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.”