Tag Archives: literary agent

Putting the “gent” back in agent: The complete writers’ guide to Literary Agents

20 Oct

Andrew Wylie (born 1947), also known as The Jackal, is one of the world’s leading literary agents.

Perhaps no one  in the publishing industry is vilified and revered with equal vigor as much as the literary agent.

I just came back from the Frankfurt Bookfair where for the first time since starting to frequent this seminal book event in 1999, I attended as a writer. While I saw almost every aspect of the book world from a different prism, my perception of literary agents remains the same. I am a firm believer that unless you know what you are doing, writers should not go to book fairs chasing agents. Let alone publishers. It’s a recipe for disaster, disillusionment, and potential humiliation. The best way to engage an agent remains the good old fashioned submission process.

Yet I am still amazed how despite all the great advice out there that tries to demystify agents and to lay a clear and effective pathway on how to approach and work with them, most writers still don’t get it and keep erring repeatedly.

In this post, I would like to throw my own pebble into the pond of enlightenment for writers when it comes to the all mighty LitAgs.

It’s a business, like any other

Literary agents have the misfortune of being the gatekeepers that filter literary talent for mainstream publishers to pick and choose from. Writers not only perceive them as “middle” men and women, which in itself carries numerous negative connotations, but many aspiring scribes have a largely inaccurate perception of agents as being inherently nasty.  That there sole aim in life is to crush the hopes and dreams of ingenious writers, and instead choose to support lesser authors who they may have direct personal contacts with. Or some variation of these negative stereotypes and conspiracy theories. I’ve heard it all.

I would argue that nothing is further from the truth. Literary agency is a business like any other. No agent in their right mind would ever come across unquestionable literary talent that can translate into commercial gain and turn it down simply because they are on a power trip or because they would prefer to help their writer buddies.

The brutal reality is this: Writing is a hugely saturated and cut-throat business. Underline business. Literary agents behave in a way that reflects the needs of the market at any given time. These days, it’s not enough to be a great writer with a great story. There are thousands upon thousands who are just as good or better than you. Agents are not just looking for outstanding writers any more, that’s a given. If you haven’t perfected your craft yet, don’t even bother with agents. It’s a waste of your time and theirs. Agents are looking for the next great thing. Something unique and different they can take to their publisher clients with a convincing pitch.

The bottom line is this: If you want a mainstream publishing deal, your writing project has to be fresh, unique and it has to stand out on every level other than phenomenal writing skills. Agents and by extension publishers already have enough clients who write well and earn them handsome amounts to keep them in business for a very long time. They are not looking for more of the same. If your genre is horror, it’s not enough to be just as good as Stephen King. You have to bring something new, ground-breaking and exciting to the mix.

Now does that mean that literary agents are infallible angels who always play it straight like an arrow? Of course not. They are just as human as you and I. Will they make a few exceptions to push up their personal contacts a little faster up the ladder of submissions? Perhaps. But that doesn’t make them any worse than the doctor who gives priority appointments to friends and family, or the shop owner who offers slightly better discounts to their inner circle. Human beings are social animals and we get by through life by sticking to our groups and taking care of one another.

I would even go as far as postulating that knowing a literary agent would at best save you some time of getting the exact same answer you would have gotten if you didn’t know them. A “no” is still a “no”, even if you get it sooner. Agents have professional reputations to uphold and would never knowingly try to sell inferior material just to do their buddy a solid.

And as it happens, the vast majority of literary agents are down-to-earth, hard-working, decent folks who get all doe-eyed and excited about books and writing, just like you. They would love nothing more than to discover a diamond in the rough. To believe that you the writer could be the next Umberto Eco, Haruki Murakami, Khaled Hosseini, Alaa El Aswany, Frederick Forsyth,  J.K. Rowling, or Vince Flynn.

Be Upfront and Professional

Agents repeat themselves, over and over again. It’s always the same message. Consistently the same basic principles. Which are: The number of things a writer can do to improve their chances with an agent, other than having a solid pitch, is exactly zero. No amount of jokes or “quirky” style in your query letter will endear you to them any more than a basic, well-written, courteous communique would. There is veritably nothing you can bribe an agent with that would convince them to like your pitch any more than what it deserves. There is no amount of “creativity” in how you submit your package that could enhance your chances—don’t waste your money on expensive manuscript boxes or fancy paper. And meeting you in person when you show up at their offices uninvited, or if you ambush them during their lunch break will only get your ego bruised, your face slapped or yourself arrested depending on how “spirited” your attempt is.

The truth is, I have never come across an agent’s submission guideline that was in any way vague or left anything open to interpretation. In a nutshell, here’s what agents expect from writers trying to do business with them:

1. Do your research. Find the most suitable agents and only submit to them. Don’t try to engage with an agent who specializes in mysteries and thrillers, if you happen to write cookery books or military history. How difficult is that?

2. Stick to the submission guidelines. Stick to the submission guidelines. Stick to the submission guidelines. If an agent asks for a complete synopsis that describes all the main events, don’t hold-off the final twist or ending because “you don’t want to deprive them of the thrill factor.” If you can’t follow simple instructions, agents can make all sorts of deductions about your intelligence and therefore their desire to work with you long term.

3. Be respectful and only speak when you are spoken to. Unless an agent specifically encourages you touch base after a certain period of time after your submission to prod them, the first time you contact an agent should be the last time until they engage you in a discussion. Indignant follow up letters or calls that contain phrases like “perplexed” won’t win you any favors. Most important of all, if an agent does pass on you, under no circumstance should you write back to complain or to plead for them to reconsider. If you do feel the need to write back, the best you can do is a gracious thank you note. In some circumstances if an agent’s rejection is vague or you require clarification for your own education, it may be okay to inquire about that, but only in the politest terms.

4. Never, ever burn bridges. Acting in a publishing capacity, a writer I rejected recently for a small piece of fiction first tried to make me change my mind through a series of aggressive emails. When none of my polite emails reflected a change in my position, she wrote back saying ” You are extremely unprofessional. I wouldn’t work with you on any project in the future. And I would advise anyone I know to not work with you.” Many agents I know tell me they’ve received even worse feedback from disgruntled, rejected writers. Sometimes even outright threats.

When writers behave like that upon rejection, they disclose their true nature. Good manners go a long way in this business. An agent who rejects you may, without you knowing, pass your proposal on to another agency who may find you more up their alley. But they certainly won’t be doing anything other than trashing your submission if you decide to be anything other than cordial, sane, and civilized.

It’s a free market, like any other

Perhaps one of the biggest mistake most aspiring writers commit when hunting for an agent is getting myopic and obsessive about the agents they will submit to. A lot of writers tend to send out limited submissions to either the top agencies, or just a few ones on a trial basis. And when the rejections start rolling in, they see that as a blanket condemnation of their writing skills and withdraw into a shell of self-doubt.

The savvy writer recognizes that literary agency is a free market. There are enough agencies and independent agents out there to support you sending a submission a day for a few years. And big doesn’t always mean better. In many cases, finding new or smaller agencies may work to your advantage. They may have more time and be less jaded. They  could pay more attention or see unique selling points in you or your story which you may have failed to articulate, and which an A-List agent may not have the time or patience to infer on your behalf. The best approach to finding an agent is to see it as an ongoing agricultural project. Plant as many seeds as you can and keep planting, rather than sowing just a few seeds then waiting idly by their side hoping to see them sprout.  Or to use another farm-inspired expression, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Think outside your geographic box

Another common mistake many writers commit is to think within their narrow geographic zone. It would serve them tremendously if they looked laterally and broadened their geographic focus. Instead of submitting only to agents in your country, why not cast a wider net and research literary agencies in other geographic locales? And I don’t just mean other English-speaking countries like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Even further afield in other vibrant literary markets like Germany, Japan and Italy, or in emerging markets like Russia, Brazil, India, and China. If your genre is over-saturated in your home country, maybe there is a market for a writer like you and a story like yours in the most unexpected place. It is erroneous to  think that important publishing opportunities exist only within the confines of London or New York. The world is really your oyster.

Beware of the faux agent and the con artists

Much of the advice regarding agents focuses on what to do and not to do when dealing with legitimate literary agents. But with the advent of self-publishing, the industry is in the throes of a major overhaul. And like any industry in transformation, there are bound to be opportunistic leeches who try to profiteer in less than ethical ways.

I have noticed of late a growing species of faux agents and con artists whose business model is to prey on inexperienced first-time authors who are hungry for a break. In the spirit of vanity publishing houses which have thankfully now been fully exposed for what they are, fake agents recognize that while most writers have figured out they can produce a quality book on their own, the next step of getting it picked up by a mainstream publisher is still incredibly hard.

The most common type of fraudulent agent is the type who charge for their services. Reputable literary agents only get paid when you do. They get a commission from your earnings as a writer, through the deals they broker for you. Any one suggesting they can provide their services for a fee, are categorically taking you or a ride. Run a thousand miles in the opposite direction.

Slightly more refined, another genus of scamming literary agents will speak of co-sharing costs. They will spin you a yarn about how competitive the market has become, and that to gain an edge you need to invest in your writing career by teaming up with the agent in question (or even a publishing outfit they own or operate) to jump start your career. They will often use the editorial and production stages of self-publishing as an analogy and justification as to why you also need to invest in finding a publisher, or to “market” your self-published book. The key trigger words that should concern you are things like “partnership”, “joint venture”, “co-publishing”, “invest in your writing career”, and “the changing face of the publishing world.”

Between the thieving fake agents who want to charge you a fee for their services or those scoundrels who want you to “partner” with them, there is a whole ecosystem of agent impersonators who will want to con you out of your hard-earned cash through a myriad of ways. Like the microbial life forms of false agents who will indirectly solicit any number of favors (social, sexual, monetary) and lavish spending from you. I’ve heard of “agents” who expect to be taken out for expensive lunches to “discuss” your project. It is highly irregular for an agent assessing your work to want to dine with you. And in the rare occasion they do ask you out for a business meal, if it’s not their treat, at the very least split the bill. Even if you are a man and the conniving agent is a member of the opposite sex, resist the temptation to be a gentleman this one time because in all likelihood, you are the victim of a literary scam rather than a legitimate business relationship.

Be safe boys and girls, but open your hearts. There’s never been a better time to write and create.


The Future of Publishing: Dispatch from the Frankfurt Bookfair 2013

13 Oct

British writer Matt Haig recently said, “Authors shouldn’t go to book fairs any more than chickens should go to Nando’s.”

Presumably he meant writers seeking to get published. And I agree with him to some degree. Writers, listen up: Don’t go to book fairs looking to hook up with a publisher or an agent to get published. Especially if you are new at this game. You’ll get your heart plucked out of your chest and shredded. But do go to book fairs to educate yourself about this industry you so desperately want to belong to.

Many authors who want to take control of their careers spend far too much time complaining about the publishing industry, and very little time applying themselves to understand it, and therefore  be able to navigate it better.

I just spent five days attending the single-most important annual event for the literary and publishing worlds: The Frankfurt Book fair. An intensive, full immersion in the essence of anything and everything to do with the book world. A crash course of where this industry is, and more importantly where it’s heading. I’ve been attending this event since 1999, but for my day job. It’s my first time as a writer, and I saw it with a new set of eyes.

Publishers, printers, digital chain suppliers, agents (yes, those agents!), and logistics companies convene every year in Frankfurt to flex their muscles and show off, as well as make the big deals. Everyone’s there in droves. Except writers. Which is counterintuitive because this whole show is based on the products that writers (and illustrators) create. But that’s a point of another discussion.

What I want to do here is give you my take on the pulse of the publishing world based on my Frankfurt experience.

Books are going to be around for a long time

The most reassuring impression I had is that reading is alive and well. Concerns about the interest in books declining  as a result of diminishing attention spans are by-and-large exaggerated.

The fair is initially limited to trade visitors, but once it opened up to the public I felt a deep hunger and intense interest in books and authors. Granted the event is held in Germany, and Germans are known to be voracious readers. But this is a truly international party, and I’ve seen and heard attendants from all over the world with an equally passionate interest in the written word. The handful of rockstar authors who showed up were hounded just like movie stars.

This is good news if you happen to be a writer. Your craft is still highly in demand. Keep writing, even if the route between you and your future readers seems obstructed by the business side of the industry. On the other end, when you finally make it there, you’ll find an ocean of readers waiting eagerly to hear what you have to say, and interested and intrigued by this profession.

A book revolution is coming. But it’s not yet around the corner

The revolution we’re all expecting to rock the publishing world is coming. Mark my word. But not just yet. And it may take quite a while. The publishing industry feels ominously similar to the music world exactly ten years ago. The big players at the Frankfurt Bookfair seemed only tentatively nervous of what is about to come. But it is jittery. Gone is the resolute hubris of say, five years ago. Because there are intruders at the gates. Not posing any huge danger for now. But catapulting tiny fire balls at the fortress, patiently making small but effective dents. Microscopic gains that will one day add up.

Advances in technology have resulted in the explosion of electronic books and high-quality print on demand solutions, as well as somewhat reliable, wide distribution networks. This has lowered the entry bar dramatically. Producing a professional book and making it available for sale is no longer a difficult or prohibitively expensive pursuit. Anybody can do it. And I really mean anybody.

But herein lies an inherent contradiction of self-publishing that is both comforting and worrying for mainstream publishers.

Because anybody can do it, the emphasis on quality has never been higher. That’s the good news for traditional publishers because they can play up how their infrastructure filters out all the duds, and makes sure readers get only the quality material.

The ‘bad’ news  however is that even though there is a whole bunch of crap being churned up every second by anyone who fancies themselves a scribe, truly amazing works  can also slip through the cracks. And once enough excellent writers establish themselves outside the realm of traditional publishing, mainstream readers will start paying attention and look with a more serious intent at indie authors to discover the next great read.

The main juggernaut of the business has now been cornered to the last remaining strong-holds of the big publishers: Sales and marketing. As most self-published writers know all too well, even if you’ve just written the most ground-breaking novel of all time, if you can’t get it reviewed, and if you can’t get on the airwaves to promote it, and if you can’t get it stocked in all the brick-and-mortar book stores, and if you can’t flood the market with huge print runs, then you might as well wipe your *** with it.  And that’s what the big publishers are holding on to for dear life: Access to the public and the ability to shape their tastes and needs using unlimited resources.

And writers know that. Even the ones who start off as indies and break through to the mainstream. They invariably jump ship and sign up with the big guys as the first order of business.

So where will the revolution come from, one might ask? From a third-party.

Just like Amazon and Lightning Source democratized the production process for printed books, sooner or later some smart entrepreneur will figure out a business model to provide effective sales and marketing services to small or self publishers. Not the con artists who currently prey on inexperienced authors like vanity publishers or self-proclaimed literary consultants. But legitimate players. Of course if mainstream publishers can heed the cautionary tales of the music industry, they would be rushing as we speak to plan for the future and make sure  they’re providing these services ahead of the competition. But who am I to dole out such advice?

In the future, instead of the big five, there will be thousands, even millions of smaller publishing cells, being serviced by professional and effective enabling vendors. Not just on the production side, but before that at the editorial level, and after that at the sales, marketing and distribution points. Social media will be a part of that menu, but not nearly as a main course or even as a side dish as the prognosticators would like us to think. But more like a condiment.

Will the printed book really die? That would be, like, so 😦

Video didn’t kill the radio star, and YouTube did not kill television. Which by extension means that electronic publishing will not bury the printed book any time soon.

The feeling I got at the Frankfurt Bookfair was that ebooks are now widely accepted not as a killer of print, but an alternative reading tool. Just like we use our phones, tablets, and computers to watch television content, while still keeping our televisions.

After five days at the Frankfurt Bookfair, here’s what I think will happen: Print will not die. What will change however is how books are printed and it will be a factor of how physical books are sold in the future.

In today’s book market, three main players deliver printed books to the end consumer:

  1. Online vendors like Amazon: infinite availability + delayed gratification + highly discounted prices.
  2. Large brick-and-mortar chains like Barnes and Noble: immediate availability + not as wide of a selection as online vendors + at full price.
  3. Small independently owned book­stores that neither pro­vide a wide spectrum of availability nor ­competitive prices, but fill an entirely different need: They serve as emotional hubs in the community for people who are pas­sion­ate about books.

There are of course vary­ing degrees of inter­section amongst these three categories, like the medium-sized chain, the small book store that does lots of business online. And so on and so forth.

It’s not a huge secret that many folks go to their local Barnes and Noble to browse for books and to get the book store experience. But when it comes to buying books, they do it online on Amazon where they stand to save a lot of money. Unless of course they want instant gratification and are willing to pay full price. Which means the large book­store chains are doomed. It’s just a matter of time. Not sim­ply because  online vendors are deliver­ing books even faster, but because the number of books in print is increasing exponentially, and no store will ever be big enough for the inventory of the future.

But if the online book seller kills the mega brick-and-mortar chain, who will step in to fill the void? Not the indie book stores. Not at all. Namely because they were never competing with either Amazon or Barnes and Noble to start. And they would be stupid if they ever thought they were.

Consumers will still crave the bookstore and instant gratification experience: Walking in, walking out with a book in hand ready to be consumed. And this is where print-on-demand will come to the rescue.

Imagine this: You walk into a massive Barnes and Noble-like store of the future where there are no physical books on dis­play for you to buy. Just electronic pods as far as the eye can see where you and other customers can browse for books. Maybe there are no pods. You can use your own mobile device to browse in store. Sometime even before you get to the store. That’s not important.

When you’ve finally decided which book you want to buy, you simply click on some screen or speak to a sales associate to place an order. Five minutes later after you’ve had a coffee or a bite to eat, the book or books you’ve ordered are ready: Printed, trimmed, laminated, pack­aged and ready to go back home with you. At highly discounted prices. Even a lil’ hot off the press. Just like a fresh baguette.

I am talk­ing any book you can dream of. In any language. In your choice of font size. You even get to choose the stock. Want to save a little money? Then print the cover in gray-scale rather than color.

Behind the scenes, highly automated, advanced print-on-demand futuristic robots do all the work. And the price of each book is based on complicated for­mu­las that cal­cu­late royalty, your choice of physical specs, and how much stock and ink are used.

Still not convinced the printed book will last long enough for any corporation to invest heavily in the POD super store model I describe above?

Then let’s dream further and braver into the future.

Why do people love printed books? Mostly because they love flip­ping pages, and see­ing each printed leaf visible in the same dimension, rather than a virtual one as in the case of eBooks.

They love the art­work, and to hold a book in pub­lic and silently tell the world what they are read­ing. Readers also love to gauge how much they’ve read and how much they have left. It gives them an incentive to continue reading. And the progress bar of eBooks just doesn’t cut it.

Imagine if in addition to our ebook readers, a new class of book “vehicle” is invented? It would look and almost feel like a printed book, but it isn’t quite so. It’s a hybrid print and electronic book device. With a fancy name like the “Pelec­tronic Book.” Or something pretentious like that.

It’s an advanced book shell made of an indestructible paper-like membrane with tiny electronic vascular circuits. Every time you want to read a specific book from your collection, you load it on your Pelectronic device through a USB like port on the back. Maybe even wirelessly. Within milliseconds the 400–500 blank pages of your device get pop­u­lated with electronic ink that’s virtu­ally indistinguishable from real ink. Probably much better.

And what if you have a particularly long tome like War and Peace that will not fit in your standard 400 leaf Pelec­tronic book Franken­stein? Fear not. You can buy page expansions in modules of 50-page units. Install them for the duration of your long read, then remove them when you are back to standard length books to avoid lugging around a heavy device.

The future of book production is com­ing. And it will be in far more shades of excitement than what the proponents of eBook vs. print would like us to think. We just have to be open and ready for it.

Tune in next time when I give you the lowdown on literary agents! Everything you need to know to avoid getting burned.

Honest Acknowledgments

13 Sep


Writers love to write about writers. I’ve always imagined this obnoxious and paranoid novelist who strikes it big, but then self-destructs over ten years. His life begins to incrementally melt down as he slowly antagonizes the people who supported him.

I thought it would be neat to document his demise through the acknowledgment section of his debut novel, from the very first one to the last. From picture humility and gratitude, to… Well, read on and you’ll find out!

Acknowledgments: First Edition, February 8 2005

I am grateful to my parents for providing me with a colorful life that sparked my creativity at a young age. I wasn’t sheltered or protected like most kids growing up today. I saw it and did it all.

If it wasn’t for my good friend Bob Piper this novel would have forever remained a distant dream. He encouraged me to follow my passion, to quit my job and focus on my writing. Without Bob’s insistence that I keep at it, his interest in my stories and characters, I wouldn’t have been able to finish the manuscript, let alone send it out to agents.

Talking about agents, Ari Swartz is the dream partner of any aspiring novelist. He took me under his wings and got me the publishing deal I deserved. Thank you Ari for believing in a doe-eyed kid from the wrong coast and understanding that mine was a unique story that needed to be told. It takes one to know one: Ari is nothing short of extraordinary.

My editor Nicole Hayek at Pelican Pocket Books elevated this book by many factors. She is a master of words, a beautiful woman inside and out, and the best literary ally for any writer seeking a long and illustrious career.

Also at Pelican Pocket Books, my publicist, Eric L’Enfant, doesn’t sleep, eat, or rest. He only lives to make sure his writers are on every television show that counts, featured in the top book review publications, and stocked in every single bookstore across the country. If Eric should one day retire, I am confident the world will stop spinning.

Finally, my children Darren and Sophia, and my wife Rebecca.  The three of your are the light of my life and the reason I exist. My love for you is the fuel that powers every pulsating cell of my body.

Acknowledgments: Seventh Edition, March 31, 2015

My parents were highly irresponsible inept sociopaths. I have finally accepted that. They should have never been allowed to get married or have children. Neither one of them fancied working to earn an income. Why work when you can leach off welfare? I used to romanticize that my childhood gave me a creative edge. Maybe it did. But I’d trade my literary success for a normal childhood in a heart beat. No child must wake up to find  naked lesbians and midget jugglers passed out on their kitchen floor and be asked to accept it as “normal”.

Many centuries ago, I used to have a friend called Bob Piper.  I say ‘used to’ not because Bob  got crushed under a freight train or was consumed by flesh-eating bacteria as he so rightly deserves.  But because Bob is no longer my friend. Unless its okay for a friend to spew venom about you on TMZ. Bob took an intimate interest in my career as a writer and back then I trusted him with story and character ideas, not knowing the little shit was himself harboring literary aspirations. Don’t buy his first book, Of Sharks and Mice unless you condone shameless plagiarism, not to mention that it sucks dick.

Mainstream publishing would fare a lot better if the entire species of agents simply ceased to exist. Think highly selective neutron bomb. Do I sound a tad bitter, ungrateful or bitchy? That’s because you’ve been spared knowing one  rotten son-of-a-bitch of an agent who goes by the name of Ari Swartz. Exactly how long does a writer have to remain beholden to their blood-sucking agents? Writers do all the hard work while agents reap lifetime benefits simply for getting you that first deal of your career. Like an entitled louse.  To add insult to injury, knowing full well that the no-good, penis sucker, faux friend of mine Bob Piper ripped me off, Ari Swartz still went on get him a mainstream book deal when he should have been left to rot in self-published purgatory.

Reports I sexually harassed my long-time editor Nicole Hayek at Pelican Pocket Books are grossly overstated. From the moment she laid eyes on me she wanted to get in my pants. Who’s to blame her? But I never obliged her. That’s why she’s talking garbage about me. I want to set the record straight: The fact that she has revealing pictures of me does not mean it’s really me, and/or that I sent them to her.

I wish I had something nice to say about Eric L’Enfant, my former publicist. But since he left Pelican Pocket Books and decided to write his tell-all memoirs to trash his former clients, the only thought that crosses my mind about this despicable waste of space involves a sharp metallic object and the act of sodomy.


Finally, my children Darren and Sophia.  The two of you are the light of my life, and the reason I exist. My love for you is the fuel that powers every pulsating cell of my body. I will not hold it against you that you came out of the womb of a cheating whore. Your mother slept with every single male friend of mine, I have now come to know. Including Bob Piper, might I add. I can’t be sure either of you  are my biological children, but that’s fine. Don’t let that tarnish your perspective. The doubt about your lineage and the realization that everything you grew to believe in may or may not be built on lies could spark your imagination to pursue something creative in life. Anything bur writing, please. You will always be compared to me, and as much as I care for you both dearly, I don’t think either of you will ever match up. Love, dad. 

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