7 February 2014

Trolling for Agents

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:17 pm

What to do now? I know I can’t write anything new — not in the right mood or frame of mind,  not enough neutral time and space for me to occupy. Can I mount a campaign to sell the books I’ve already written? Always about the least attractive option, self-promotion would seem to require me to generate upbeat optimistic energy, a resource which is in mighty short supply around here. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe sending out letters of inquiry to agents and independent publishers can be performed mechanically, without much personal investment of thought or emotion.

Nine years ago I sent earlier versions of two of the Salon novels to an agent — the friend of a friend I’d known in France who had previously lived and worked in Manhattan. After about two months I got a letter from the agent: nobody in his office had picked my excerpted manuscripts up off the pile; perhaps my writing is too “experimental” to garner commercial enthusiasm. My sense was that nobody had even looked at what I’d sent him. About a year later I sent one of the books to the publisher of a book I had admired to a degree, giving me some hope that she would find similar merit in my own offering. No such luck: maybe eight months later the whole manuscript showed up in the mail, all the way to France without my having provided the requisite SASE. Not her cup of tea, the publisher informed me.

Another year goes by, and I’m looking through the Guide to Literary Agents trying to identify those most likely to find my stuff appealing. I read the agents’ descriptions of what they’re looking for: either decidedly not me, or so generic as to be uninformative. I look at the blurbs describing recently-published books represented by these agents: in all likelihood I wouldn’t give any of them a second glance if I’d seen them at the library or bookstore.

Eight years later, the landscape doesn’t look any more inviting. My books are in tighter shape now, and there are more of them, but the marketplace for new fiction doesn’t appear to have opened up any new spaces on the shelves for what I’m offering.

Still, I’m giving it a go. Entry by entry I’ve started working through the online Literary Agent Directory — that’s more than a thousand agents, each with a paragraph describing what she’s looking for and a link to her agency website. (Maybe 80% of the agents are women, most of whom look like they were still in middle school when I started writing these novels.) Having looked at over a hundred I’ve picked off about ten of the agents for possible correspondence. But it’s not like these are matches made in heaven. Here’s the paragraph by which the first agent who made it through my screening protocol describes herself:

Gráinne Fox joined Fletcher & Company in September 2008, having worked as an agent at Ed Victor Ltd in London for 9 years. Her list consists of literary fiction and quality commercial authors, award-winning journalists and food writers. She is dedicated to her clients. She is especially looking for new American voices; books with an international sensibility; literary crime and smart, up-market fiction. In short, any book that will “both stimulate the mind and satisfy the heart” to borrow a phrase. She is also passionate about new Irish writing. Gráinne studied English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin and went on to pursue a Masters in Public Relations at The Dublin Institute of Technology.

In my inquiry letter to Ms. Fox I’d mention “international sensibility” and “stimulate the mind.” Not much to go on, admittedly. I expect that my books might stimulate the heart, but it’s doubtful that they’d satisfy it. I wouldn’t mention my Irish surname or my enthusiasm for food, and I wouldn’t ask the source from which she “borrowed the phrase.”



  1. Yea, makes you think of John Kennedy Toole, whose A Confederacy of Dunces saw the light of day only after he’d died… It’s like these jacko’s will only look at your script if you have a name, or money, or both… don’t get depressed get even, publish on amazon.com self-promote on your site… if people like it the word’ll get around… otherwise it’s the old short story route of low pay till you get a name that sticks out…


    Comment by noir-realism — 7 February 2014 @ 9:36 pm

  2. After Toole killed himself, his mother took it on herself to get her boy’s book out there. I’m pretty sure I can’t count on my own mom to take on that job, unless there really is an afterlife. After finishing the first two novels I wrote a nonfiction, having heard that nonfic was easier to get published, which would then get the fictions noticed, etc. etc. That scheme went nowhere, and eventually I rewrote that nonfiction as a fiction. I’ve considered carving off pieces of the novels that would stand on their own as short stories, but it seems like cannibalism to me.

    But self-promote on my site? Now that really is a depressing prospect. Way back when, I started this blog to promote the now-defunct nonfiction book, hoping to build a “platform” to support the book launch. That went nowhere — maybe my intentionality wasn’t strong enough ;)


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 February 2014 @ 10:10 pm

    • I think ‘doing it mechanically’ is the way to do it, and you are capable of that; I’m not really, and get all twisted into knots. agree you can’t use the bleug anymore than you already have, you’re doing that already. I don’t know if I’d feel that it was ‘cannibalism’ with a lot of my things, and may be doing some of that soon, with this novella, but you’re things are different. I don’t know why you’d not mention your Irish surname, will you use a nom de plume? She’ll see the Irish name without your help. But if she’s interested especially in Irish things, I’m not sure why you’re attracted to her at all, unless you don’t think that’s her main interest (it might not be.) Frankly, send it neatly to all you can bear to and can afford all the packaging and postage for. I use to do that, and may again. Rejection letters don’t bother me at all, although the expense of sending does.


      Comment by Patrick — 7 February 2014 @ 11:30 pm

  3. Many of the agencies now accept email inquiries, which is sensible and reduces the cost and effort, It’s daunting to figure out where to send short stories, since there are so many magazines out there, none of which do I read. That “Looking Up” story I wrote for the Open Mic event with The Amazing Dave as MC — that’s the only piece I’ve written that was originally intended as a short story. It’s an oddity though, since it was constructed specifically for oral presentation. It takes precisely ten minutes to read aloud, which is the time limit the character in the story confronts. But that story works in the traditional print form too, which is why it got incorporated into Station Zero. Also, that incident in O’Gandhi about the dead raccoon lodged in the chimney started as a possible screenplay for a short film I was going to make with a cinematographer friend, so it could stand alone too. There are various frame tales and fugue-state episodes scattered here and there in the books that fit the main narrative only obliquely and that read like short stories. Okay, I should look into this possibility more systematically.

    I’ve tended to regard the short story as an experimental format, letting the writer play with schemes that might not work as well when extended into novel length. And certainly some writers are better at short stories than at novels. Why then would agents and publishers regard an author’s short story publication record as indicative of the ability to write a good novel? I’ve read novels that read like two or three good stories glued together with a lot of filler — that’s probably how those books got assembled. I guess fiction writers are expected to start with the short form, perfecting their craft on smaller works before graduating to the full length novel, like poets are supposed to write sonnets and pastorals before moving on to the epic. It’s not my own trajectory — I just started writing novels without having first honed my skills on the shorter form. Still, any full-length novel is assembled from, or can be broken into, discrete episodes and situations. Pulling these episodes out of context and reading them in isolation as short stories would no doubt cast them in a different light. It could be a spotlight, like pulling short clips or screengrabs out of feature-length films and focusing specific attention on them in an aesthetic of intensified abstraction.


    Comment by ktismatics — 8 February 2014 @ 3:52 am

    • One interesting thing I noticed when you put the 7 excerpts together was that I didn’t resist the ‘O’Gandhi’ one when it was part of a series the way I did when I tried to read it alone. That, even though I’ve gotten much more pleasure out of reading ‘The Courier’ and the various others you’ve put on here than I ever had the ‘O’Gandhi’. That doesn’t mean anything, just the way I always responded to your other stories and pieces of stories (you can say ‘story’ for ‘novel’ when you’re talking about just the narrative, even if it’s not a ‘short story’ per se) more strongly. It’s just like enjoying the pieces of some composers more than others, and one always does like some more than others. But set in relief against the full 7, the O’Gandhi was stronger to me than it had been as a long piece without the others. I might also like the whole O’Gandhi better if I read it with other whole novels too, it might make it seem more exotic, since by itself it’s not so electric as anything that’s got talk about ‘an elegant and sophisticated fundamentalist divorcee’, which is delicious anywhere you can get it!


      Comment by Patrick — 9 February 2014 @ 3:34 pm

    • That’s one reason it seems better to put forward all of the books together rather than shopping them one at a time. It seems, though, that the agents get freaked out by writers saying they have seven books, like the writer is some sort of obsessive nut. But what’s so bad about that, is what I want to know. Having written these blurbs now, which seemed kind of ridiculous and trivial while doing it, I think that there is value to the potential reader in getting an overall glimpse up front of what the book is up to.


      Comment by ktismatics — 9 February 2014 @ 10:35 pm

      • You probably shouldn’t aim SO high that it backfires from the beginning. There is nothing trivial and ridiculous about presenting these ‘blurbs’ (I don’t know why you would call them that), but you might still want to feature one of them in particular, if you think it fully does ‘stand alone’, and send the whole text of that one. I mean, if you do think there is one that is ‘alone enough’. Or two. But sending 7 at once does not sound as though someone would listen, although you could talk about that in the letter. I don’t know, of course. It might be possible that you send all the ‘blurbs’ and send a full copy of the one you think might be most appealing by itself. I don’t know if you think of one of them as ‘the best’, but if you do, sending the ‘blurbs’ about all 7, but sending the one you thought was the best of all by itself might be a way to approach. Because they are all good if seen together, but these people are going to be somewhat overwhelmed by being expected to look at all of them at once, and probably won’t.

        They are NOT going to see it as you do. And if it seems at all condescending, they won’t look at any of it. I sent IDNYC to a number of NYC publishers and they paid no attention to it, to the point of not even sending a rejection letter. So you DO have to send things you think will catch their eye and attention, or there’s no point in it, is there?

        Just thoughts on how best to send things, since you have just started in earnest. But however you feel is the best, I’m sure.


        Comment by Patrick — 10 February 2014 @ 12:57 am

      • Thanks for your thoughts on this, Patrick. The agents are very specific these days about what they want. For most it’s a cover letter that includes the one-paragraph blurb and either a 1-2 page synopsis or the first 1-3 chapters of the book depending on agent’s preference. The full manuscript gets sent by invitation only after the initial submission is reviewed and approved. Though many agents’ websites say that they want to represent their writers through their careers, it’s always one book at a time that they look at for potential new clients. I regard each book as the best, but some do build directly on back story established in earlier volumes, making them more difficult choices as stand-alone offerings. I am pleased with the seven blurbs — it too is a kind of writing. The first one I’ve given the highest sheen so far since that’s the book I’m most likely to shop first.

        In the cover letters the agents want to know something about the author, which usually means prior publication history, whether you have an MFA in creative writing, and so on. That’s where Noir’s thoughts about the short stories come into play. I’m going to look at a number of the short story publishers this week to see if I want to carve off excerpts from the novels and submit them for publication. You said that you were considering doing this with your new fiction: would you send it as a single story, or would you send individual stand-alone episodes?

        After more than two weeks, Safari once again lets me do Gmails. Maybe they had a bug that they fixed. So now I won’t have to buy a new computer yet after all. I probably should do so anyway now though if I’m going to start corresponding more actively with attached texts, which has also become increasingly difficult through obsolescence of my equipment and software.


        Comment by ktismatics — 10 February 2014 @ 4:30 am

  4. not sure what your style/genre is but 3am does some interesting things (http://www.3ammagazine.com) as does punctum:


    Comment by dmf — 9 February 2014 @ 6:51 pm

    • This is the publisher for the new edited title that Levi B. contributed to, right? It looks like Punctum sticks strictly to nonfiction, so that rules me out — though I tend to think of these speculative philosophical tracts as being fiction of a sort. Also, call me an elitist, but I’m a bit skeptical of the editorial acumen of a publishing house that includes the phrase “to whit” (sic) in its own promotional materials.

      “3am does some interesting things” — I thought you were talking about the effect of that hour on your own comment writing here, but just now I realized that 3am must be a publishing house. I’ll check them out — thanks, Dirk.


      Comment by ktismatics — 9 February 2014 @ 10:45 pm

    • Thanks, I finally got back to this. 3:am looks interesting, mostly interviews — this must be where you found the interview with Susan Schneider that you linked at Noir’s place. Fiction looks pretty sporadic — a short story every couple of months — possibly because not many writers have caught on to them. I’d give it consideration if I decide to go the short story route. The Peanut literary offshoot of Punctum looks like it’s just getting underway. The first offering is a poetry collection; the second, a manga. I’m guessing that my stuff — an interconnected suite of novels — is less “rhizomatic” than what they’re after. But I’ll probably explore the independent press route after I’ve sent out my first wave of agent inquiries, and will consider Peanut. This I like about Peanut:

      “We believe that developing a community of writers, readers, and archivists is an act of love and attention rather than one of commerce and public relations. Editors (not members of a marketing department) will be the arbiters of editorial decisions, the caretakers of authors, and the curators of artworks.”

      I expect to get back to this proposion soon with some blogthoughts.


      Comment by ktismatics — 15 February 2014 @ 6:18 am

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