Wednesday, September 18, 2013

To Query Literary Agents or Not?

I recently ran across a thread on where new authors were discussing whether to begin self-publishing or not. I’ve weighed in on this topic from time to time since I started self-publishing initially and still self-publish one of my series, Altered Realities. (Read about What You’re Getting Yourself Into to understand why I was open to traditional publishing.) 

Today, I couldn’t resist commenting when the topic of discussion turned to agents and whether they are necessary in the modern publishing industry. On Goodreads Robert said:

I had done a ton of homework and one agent in particular seemed perfect. Everything the agent had publicly stated they liked was contained within my novel and I went out of my way to explain it in my submission letter to the agent.

Of course, I got the frustrating rejections. The rejections themselves didn't bother me necessarily. I had steadied myself for those. What bothered me was the form letter nature of them. I really felt that the agents never even read my submission as I got "not a good fit" and "This is a subjective business" (That last part caused the smart mouth in me to say to myself, "So you admit you have terrible tastes?")

That agent I mentioned earlier, well the agent specifically stated a strong dislike to romance novels. On the agent's twitter feed their latest book deal after rejecting me was-you guessed it-a romance novel. A romance novel from an author that the agent had a long-standing relationship with.

This wasn’t a surprise to me, but I realized that to many people it was. Why?

Literary AgentsThe Gatekeepers

For years I was under the impression that literary agents were the so-called "Gatekeepers" of the publishing industry, kind of like Gozer from Ghostbusters. You couldn't enter the publishing world, whether through the refrigerator or the roof, without the support and representation of a literary agent.

After spending years in slush piles, attending writing conferences, querying agents and large publishers, and researching online, I discovered two things: 

One—Agents often have a pretty good idea of what they want. They want something that will sell. They want a good book that appeals to readers. They sometimes will even say on their site, “I’m looking for a zombie romance with an epileptic fish from a fresh perspective,” or some other generic story arc based on what they think readers are looking for. 

Two—Most of the time agents don’t know what they’re looking for, even if they think they do. I’ve seen agents do just what Robert was talking about as a result of previous agreements with clients and fresh, unexpected ideas that catch the agent’s interest. Heck, even Twilight and Harry Potter were turned down many times.

The Role of Literary Agents:

Agents can be very good at what they do, but they primarily would like to represent the next Harry Potter. But I get the impression that predicting publishing trends and which books readers will devour is more problematic than trying to predict the weather 24 hours out. This isn’t to say meteorologists and literary agents aren’t any good at their jobs, just that in my experience… well, most of the time they’re wrong, and the process for both fields is way too subjective.

The same ambiguity can also be used to describe the expectation of query letters. Often agents state that queries must be done a certain way or they will be thrown out. However, those that are written creatively, not necessarily adhering to the “required standards,” have also reportedly intrigued agents and gotten a request for more, like this example from Steven Malk on Chuck Sambuchino’s blog.

So what does this ambiguity amount to?

So far as agents go, I tried for years to get one. Ironically, after over one hundred rejections of two books, a few personalized rejections, and even a couple statements of interest that later turned into personalized rejections, I finally sort of "got lucky" with a new agent who had just made "full agent" status. (And yes, these are the best agents to query as an unpublished author because they are more ambitious and inclined to find the diamond in the rough. However, more often than not they still will reject you.)

“Getting Lucky,” Sort of:

I'd already turned down one very small publisher that just didn't jive with where I wanted to go, like creating e-books, marketing, and such. (For specific reasons why, see My Publishing Experience.)

In addition, I'd spoken with a well-known author whose books regularly top Amazon's sales list; he informed me that agents simply aren't necessary in this day and age, especially considering their cost—15 percent of everything. By this point, I’d spent months on a renewed search for an agent after years of self-publishing. Again, I was receiving rejection after rejection. I was a self-published author, meaning according to agents I could be excellent—the next Amanda Hocking, Konrath, or Scott Nicholson—or I could have written the book in a week and never spent any time fine tuning or editing it. The catch-22 was the silent understanding that only “legitimately published” authors would be considered for representation by most agents. The authors had to have a good track record. I can’t fault agents for this requirement because they personally invest their time in the author’s books; although, it does create an odd circular arrangement. 

After over 40 more rejections, this new agent who had worked under other prolific agents for years was teetering about whether to take on my novel. He was on the fence, and the book was left in limbo while he decided. Days turned into weeks, weeks to months. I sent a follow-up email, only to be told he still hadn’t decided.

Making New Publishing Opportunities:

Suffice to say that it was time to open myself to new avenues. I began researching small and midsize publishers, looking for one with marketing ambition, concepts, and a successful publishing track record. I found one I liked, Books of the Dead Press, and decided to submit my novel, A Life of Death. Within a week or two, I heard back from James Roy Daley and was in discussions about a book deal for A Life of Death. (Surprisingly, small and midsize publishers are much more open to new authors. You still have to have a good product, though. So, one submission led to one book deal offer—quite a difference from my past experiences with the big 5 publishers and so many literary agents.)

Winding Up Without Representation: 

I immediately sent an email to the teetering agent asking if he was interested in negotiating the contract. Unfortunately, it took him a few days to respond. 

Over the next few days I’d discussed things with Books of the Dead Press and happily agreed to not just one, but a two-book deal for the A Life of Death series. Both the publisher and myself were excited, and I felt the future of the series had great potential. So believe it or not, I accepted the contract, not having heard from the agent. 

Later, the agent responded that he’d be interested in representing me and negotiating the contract. At this point I felt good about the book contract I’d accepted; so I informed the agent that the deal had been negotiated without him. In essence, his services were no longer needed. For some reason, I never heard back from him after that. (I wonder why.)

While I appreciated his initial interest, my response was completely truthful. I hadn’t meant it to be condescending. However, I can't say I didn't feel a little frustrated. Every author that has gone through this knows these things can be infuriating even: getting shoved to the side, rejected hundreds of times, told to wait for months at a time after the initial review period. I waited for a couple days to figure out whether I would have to negotiate the contract myself. Having heard nothing but with a book contract on the table, I took the negotiating reigns.

While this may or may not have been a good decision, only the future will tell. It isn’t to say that I won’t take on an agent in the future, but for now I see no reason. Since my series was picked up, I've been happy with my publisher. Books of the Dead Press have expressed an interest in book 3 of the A Life of Death collection, and I’m in the process of writing it.

What does this mean for new authors attempting to find publishers and agent representation?

I can only speak from my experiences, but the catch-22 many agents buy into of just representing authors who have a proven track record is difficult to overcome. A rare few authors with debut novels may find representation the traditional way, but from what I have seen and experienced, this is becomeing harder and harder. 

The realistic way around that circular pattern of representation vs. publication is to find a publisher. Small and mid-size publishers are probably the best to consider initially and build up your “street cred” in the publishing world. Whether you choose to go self-publishing, traditional publishing, or both like I eventually did, finding the right publisher and agent for you and your book/s is essential.You can always find an agent to represent you and other books to the big 5 publishers later. 

Just have patience and stay motivated.

Weston Kincade ~ Author of the Altered Realities series, A Life of Death collection, and Strange Circumstances