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.

___

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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