Literary Agents aren't dead, so here's what I'm gonna do

Because I’m still young and dumb, I’ll sometimes make young and dumb decisions at my job. Granted, these decisions are bold moves, and they haven’t blown up in my face (yet), but when I look back on my list, I feel kind of ashamed; like seeing an old Facebook post that I thought was a good idea at the time only to roll my eyes years later. I can’t believe I wrote that. 

For example, there have been occasions when I’ve sent an email directly to the heads of different departments, pitching an idea, asking a question, or making a suggestion. I have even done this directly to the CEO. And there is a laundry list of reasons why this is not a good idea. Chain of command. Potentially ruffle feathers of your direct managers. Or simply the “put in your time kid, you’re 25, 26, 27, you’ve been here less than five years, you haven’t earned a voice.”

But here’s what I found out. First, the world didn’t come crashing down. Second, and what I think is most fascinating, their response times were shockingly quick. Which doesn’t make sense to me. These are some of the top people at the company; in the CEO’s case THE top person at the company. They are the ones with the fullest plates, biggest pressure, most to keep track of. Yet they got back to me in a couple of minutes?

Compare that to my own response time. I’m not the head of anything, I’ve got much less on my plate, but I’m way slower. I’ll find myself in situations where a colleague sends me the, “Hey, just checking in to see if you got this” email and I realize they sent their original email two days ago. Or this one time, when my favorite college professor was applying for tenure, I was asked by my alma mater to write a letter of recommendation, and even though I was honored and excited to write this, I STILL procrastinated until the last day or so.

How can this contrast be?

How am I slower with less on my plate? And it’s not just work responsibilities; these people at the top also have like three kids, serve on boards, go to Spin classes, or hot yoga, or whatever thing I’m not doing when I’ve got Netflix on but still let out a sigh because Crash (puppy) needs to go outside to pee.

My best answer: they are there for a reason.* The people at the top of their fields can carry 100 things at once when I’m expending energy managing 10. They are go-go-go, constantly on offense, cramming two days of work into one.

*Now, this doesn’t mean everyone in America at the C-Suite/VP/Director/Senior Manager level are these like Amazon Prime/Jimmy John’s delivery level of fast with their inbox. And it doesn’t mean people not in those roles are slow to reply, and that’s what’s holding them back. Just making an observation that “higher up” doesn’t automatically mean, “too high up to respond.”

Alright, we’re four hundred words in and not sure what this has to do with literary agents?

When I was looking for a literary agent, I searched “Top Literary Agencies” and came back with a list of the Top 50 houses. I did some more searching on LinkedIn, found one of the top agents at a Top 30 or Top 25 agency. Looked at her work, said wow, she’s done a lot. She has represented the types of fiction I write; she’d be great to work with. I got ready to send her my pitch.

And the same reasons why not to email your company’s CEO came to mind. You haven’t been published before. You haven’t put in your time. She’s way too busy to deal with a dirt bag like you.

But I sent it anyway. Turn the volume up on the doubts. You won’t hear back for weeks. Maybe months. You should send your stuff out to 50 other literary agents. It’s a volume game.

She sent a note back to me five days later.

It was a rejection, but it was polite, gracious, even came with a little bit of feedback.

A year later, when I was doing the Rocky vs. Star Wars posts, I thought hey, maybe this could be a good book/ebook. I decided to reach out to the same literary agent. I got the same result. But, again, it was a fast response from a top agent.

My long rambling point is this; we shouldn’t be afraid to pitch our book to the best/top agents. Their response times won’t necessarily be any slower because they are busy, or because they have a career of success. In some cases, it could be the exact opposite.

And if/when they say no, let’s politely accept it. Don’t do the, “Can you give me like five reasons you didn’t like it? Maybe you didn’t, like, get it? I mean I can help explain the characters to you?”  

Rejections aren’t the end for books anymore. Instead of burning the manuscript, or sending it to the place where old Microsoft Word files go to die, my move is to go through with the book. Self-publish and move on to the next one.

In each year that I have a project ready to go, I will return to the same agent. Annoying? Not really, or at least I hope it’s not because, at most, this is one email a year. My thinking is if rejection is inevitable, why not get rejected five times by the same person, over the course of five years, instead of sending out 50 generic pitches, getting rejected by five of them.

By picking the top person(s) you want to work with, writing specifically to them, my belief is one of four things will happen:

The Best Case Scenario – One of the ideas finally works out. Might be five years from now, but congratulations! You are now working with your ideal literary agent.

The Persistence Scenario – Back to Post 1 or 2 of this series, literary agents are trying to find a great book, yes, but they are also trying to find writers who have more than one book in them. By reaching out once a year (and that’s key, don’t be spammy, don’t auto-subscribe them to a newsletter or blog), “Hey, here’s my new book, and here’s how last year’s book ended up doing” you’re proving your grit, proving your hustle, and I mean even a broken clock is right twice a day. One of these ideas will eventually work!

The Helper – The agent might say, “Hey, this book really isn’t my style, but I’ve CC’d so-and-so, this is right in his wheelhouse. I’ll let you guys talk from here.”

Why would they do it? What benefit does this have to them? There’s no better answer than they’re just giving back. Being generous. It’s like the COO grabbing coffee with an intern, the Northwestern grad making a connection for someone applying to the program, the friend of your uncle who sort of knows Mike Lupica’s mom or something like that and gets you an interview at the New York Daily News. In the literary world, the business world, the world-world, I’m finding this kind of thing happens more often than I ever would have thought.

The Needed Feedback – I guess it’s possible after four attempts in four years you could get a strong-worded, “Hey. No more, alright? These ideas suck, and you’re wasting my time. Good day, sir, I said good day!” But it’s not very likely. Literary agents see hundreds of manuscripts and have a good idea of what they like and don’t like. They may end up giving me/you constructive feedback, “Hey, your dialogue seems unrealistic. You don’t do enough with the setting, and I didn’t get a sense of where I was, how this character was thinking. And your blog posts are way too long. Three parts and this third one’s still like 2,000 words? Come on, stop rambling, why don’t you condense it to 500 words and try again.”

But my literary agent did nothing for me!

There will be plenty of published writers that say, “Oh, don’t waste your time, my literary agent didn’t do anything for me. Didn’t help my book at all.” But I think the same sentence can be thrown around for individual real estate agents, financial planners, travel agent; you name it. Go a step further; I waited in line for two hours just to hear my doctor tell me to sleep and drink water. My lawyer charged me a thousand dollars for nothing. My accountant got me less of a tax return than what I got on TurboTax. 

I think those LinkedIn “[insert career] is dead” posts get a bunch of shares and likes because every line of work has some example of someone doing a bad job. And yeah, if that person continues to do shoddy work, they might be out a job, but that doesn’t mean it bubbles all the way up to the top. Entire industries aren’t taken down by their lowest performers. That would be like the NBA suddenly being in jeopardy every time a middle school kid throws up an air ball in their driveway.

So no, literary agents aren’t “dead.” There are plenty of agents doing well, plenty of All-Stars out there making good money, taking the books they represent from hopeful idea to commercial success. Literary agents aren’t required anymore to get our books out there, or make them a smash hit, but that’s kind of like saying we’re not required to have an attorney in court, or we’re not required to have a coach in the boxing ring; yes, we may still pull off a win, but a great literary agent will make it a whole lot easier.

Keep aiming high. Let’s do our research. Go after the best in the business. Yeah, they’re busy. Their calendars are packed. Their inboxes are full, but so is the cup of coffee on their desk.

They might be ready to open our email.

For those who stuck with all three posts of this series, thank you, I hope it helped out. If you missed the first two, those can be found here and here. Next week I’ll be drifting away from this On Writing type series, I’ve got two posts going up on Wednesday mapping out my grand plan to convince Netflix to make a Captain Ron 2. If you’d like to subscribe to the blog via email, just type your email address in the box below and you’ll be good to go. Thanks for stopping by!

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