Agents Can Raise the Dead ... and Other Fallacies
by Kelly Mortimer
Didnít you know? Not only can agents raise the dead, we can change from our PJs into our power suits in a small phone booth, read faster than a speeding bullet, leap tall stacks of manuscripts in a single bound, and turn pumpkins into carriages thatíll whisk you to the editor you've been fantasizing about. Oops, sorry, wrong fairy tale.
Yes, Iím being my usual silly self, but then again, not. Some writers believe the minute they sign with an agent, they've got it made. Publication lurks right around the corner, hovering within their grasp. They visualize what the cover of their book will look like, how much money they're going to rake in, and sigh over the hoards of adoring fans waiting for their sacred signature at numerous book signings.
Earth-to-writer, come in, over.... Iím not here to burst your bubble, but an unpublished writer, even one with an agent, is a one-legged mutt in a Greyhound raceóand your agent is the one leg.
Don't get me wrong, Iím a huge advocate of dreaming, and dreaming BIG. Before agenting, I was a writer. I signed a check made out to myself for a cool million bucks, hung it above my computer screen, and in the memo section wrote: Advance! Didn't date it. I figured itíd take years, but I had a goal to shoot for. And how could I miss? I wrote the amount on one of my hallowed "I Love Lucy" checks. Hey, if Jim Carrey could write a $13 million dollar check when he was but a starving comic, carrying it in his wallet until the ink faded, then I, a writer loaded with talent, could get a measly mill.
Back to agents. Has anyone noticed how difficult it is to get one of us unbearable, intolerable, oppressive, inscrutable, pitiless, ruthless, harsh, cruel, unfeeling, insensible, mean, unsympathetic agents to sign you? An unpublished writerís hunt for the golden ring can be exhausting, arduous, laborious, fatiguing, rough, tiresome, painstaking, agonizing, torturous, and sometimes devastating. Itís not our fault. We might wanna sign everyone, but we can't sign everyone. Thereís only twenty-four hours in a day, and we all can't be Jack Bauer. By now you should know agent-time is different from writer-time. "Sure, Iíll get right back to you," in agent speak means, "Your manuscript is in a pile comprised of hundreds of pages written by everyone else who thinks they've got the next best-seller, and you'll be fortunate if I can read it in the next six months."
If youíve secured representation, you've flown over a big hurdle; no question about it. But the race ainít over. Think of an agent as one rung on your ladder of success.
So, what happens when you accomplish the near impossible and snag an agent? Depends. Different agents work different ways. Some will send you to a paid editor to get your manuscript as clean as possible. Some will think your manuscript is publisher-ready as-is (dare to dream). Another will try to make a sale having read your synopsis, as thatís all they can do at the moment. A few truly insane agents will read your entire manuscript, looking for flaws in your characters, plot and subplot errors, and do a complete line edit to wipe out grammar goofs and punctuation problems (can you guess which kind of agent I am?). We each do whateverís in our power to sell your manuscript. But despite our best efforts, we don't always cross the finish line in record time.
We can't promise you publication next week, month, or year. Iím not saying itís impossible to sell quickly, just not probable. Every step of this business from writing your manuscript to seeing it on the bookstore shelf takes longer than getting your reserves against returns back.
The time it takes for a writer to convince an agent to sign them is similar to the time it takes an agent to convince an editor to buy a manuscript. Sure, youíre not in the two-year slush-pile, but editors have it rough. Their stacks are higher than an agentís, and they have a hierarchy of people who insist they come up with manuscripts thatíll make their house bags of money. They haveta choose wisely, with careful reflection. If an editor goes to the mat for your book and it doesn't sell well, they might be eating mac & cheese for months.
Yeah, weíll submit your manuscript; then you haveta be patient. We might not get you published as quickly as youíd like. Doesn't mean weíre reclining in our leather La-Z-Boys watching the TV shows weíve Tivoed from the night before while gorging on Godiva chocolates. I don't know of any agent who isn't busy all day, every day, doing their darndest to get an editor to read and make an offer on their clientsí work (well, maybe one or two...). Selling your manuscript can take a few rounds, even years, depending on the genre you write in, the market, etc. You gotta remember, an agent can lead an editor to the manuscript, but we can't make íem buy it.
In the meantime, work on the other rungs of your ladder. Spring for an awesome Web site reflecting the type of genre you write in. Give readers a reason to go back to your site every month. Blog, do Pod casts, hang out with other authors and make contacts. You never know whoíll be able to help you down the road, and who youíll be able to help. Sorry, itís not all about you.
Research the best places to spend your promotional dollars. If you're wondering where those promotional dollars are coming from, I have two words for you: your advance. Oh, you thought you got to keep that money? You're kidding, right? Your publishing house is gonna foot the bill for their high-profile authors, leaving practically nothing for the newbie, untried writer. And you certainly don't expect your agent and/or editor to sell your book for you. Your agent already sold it to the editor, and the editor to her publishing house.
So, now that Iíve single-handedly crushed your visions of grandeur and you're all dashing for your Xanax prescriptions, let me cover what a good agent can do for you.
We can find editors we feel will love your voice and story as much as we do, we can contact them, and beg them to read a partial or full manuscript. We can check to make sure theyíve received what weíve sent and remind them youíre agented and, therefore, they need to read your manuscript before those written by the general masses.
Agents can give you tips on perfecting your writing, limited advice on marketing and promotion, lots of moral support, or a kick in the rear if you need it (my favorite part of the job).
Once we hit the goal of finding your editor, weíll negotiate the best deal we can and read all the fine print of your contract, ícause ya never know what those unscrupulous publishing houses might try to sneak in while weíre in a vulnerable state of euphoria.
The point Iím trying to make is that agents cannot perform miracles. Yes, we have a job to do, and most do it with zeal. Weíre your partners, weíre your voice, and sometimes weíre your good friends. We want long-term relationships. We want the best for you. We rejoice when we see your name on a best-seller list. We believe in you, or we wouldn't have signed you. Give us the time and tools we need to get you published, and hopefully, we will.
Nothing makes me happier than calling an unpublished writer to tell them theyíre a published author. Itís almost as good as the Godiva chocolates I eat while Iím reclining in my leather La-Z-Boy watching the shows I Tivoed from the night before....
Mortimer Literary Agency