Friday, October 19, 2012

Of Agents and Ghoulies


From Ghoulies and Ghosties, Long-Leggitie Beasties . . .

(Part 25)                                                                                 
Then he added, "But we will not go alone."

(Continued tomorrow.)

And my commentary . . . 
 Okay, now that's creepy.  You know what's coming, don't you?  Of course you do.  That's the essence of horror -- letting the reader know the bad news just a smidge before the narrator does.

You can read all of the story to date here.

And because someone asked . . .  

Over on Facebook, I was asked how to get an agent and I promised to write up what I knew about the subject here.  The problem is that I don't know much.

No one does.

Those of us with agents have mostly just kind of stumbled into the relationship.  Somebody put in a good word.  A friend set up a blind date.  It just happened.  The simple truth is that agents are far harder to find than editors, and acquiring one is much more difficult than selling a book.

Worse, while the wrong editor can screw up a book, the wrong agent can screw up a career.  Ask around and you'll hear stories of an agent who recommended a first-time novelist sign a contract for nine books at nine times the advance for a first novel, of another who gave detailed step-by-step reports of where the novel was in the consideration process of a publishing house when actually he-or-she had never sent it out, of an agent who wrote an accompanying letter explaining why the book was unpublishable, of . . .

Well.  Never mind.  Here's what you should do.

The first step is to write a novel.  This is crucial.  Agents are not writing workshops or lifestyle coaches or surrogate moms.  Their job is to sell your novel for as much money as possible.  If you don't have a novel (or something so convincing that nobody will doubt you can complete it in a short period of time), then there's nothing for the agent to do, and they probably don't want to hear from you.

, go to lots of conventions, workshops, and the like.  Make friends.  Real friends, not network buddies or business opportunities or people you can exploit to advance your careers.  Talk with lots of people, get lots of advice, synthesize it.

Then figure out who you want for an agent.  Remember, anybody can be an agent.  They don't have to pass an exam or prove their sanity.  And not every reputable agent will be a good fit for you.  Consult your (see above) friends.

Apply.  A polite letter explaining that you have a finished novel, why you think the agent is right for you, and (with luck) the fact that one of the agent's clients can vouch for you.  Ask if you should submit chapter and outline or the whole thing.  Don't include the work itself in the first approach.

That's not very clever, is it?  I apologize for that.  And to make up for it, I'll share with you the decidedly clever a successful fantasist I know used a quarter century ago.  I've never done anything half so cunning myself.  But here's what she told me:

First, she went to her bookshelf and took down all the contemporary genre work she especially admired.  Then she read the acknowledgments and dedications, looking for the phrase "my agent."  One individual predominated.  That was the agent she wanted, the one who did well by the kind of writer she aspired to be.

Then she sent out her novel to publishing houses until one accepted it.  (Some still do, I believe, though I couldn't swear to it.)  They of course sent her a contract and a letter saying, "Congratulations!  We love your book and we're going to publish it."  But she knew that what they were actually doing was making her an offer, which she was free to accept or reject.  So...

Then she called her agent of choice, explaining that she had an offer from Name Publishing House and didn't know whether to accept it -- would the agent take a look?

There wasn't a lot of downside here for the agent:  A guaranteed sale, an easy few hundred bucks, the possibility of the sort of client the agent deals with.  So the agent asked to take a look.

The agent liked the book and immediately called the publishing house to say, "The offer you're making my client is an insult" and got it bumped up fifteen percent.  And as a result, the writer had an agent at no added expense to herself.

This is, as I said, much smarter than anything I've done myself.  But it sounds good to me.  And it's worked before.

Above:  The moon coming out over the Delaware.



Ken Houghton said...

"Worse, while the wrong editor can screw up a book, the wrong editor can screw up a career."

I think you mean "the wrong agent can screw up a career." (As writ may be true as well, but doesn't seem the subject of the essay.)

"The first step is to write a novel."

Aha! Knew there was a catch...

Michael Swanwick said...

Thanks for the catch Ken. Correction made.

Having to actually write the novel is the first and biggest catch there is. A lot of writers try to get around that by acquiring an agent first and then promoting the hell out of their career. Alas, it all comes to nothing without that book.