Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Why I'll Never be an Agent

Current Reading: Marching As To War, by Pierre Burton

Inspirational Quote: "I just think there are some people who ought not to be encouraged." -- Mordecai Richler, on why he doesn't teach at writing schools.

I've just finished Nathan Bransford's Agent for a Day contest.


Well, curiosity of course. What's it like? I've heard about how difficult it is to read the query pile. I've also heard about hurricanes, but that doesn't mean that I know what it's like to be in one. I've learned a great deal, more than I expected.

Here was my process:
I read all the queries.
I noted which ones appealed to me.
I read through the ones I had noted again, comparing them to the others I'd chosen.
I kept only the five that appealed to me most.

Stuff I learned:
There's not enough time. Really. I read through the queries and I'd just like to send back constructive suggestions, giving some idea why it didn't work for me, or what sold me. But doing so on fifty queries? Who has that much time? And if I did so, what kind of reaction would I get? I've heard a lot of horror stories about responses to unsolicited query feedback, and I certainly don't want to provoke anyone who may take my comments too personally. There's a reason rejections are short and uninformative.

I feel bad having to turn down so many of them. It's hard. It's wearing. I don't feel qualified to make the judgements I'm making. I'm making them because I have to (it's not my job, so the obligation is entirely voluntary, but still). So much work, so many people. Yes, sometimes I turned down some because I really didn't think a good book lay behind the query, but maybe I was wrong. Most of the time, though, I turned things down just because it wasn't the kind of story that interested me, or I'd seen it before, or it just didn't appeal to me enough to bump out something else.

I didn't want to miss something good, but I had to go through the queries quickly and guess based on those whether the book would be good enough. I could almost feel good stuff slipping through my fingers, but couldn't do anything about it. It had to go. I had to move on.
I can see why it's important for an agent to specialize, to represent only certain types of books. I found some of the ideas interesting, and the writing good enough, but I didn't know enough about the genre to know how fresh the approach was. I didn't know if it had been done before. On the other hand, some of the queries that appealed less to me still got a pass because the subject interested me.

An agent's judgement is far more subjective than I had thought. Some stuff I knew was good, but passed on because it just didn't appeal to me as strongly as other stuff.

And this was EASY compared to a real agent's job. Not only does Mr. Bransford get more queries in a day than he posted for the week, but agents then have to turn around and sell those books to editors who are also short of time and short of budget. I picked the stories that interested me. I don't know that I could sell any of them, or that any of them would be commercially viable.

Stuff that influenced my opinion:
A writer's conclusions and opinions about their own work. Sorry. I don't feel an author has a sufficiently objective point of view. Whenever I came across these, my interest went down because I got the feeling that the author didn't think their work could stand on its own merit and needed a cheer leading section to bolster it.

I ignored any personal details that did not illustrate writing ability or some background knowledge about the material. I don't much care if the author was an avid gardener when their book was about murder in a chef's school. However, if they were a teaching chef, THEN my interest went up because it was likely that insider knowledge informed the story, lending it verisimilitude.

I ignored blurbs from people whose names I didn't recognize.

Sample chapters are a good idea, but BOY do they have to be strong. The few samples that were attached were very revealing. Little things like spelling mistakes and grammar trouble REALLY dropped my interest.

Other Stuff:
My one other take away from this exercise was compassion for both sides of the author/agent relationship. I didn't read all the comments each entry generated. Partly it was the time thing. Mostly, though was the sympathy I felt for those who had offered their work to this contest. Each query had upward of two hundred comments. Some, most or all of those were rejections. I can't imagine how it would feel to take my labor of love, distill it down to a query, post it, and then read through four pages of "Not right for me."

At this point I have no idea if I picked any of the books that eventually went on to publication. I don't see how it could matter. As the Zen master teaches us: the value lies in the journey, not the destination.

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