17 May 2012

Once upon a time I was an agented author

I recently read this post by a writer whose first published piece was edited so badly the publisher added animal abuse and rape where none had existed before, and its title contained a misused apostrophe. An author's nightmare. It made me realize that if anyone has useful publication-world stories, they should share them as some kind of public service.

I have one. It's about a book I wrote, found an agent to represent, and then didn't sell.

I'm not going to name names because this is not the kind of story where we call agents The Devil's Spawn and blame all mishaps on them. The agent in this story is not evil and not everything was her fault. Hear me out.

The first time I attended the Surrey International Writers' Conference I had a novel I wanted to sell. It was my first full-length fully-edited novel. It was mahhhvelous.

This was October 2006. I chose to blue pencil (sit down to read the first few pages) with an editor rather than an agent because agents still terrified me. The editor told me the pages were good enough and I should see an agent. She sent me over to someone she knew (I'll call her Jane, for simplicity) and Jane asked me to send her the first 100 pages after the conference was over.

Oh, elation!

After the conference, and after going through the book once more because that's never an awful idea before a submission, I sent Jane the pages with a submission package that included a synopsis and so forth. Then I waited.

And waited and waited and waited. Anyone who has ever submitted requested pages knows what I mean. You wait a century in every day.

Since I'd never received confirmation of receipt, I eventually queried Jane, and she told me she'd never got it. This was early 2007. So I sent it again, and quickly got a message back. She wanted to sign me to sell this one book, and start sending it out.

Oh, elation!

Behind me jumping up and down and shouting for joy, you might have noticed something I'd missed: she never asked for the entire book. What becomes very clear very quickly is that she was never going to read my entire book. Despite representing it.

Twists and turns, ladies and gentlemen.

In August 2007 I signed a contract with her literary agency, feeling like I was really onto something. Then I waited and waited again, which is normal.

In late 2007 I queried Jane once more. She said she was very busy, and admitted she shouldn't have taken me on. She apologized and said since she'd agreed to send my book out, she would anyway. She had a list of 10 editors to try and she could send them the submission package I'd sent her because the synopsis was good. Would that be all right? And also, she couldn't find my complete manuscript, so could I send it to her again?

What was I going to say? "No, don't offer my book to editors"? Or maybe, "I never sent you the full book, and you're obviously not representing this to the best of your abilities, so I'm going to blog about this and call you The Devil's Spawn, then cry into my coffee"?

Nah. I said,

Hi Jane, 
Thanks for your response.  It sounds great for you to send it to the editors you know who may be interested.  I feel fairly confident about my synopsis, too, and it will certainly give them a good idea of what to expect from the novel.  I've attached a fresh copy.  The only difference is that I've fixed a spelling error I noticed in the last one I sent to you. 
May I ask who you're planning to send it to, and how long you expect it will take to hear a response?  Would you be willing to send me any comments you receive about my writing, even if the editor's final response is that they aren't interested?  I'm always happy to have the feedback. 
Thanks again, and I hope we can make something of this!

At the time I didn't fully understand the difference between editors and publishers. I know now that she meant she would send it to the editors of publishing houses, so it wasn't a big deal. She wasn't trying to screw me by making me pay to have it edited or anything. I was naive enough that it could have happened, but happily it didn't.

And she was true to her word. Over the next few months she forwarded comments from 10 editors who'd received my submission package. All of them said no to the book, and I don't blame any of them. I don't blame Jane, either. In hindsight I'm glad the book wasn't published.

I do wish Jane had said No to the project from the beginning. She clearly didn't give it professional attention throughout our relationship, and that's disappointing. I spent a year believing I had representation for my novel, when really I didn't. I don't know all the reasons things progressed the way they did, and that's another reason I'm not naming names.

So that's my story, that doesn't prove agents are bad, or good, or anything. I've read Dean Wesley Smith's take on agents in his Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing series, and I know the arguments either way. I'm not convinced every agent would be like Jane, but I know I'm coloured by the experience, too. I didn't want to write about it for a long time because I was afraid it would blacklist me somehow with every other agent on the planet. I'm no longer afraid of that. I think any reasonable agent reading this wouldn't see it as a slight on all agents.

I wanted to write about it now because I realized it's one of those stories that shows that getting an agent isn't the end of the road, and sometimes it's not even on the road. My experience showed me that there is no A to B to Z of publishing. I'd heard that, but after this experience I actually knew it.

And I could have been introduced into the fickle world of publishing in a lot harsher and more soul-destroying ways, that's for sure.


  1. Thanks for sharing that story. Always great to see how these things work in the real world.
    Moody Writing
    The Funnily Enough

  2. This is a very fair and balanced story, and you didn't name and shame, so thank you for sharing it and I agree no other agent would turn against you because of this. It is very good for other authors to realise that "getting an agent" is not the holy grail as we are sometime led to believe.


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