Thursday, June 30, 2005

On Choosing an Agent

Jessica Brilliant Keener is a novelist and journalist whose work frequently appears in the Boston Globe and elsewhere. Her thoughtful reply to Lauren Baratz-Logsted’s Misadventures in (Mis)Representation hits on what we here at BookAngst 101 feel is the singlemost important criterion for deciding whether an agent is right for you.
Dear Lauren,

Thank you so much for your instructive, forthright post. I think it’s egregious what you’ve experienced, Lauren, but thankfully you have the gift of self-possession and knew enough to get out of those unhappy marriages—or maybe you should think of them as “engagements” because engagements are designed to be broken, if necessary. Obviously, in your case, Lauren, you’ve been right to move on.

I, too, have gone through a few agents but when I think about it, many, many of my writer friends have “gone” through a few as well. It’s not unusual.

Of course, you’ll find many who don’t undergo this shedding process, but if you do, my cheap advice to anyone suffering through it is not to do the typical, writerly thing. Don’t take it all on yourself or decide it must be your fault entirely. It ain’t a crime to find a new agent if the one you have isn’t working.

Before he died, the co-author of my first book gave me some simple advice about agents. It was so simple I didn’t quite get it at first. But I listened to him because he knew about business. He founded Dunkin’ Donuts, and started several other multi-million dollar ventures. (He was appalled by the publishing industry but that’s getting off track--)


What does that mean? I think it means several things. It means finding someone who not only loves your work but cares about your work because a caring agent will try harder.

Selling books to publishers is insanely competitive. Agents are competing against how many other agents? (Maybe we should all do some math on how many agents are out there in the marketplace, selling how many books every month? to give us some perspective.)

If your agent cares, she’ll return your calls or respond to your emails within a couple of days. She’ll apologize if she doesn’t get back to you soon enough and will make up for it by being more diligent as you move forward—that’s caring. She’ll let you know, in detail, where she is submitting your work and she’ll follow up with the people she has submitted it to.

An agent who cares will work out problems when they come up, because life is gonna throw you some issues just to mess with your day.

Can you talk comfortably with your agent? Do your personalities click? Do you feel good after you’ve hung up the phone with your agent?

I think these things can’t be overstated. It’s much easier to care when there’s chemistry between you.

If you find yourself second guessing yourself or feeling weird or guilty about things your agent has said, and these feelings begin to overtake what you should be feeling, which is: good, supported, confident, then start looking for someone who cares.

But here’s the funny rub. Much of what I just wrote and what my dear co-author advised me to look for can’t be known or borne out until you enter the new relationship and see how it unfolds. All you can really know at the outset is whether your agent gets your work, in other words, loves it, appreciates it, etc. The caring part, you can only hope, will follow.
Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Misadventures in (Mis)representation

Lauren Baratz-Logsted, the author of The Thin Pink Line and Crossing the Line, herein tells of her life as a romantic--that is, as a writer who refuses to settle for anything less than true love. Her essay, “If Jane Austen Were Writing Today,” is collected in Flirting with Pride and Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece, edited by Jennifer Crusie and due out from Benbella Books on September 1. Lauren can be visited at

Her third novel, A Little Change of Face, will be published in July '05.
Misadventures in (Mis)representation: My Life Among the Agents by Lauren Baratz-Logsted
Some might say I’m on the fast track to becoming the Elizabeth Taylor of novelists. See, I’ve been through five agents to date. And God knows there have been times when I’ve wondered the perfect paranoid’s wonder:
Is it me???
And sometimes I even answer myself. Maybe it is, Lauren. Maybe it is.
Herewith, I lay all my dirty cards on the table, tell all my sordid stories about my bad marriages – begun with such high hopes! ending in such dissatisfaction! – to Agents 1 thru Agent 5, and let you be the judge.

Marriage I
Back in 1994, when I left my job of 11 years as an independent bookseller to take a chance on myself as a novelist, I wrote the kind of book many first-time novelists write: if not necessarily autobiographical, it was definitely what you would call a wish-fulfillment book. In the comic mystery Waiting for Dead Men’s Shoes, Mini Monroe, an underachieving bookstore worker, dreams of being in charge of her world. If only she were running the bookstore, life would be so much better. When her boss is murdered, she gets her wish, getting to run the store and solve the crime.

When I signed with Agent One, I thought I had it made, since “One” said my book was going to be big…really big.

Then the revision process started.

It was One's opinion that, the body not being discovered until page 52, the book was a little too cozy. So, over the next two weeks, I went through four rounds of the book, each time moving the body closer to the beginning. This was back in the day when all I had was a word processor, so it took 13 hours just to print out each version, never mind the time spent revising. After the fourth go-around, with the body now on page 1 – page 1! - One called to say the book looked great, now if only I’d…
...and One proceeded to describe exactly the book as it had been when we were in the heady, honeymoon days of our marriage.

I realized then that ours was not a union supremely blessed. So, despite the fact that One represented many best-selling authors, I found the best lawyer in the business to handle my affairs – her name is Dee Vorsay –and had her draw up the dissolution papers. (Which could also be called disillusion papers.) Here’s what she came up with:
Duration of union: three months.
Books together: one.
Manuscript drafts: four.
Submissions made: zero.
Books sold: zero.
Ultimate fate of Novel #1: a box in my basement.

Marriage II
I’d written another book, this time a bittersweet tale about an undereducated septuagenarian who learns her only child will predecease her. The two spend the next year on a physical and emotional odyssey where they see the world and get to truly know one another for the first time.

When I signed with Agent Two, I was asked if I’d mind that the book would inevitably be compared to Terms of Endearment. While the books have nothing in common except that they both feature a mother losing a daughter, I said, “No, I wouldn’t mind.” Terms of Endearment was an award-winner and a genuine cultural touchstone, both as novel and film. Mind? Of course I wouldn’t mind.

After we’d received a few incredibly glowing rejections from publishers – “this book is so sad and funny, but we don’t know how we’d market it” – Two called to say a major studio had faxed the office, looking for a Terms of Endearment type of property. Would I mind if it was sold first as a film rather than a book? I knew that Two’s agency had quite a bit of success with Hollywood. Would I mind? Don’t be ridiculous!

When you are still outside the Pearly Gates [or so they seem, perhaps, to the as-yet-unmarried—ahh, unpublished] you are hesitant to rock the matrimonial boat, lest you find yourself standing, curbside, with a packed bag in one hand and your manuscript in the other, waiting for that lonely cab-ride back to writerly isolation. So for the next few months, I sat on my hands, even though I was dying to know what was going on with the film deal. But finally, unable to contain my anxiety any longer, I called Two to get a status report.

That was when I was told it was actually Two’s partner who handled the Hollywood end of the business; that said partner had to be in the mood to talk to Hollywood; and that said partner simply hadn’t been in the mood lately...

Were these people nuts? Were they on drugs?

I may have never been an agent in real life, but I know this much: if Hollywood was looking for a particular type of property, and I had such a property in my office, I’d walk on hot coals to hand deliver it if need be.

Once again, I called in Dee Vorsay. The text of this round of disillusion papers read:
Duration of union: one year.
Books together: one.
Manuscript drafts: two.
Submissions made: a few.
Submissions made to Hollywood, even after Hollywood asked: zero.
Books sold: zero.
Ultimate fate of Novel #5 [Yes, Dear Reader: I’d actually written a few others since Agent 1, but if I get started on those we’ll be here all day]: a box in my basement.

Marriage III
Though Agent Three and I never had a formal agreement together, we worked closely on another book I’d written [Novel #7], this time an erotic thriller.

In November 2001, Harlequin launched an imprint called Red Dress Ink. I sensed that the editorial sensibility behind these books would be interested in yet another of my novels [#6] I had in my arsenal, The Thin Pink Line, a dark comedy set in London about a woman who fakes an entire pregnancy. I mentioned this to Three, pointing out, Hey, it’s always good to get in on the ground floor with a new publisher. After reading The Thin Pink Line, Three said it was very funny but that sort of thing had been “done too much already.”
[Right: that crowded comedies-about-fake-pregnancies genre…]
When I asked if Three would submit it to just this one publisher, I was told no: Three claimed to know for a fact the editor of Red Dress Ink did not want books with a London setting. I found this so hard to believe that I asked Three for permission to send it myself. This suggestion was greeted scathingly, and dismissively. I went ahead with the submission, and subsequently sold The Thin Pink Line all on my own to Red Dress Ink—indeed, I was offered (and accepted) a two-book contract. They even decided to publish The Thin Pink Line as the imprint’s own first-ever hardcover and came to me with the offer of an additional three-book contract before my debut had even pubbed. Not surprisingly, Three was shocked—shocked!—to receive the divorce papers, which read:
Duration of union: five months.
Books together: one.
Manuscript drafts: three.
Submissions made: zero.
Books sold: none. [Two books were sold during this time, followed by three more… but I did it all myself!]
Ultimate fate of Novel #7 (it was #6 that I sold to RDI): See “MARRIAGE IV.”

Marriage IV
Having felt I’d negotiated the first contract to the best of my ability – I’d read 700 pages of publishing law while waiting for that first contract to arrive – the idea of a publisher wanting to nail down three more books before the first was even out seemed unusual enough that I decided it was time to go back to my dressmaker’s for another fitting. (For one thing, I had no idea what a reasonable advance should be.) So I wooed several agents--
[Memo to CBS:“How to Marry a Wage-Earning Novelist”—think we might be onto something??]
--and, after donning a heavenly strapless gown, strolled down that aisle on the arm of Agent Four.

To Four’s credit, the advance finally wound up being negotiated upwards to double what I’d been offered. But were we a good match? Let’s put it this way: if my favorite Beatles song was “Can’t Buy Me Love,” Four’s was “Money”:

[Money don’t get every thing, it’s true—But what it don’t get, I can’t use! I want money...]

There’s a laundry list of ways in which we were incompatible, but space is short, so I’ll confine myself to a single illustrative story.
Several months before signing with Four, my publisher approached me about writing an online read for them. These are long short stories, approximately 8,000 words, to be used on the publisher’s website as a marketing tool, a little lagniappe for readers where they can get a sense of a new author’s writing style for free. I would be paid handsomely for this, a flat fee totaling nearly as much as the average price for first novels. Even though the verbal agreement to do this had already been made, and even though I’d already submitted my story, Agent Four offered to go over the contract as a professional courtesy. Then, without consulting me first, Four told my publisher I would not be signing it, that the terms regarding world rights were unsatisfactory. Even though this grandstanding set off some red lights in my brain, I wanted to believe in Four. After all, Four had already doubled my money in one regard. But I was still concerned. I’d spent some hours on that long short story and it would be nice to see it published somewhere. And then there was the issue of money… “Oh, don’t worry,” said Four. “We’ll place it somewhere else and for lots more money and better terms.”
Hey, that sounded good to me!
Seven months later, I asked casually “So, what about that long short I wrote? Where do you think we should place it?”
Four was perplexed. “Didn’t you sell it to Red Dress Ink?”
“Um, no,” I said, “because you told them what they could do with their contract, remember?”
“Oh.” Four said. “Well.” Four then proceeded to explain how several of Four’s other clients had recently signed similar deals because Four had come to realize the clients found the terms quite favorable.
But while Four had been cutting similar deals for other clients, it had obviously never once occurred to Four to call me up and say, “Lauren, maybe we should see if Red Dress Ink would still like to use your story after all.”
Hey, I’ve been around the block, I don’t expect monogamy (maybe you’ve heard? I’d been married four times by now?!) from an agent, but come on! So I pulled out that worn business card and called up my old pal Dee...
Duration of union: one year.
Books together: one.
Manuscript drafts: three.
Submissions made: one, but not the book we were working on. The book sub'd was Novel #5 and that was only submitted because I handpicked a place.
Books sold: zero.
Ultimate fate of Novel #7: about to be submitted, but obviously not by Agent Four.
Marriage V
Agent Five is the only one about whom it feels slightly uncomfortable for me to tell tales out of school. There was so much I liked, even loved, about Five. And yet…and yet…
Let’s cut to the chase here, because even I’m starting to have problems telling all these agents apart.
A year into our marriage, we reached a crossroads. I wrote a novel that was a departure for me, a serious YA novel. Five read it, loved the main character, and a lot of other things about it too, but had reservations. Further, even if I did revisions addressing those reservations, Five was unsure the novel could be placed, and couldn’t (or wouldn’t) come up with a list of editors to be approached with it.

Anyone who has been paying attention to this saga so far must realize that, having already basically sold five books on my own, I was not about to let a little thing like this stop me, not when I believed passionately in the book, and certainly not when I felt, as I do still feel, that it was the most important piece of writing I’d ever done.
So I contacted six writers I know who’d recently sold YA books. I provided each with a synopsis and then asked two questions: 1) Was this something they thought their editor would be interested in? 2) If the answer to #1 was yes, would they be willing to forward the synopsis to their editor and see if they indeed were? All six said yes, all six editors said yes, they’d love to see it. In the case of two of the editors, they felt the topic might be too mature for their imprints but both offered, should they fall in love with the book, to champion it to the appropriate editors at other imprints within their houses.
What more could I ask for? What more could Five ask for?
More, apparently. Five wanted more. Despite the strong interest I’d managed to stir up on my own, Five was still tepid. I didn’t even hesitate—by now I knew the phone number by heart…
Duration: eighteen months (hey, I’m lasting longer with agents who don’t sell anything!).
Books together: two, sort of.
Manuscript drafts: four, sort of.
Submissions made: three of one book; none of the YA title.
Books sold: zero.
Ultimate fate of Novel # 7 (yes, that book again!): about to be submitted, but obviously not by Agent Five.
Ultimate fate of YA Novel: about to be submitted, but obviously not by Five.

Unlike some of Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands (at least the deceased ones), four of my five agents still have thriving careers. And I am sure they all have done and will continue to do wonderful things for other writers’ careers. But they were not, none of them, the right agent for me.
I’m sure there are those who believe Liz has been married so often because she’s faithless or suffers from lack of sticktoitiveness or is just too high-maintenance. Who knows? I think differently. We—Liz and I—are two of the world’s great Pollyannas. We work hard, we keep dreaming, and no matter what happens, we still believe in the possibility of true love. That our right, special someone is out there, somewhere, maybe just around the corner.

And I’ll go on believing—at least until Friday. Because I’m ready to send out my next novel. And so if I don’t find someone who impresses me enough by then, this time I’m going it alone.

Since this piece was written, Dear Reader, I’ve remarried! Six – as I call her fondly – and I exchanged vows on Monday, June 20. Six already has placed one of my books in the hands of a baker’s dozen of editors and we’ll be moving forward with two other projects shortly. The champagne still tastes wonderful, the sheets are still clean, and I’ve tossed D.V.’s business card away. As for what the future holds:
We shall see.
A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."

PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]

"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."

PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]

"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."