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Thank You, Ma’am, May I Have Another


There are two stories I often tell about my experiences with literary agents that end with the same punch line. They go like this…

Agent 1: I’ve read your sample chapters. I think you write just like John Grisham.

Me: Thank you!

Agent 2: I’ve read your sample chapters. I think you write just like Nicholas Sparks.

Me: Thank you!

Agents 1 & 2: But I don’t like the way he writes.

Me: Whaaaat?! That’s like the Yankees saying, “Sorry Bill, but we already have a lefty who can throw a 110-mph fastball. We don’t need you.”

I’ll say right up front…I wouldn’t want to be a literary agent for love or money. Each week, they receive hundreds of queries from people they don’t know who desperately want something from them. Each query is from the (self-declared) next DeMille or Rowling and they know the agent is just DYING to represent them. And then, after reading the pitches and sample pages they kick the wannabe authors in the gut, stomp on their heads a couple of times, and roll them into a ditch…laughing as they walk away.

Kidding! It just seems that way. What they actually do is send you a nice form letter that says you have a great idea but it’s just not quite what they are looking for. They are positive that there is some other agent out there who would be a perfect match for your delusions of…I mean…interesting project.

[As a sidebar, there are agents out there who say they are looking for something new and different and fresh (e.g., Black Hearts White Bones). After sending them something that meets those criteria, don’t be surprised when you receive a rejection that says, “We’re sorry, but there isn’t a market for this.” Well, DUH! There’s no market because it’s new and different! It seems that agents want to be the one that discovers the next Cold Mountain, until they realize what that really means. But I digress.]

To be clear, this is not a rant about publishing or agents. It is meant to be an unvarnished snapshot of my latest attempt to become traditionally published as a means of supporting other writers. As I said, I don’t envy agents, at all. Think about this; since the industry has moved away from snail mail queries to email, their volume of queries has probably increased a hundredfold. Having done it both ways, I can tell you that it is far, far easier for aspiring authors to submit their literary masterpieces to agents these days. What used to take hours of typing, printing, sorting, stuffing, weighing for postage, making SASEs (bonus points if you know what that means), and making trips to purchase stamps, envelopes, paper, and labels – now only takes minutes. While this is great for the environment and people who submit queries, it must be hell for the agents. Making it hard kept the flies away. Only hardcore, dedicated writers submitted queries for a sustained length of time back in the day.

So, given the almost insurmountable odds of being traditionally published, what keeps a writer going? Well, things like, believing in yourself, believing in your writing, and believing that there is a Larry Kirshbaum out there waiting for you, somewhere.

Who is Larry Kirshbaum? Mr. Kirshbaum, the former CEO of Warner Books (now Grand Central Publishing), is the publisher who took a marginal writer with a great story and turned him into a house-hold name. You would know him as Nicholas Sparks. (This next part will drive a lot of aspiring writers bonkers, but as they say, it is what it is.) Back in 1996, the TV tabloid show 48 Hours did a segment about a pharmaceutical salesman who was about to make it big as a writer. The segment revealed that – for a book that weighs in at only 214 pages – the publisher recommended 280 changes. (You see where this is going?) Now, understand, I’m not knocking Nicholas Sparks. God bless him. He’s a much better writer now than back in 1996. That’s not the point of this blog. The point is, he had three things going for him; a good story, perseverance, and somebody who believed in him.

The 48 Hours segment also made a point of mentioning that Sparks, astonishingly, had submitted his manuscript to 24 agents before finally striking pay dirt with the 25th. To the vast majority of writers today, this number is absurdly low. Laughable, even. Sparks was extremely fortunate. But the common denominator between now and then is that a writer needs to find someone who believes in him or her. Easy to say, but in this day of electronic queries, it is much harder to grab the attention of a Kirshbaum or even the newest, most junior agent to come on-board. With so many submissions to wade through, they will dismiss a query for anything and everything imaginable. You’re toast if that little dot on top of the “i" falls off. It shows you aren’t paying attention to detail. REJECT! “But I’m sure there is an agent better suited for your project.”

Given the tsunami of queries that agents go through daily, I can’t say that I blame them.

But this blog post is for all you aspiring writers out there. Please realize that the quest to be published isn’t always as fun and pleasant as I’ve made it out to be. I want you to know how hard it can be before you start, and once you’ve started, you’re not the only one struggling. I’m sure most of you are better writers than I am and if you just keeping knocking on doors, one will open for you eventually. Don’t give up, even if its the 25th rejection or the 250th. Keep writing. Keep improving. And if all else fails, thank the stars for independent publishing. But keep in mind, that independent publishing – if done right – is just as much work as traditional publishing, if not more.

In either case, the best advice I can give you is to adopt the positive attitude of Kevin Bacon’s character "Chip Diller" in Animal House as he is being paddle-spanked during his fraternity initiation; “Thank you sir, may I have another!” But given that about 95 percent of the literary agents today are women, I changed the title of this blog to more accurately reflect the gender of the literary world’s paddle-wielders.

In the meantime…YO! Grand Central Publishing (or any other agency looking for a fantastic story)! Look! Over here!

For more reviews, profiles, and interesting tidbits on writing, check out www.billfurney.com.