Major Publishers and Agented Submissions: Magic Bullet Q&A for Writers

Dear Ms. Friedman,
I read some of your well-written and precise instructions of
how to find a literary agent. In comparison to the many available on the Internet, yours is the best by far. Nevertheless, I believe something is missing. I am a professional Canadian writer, publishing prose in two languages on the hunt for an agent, because marquee American publishers do not accept submissions from authors. I obtained the addresses from the Internet and several publications (including the God forsaken Writer’s Market as recommended by every major publisher), I contacted more than a hundred agents via e-mail, snail-mail, and telephone. This is what happened:
 
1. I received four negative replies. These were book proposals in strict accordance with the agent’s requirements posted on their website.
2. After reading the summaries and samples of my work, twenty-odd agents offered to represent me for 10% of the royalties plus measly $ 300-500 per month "to cover their expenses". Their glowing comments suggested that I was a reincarnation of Hemmingway and selling my work was a cinch. I politely declined entering into a contract with them.
3. Eighteen agents have my snail-mail submissions since more than a year, but despite the proper SASE, they did not reply to date.
4. As I live in a major city, I telephoned many local literary agents. I reached their voice mail and despite my repeated attempts, they never returned my calls.  
5. I sent e-mail queries to a great number of agencies (more than fifty) and only two said they do not take any new clients while a few went out of business. The rest just doesn’t bother to reply.
 
After these frustrating experiences I decided to test a theory: I telephoned some of the agents who did not bother to reply my earlier calls, leaving them a message saying that I am trying to write the biography of General Idi Amin, but I have difficulties in finalizing the story. I had the doubtful pleasure of knowing the good general and President for life of the Republic of Uganda, quite well. I could BS my way through an interview if I had to. Every one of the agents called within a day asking what they could do to help. In fact, one offered ghostwriting services.
 
Therefore, I believe you should add warnings to your otherwise excellent instructions:
A. More than twenty percent of the virtually impeccable agents are crooks; they are the ones who reply all queries.
B. Don’t expect agents replying unless your query suggests a recognizable name in the title, or you share the name of a celebrity.
C. The literary agency business is more often than not is a racquet and  extremely difficult to spot the phonies.
 
Based on my limited experience I believe the insistence of the major publishers on agented submissions is a disservice to themselves and their readers. After reading a summary and a couple of pages of a novel, any editor worth his salt could determine if the book is usable or not.  
 
Cordially yours,
Gabriel Timar

A: I’m grateful to Mr. Timar for bringing up a topic I haven’t yet addressed in detail: how do you know if a literary agent isn’t legit?

People who work in the publishing industry never worry about this question; they have a circle of people they deal with, and unethical agents would not have the credibility to enter. Plus, industry types can spot a scammer from a mile away.

But for someone outside the industry—especially writers new to the publishing process—it’s tough to know who’s for real and who isn’t. That’s why you need to read about the industry on a daily basis—like in Publishers Weekly and PublishersMarketplace—and become familiar with how things work. As you immerse yourself in the business, you’ll be able to spot dubious deals and personalities.

Until you reach that point, though, what are the red flags?

  • You’re asked to pay money upfront (usually a reading fee)

  • You cannot confirm—either through the agent or outside sources—what publishers the agent has sold to and/or what titles the agent has sold recently

  • The agent refers you to an editor who can fix your manuscript for a fee (and the agent may indicate she’ll represent you after the edit)

Mr. Timar notes that some agents responded to his queries with an offer of representation as long as he paid $300-$500 monthly. He was right to decline their offer. However, all agents will take 15% of your advance and royalties, for as long as your book remains in print, even if you discontinue your relationship with the agent. Also, some agents will ask you to cover expenses related to selling your book (photocopying, postage, phone calls), but usually you don’t pay these expenses upfront; they’re deducted from your advance when your book sells.

If an agent wants reimbursement for such expenses before the book sells, you’ll have to decide whether it’s worth it; ask for a contract that details the agreement on such expenses. When in doubt about how things will work, ask the agent before signing a contract. If you’re unhappy with the contract, then negotiate better terms; you’ll find that many details can be changed. Don’t hesitate to ask the agent as many questions as you can think of during this negotiation so that you’re comfortable with the relationship. The AAR Web site, www.aar-online.org, offers a list of questions you might want to ask your agent before signing.

As I mentioned in an earlier column, you can read up on the subject of illegitimate publishers, agents, and businesses at Writer Beware (www.sfwa.org/beware). They even feature a Top 20 Worst Agents list.

Mr. Timar’s letter presents some other interesting issues, such as:

  • Why is his material being rejected even though he followed the guidelines?

  • What should you do if you don’t hear back from an agent? Should you follow-up, and if so, in what manner?

  • Is it OK to call agents on the phone?

  • Why is this professional and published author having trouble finding an agent? (If he’s having trouble, is there any hope for a first timer?)

Mr. Timar emphasizes how he followed protocol—he followed the guidelines, included a SASE, and made every effort to please the agents. But this is the very least you should be doing. Abiding by the rules doesn’t make your work desirable or marketable to an agent or publisher—you’re simply clearing the hurdles (some say traps) that trip up those who aren’t serious or professional about their writing.

I empathize with all writers who must go through this querying process, because even when you do everything that’s asked of you, the response can often be silence. Shouldn’t agents be acknowledging every query with, at minimum, a form rejection? Consider this: Every legitimate agent who has an established client list will receive dozens (if not hundreds) of queries every day, amounting to thousands per year. But the agent’s first responsibility is not to these queries; it’s to his existing clients, the people who contribute to his weekly paycheck. If an agent didn’t prioritize his existing clients over those query letters, he’d soon lose his business and his reputation.

I don’t mean to excuse the behavior of agents who don’t reply to your queries, proposals, or manuscripts, but it does help to have perspective on what these agents face every day. At least half of the materials they receive are completely unprofessional or wrong for them, not to mention a waste of their time, and as a result, many agents hire assistants, interns, and outside readers to help offset the load. Put yourself in their shoes: What would happen if you had to answer hundreds of unsolicited queries coming to your home every week? Like some agents, you’d get jaded real fast. Still, agents do get excited when they find that diamond in the rough or discover a new talent they can help usher into the world. They still feel that thrill, and that’s why many continue to read their slush piles.

So, let’s say you’re faced with dozens of agents who have not responded. How do you follow-up? I suggest you make a copy of your query, and re-submit it with a brief note asking if the agent has had time to consider it. Do not call. This will only irritate the agent, unless of course his guidelines say that he accepts phone calls. If you don’t hear back after the second inquiry, move on. Don’t take it personally. That agent probably doesn’t have time to cultivate new clients, and should probably be accepting clients only by referral.

Mr. Timar mentioned that he unsuccessfully queried local agents by phone. But it doesn’t matter if you live in the same city or not—don’t call an agent if their guidelines say not to. And you shouldn’t call with a list of questions about the agency either. Save those questions for when the agent agrees to represent you. The same applies to book and magazine editors. Our office (at F+W Publications) receives daily phone queries (and voice mails), and it drives me crazy. Can’t people read our guidelines or do a quick Internet search and see that we want a query or proposal via snail mail or e-mail? I long ago stopped responding to phone queries.

Which brings me to the most curious aspect of Mr. Timar’s letter: He phoned agents for “help” in finalizing his project on General Idi Amin—and some responded! He doesn’t say whether they offered him representation, but at the very least, they did respond.

To this I say to Mr. Timar: Good for you! You broke the rules and succeeded, in some small way. Most people would have been met with silence yet again. I receive calls every week from aspiring writers who want help with their project (writing it, selling it, finding an agent, etc.), but if I helped every person who called me, I wouldn’t have time for anything else. The same is true of agents; these types of calls are widely ignored. Plus I don’t know who General Idi Amin is—but maybe you contacted the right agents who would have knowledge of this person and his importance. I do wonder, though, if some of these agents who returned your call are legitimate. A successful agent would not have time to offer ghostwriting services; he’d be too busy selling and managing his clients’ work.

On a final note, I could not resist typing Mr. Timar’s name into Google to see what appeared. Most agents and editors will do a little research if they’re interested in a query, to check into the writer’s background and look for red flags.

Unfortunately, I did discover a red flag that might give pause to an agent or editor. Mr. Timar has published two books, one with PublishAmerica, the other with a small electronic press. Neither would be considered a “real” publisher by those in the industry. (Whether this is a fair assessment or not is a topic for another column.) If an agent discovered this, or if Mr. Timar disclosed this information, he may have been ignored or rejected due to bias against these types of publishers.

There may have been other red flags in the query or proposal that put off the agents, but more likely than not, Mr. Timar’s materials simply didn’t strike the agents as salable or marketable. However, if the tone of his letter to me matched the tone in his queries or proposal, I can understand the lack of agent response. As much as I sympathize with Mr. Timar’s situation, his letter is full of contempt for the industry, and I’m looking for positive authors who will not be suspicious of what I tell them, or bitter when faced with the compromises that are inevitable when you work with a publisher. So I hope that Mr. Timar is able to repress such frustration when he approaches agents/editors whom he wishes to impress favorably.

I encounter writers like Mr. Timar every day—people who are passionate about their writing or their subject matter, but have gotten burned by the querying and publishing process. Obviously Mr. Timar has come into contact with a number of untrustworthy people, and his letter indicates he has lost faith in how the industry works. I know that it’s not perfect, but as the cliché goes, it’s all we’ve got. The best advice I can give is: You must have the right expectations going into the process. It will be difficult, and it may take a long time to find anyone who’s interested in your work. You must be persistent and persevere. If your queries read more like urgent demands, frustrated pleas, or bitter jeremiads, agents and editors will run in the opposite direction. They look for people who can withstand the pressures of the publishing world while remaining positive and energetic.

And on a final note, to address Mr. Timar’s call on publishers to open the door to unsolicited submissions: While it’s true that a good editor could determine the worth of a proposal or manuscript within minutes, editorial departments don’t have the time or money to assess unsolicited work. Remember the thousands of queries the agents receive annually? An editorial staff would have to sift through even more. Since the publishing industry can barely scrape by on the profits it makes today, hiring people to scrutinize queries and manuscripts won’t help their bottom line. So they rely on agents to separate the wheat from the chaff. (And let me tell you, there’s a lot more chaff these days now that everyone has a word processor, which has created thousands more writers than you would’ve found before the digital age.)

Mr. Timar also accuses the industry of favoring celebrities, which is true to some extent. People with name recognition come to the bargaining table with a built-in marketing platform and may represent a better gamble for publishers than an unknown writer. But that’s a whole other column.

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Postscript: After an exchange of e-mails with Mr. Timar, I discovered a little more about his publication record. He says that he does not submit his primary works to American publishers, because the intellectual level of his novels is far beyond them. Therefore, he and his wife translate his major novels into Hungarian and let top-of-the-line firms publish them in Budapest, under the Hungarian version of his name Timár Gábor (no agents required). He also writes political commentary for the largest Hungarian weekly of North America (Kanadai/Amerikai Magyarsag) under the pseudonym of Gabor Bendeguz. Visit his site for further details:
www3.sympatico.ca/mukili.

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