March 24th, 2014

Who Are Literary Agents and Editors Anyway?

Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft

by Kathryn Craft
Turning Whine into Gold

In response to a tweet promoting a recent Twitter submission event, I received the following response:

 “To put it delicately, f*** the agents and editors. Never pander to what they’re looking for.” (Asterisks mine.)

 I would like to thank this “delicate” tweeter. His 92-character comment is so chock full of negativity and cynicism that it will easily power three blog posts here. I delight in the opportunity to turn this kind of whine into gold.

Since it is conference season, this month I’d like to address this tweeter’s obvious assumption that agents and editors are “those who are trying to keep him from publication.”

If you suspect this is true, yet are still planning to pitch to these individuals at upcoming conferences, your hidden thoughts are simply abrading twitchy nerve endings in a way that could result in hives the moment you offer your sweaty hand in greeting. It is to you I would like to address my comments.

It is my stalwart belief that before you f*** anyone, you should get to know them. (I’m old fashioned that way.) Although I haven’t f***ed a single one (sorry, that would be another column altogether), I have worked with agents and editors for more than a decade in a variety of capacities as a writing conference organizer, and since 2011 I’ve been lucky enough to develop longer working relationships with a literary agent and two book editors.

This is what I know to be true about agents and editors.

 • They are often…wait for it…friendly. They work in a people-oriented industry, they love hanging out with writers and other avid readers, and they love building interpersonal relationships within their professional networks.

 • They are often young and idealistic—but not necessarily. Some are middle-aged and idealistic, some old and idealistic. Agents come in all sort of idealistic ages. But the constant is that they are believers—and they are willing to go to the wall for what they believe in.

 • They are gamblers. They love that rush that comes with personal discovery; anteing up on a new writer or project is hope renewed. The agent gambles with her time, the editor with her house’s resources—but both are playing with a deck stacked with their industry experience and gut instincts, and are eager to see how their bet plays out.

 • They are underpaid. Think about it—they are making money off of the income of writers, who may only be next to dancers in the least amount of money paid per hour of preparation and professional effort…which means that much of what they do is done for love.

 • They are smart minds and sensitive souls, highly attuned to story and the human condition. They are avid readers who are so eager to find their next great read that they are willing to spend their nights and weekends slogging through any number of queries to find the one that touches them in some important way.

 • They are negotiators and peacemakers who are willing to take on the day-to-day business of creating a good book so that you can do what only you can do best—which is to write and promote the work you love.

• They are all of these things, yet no two are alike. They are individuals, with highly developed tastes and interests. They own the notion of subjectivity, which allows them to do business in a range of genres and to acquire like-minded clients.

• And yes, they are gatekeepers. Agents may close the gate for so many reasons, all of which should inspire gratitude in the writer: the submission isn’t aligned with their interests, they think it’s great but don’t know how to sell it, the writer isn’t ready for prime time, or they just don’t have time to take on a new client right now. But once all of those aspects align, the agent or acquiring editor is the one who can be counted on to be at that gate to open it—for you!—and see you through the maze of traditional publishing.

Because an agent or editor’s success is dependent on yours, you will find no greater advocate.

If you are pitching this conference season, or are cold-querying, imagine that the person on the other end of your pitch is eager to read, hoping to fall in love, and wanting to work with you.

It’s probably true. And how could it hurt?

About Kathryn

Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, which 11-13 AofFgiftcardswas released on January 28 and has already gone back for a second printing, and While the Leaves Stood Still (due Spring 2015). Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she now serves on the board of the Philadelphia Writers Conference and as book club liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads Craftwriting workshops, and speaks often about writing. She lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA. Although a member of The Liars Club, she swears that everything in this bio is true.

89 comments to Who Are Literary Agents and Editors Anyway?

  • Great post! I am so sorry that someone actually tweeted that to you. 🙁

    • Thanks Alex. But don’t worry about me. As my character Bebe Browning says in The Art of Falling: “Life has wisdom of its own. It dumps s*** on you and stirs you up until your soil is fertile. Accept the challenge and plant some seeds. This is how artists grow.”

      In this post, consider the seeds planted!

      • That is the best way to look at it, for sure! Grow something mighty. 🙂

        • Lori K

          Wow, yes yes yes to this whole exchange between Kathryn and Alex. And THANK YOU Kathryn for sharing your immensely positive view of editors and agents. After having just written a ‘no thank you’ letter this morning to someone with a great idea but as yet unpolished writing skills, it’s nice to know not everyone hates us. 🙂

        • Dear Ms. K,

          I am a nonfiction writer who had a great idea. My test readers, which includes a local university professor of English, report that the ensuing manuscript is a gripping read that compares favourably with very good fiction. Indeed, one comparison was made with that of Follett and le Carre. From this, I infer that my writing skills enjoy at least a minimal degree of polish. I also infer that I haven’t yet figured out how to get the accent on the last “e” in “le Carre,” having recently switched to the Mac OS.

          And, at the risk of incurring your ire by having started a sentence with a conjunction, I am pleased to report that I do not hate you for being an agent, either. Not that I am about to propose marriage, mind you. I wouldn’t want to give false impressions.

          I also have a subtle and mischievous sense of humour.

          Kind regards,

          Mirthful, agent-less, and thus self-publishing navigator who employs the Oxford comma, except when he neglects to do so, which, of course and in the grammatically non-restrictive sense, occurs more often than he would wish

          P.S. Would you happen to know what 15% of a #1 NY Times nonfiction bestseller amounts to? };-)>

        • Sigh. “My test readers, including…”

        • Thanks so much to Lori K for your comment below. As a freelance developmental editor I have to hand out bad news all the time, but mine is more like an instructor/student relationship, for which the writer has paid, so while I’ve bruised many an ego, they usually recover and improve. I get it that a no from an agent feels more like a career death knell, but it really needn’t be!

          And Navigator, I love your sense of humor! May it serve you well in the publishing world. Please note the paragraph above, though: I am an author and freelance developmental editor, not an agent. Best wishes to you with your project!

  • Holly Robinson

    Kathryn, I love this post–I wouldn’t be where I am without my editor at Penguin, and my agent and I have had an amazing 20+ year relationship. He stuck with me even when he couldn’t sell my work, and always, always was there to lend a critical eye or sympathetic ear.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Holly. Bad stuff happens between authors and their agents and editors all the time, because as in any relationship, mismatches can occur. But it is rarely for a lack of passion for the work. I think aspiring authors usually hear more about the break-ups than the still-going-steadies.

  • Reblogged this on Sophia Kimble and commented:
    Great post on Agents and Editors.

  • Loved this post. “agents come in all sorts of idealistic ages” – that’s fabulous! Tweeted this.

  • There’s good and bad in every profession. And we have to remember that one person, (writer) can’t please all whether or not they are editors, agents or readers. It’s no reason to trash entire professionals. They are just people doing a job. Writers now have more choices so it’s more professional to learn from our mistakes than go on from there.

  • jillhannahanderson

    Wonderful post, Kathryn, and I love the comparison to dancers! Hmmm, why would you do that? 😉
    And so true, if we took all the hours spent from the first word written in the first draft, it would likely be a penny an hour (at least the way I write!) but we all do it because it is entwined with our heart, and we love the craft. Excellent post!

    • Jill oh my please don’t put that math problem into my head or I’ll faint dead away.

      What Jill knows that the rest may not: it took me eight years of revision and 113 agent submissions to earn an offer of representation. (And I got a lot of great help from agents and editors along the way.)

      One of my favorite reviews of The Art of Falling so far included this summation: “I loved this novel, and hope that Ms. Craft doesn’t take eight years to write another.” Hahaha!!

  • What a wonderful post. It brings a human element to two professions that are rather intimidating to the average author.

  • Thrilled to hear it, Collette, as that was absolutely my goal. 🙂

  • Lovely post! Thanks for writing something positive (and true!). Although I would add actors to the overworked and underpaid working-for-the-love-of-it people. : )

  • Mary Beth, you are so right about actors, thank you for pointing out this omission! A tougher sell, though, unless you know people in the trenches. Even foreigners know that all actors are rich, lol!

  • Kathryn, shall we say the obvious? That person is at the core of many who believe that their work is so magnificent agents and publishers are fools not to sign them up, pay them millions, sign movie deals and … well we know the drill.

    Those of us who know how difficult it is to be a writer, also know how long it takes to publish through traditional means. I have always felt that agents and independent publishers, like Kensington, are at the forefront of what is good about the business WE CHOSE to be a part of.

    Thanks for the great post 🙂

  • Ha—so true, Florence. His very premise is skewed—that it is what agents and editors want that drives the publishing industry. Uh, hello? It’s the readers. You know, those people you need in order to make a sale.

  • What a lovely post about agents and editors because they really do help us authors. I know there are bad stories in the hundreds out there, but there are good ones as well, like yours. And it doesn’t make any sense to think of “them” as evil and then pitch them to get your work published. What?
    Thank you for your post.

  • Thanks Patti. We often only hear the bad stories because of the storyteller’s flair for the dramatic. But the conflict that creates the seed of story need not be between good guys (authors, of course, lol) and bad guys (agents and editors, ha!); it can simply reflect a struggle to connect in the most meaningful way among people who are all playing on the same team.

    But then again, you get that. 😉 Thanks for your comment.

  • I understand (without justifying) why some writers direct their frustration toward agents and editors when they can’t get published… It’s human nature to look for someone to blame when plans (dreams) don’t work out, and publishing professionals have 100% of the power to stop an unpublished writer with no leverage. The anger comes from helplessness. I don’t want to look down on this writer because I am unpublished myself and can understand the frustration at feeling my talent is unwanted, and because the tweet was probably the byproduct of a crushing disappointment. But! A lesson in statistical probability, as tedious and cold as it sounds, can help change a person’s perspective. An agent pitches how many novels or non-fic projects a year? I’d guess fewer than 50, yet she may receive 2000 queries. And how many of those get picked up for publication? How many tens of thousands of novels are written every year, relative to the few hundred that are wide released? Why would an agent take on a project that is “good.” She has to be in love with it, or at least think it is so marketable that it’s a shoe-in.

    I’ve imagined myself as an agent before, realizing how many novels I would have turned down that actually got published, because, while I liked them, I was not passionate about them as a reader. Think of the passion required to pitch it and stake your professional reputation on it!

    Hey, I think I’m writing a blog posts here. I should stop now before I use up all my good material.

    😉

    • Haha, thanks for sharing some of that good material with us here, Eric. Before taking anything out on anyone—especially if it’s a certain kind of career suicide to do so with a vitriolic broadcast over social media—I heartily endorse your suggested method of imagining yourself in the other person’s perspective. Sage advice!

  • Kathryn,

    Thanks for such a lovely post. It is refreshing to see the humanity in any enterprise emphasized, and you’ve done a lovely job in this.

    Your point about agents’ income being tied to that of generally non-wealthy writers raises an interesting point. While uncommon or rare, there are those agents who have the vision to spot best seller opportunities and the daring to pursue such opportunity. I suppose these are the gamblers who’ve hit the jackpot, a combination of luck, skill, and daring. (And who can forgive the use of the Oxford comma.)

    The test reader feedback for my forthcoming nonfiction, self-published book suggests that I just might such a work, given the proper marketing. Oh, to find such an agent.

    Oh, we do share something in common. I, too, have never committed an act of indiscretion with an agent, delicate or otherwise.

    • Good for you for conducting yourself on the side of propriety, Navigator. 😉 Good luck with your book, and good for you for believing in yourself enough to cast the die on your own behalf.

      • It wasn’t so much believing in myself as it was having a moral duty to expose an enormous scandal. I’ve discovered the hard way that feminists have rigged the mandatory “Child Protection Standards in Ontario” so that an abusive mother not “winning” full custody of her children (and hence her support payments) in divorce now officially constitutes “child abuse” (but not in reality).

        Feminist child protection social workers use this to rationalize their malicious interference in divorces on behalf of mothers’ custody as a matter of policy that has been covertly embedded in mandatory government regulations.

        Thanks so much for your kind words of encouragement and support. If you can forgive my mischievous sense of humour, it was very proper of you. };-)>

  • Thank you for this enlightening post. I also know the frustration of trying to find an editor or agent for my works. And yet, I keep searching. I have read enough accolades about editors and agents in the acknowledgements of successful writers to know that I too would love one. 🙂

  • There is a lot of good information in this column, not the least of which is that before you bleep anyone, get to know them first. As for agents, I’ve never bleeped a single one of those either. Editors, on the other hand, are a different story. And a different column, indeed.

    • Michael—spoken like a journalist! Editorial interaction at a paper is a whole other topic, for sure. And I’m sure it can be at a publishing house, as well—but it’s still important to remember that you both have the same goal to produce the best possible product within the editorial guidelines of the house.

      • You are correct Kathryn. The goal is always, without fail, to produce the best possible product with the editorial guidelines. Those guidelines, of course, should include (in journalism) fairness, honesty and objectivity. Achieving those things establishes credibility, which I believe to be the most critical asset for a writer of any stripe.

        • Well put, Michael. And we could probably get pretty darn drunk if we insisted on drinking beer the entire time we swapped stories of the ways sloppy editorial practice has impinged our credibility.

          Oh, my subconscious, did I mention beer? My very first credibility gaff: thanks to editorial intervention, my article about a Nutcracker performance—to be held for thousands of area schoolchildren—inexplicably sported the word “beer” in its midsection.

  • I agree that the tweeter is allowing negativity from rejection clouds his thoughts. Agents aren’t “the bad guy.” In fact, I think they’re often the hero, riding in to rescue us, and showing us the safe path to take.

    • Traci this is so true! After a decade of stormy “rejection,” when the rays of the sun at last smile upon your face you’re like, “Who, me?” You’ve got to pick yourself up and turn yourself around quick because now you have a champion who thinks you’re brilliant, and they have to represent that confident persona to the editors!

  • Full disclosure: I don’t want an agent. I self-published as a first resort, am happy with my decision, and I have a laundry list of problems with agents and publishers in general.

    Having said that, I’d personally stop short of the offending Tweet, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that this post is just as unrealistic in its portrayal of agents as People Who Hang the Moon. Come on, now.

    Just something to think about. Or not.

    • Hi Dan, thanks for your comment. Your decision to pursue self-publishing is completely your right to make! Although I think it’s best to do so as a business decision you are embracing, not as an angry reaction against a group of people you have no use for.

      And don’t worry—I don’t think you hang the moon, either. Yet I will think the best of you until you convince me otherwise. That’s just my way, and in all my business dealings, it hasn’t failed me so far. What I know about you already is that you chose self-publishing because you are passionate about what you do, and you think you can be your work’s best advocate. You are the gambler in this scenario, investing in self. Did I paint you in too kind a light? My guess is, no…

      • Well, I’m really a big jerk, but that’s beside the point.

        My issue with this post isn’t you thinking the best of any given person until they prove otherwise; that’s admirable.

        My issue is that you literally portrayed every agent as a kind, caring, knowledgeable, heroic (yet sensitive), perfect little ray of sunshine who’s just doing it out of love. There are some very good agents out there (I’ve heard), but the agent that you described doesn’t exist. Worse, there are a lot of terrible, greedy, scammy agents out there who will take writers for a ride. The internet is full of lists of agents to avoid.

        A lot of young, unpublished, uneducated (in terms of the publishing business) writers see a post like this, and it conditions them to think that they should fall to their knees and thank their lucky stars if an agent shows interest. “Oh, he’s got my best interests in mind. Why do I need to educate myself about the business? He’d never not do his job. What, he doesn’t want to represent me anymore? Oh, I’m so grateful!”

        You see what I mean?

  • I’ve met agents who are very positive and pleasant and I’ve met agents who treated me like dirt.
    Agents are individuals, just like writers. In an industry with this many individuals, it’s natural for both writers and agents to become jaded with one another.
    The person who wrote that statement and agent who is rude might not realize how self-destructive those actions can be, however…

    • I agree, Ensis. But it’s funny: if you study people’s marriages, you might sometimes think, “What on earth attracted him to her? She’s so horribly brusque.” But some people love brusque, and are distrustful of friendliness. Different strokes for different folks! Our love or dislike for individual agents is as subjective as their love for or dislike of our work. But without a doubt, agents and authors alike all want to find distribution for the work they love, and make money in the process.

  • Thanks Kathryn for the reminder that rejection should be an inspiration. We live in an age where the options for writers have never been better. It is unfortunate the messenger hasn’t figured it out yet. I imagine responses to the messengers’ future query letters might contain that very tweet.

    Good to see you at Write Stuff.

    • Hi Dan, good to see you too—thanks for your volunteerism at the conference, and for stopping by here today! Modern writers often forget that publishing has always been a very selective business. What the era of self-publishing has helped us forget is that there was often a good reason for this. That said, I encourage anyone who’s decided to quit submitting to agents and editors for all the right reasons—they have an excellent product they believe in, a solid marketing plan, and either the skills or the team to employ it—to have at it!

  • •They are underpaid. Think about it—they are making money off of the income of writers, who may only be next to dancers in the least amount of money paid per hour of preparation and professional effort…which means that much of what they do is done for love.

    While it’s true the agent, absent submission fees, makes no money if a book doesn’t sell, what the agent makes has nothing to do with how hard the author worked or how much that works out to per hour. If I spend twenty years writing the Greatest American Novel, take it to an agent, and she sells it to a publisher in an hour, she gets paid exactly the same as if she spent five years and all her social capital on getting it in front of one editor. If she gets credit for being underpaid in the second instance, why does she not get scorn for being overpaid in the first?

    I think this point really collapses into “gambling,” with the caveat that we don’t usually let gamblers pick which horses get to enter the race.

  • Kevin

    (Disclaimer: I have been represented by an agent before, with whom I had a good business experience and no issues. I don’t use one nowadays, and probably will not in the foreseeable future, however – I don’t need one to sell my work at this point.)

    1) These are the same friendly people who routinely don’t even bother responding to a submission? The same friendly people who are notorious for tweeting vicious insults about submissions they’ve received? I don’t really expect an agent to be my friend. I do expect a certain level of polite and professional behavior. As a class, I see far too little of it from agents today. There are still a great many good agents out there; but unfortunately the mass of bad ones gives bad odor to the profession as a whole.

    2) They are NOT gamblers. They are agents. Much like sports agents, they know they will have some real winners, and some also-rans. They play the numbers, and win by playing the numbers. It is in NO WAY a gamble: it’s math.

    3) They are not really underpaid. Yes, they only make 15% of each writer’s income – but they have a LOT of writers! A single agent might represent hundreds of writers. An agent who represents just ten full time writers makes 150% of the average income of those writers. So bottom line is, agents make more than the writers they represent, in every case except for a tiny handful of the highest paid writers. And frankly, in the worst case, couldn’t agents follow the advice they dish out to writers so often – keep their day job and agent in their spare time “for the love”? 😉

    4) These are the same sensitive souls who, as mentioned above, often berate, belittle, and humiliate writers who’ve submitted work to them?

    5) I question the value of an agent as negotiator. Technically, the literary agent is the only profession in the USA which routinely dishes out legal advice without a single SCRAP of credential or license to back up that advice. Arguably, most literary agents are practicing law without a license much of the time. That they’re also routinely handling large sums of other peoples’ money without being bonded, and routinely doing other peoples’ accounting without a degree, license, or certificate to support that, is just added flavor.

    And lastly, NO, they are not gatekeepers.

    They never were, really. Publishers said “no unagented manuscripts”, and most novice writers believed them, not knowing any better. No major publisher ever actually stopped accepted unagented manuscripts, of course. That would be foolish. They kept right along reading work that was submitted directly. But most of the novice writers got brushed off to the agents for almost two decades, and saved the publishers enormous sums of money in readers’ salaries.

    Nowadays, of course, agents are less gatekeepers than ever. They’re completely redundant today. Not only do all publishers continue to take in unagented work every year (as they always have)…but self publishing has made even the publisher’s role in the publishing industry questionable. Agents are becoming publishers, or self-pub “helpers”, because they see the writing on the wall. The profession of literary agent as it existed in the 90s and first decade of the 21st century is doomed. Many agents will adapt, and survive fine by finding new ways to add value. But their old role is gone.

  • Hmm, interesting point, Marc. I do think there is a reason that the agents are the agents and the writers are the writers for good reason, as concerns acceptable level of up-front investment. It takes longer for a writer to learn how to do what she does well, I think.

    I had an interesting talk with an agent one time who accepts only nonfiction. This is how she put it: “I could accept a nonfiction proposal from an expert with a strong platform and sell it in two weeks for $50,000, and make a commission of $7,500. Or, I could take on a fiction project, shop it around for two years, and make $750. I just don’t love my work enough to do that.” (Of course she was also drunk, in the bar, and sloshed beer on my shoe. And I haven’t seen her name associated with the business for a long time. Many of us take a while to find ourselves.)

    So I suppose I should say that it is the agents who primarily represent fiction or memoir that require that passion and drive. Still, I can’t see how it hurts to believe that the agent or editor you are pitching to genuinely loves his or her work. And as I said, those I’ve met truly seem to.

  • Nice post, I think the publishing business has fallen into an all bad all good mentality lately. Not a heathy attitude. Plus being a Libra it just doesn’t work for me. Going from dance to writing, how great is that? We may not make the Fortune 500 but what a blast.

    • I see your point, Shelley, and beneath these attributes that I believe most agents and editors hold in common, there’s certainly room for all sorts of personality differences.

      Can you tell that I, too, have found a way to live a life that honors my passions? Life’s too short to do otherwise!

  • Well Kathryn, my personal experience makes me VERY glad I chose to have an agent (I’m published with a NY pubilsher). She was able to narrow the limits of the contract, so I could sell another series to another publisher. I would never have thought/known to do that on my own, and it has helped my career immeasurably, allowing me to reach a wider readership.

    I would never sell to NY without an agent. My opinion. Thanks for the great post.

    • I needed an agent too, and since I see people act out in fear around them all the time, I thought I might try to help by humanizing them a bit in this post today.

  • Wonderful that such a negative comment has been responded to in such an insightful and positive manner.

    I think as writers we sometimes forget that our book becomes a world of work for someone else too. These people are paid very little and receive next to no credit – it’s our name on the cover after all.

    It’s a shame people tend to cling to their negative experiences, because the generous work of editors and agents should be celebrated.

    • In all fairness, not all my experiences with agents have been good ones. As a younger writer I was more timid and they intimidated me no matter that I told myself they were just people like me. I think some brash young NY agents saw that as lack of confidence and ability. It was far from it, but they couldn’t tell by talking to me on the phone. And I have experienced lazy agents too. Despite the not so stellar experiences, I wouldn’t bad-mouth them. Doing so gains me nothing and in fact would probably come back to haunt me. 🙂

      • Sharla I think you’re absolutely right. Not sure why people think I’m saying all agents are good agents, just as I would never say that all writers are good writers. But I do think we are trying to achieve the same goals, and we can therefore see them as aids, not adversaries.

    • Thanks, Helen. Cling to your respect—it will get you far. 🙂

      • Thanks Kathryn!

        Currently doing a Masters of Publishing, and so am lucky enough to have insight directly into the world of trade publishing from some fantastic editors.

        I think as writers, we’re bound to meet challenges along the way, but that these should be seen as merely challenges, not as a ‘bad’ group of people who happen to have chosen a particular career path.

  • Reblogged this on Jordan's Croft – Fiber Arts and commented:
    I see blog posts like this and I wonder where this person was during the snark-storm that was #QueryFail? Yes, #QueryFail was a million internet years ago.

    It was my first eposure to Twitter, the sheer volume and vitrol of the tsunami of snark out of the office of her ‘friendly’ literary agents was…shocking?…no…mindblowing?…no…soul-crushing?…closer but not exactly what I’m looking for: Bitter, unprofessional, deliberately humiliating, unprofessional, hateful…ahhhh yes!

    HATEFUL!!

    So hateful that I vowed at that moment that I would NEVER give one red cent of MY money to such hateful, brutal, bitter, wretched unprofessional [bleeps].

    They can put on happy face masks NOW, but the cat is out of the bag. Never, never, EVER will I hire an agent to represent my books to anyone.

    I’ll hire a lawyer.

    Someone…you know…professional.

    My apologies to Katherine Craft, I suspect she never saw any of the infamous #QueryFail tweets. They have been erased from the twitterverse…alas too late.

    The damage is done, there is no reset button. Literary agents are not friendly, idealistic, peacemakers, they’re arrogant snarky bitches. They have been tried, convicted and condemned by the very #QueryFail tweets they sent out with such vitrol.

    As for the ‘abuse’ they get from writers freed from their grasping claws…Karma’s a bitch.

    • K.A. ~ Thanks for the reblog, and for adding to the discussion. I’m sorry to hear that the poison of a few have tainted your view of all agents forever. There are good ones out there who work like dogs for their authors but I think absolutely everyone has to do what they’re most comfortable with for their career.

      That being said, one of our regular bloggers here at WITS is Susan Spann, a literary attorney, and she works with many authors who feel as you do.

      Note: I did give you a teensy edit to keep the language clean.

    • K.A., it is true that I did not see the Query Fail event. One of the glories of writing in America is that we can pick and choose where to get our education. Tweets, with comments constrained to 140 characters and with no opportunity whatsoever for context, is not always the place for that. Thanks to some early workshop incidents in which my manuscript was torn to shreds by my fellow writers, even after I paid thousands to attend this elite event, I know to turn my head when there’s a feeding frenzy.

      As a developmental editor, I too have been guilty of irreverent remarks about some types of rookie errors. I always warn that now is the time to check one’s ego at the door, but I understand the temptation to take what might be painful and make it entertaining; to get people laughing at themselves by seeing how their work is truly coming across. Our mistakes can indeed be funny, and as a former dance critic, I certainly understand the tendency to try to make a hundred mediocre performances into something entertaining when among colleagues.

      But get any one of these pros one-on-one and the frenzy ends. After my bad experience at the hands of some fifteen fellow writers on the first day of the previously mentioned workshop event I just wanted to just go home, but had pre-paid for the entire 12-day workshop. So I made individual appointments with all of the people in the workshop and you know what? They were thoughtful, insightful, and helpful. I was able to leave that experience with a bunch of useful notes for the improvement of my work.

      A lesson for me in human nature.

  • The editors at the company who publishes me are some of the finest human beings I have ever had the pleasure. And I know some wonderful agents.
    That said, “never pander to what (others are) looking for” is great advice. Write the story in your heart, not what you think agents or editors want. If you did a great job, you have succeeded in the most important of ways.
    And even the greatest of stories may not fit in with the plans of a Big Five publisher, or even a small press. At least in this era, you don’t have to go the way of the vanity press. Self-publishing has had enough success stories to prove that publishers’ formulas are not infallible.
    Do the best you can writing, and “don’t hate the players, acknowledge the game.” 🙂

    • Love this comment, Daven, thanks! I didn’t even think of the tweeter’s comment in this useful light, given that he was denouncing a Twitter submission event that he obviously didn’t plan to participate in. That and, let’s face it, the cussing, sent my thoughts along a different trajectory. But what you say here, ever so much more politely, is so true.

  • Fantastic post – and made me laugh out loud at the beginning Kathryn! I have found that agents and editors need us – oh, yes, they do. They need to build their client list to earn an income just like we writers may seek to find a champion to publish our work to earn an income. It’s a 50/50 dance we do with them. We come toward each other, meet in the middle with the same goal in mind – and either connect or move away to the next potential partner, right? And speaking to them can be just like having a casual conversation. I have found 99% to be warm, welcoming and courteous (there is always that 1% in any group that defies this and I have encountered them). So stop whining folks and put on your best positive, professional manner in your online manner! No one wants to follow negativity – where does that lead? Down. And I like to look up as I travel my publication path.

    • Donna I can feel your energy and optimism and drive in every sentence of this post. It’s like a rocket booster, and I have no doubt it will continue to fuel your upward trajectory.

      Agents and editors are not immune to the pressures that drag on all of our spirits, buy any means. They are human. And, listening in on agent panels, I have decided not to pitch to certain agents or editors, or even follow them on Twitter or Facebook, because of the whine in their tone (we ALL should watch what we say in social media and other public venues!). I can commiserate with my fellow writers in private—in an agent or an editor, I need a positive advocate for my work, and am thrilled to have found them. Preaching to the choir with you, though. 🙂

  • When you are getting a lot of rejections, it’s sometimes hard to believe these people (agents & editors) want to help you. Maybe it’s too easy to blame them since they are the only ones you really have any contact with – who wants to blame themselves, right? This was so interesting to see the other side!

    • Our industry is full of terms that don’t help us one little bit, and I would put forth that “rejection” is one of them. It is a simple lack of alignment—this agent, for whatever reason (no room on their list, no clue how to sell your work, or your writing style is not up their alley, or your other projects aren’t in their wheelhouse, or—yes—in their opinion, they don’t think you are ready yet), does not believe they have the kind of passion for your project that will allow a successful business partnership. Why on earth would you want to hire him or her to do so? It makes no sense. So ins tread of “blaming the agent for the rejection,” thank the agents who do not believe they can sell your work for stepping aside so that your true partnership can eventually reveal itself.

      That said, I know it stings that “now is not your time”—but the timing is not under your control. Keep writing so that when your break comes you’ll have an easier time of producing new products to sell!

  • This is one of the best posts I’ve read in a long time on this topic. Thank you for writing it. (And I would like to read that *other* column…you know, the old-fashioned one that may allude to three asterisks and a consonant.

    Oh, and I met Donald Maass recently, at Therese Walsh’s reading of The Moon Sisters at Book Court in Brooklyn. More often than not, I am inspired by Don’s books and articles but underneath the easy tone he comes across as formidable. Yet, in real life, he was quite accessible and charming. He may have thought I was full of three consonants and an asterisk when we talked, but I came away feeling he had listened carefully to what I shared of my experience as a writer, and what I’m interested in discovering, through the process of writing. I liked that.

    • Hi Sevigne, thanks so much for your comment, which I responded to on my phone this morning—yet the response has disappeared. Your comment inspires a couple of thoughts:
      1) Writers who wield confident prose can easily come of as formidable; and 2) I have a soft spot for Don Maass myself. He is an interesting case to discuss because Don is also a novelist—as a matter of fact, a good many agents are also writers or aspiring novelists. They’re more like us than not!

  • If you change “f***” to another f-word, “forget,” I agree with the sentiment, “f*** the agents and editors. Never pander to what they’re looking for.” You should be writing for readers. Many agents and editors will tell you that they don’t know what they’re looking for until they see it. You should also be writing for yourself, telling the story you’re driven to tell. If you’re just trying to fulfill a submission call, and your heart’s not in it, it’ll show in the writing.

    I’m no longer interested in trying to please the gatekeepers. I’ve got a self-publishing plan in place, and I’m very happy with my decision. Querying is a huge time suck, time that (for me) would better be spent writing. I don’t care about selling to the Big 5 or being in bookstores. I care about having 100% control of my career, and never having to sign a contract limiting my rights.

    But what works for me may not work for someone else. We all have different interests and skill sets. I love doing book covers, social media, formatting, and SEO. Traditional publishing has very little to offer me. The important thing is to be honest with yourself, to understand the industry, to understand what traditional and self-publishing have to offer, and what the tradeoffs are. I also know, objectively, that I can write. And I never use f*** on social media, because I understand how offensive that can be, even if you’re joking around.

    • Andrea, sounds to me like you have your head on straight and are choosing self-publication for positive reasons. I’m not sure anything undertaken in anger turns out well! And if you read the other comments you know I agree with you—the people we have to please are the readers, and those of us seeking agents can only hope that we will find agents who are like “market-informed readers.” Today’s publishing environment offers so many options, and I think allowing our individual differences without demeaning each other will help all of us in the long run. Thanks for your comment!

  • This is a brilliant post! I have shared the link to it on my writer’s website, http://www.kidlit411.com Thanks so much! 🙂

  • Great post Kathryn. What a refreshing perspective. Those who feel persecuted or that their dreams of publication are held hostage by evil agents fail to see this relationship as a business arrangement. If you hold angry or distrustful feelings toward an agent while pitching to them or asking them to represent your work, then I think the agent is going to feel the tension and things aren’t going go very smoothly. No one likes to be where they aren’t wanted. Hating on agents and editors and blaming them for your lack of success is self defeating.

    • Hi Tori, thanks for stopping in and reading. Your comment brought to mind something Marianne Williamson says in “Return to Love”—that there are only two emotions, fear and love. She suggests that every negative emotion is based in some sort of fear, and that fear is the absence of love.

      This has always resonated with me, and is a concept worth thinking about while pitching. First and foremost, you should be sharing with the agent your love for your story and your writing! If you can psych yourself into that frame of mind it will help quell the nervousness produced by fear of failure.

  • I’ve never pitched an agent or approached a publisher as I’m in the process of finishing my first manuscript. I’ve eluded to the trials and tribulations of writing as a novice on my own blog with agents or the thought of agents adding to my terror. Your post was really refreshing and inspiring showing each reader a view of agents as being people who are passionate about writing. A passion shared with each author. Thanks, it was a great post.

    • Thanks David! Glad I was able to help. Instead of success and failure when you get to the pitching phase, think of going in and sharing the love of your work with someone who is equally enthused about writing. It will help!

  • Thanks for humanizing agents and editors in a positive manner, Kathryn. The writing industry is in a state of flux. Folks in this business: writers, agents, editors, publishers have their work cut out for them.

    • Your comment about flux is the very reason we need to keep the lines of communication open. I’ve known too many people who are afraid to talk to their own agents, or who won’t ask their editors questions. These pros are on your team to help you put out the best possible product. It doesn’t help you to fear them.

  • Reblogged this on The Neophyte Writer and commented:
    Great information to know!

  • Thanks, Kathry! My contemporary romance about twins(I am one) is complete and professionally edited. I have been querying non stop with no takers so far, but I refuse to give up. People are fascinated by twins(my personal experience as one) so I believe the day will come when an agent will take it on! Southern setting and windjammer vacation in Maine that was a set up!! Forever One awaits an agent:o)

  • Reblogged this on Felicia Jane: Writer Extraordinarie and commented:
    This is good to remember as I struggle with figuring out what exactly I can offer to the book publishing world. Do I have anything to offer?