October 22, 2019

Complementing a Literary Agent’s Shortcomings

Wendy Lawton, Literary Agent

Wendy Lawton, Literary Agent

Wendy Lawton, literary agent at Books and Such, has written a series of blogs about the shortcomings of literary agents.

Short-comings, Not Agent Failures?

She calls them failures, but I think she is being too harsh on herself and her peers. The truth is that in the priorities, all agents need to fill out their lists of authors and proposals with what they see as the most salable entries.

If agents had the final say about publication, then they would be in a sense talent scouts because their decision would be the final one. But agents represent authors at an editor’s desk or table. Hopefully, the agents know or have anticipated what sorts of things the editors are seeking. But in most houses, it doesn’t end there. The editors then sponsor an author/agent’s proposal before a publishing committee (or so). So even when an editor takes a proposal to committee, that hopeful action can signal a positive outcome. But it doesn’t guarantee it.

Writing or literary coaches, then, complete or fill in some gaps in the publishing process. We give you and your work the attention you desire, but usually for a fee. Scrupulous coaches work hard not to take advantage of authors who want assistance, but do not demonstrate sufficient potential.

Requested Material Limbo Means …?

So let’s say that an agent (or editor) has requested more information from you as author. Woo-hoo! A positive signal.

But then…nothing. No reply. No short email “I got your stuff.” Silence.

Lawton tells of a file folder on her hard drive she feeds with such material. She hates to look at it because she knows there are things in that folder that need to be moved ahead.

But the material sits there because of crises and distractions. She only requests more when she is interested (no time for games). Yet, she might have made fewer requests for material had she anticipated the mounting immediate demands.

So she advises to give an agent perhaps 2 months before inquiring. Do so in a personable manner.

In my experience in publishing, “not a no is a maybe,” meaning that the longer your materials are in the publishing system, the greater the chance of getting a yes (although I also calculate that about 4 percent of all submissions get lost on the agent’s desk or the editor’s stack of proposals). After 2 months and a cheery check-in, it’s often time to move to the next one on the list.

Writing or literary coaches have already done as much as we can.

The Logjam

So, agented authors with situations that need immediate attention, queries with more materials already submitted, and new queries coming through the email–all this creates a logjam.

This logjam continues through the remainder of the system right through the sawmill (that is, publishing house; I’m just going with the metaphor and not intending any judgments).

Publisher’s editors have proposals sitting on desks, table tops, on floors under desks. Publishing committees have 20 items on a meeting agenda–but then only discuss the first 9. And when things back up too much, editors need to phone agents who need to phone authors who are tired of floating in water and knocking against other logs.

Your writing or literary coach can listen and commiserate. But like the logjam, we have already helped you submit the best proposal. Email if you’re anxious. We’re there for you.

Hitting a Brick Wall

Lawton changes metaphors here because she wants to talk about proposals that agents love and work hard to place with one publisher, then another, and another–until they conclude that they’re not going to sell it. Period. This is “hitting a brick wall.”

Most agents, like moset publisher’s editors, trust their instincts about proposals and authors. These can develop or change slowly over time. But what about the proposals–or even the author whose several proposals–were never taken?

These get passed off, ultimately, as changes in market conditions. Lawton may have liked your commercial women’s fiction, but the lead male character is suddenly a tough sell (probably because publishers are experiencing low sales and decided it’s from this combination).

This post is Lawton’s best of the bunch in my view because she is no longer attempting to defend against the many proposals she, like so many other agents, didn’t take. She is haunted by some that she has taken and worked hard–but has been unsuccessful. It’s this element that gives an agent soul and some hesitation.

Writing–as authors, agents, and editors well know–is a series of judgments that create an effect. It’s hearing a story and knowing that someone (or a lot of someones) will be eager to read or hear it.

Bad Agents

Because of changes in the publishing industry, literary agents have needed to rethink their set of services and their terms. Lawton, and all honest agents, want to help authors spot the bad agents.

Agents most often subscribe to the Association of Author’s Representative’s Canon of Ethics, which restricts an agent’s income to commissions on title sales (advances and royalties).

Unofficially, according to Lawton, agents have been expanding their services, such as helping authors publish ebooks. So where is the line?

Some warning signs Lawton gives are:

  • An agent has a financial interest in an editing, marketing, or publishing firm.
  • An agent encourages you to go to self-publishing.
  • An agent woos clients from other agencies.
  • An agent makes few sales to a range of publishers.

Writing or literary coaches have shied away from literary representation. Instead we offer services with rates usually posted.

Agents have all had logjams and brick walls; they have not been able to scout or develop writer’s talents. Writing or literary coaches have risen to complement these shortcomings.

In the spirit of Lawton’s honesty, writing and literary coaches have our own shortcomings as well: Taking on more clients than we should; having projects take longer than anticipated (thereby delaying the starting or finishing of another author’s work); or realizing that the manuscript is in worse shape than the sample indicated.

And, the truth is that when we’re done working together, you will still need to make changes for the agent and later again for the editor–not because things are wrong, but because each agent or publisher’s editor has his or her own sense of what makes for the best selling projects.

Note: Rachel Gardner, whose blogs often get listed in the free resources section of this website, has also commented on Wendy’s series.

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