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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

The Agent Steeplechase

The “Age of Internet Communication” has made life & work easier for writers (and other artists); contacting publishers, agents, and readers is a “virtual” no-fee process (remember printing/copying costs, envelopes, and postage?). As I embark on a 3-to-4 month effort to get “Max, the blind guy” a larger chance at a worldwide distribution market, I have noticed a few things (some new, others ridiculously cliché) about the publishing industry.

Firstly, the research to hunt down likely agents is far easier than it once was. Today, websites abound on which agents avail themselves of their education, their pedigree, likes-and-dislikes, what “turns me on” or “we don’t consider.” Great!

I can send out 10 queries in the space of an hour, using cut’n’paste tech with a letter that reads as if I had only them in mind (which I do, for the time it takes me to assemble the requisite letter) even while some actually expect a writer to send a single query, wait nine weeks for a single response (rejection? acceptance? blasé criticism?), and then think I’m lucky to have gotten any response at all.

Agents/editors might have the same tech as I do, but often they are living in a distant past that even the venerable Maxwell Perkins could chuckle upon over a sandwich eaten at his desk while reading manuscripts of unknown authors, looking for that gem he wouldn’t otherwise allow underlings to pass over out of venal angst or pure ignorance.

Nevertheless, while I do in fact look closely at each agent to whom I post a query, I know that I am up against a high wall of — no, not expectations — sales/marketing mentality. In other words, agents are looking for “the next …. [fill in the blank author’s name]” while not actually able to predict what will/shall/can/ought to sell, and what won’t. Truly, this IS the case. Most of them admit to this fault; hell, major-PubHouse editors haven’t a clue (and their jobs are far more precarious than agents’).

Secondly, I retain the hold on my “product” that the agents claim they “want to see in print” and promise they’ll “work with an author to forge the best book possible” — as if any author should allow a mere agent to tell them what is or is not good writing (likewise, an editor). You see, agents and editors (who may in fact be writers themselves, but usually not (only readers), and more likely business people who look at your book as “product”) are quite lovely people who are in a terrible position of not understanding the market any more than the average writer walking through the local Barnes & Noble and/or looking at various “sales sheets” of the top 100 books. So to allow yourself, as the writer of your story, to be convinced that this story needs this’n’that changed, becomes a fool’s game, with the writer playing the fool, if he isn’t careful (I’ve heard numerous stories of writers doing major rewrites over 2-year periods, only to be told by the agent/editor, in the end, the story didn’t fit any marketing profile).

Agents, Editors, Publishers, Readers. Friends, Adversaries, Haters, Benefactors. Slush Piles, Invitations, Rejections, No-Response Bastards. Published Book, Sales Figures, Book Fairs, Public Readings, Residual Checks.  Book Reviews, No Reviews, Good Reviews, Bad Reviews. “The best writing I’ve read in years!” “I didn’t get the plot.” “I liked the opening but not the ending — couldn’t the character have lived?” “I read only stories that I can identify with the character.”

Next book project. Time to pitch Hollywood producers. Merry-go-round or steeplechase?


“Max, the blind guy” is a story of Max and Greta Ruth, their 40-year relationship, and all the demons that show up as they find that life rarely goes according to plan. The manuscript is now out with agents; it may be in print as early as December 2014.

What Beauty was published in 2012. It’s a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

Are We Still Trying to Answer the Question “To Self-Publish or Wait for the Book Contract?” …?

Have you ever asked yourself the question “Is this guy a good doctor?” while standing in the examination room looking at his framed credentials on the wall? This is the sort of question a writer needs to ask of any potential agent, publisher, or reviewer. The answers cannot be found in the doctor’s framed diplomas any more than on the agents’ client list or the fancy thumbnails you see scrolling across the publishers’ website banners. And as for the reviewers, just read what they’ve written to see if they have the ability to critique a book.

If you’ve come to the conclusion that some list of agents you’ve created through research can help you make it big, or on another list of publishers that would be perfect for your book and career, then please stop reading this so you can go polish that query letter, proofread your MS, and set the egg timer to 4-8 months as you wait for their reply. You’ve got work to do … and wasting time reading a blog post is only going to make your life that much more anxiety-filled.

However, if you’ve just finished the umpteenth draft of your third novel and polished its prose like the fender of a ’64 Corvette, and you’re not sure about sending out another round of 50 query letters to agents and publishers that haven’t responded (or have flatly declined to read your work), then please, you have a few minutes to spare before getting back to the new project.

My advice is this: Publish Now, Perish Later

If you DO NOT HAVE a living-breathing contact in publishing, and that contact is willing to vouch for you and your book and your future books, then traditional publishing might not be the route you need to take at this point in your career. The reasons are many, but a few are clear: writing query letters is as much a craft as writing a novel; researching the agents and publishers whom you can contact directly (and sending out letters) is nearly a full-time job; and then there is the waiting — weeks, months, sometimes half a year. Meanwhile, you’re MS sits in limbo, your mind might be swirling with anticipation that work on the next book is hampered. Meanwhile, you’re potential readers are scouring the bookstore shelves and online retailers for that next great read — but they won’t find yours among the stacks or thumbnails.

Then you sit some more, collecting rejection slips to fill a fold or tape to the wall because you “won’t let these bring me down!” … and there in the slush-pile of rejections jumps out the odd “yeah, sure! send in your manuscript!” after a 3-month wait, only to be asked to wait another 3-to-6 months for another response. Ouch! Life is short, and so is the attention span of editors.

Hey, I could be wrong. New writers get contracts every day; not good contracts anymore (in the ’80s, $30,000 advanced were par for the course; today, unknowns get $2,000). If you’re already an Indie sensation — with a certified-copy of 100K sales — you’ll be courted by a NY house. This is today’s publishing environment, and the faster you understand that and get used to it, the better you’ll realize that today is the day you need to known everything, and tomorrow you need to know more.

Hell, if Knopf called me today with a publishing and distribution contract for my two already-published novels (they’re out there, in view for any Knopf talent-spotter to see and realize a hot property sits among the chaff), I’d probably sign it, take the money and run, earn more coin on the commission, and buy myself a small cottage in the south of France where I can write, raise dachshunds with my wife, and eat cheese and drink wine. Believe me when I tell you, I’m not holding my breath for this call.

If, on the other hand, you feel your book is ready for readers to open the cover and accept you as a writer and your work as authorial, self-publishing is a good start and perhaps the best road for your fledgling career. There are several platforms available, and each is nearly stupid-proof, only with their own brand of learning curve to see a clear path to successfully getting your book into the hands of at least a few readers. Amazon’s printing partner, Createspace, does a fine job, and Amazon lists your book in six countries — immediately. That’s pretty good distribution, by any measure.

The biggest task for you, as a writer, is to hire a line & story editor, unless you already have trusted editorial help in your pocket. And then you must design the book cover and interior. Neither is particularly difficult, but you’d do well, also, to hire a professional designer for that task — a good cover makes all the difference; there is such crap out there that self-designed covers can be spotted at a thumbnail’s size from across the room on a darkened video screen.

So, then, to recap: if you have an agent and/or publisher on the hook, try to reel them in. But if you have a marketable book (the genre makes little difference) and some book-promo savvy (or the potential to learn), then study the POD platform providers and see if you, too, should throw your spine into the ring.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

Both books are published by Siren & Muse Publishing, a small-press dedicated to keeping “the book” alive. I’ve got the contract to prove it, and we use Amazon to distribute my books (my choice) because I have the means to move product worldwide.