's not getting anything done. An agent who could handle four of me may be hard pressed to handle one of me, plus Olga. Being an agent is something like trying to plan a dinner party, only instead of dietary restrictions and seating plans, you have amount of hand-holding and sanity exams.

Also look: many authors, who have written good, salable books, manage to sell their first book, or even their first several, without the aid of an agent. It's true that the number of major houses willing to consider unrepresented authors is down. It's also true that the number of accessible small press houses willing to consider those same authors is up. It can be difficult to tell the genuine small houses from the predators playing "print on demand," but if you want to be an author, you're going to spend hours in the research trenches. Researching publishing houses is the least you're going to be expected to do. The sentence to remember here is "who have written good books," not "who have written books." Typing "The End" is actually just the beginning.

I didn't find an agent the first time I tried. I didn't find an agent the tenth time I tried, either. And you know what? I'm glad. The books I was writing when I first started my search were...well, let's just say they weren't the best books in the history of mankind. Actually and honestly, they were, well, pretty damn bad. I had talent and I had enthusiasm, but what I needed was practice and time. (I know people whose response to this is "a good agent would have recognized your talent and taught you what to do." Sadly, no. World of no. Author to agent ratio again, remember? I would be seriously unhappy if my agent said she wouldn't be returning phone calls for a month because she'd found some green new writer to exhaust herself over. What's more, when I was that green new writer, I wasn't ready to hear a lot of the things that needed to be said. An agent who took me on then would have exhausted themselves for nothing.) My books are better because I had to face rejections and ask myself what I was doing wrong.

There's also the point of writing to sell vs. writing from the soul—or, as a friend of mine said recently, "I'm selling out as fast as I can." Something being popular doesn't make it bad, and wanting a client with an easy-to-pitch first book isn't bad either. Your future sales will be determined, in part, by your initial sales, and most publishers are going to be a lot more willing to take an "out there" second novel. Sell your vampires and you may find your race of symbiotic plant-people from the Outer Limits gets a much warmer reception. If an agent says "What else have you got?", it's not a judgment on your book. It's part of the necessary dinner party planning.

Finally—because I could talk about this topic for hours, and that means it's time to stop—keep in mind that when you're talking about people who read books and sell books for a living, reading comprehension really, really matters. Someone asked me the other day what I thought she had to do if she wanted to make it. I said "read the submission guidelines." They're sort of like airport security; if you set off the metal detector after you've been told to empty your pockets eight times, you may miss your flight. Well, if you ignore an agent's—or publisher's—submission guidelines, you may find yourself in the same situation. Metaphorically speaking.

In conclusion (for now), agents good, reading comprehension good, not getting signed not an evil plot to destroy your soul.

Tags: business needs, contemplation, personal superhero

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