Many authors think signing with a literary agent means they’ve hit “the big time.” Sure, the potential for huge success is there – but so are the odds of wasting away in obscurity.
I managed to sign with a well-known New York City literary agent. All my friends wanted to celebrate. I tend to be a little more cautious. “When you have the contract with a publisher, will you celebrate then?” they asked. “No,” I answered. “I won’t celebrate until I have the print copy of the book in my hand.” (Yes, back in *those* days, there were no eBooks, kids.) I’m a staunch follower of I’ll believe it when I see it.
Having an agent taught me a lot. It taught me about taking chances and taking control. It also taught me that, no matter how you slice it, who you know really does make a difference. Step back in time with me, and I’ll explain.
Back in the olden days when you couldn’t self-publish (not including vanity publishing which would get you blacklisted), you had to send query letters to agents in hopes of getting them to agree to let you send them your manuscript – which was printed on paper. (No, the Internet did not exist then.) A couple of industry experts had written guides to help authors find the agents that were right for them. I shelled out the dough and bought a couple. I found one particularly helpful, and in the back it said If you like this book, please let us know. I figured, aw, what the heck. I’ll drop the guy a note.
Next thing I know, there’s a letter in the mail from this agent. Let’s call him Bob. Bob says, thanks for the nice letter. What do you write about? Give me a call. So I give him a call. We chat. He wants me to send him my 400 page manuscript. No way! I send it – of course! A few weeks go by. I get a letter: you are a fine and creative storyteller, but it’s not right for us. Stay in touch.
The letter didn’t surprise me since he didn’t market action-adventure. He’d been up front about it. I decided to send a note thanking him for his time. After all – he read four frikkin hundred pages of my blabbing. I offered to take him to lunch next time I was in New York. I get a call. He’d love that. I book a flight. I meet him. We go to lunch.
I’m eating really good chicken pot pie when I start to get the feeling that something’s not quite right. He’s telling me that Lust for Danger would make a good movie. But something is not adding up. So I say “What’d you think about that part where Special Agent Night falls into the quicksand?” He replies, “That was scary!” I slam my fist down on the table and blurt, “You jerk! You didn’t even read my book!”
It was true. He hadn’t read it. Not any of it. There was never any quicksand in the book. Ever. I was angry as hell. The cost of printing and shipping the manuscript, the flight… I couldn’t believe this dude had lied about reading the book and was LETTING me take him to lunch. He was shocked that I had figured it out. Doy, I write spy novels!
Bob was so mortified that he paid for lunch. We went back to his office and he gave me a contract. He promised to read every word of my manuscript. He paid for my taxi to the airport. He apologized profusely. It was all surreal. I remember sitting in the airplane, looking out through the porthole at the glittering city and thinking that right at that moment, the city belonged to me. It reminded me of the lyrics from Angel of Harlem by U2.
Once home, I had a lawyer look at the contract. I signed it. I waited. Bob got through the manuscript pretty quickly. He wanted changes. More suspense here. Beef that scene up there. I did it. He pimped it to movie houses. Quite a few were interested, but he never really pursued them. At the time, I was too in awe of the situation to realize I should have asked him to get more particulars from them – what would it take to make that Movie of the Week deal happen? But I figured he knew what he was doing.
He hooked me up with a screenwriter. She helped me with rewrites in exchange for first right of refusal on the screenplay. I learned a lot from her. When we were done, we thought we had a pretty good product. But Bob told us now it needed a book doctor. What?
A couple of years dragged by. I realized that Bob wasn’t going to sell my book. He definitely had the connections, but it just wasn’t going to happen. So, I fired him.
Moral of the story? Never lie to a spy novelist over chicken pot pie. The End.
32 thoughts on “Party Time: I Have a Big New York Agent!”
I once had an agent who seemed all enthusiastic at first. I made changes he wanted and even wrote a new project – a screenplay this time. He was really great, he even loaned me money. But when it came time to renew our contract and I had a few questions – like in Canada you can’t have a contract without an end date. It doesn’t just run forever. And what was happening with certain contacts he claimed to have – I got my manuscript mailed back to me with something rude written on it. Don’t remember what it was. Oh well! It was fun and exciting while it lasted.
Aw, sorry about that, Karen. It starts out exciting, doesn’t it? At least we can say we “had” agents. 😉 Thanks for commenting.
What a maroon that guy was. Good for you for catching him in the lie.
Kat, my story was similar, except my agent was in Hollywood, but he wanted properties that would translate well to the big screen. He did sell my first book, but after lots of feet-dragging, I realized he was not really working for me and I fired him. Best thing I ever did.
I don’t think I would have been as kind as you were Kat and would have told him where he could shove the contract. I’m one of those people that feel if you lie to me once I could never trust you. Of course, I probably would have been black-listed from all agents. Luckily, you’ve done quite well without him 🙂 Thanks for sharing…
I got a hot shot big time agent who was head of the books department at a major NY/Hollywood agency for a horror memoir I co-authored. We were so psyched at the beginning. Took him a whole year to sell our book, during which time he didn’t actually send it out to anyone. Regular inquiries were met with avoidance. He got us a pitiful advance. It’s now pre-publication and he’s supposedly shopping it to Hollywood. We can’t fire him now so all we can do is pray he actually makes an effort to sell it.
Thanks for sharing this story as a warning to all of us. WRT book-to-film adaptations, it seems that the advice nowadays is to bypass agents, and to pitch directly to producers individually or through pitchfests. Has anyone had success with this route?
Great, if scary post, K.S. I was toying with the idea of shopping for an agent for my WIP, but the merchant in me is at odds with the writer who would like to just sit back and see her book distributed in book stores internationally. Having flogged my debut novel on the internet sidewalks until my feet are blistered, I balk at the idea of sharing a penny with a publisher who’s going to do nothing to market my book, let alone an agent who may take their sweet time selling it. Is there really any advantage to being traditionally published any more? It’s all so confusing.
I feel the same way, J.P.
I had an agent a few years back and he spent a year hawking my first book, Bride Price, round over thirty publishers, all of whom politely declined. Eventually her invited me to lunch, which he paid for, and resigned the account, saying he’s done his best, but sadly had not takers. He gave me a list of all the editors he had tried.
Realising I was on my own, I went home picked up my Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and started looking for myself. Whilst doing this I also looked up the people he’d sent to. They were all literary fiction types. My book, whilst it might have a little literary style, is essentially non-fiction memoir.
Making numerous phone calls, in three days I got two publishers to invite me to send them the manuscript. Then, after a chance comment on an internet discussion another publisher approached me requesting my phone number, saying he was interested in what I write.
We met for coffee, I gave him three manuscripts to read, including Bride Price which nobody apparently wanted before. Three weeks later he called and invited me for coffee again. Since then he has published six books of mine and we’ve forged an excellent working relationship.
When I was a newbie writer back in the eighties, I got an agent for my book “Prisoners of the Williwaw.” I couldn’t have been happier. Here I was a new writer and I had an agent. I told my friends all about it. But six months later she got back to me and said, “There were too many men in the book to make this a good book for women, and too many women to make this a good book for men.”
I had to tell my friends the bad news, and I had to deal with an impossible criticism. But the point was to keep going.
I almost once had an agent. She sent the MS back to me for rewrites with a contract on the way. Then she disappeared. I didn’t know she’d disappeared until I completed the rewrites and sent the MS back. I got an automated reply telling me she was no longer with the agency. But it sure was fun for a couple of weeks!
That sounds like a lead-in for next week’s Flash Fiction – where did Melinda’s agent go?
How about exaggerating a bit over Boeuf Bourguignon?
Seriously though, my agent experience was fairly good. He didn’t sell the book, but his comments and criticism help me refine my manuscript. There was interest from one publisher if I was willing to set the book in New York or L.A. instead of Toronto. When I said no, we parted on friendly terms. The agent gave me some good tips as I embarked on the indie road and he even came to my launch when the book came out.
In the end it cost me a year and a bit, but I think the advice and the learning experience was worth it.
Wow – LOTS of agent experiences! Interesting stuff. Thanks for all the great comments, everyone – keep ’em coming. 🙂
Some days New York is the Big Apple. Some days she is the Beast.
As am I. 😉
My first experience with an agent was just as bad. He moved from New York to Ohio a week after I signed and I waited patiently for almost a year before pressuring him into telling me he had only showed my proposal to one publisher in that time. I fired him, started sending my proposal out directly to publishers and the sixth one offered me a contract and cash advance. A couple years ago, I decided to try again and started querying agents. I have a good New York agent now who was very helpful, editing and working with me on my next proposal until she got me a contract with a $4000 cash advance. We are now working on my next proposal. There are good ones out there, but it takes hard work and perhaps a little luck to find them.
All this sounds familiar. I decided some time back I’m better off indie publishing and making 70% on sales.
Came close a few times, but…nope.
Never let someone else steer your life. Kat you are inspirational and clever. So glad you shared your experience and lesson learned. Obviously it happens a lot.
Thank you, Elisabeth. Unfortunately, back in the 90s, this was how it was done. Well, probably not with the pot pie. 😉
My wondrous agent put everything into trying to sell my book, right up until just before his death at the age of 92 a few months ago. PARTLY because of him it is about to be released in the Czech language in Europe. MAINLY because of him, I sold my little children’s books internationally and made good money from them back in the eighties and nineties. PURELY because of him, I am now in discussions with a film-maker who is very keen to make an animated movie of my dolphin story. My agent sent the story to him a few weeks before he died. I am feeling sad that my agent Ray, is not here to see the book begin its journey in Europe, but the film-maker has cheered me by promising, that if we ever get the money together to make the film, Ray’s name will be on the credits.
Glad you had a good experience, Tui. I wish there were more agents out there like Ray. I’m sure he is smiling down on you.
Bah! Who needs THEM. Nice that you sussed him out, though. Heh.
I wish I could have seen his face when you called him out, Kat! LOL!
I’ve gone through a couple of agents with meager results. One problem with non-performance out of agents is that I might say, “They can’t sell my damned book”, but they are saying, “This guy can’t write a damned book that will sell.”
My experience with the Manhattan literary agency that took me on was actually quite wonderful — until, 12 years later, when i decided to self-publish, because, after the promise of a couple of good contracts with some major publishers, the main problem appeared to be genre — i write novels based on eastern philosophy, they thought i was writing fantasy! My agent was particularly lovely — but i think it finally got to her that the bottom line in Manhattan publishing at the time was money, and not just a well-written novel…thanks for an interesting read, Kat. Boggles the mind that a professional could have been so crooked — and fallen right into your trap. Can’t believe, though, that you signed with him afterwards!
When you mention 12 years of waiting for nothing, after SUCCEEDING IN GETTING AN AGENT, you get to one of the things that makes me mad when I hear people telling writers they should only prize trad publishing, and exhaust it, stick with it down the tubes. What can a writer do with a published book in 12 years?
Wow Kat, this one sure drew some great replies. The whole discussion (thanks everyone) is very timely. Last week I sent a copy of my latest novel to a California agent I connected with on Twitter using the #MSWL hashtag. I have had no reply yet (understandable) but I now know more thanks to this post and the comments.
Linton – Your comment brings us neatly back to the beginning of this cycle with the question of how long should you stay on a horse that isn’t winning races? Twelve years with an agent who doesn’t sell your manuscript does seem rather a long time. I wonder if Mira ever questioned what the agent was doing in all that time and reviewed tactics and approach?
It can be very difficult to find an agent in the first place. I know, I tried about twenty before being taken on in the days when I wanted one. Since then I have worked without and developed an excellent direct relationship with my publisher.
Agents have a lot to bring to the party, but sometimes, you’re better on your own. The same with publishers.
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