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On the agent selection process

Sun 17 Oct 2010 by mskala Tags used:

It will be a while yet before I start querying agents with Shining Path - first I want to see what the test readers think and do some editing accordingly - but in the interests of being ready when I am ready, I got a copy of the Jeff Herman 2010 guide and went through the entire list of agents (a few hundred of them) making a short-list of ones to consider querying. That was 20 agents. Examination of their Web sites (which I haven't finished doing yet) has allowed me to cut three or four, as well as give me some idea of my order of preference among those remaining.

It's interesting that very many agents specifically say they don't do science fiction. That's to be expected - SF is a specialized field, the connections you need to sell it are different from the ones you need to sell other things, and everyone's better served by that stuff going through agents who specialize in it. The justification for all "genre fiction" (which includes SF) being rejected is less strong, but that's a common syndrome too. I think it comes down to simple snobbery; but okay, whatever, at least it helps me narrow my list.

Pity the poor fool who wrote a "memoir of addiction recovery." You'd be amazed how many agents very specifically mention that they don't represent those. Gee, I wonder why.

What did surprise me, though, was that many agents say they don't do fiction at all - and even the ones who do represent fiction, often treat it as a sideline with non-fiction being their main business. There's a question in the survey for what percentages of different categories make up the agent's business (one amusingly misinterpreted that as "what percentage commission do you charge?") and it was rare for that question to be answered with fiction as the majority. Is that really how the market works? At the very least it supports the conventional wisdom I've heard, that if you want to actually earn a living wage writing books, you ought to be writing non-fiction books.

What is up with agents whose names are spelled differently in the book and on their own Web sites? Did they submit incorrect information to Mr. Herman and his staff? Or did the publishers of the guide screw up?

One agency I won't name: on their Web site, the list of staff is about eight people; all of them are female with the possible exception of the dog; and that's not at all unusual in this business... but of their list of authors (which is more than 50 people), a large majority have feminine names, a few indeterminate, exactly one clearly masculine... nowhere on the Web site does it actually say "Don't query us if you are male," but it gives me an odd vibe, to say the least.


Steve C
I completely see publishers drawing a line in the sand regarding fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is entertainment. Non-fiction can be entertaining, but it's not entertainment. The skills needed to identify a good fiction book are completely different than the skills needed to identify a good non-fiction book.

Non-fiction also has a more identifiable audience. Non-fiction that is so specific that it has a tiny limited audience can still be sold to academic libraries. An agent with extensive contacts in academia might be completely lost on how to sell a Stephen King novel. Steve C - 2010-10-18 03:48
Specializing in either fiction or non-fiction makes sense to me, but what I'm seeing (as a rule, obviously with some exceptions) is people specializing in non-fiction, period. Not one or the other, just non-fiction. And although your point about academic libraries buying some non-fiction is no doubt true to some extent, I find it hard to believe it's really a big part of the reason. Academia is another specialization of its own - and it buys a lot of non-non-fiction material (in particular, poetry) that the general public, and agents, won't touch. Matt - 2010-10-18 11:05
The agents are all failed academics. They work with their old buddies who are still in institutions of higher learning to publish each other's work back and forth, and require students to buy it. It's called "making a market." If you're not pay for the clique already, you will find it quite hard to secure representation.

I know you're determined to go down the road of a "professional" publisher, but be aware that those guys get rich by taking great works like yr novel, pimping them out and kicking back to the writer nothing but chump change, which usually goes to paying back the recoupable 'advance' they give you on signing. If you strike it lucky and your work becomes popular, you don't actually retain any of the rights (eg film, television) that would make being a published author fun. Instead, they belong to your publisher, who can then go an make, say, a family-friendly Sunday morning cartoon or a shitty teen date movie using all yr ideas & characters.

Not at Obscene Works. We don't give you an advance, but you do get to keep 100% rights ownership, you get the entire gross profit from the sale of books (basically half of the cover price for every book sold) and I'll even get you hookers and blow if that's what you need to connect with your muse. Where you gonna get a deal like that? Owen - 2010-10-19 09:36
Academic publication is a completely separate ball game. It doesn't pay royalties, and usually doesn't involve agents. The idea that agents in the commercial realm are all failed academics, just is not supported by the facts - most of their career histories are in other areas of publishing (editing, journalism, sometimes but not all that often book writing). Failed academics drive cab instead. Matt - 2010-10-19 18:08
Fair enough. Haven't ever actually met an agent - just relaying what I hear from a friend who's very deep in the book industry (reads/reviews and interviews the author of 1 title/week and has been doing so, for a syndicated radio show, for over a decade now) I was talking about book awards at the time though.

In other news, I've applied for registered developer status with Notion Ink for the Adam tablet that should be releasing soon. I'm serious about writing my calendar software, and would love to get you on board for the project. Could possibly get an Adam tablet + full dev kit in your hands prior to release date if you're interested. Pixel Qi display means you could be outside on a sunny day. Owen - 2010-10-19 18:15

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