So you can read my books

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


So said Mark Twain.
He could have been talking about agents. I did my share yesterday. And I received a good many emails.
Every one expressed dismay that dealing with agents meant selling yourself. Many thought that meant selling yourself out. And every one expressed thinking that perhaps writing was not for them.

Whoa! They are all excellent writers. I don't want that. Every good fantasy out there whets the appetite for more of the same. Besides they are all good friends.

I wrote them back, and I'm posting a generic version of that email here :

As writers we wear many hats during the course of the journey. As much as it irks me, in query letters I must go from artist to ambassador. Ambassador of the world I have created. I want to do it justice to the "court" of the agent I am approaching.

To do that, I must speak the language of the court I address. The language of agents is "self-interest." Many of them believe in the "win/win" concept. They help you as you help them.

Sadly, many people are only as good as their options. The agents hold the power. And it is true that some people are not good at handling power. It goes to their heads. They vent their natural bent towards cruelty and pettiness to those who cannot defend themselves or retaliate in any meaningful way.

Thankfully that number is few. But you're right, those few do vicious damage to our hearts and spirits. And due to Google Search, those burned by them hesitate to speak their names on the internet.

Most agents are just overworked. Not mean or petty. Just impatient, reading with half-listening eyes. How many times have you been looking for an item while fatigued and have your eyes pass right over it several times before spotting it?

Agents are like that. Sadly, they glance over our query letter only once. If they miss that what we have is what they really want, they do not re-read and pick up on that. They just miss it.

The galling thing about rejections is that usually you are given no reason. Wrong genre? Wrong voice? Too sluggish? Too fast-paced?

Beta readers are just outsiders like you, looking in through the window at the world of the published authors. And published authors will tell you : it is a matter of chance that determines if your quality is recognized.

The quality has to be there, of course. But it is a crap shoot if your excellent writing slips through the window of opportunity to get its chance to dance in the spotlight of an approving agent's and accepting publisher's attention.

That realization, instead of weighing us down, should free us. The world will turn as it will turn. The tides come in on their own schedule. It is only up to us to walk as best we can, handling the reins of our lives with wisdom and courage.

Realize we are ambassadors to a self-interested system, learn its language, and present ourselves and our world with wit, humor, and the calm confidence that The Father has our back. And our friends, of course. As I am friends with all those who visit my blog and exchange comments with me.

And the literary world is what it is. We writers need agents, though I have read some experts say not. They are mistaken. Here's why :

In other words, in this busy publishing world, editors no longer have time to read unsolicited queries. Bottom line : you won't get read; you will get a form rejection.

You submit to a publisher. He whips back a form rejection. A miracle happens, and you get an agent. Professional courtesy says that agent can't submit your novel to even another editor from that same publishing house. Your agent tells you that you're #1 with the wrong finger. You just made his job that much harder.

Another miracle happens. A publisher buys your book -- and a worse deal you would be hard-pressed to find. An agent would have gotten you a higher advance and royalties. Even if you sense you are getting a raw deal, the editor knows you have nowhere else to go.

If one publisher liked your novice unsolicited manuscript enough to buy, others would have, too. You will never know how much you could have gotten. Unlike an agent, you didn't have the contacts to arrange a bidding war for your novel. And the editor probably didn't even give you a jar of vaseline.

Stick your head out the window. See those vultures? They're drawn to that dead thing you call your "miracle contract." More than advance and royalties, there are other crucial items to consider like :
1) Translation rights.
2) Audio rights
3) Movie and TV rights.
4) Book Club rights.
5) Timing of your advance payment.
6) Bonus clauses.
7) Option on your next book.
8) Hear the hooting and laughter in the hallways. That's the sound of the editors laughing at your expense.

Without an agent, you will have to negotiate for a higher advance, those nit-picky contract issues you never saw coming, requesting a catalog copy, screaming about the stick figure drawings they have for your jacket art.

Guess what? The Pavlov effect kicks in very quickly. The editor hears your name and scowls, a sour feeling pervading his whole chest.

That's where your agent comes in. Editors expect agents to be combative. It's in their job description. They are your ambassadors. They allow your relationship with the editor to be purely on creative and editing matters. A healthy environment ensues.

It is what it is in publishing : a madhouse. Each editor usually has 2o to 30 authors in the pipeline. Yeah, that's a lot of pipe! You don't have an agent? Great.

Great for the overworked editor. He knows which novel to place at the bottom of the priority stack. See your novel buckling? It's got the bends.

See your stressed-out editor? No? That's because he just quit. What? Oh, don't look for any of the other editors to adopt you. No, they're busy gobbling up your editor's former resources like publicity money, marketing assets, and the dozen other publishing department time slots that are temporarily freed up.

You don't have an agent? Then, expect your book to be canceled faster than Tiger Wood's marriage license. Or placed so far down the pipeline, it would have been better for it to have been canceled so that you take it to another publisher.

You, however, don't have an agent. You can be shot. And if your first novel doesn't perform well, (and very few first novels do,) you will be shot ... out of the publishing house so fast there will be a sonic boom in Siberia.

All those experts that write that you don't need an agent hopefully mean well. But they are mistaken. And there are some great people out there I would be happy to have as friends, much less agents. Think Kristen Nelson or Nathan Bransford

Not that either of them accepted any of the four queries I sent them for FRENCH QUARTER NOCTURNE, RITES OF PASSAGE, THE BEAR WITH 2 SHADOWS, or THE MOON AND SUN AS MY BRIDES. No. But they did write me a personal rejection. Sadly, no direct mention of what was wrong or how to correct it. But read their blogs, and you will discover that they are nice people.

And for a little flirty fun tune to keep the wind at your back :


  1. This is a really good post. I was just about to shoot a letter to publishing houses. Maybe I'll stick it out and try agents again over the summer with a stronger query letter.

  2. You are so knowledgeable! Good luck with your books...Thank you for your visit and nice comment...Hope you will get nice weather tomorrow :)
    Following you back :)

  3. I definitely didn't intend to go my way agentless, but after reading this, I feel much better about my decision. Who wouldn't be better off with a coach in your corner? I'll bet new writers often jump straight to the editors/publishers because they may not have the patience to find an agent to sign with.

  4. Very good post, and a very good warning to all published-authors-to-be out there. Being a lawyer by day job, I can only add to the warning: if you don't know your way around a contract, stay the hell away from it until someone who does have a clue has read it. Even being a lawyer I would hesitate to sign a contract with a publisher, because I don't know what the industry standards are and could therefore be signing my life away without knowing....

  5. A whole lot to digest there. Thanks for sharing

  6. Come by my blog I have an AWARD for you!

  7. This was brilliant! I was so wowed by it, I almost forgot to mention I have something on my blog for you. I only remembered when I saw Tessa's comments. :D

  8. Brilliant! So much to digest. So many little details that add up. Thanks for the info.

  9. Great advice, sir. Though I agree with your first metaphor/bullet, for some reason it made me think of people, like me, who try and edit while writing that first draft. Hurm. (i.e. changing tire on moving vehicle = tinkering with edits while banging out that first draft.) Could also mean, in your agenting post context, submitting work too early in the process. You always make me think, Roland. For that, you get three snaps up in Z formation. *snap* *snap* *SNAP!* :D

  10. Wonderful post, Roland. Very informative.

  11. if only we could keep our swollen egos in check :(

    sure we're good... but we're not THAT good, if we still get rejections from those in the know!

    it's like going to a foreign country and trying to get by with a translator book where they don't speak our language and we don't understand theirs... we may get a coffee when we thought we asked for a beer... such is the murkiness in and around publishers, too

    great post!

  12. still can't get your email to work, i'm here:

  13. casey has a lot of agents on her sidebar:

  14. Lots of good advice here. Publishing is a business and no place for amateurs. A writer representing himself to publishers is like somebody representing himself in court. As the old saying goes "he has a fool for a lawyer" (or agent.)

    Laughingwolf: You're right Casey's blog is one of the best places to find info on agents (especially if you write YA.) She's fantastic.

  15. Nice post Roland, well thought out and very informative. I wish I had read it before I made a drastic move this morning. C'est la vie. Live and learn, it's only one house.

  16. Very entertaining way to get some good info out there! I would also add that SOME of the advice to skip the agent comes from published authors in OTHER COUNTRIES where the agent is not quite so critical to the process. In the UK, only about half of authors have agents, and typically get them AFTER publishing for negociating all those extras you mention.

    In the US there are just too many people trying to write books for the publishers to filter without the agents. (there are POSSIBLY exceptions for things you only want to publish regionally or that are in micro-genres or non-fiction, but almost always, the agent will find the better deal and help you all the way through)

  17. I can feel a little bit of deja vu coming on :)

  18. Never try to change a tire on a moving car -- I like that :-)

  19. Very interesting, my precious. :)

    Thanks for all the advice. Since I'm about to start on my query journey again next week, this is timely and helpful.

    Have a good weekend.


  20. "No one shoots John Wayne's horse."

    Roland, I say this with utter sincerity...please remember me when you're writing starts paying the mortgage:)

  21. On the horizon change is coming...
    Like it or not, the industry will change with the ebook revolution--agents and publishers will be made obsolete and the power given to the writer. Like when talkies changed silent film forever- entire professions evaporated.

  22. Jo : Yes, change is coming. But for the moment we still need agents and the nationwide distribution system of the publishing houses. Good to have you back.

    Elliot : I'm glad you liked that line. And I will certainly remember you. Now, if only that day will come!

    Christina : Hang back on that letter and sharpen that query letter. I wish you the best of luck.

    Frenchy : Thanks for the high praise. But if I'm so knowledgable, how come I'm still without an agent? Sigh. Thanks for dropping by, becoming a follower, and commenting. Don't be a stranger.

    Angela : You're right. We writers are impatient to get published. Thanks for visiting. Come again.

    Tessa : A lawyer by day. A writer by night. When do you sleep? Or are sleepless in front of the laptop like me? And thanks for the award.

    MissV : Glad you liked my post. You're a welcome presence here.

    Stina : I'm happy you thought my post brilliant. And thanks for the award, too.

    Kittie : Yes, details add up. My messy apartment shows that! Thanks for dropping by. I'm always glad to hear from you.

    Zoe : I've never been given the Z three snap salute before. I'm grinning ear to ear. Yes, the moving analogy can go for revising while continuing to write your novel as well. Like I said earlier, we writers certainly are an impatient bunch. Visit and comment again.

    Mary : Thanks for the praise.

    Laughing Wolf : I will check out Casey's site soon. My eyes are beginning to become lead. Thankfully your emails are now getting through.

    Anne R. : We writers do this on the side, so to speak, and so it is easy to forget that it is a cold, hard business to those we submit to. Come back again.

    Anne : Yes, it is only one house. And there are others. You are a talented writer. You will get published.

    I have to split my answers or blogger wipes them all out, Roland

  23. Hart : You're right about the UK and European countries. I don't know about New Zealand though. You are quite knowledgable yourself there.

    Wendy : Yes, deja vu all over again, right?

    Agnes : I'm happy you liked that line. Always good to have you visit and comment.

    Donna : I wish you tons of luck with your query journey next week. If you need any help, I will try my best, Roland

    Another blood run is calling. I keep vampire hours! Thank all of you for visiting and commenting. It means a lot, Roland

  24. Great post as usual Roland, hopefully all writers know about these important points, but of course there are those out there who don't.

    That being said you get it across in a very entertaining way.