JR: I wanted to start a conversation about getting a literary agent. Jonathan you’ve crossed over to the side of getting published. Most aspiring writers never get that chance. Right now I’m trying to get an agent or editor to read my novel, you’ve given me advice, which is sound (results have been slow and disappointing)…but it is different than the traditional route of writing a query letter and sending it off to agents who represent books like the one your trying to sell. I think it’s a timing factor, getting exposure, hype and marketing yourself and the prose has to be stellar. But some writers I’ve talked to think query letters are a facade for aspiring writers to hide behind.
I’ve found over the years that it is impossible to get an agent to read a manuscript in its entirety and report back to the writer in a timely honest fashion, they themselves hide behind rejection letters and sometimes I think they never read unsolicited stuff (or the first two pages), or do more than read what their own authors have suggested they read (untrue…I know…but it certainly seems that way). Is it because they have too much to do? As we know…all agents wear more than one hat, they sell cars, insurance, run a day care, mow lawns and work as a literary agent, so it’s a lot to handle. All kidding aside, can you shed a little light on your journey to getting published? And to be honest, how long should aspiring writers be persistent in their search to get published…forever…? Which works in theory, but its practical application it is very difficult to endure.
JE: First, I’m compelled to remind all the spurned and frustrated writers of the world that the work itself is the real blessing and reward, and that any writer worth his salt would do well to remind himself of this fact daily. In fact, I’d go so far as to say, these are the only writers worthy of an audience. I can honestly say that publication has not changed my approach to writing in any way, I am no more or less committed to the occupation whether or not I’ve managed to break through with some degree of success. I’d still be writing novels the rest of my days even if I had to starve myself, and I’d still feel damn lucky to be doing it. Secondly, let me say that I fully empathize with both the writers and the agents where these matters are concerned. JR, think of how many galleys and manuscripts you and I receive on any given week, and how few of them ever get the benefit of our consideration. God knows, some of them are probably good, too. Multiply that number by twenty, and you get a taste of agenthood.
The elusive search for an agent is, in my mind, overrated. I had four agents, including a couple of luminaries, before I found a home with Mollie Glick. Our friend J.P. Othmer, author of The Futurist, and the forthcoming Adland, about whom we’ve posted on numerous occasions, also had a number of agents before he landed with David Gernert– one of whom left agenting to go to clown school. I love that. It illustrates perfectly that finding an agent in most cases doesn’t mean squat. You need to find a champion, somebody who passionately believes in your work. And quite honestly, it doesn’t have to be an agent. In my case, it was an editor, Richard Nash at Soft Skull. I went straight to Richard with “All About Lulu,” and when he expressed enthusiasm, I was able to turn the tables, and interview six different agents about the possibility of repping me. It was apparent within five minutes, that Mollie was the clear choice, not because she was the biggest name, but because of her enthusiasm for my work, and her longterm view of my career. JR, you are probably correct in assuming that a lot of agents don’t read more than two pages, which puts the onus right where it should be, on the writer, to write two kickass pages. Frankly, I don’t think that’s too tall an order.
JR: I think agents should be champions. But what if you write everyday and it is the heart of your life, and you still come up with just your voice in a room by itself? If your two pages are GREAT, and everyone but an agent and editor says they are, what do you do? Wait? Obviously keep writing, that’s a given, shouldn’t even be discussed at this point, you and I wouldn’t be doing this if we thought otherwise. Getting an editor’s attention, how is that done in today’s climate? Fiction, literary, is a dying breed at most publishers, money is tight, lay offs rampant, and still fiction gets published, just not at the majors. Which goes back to the talk we had about indies. Is it a matter of finding the right person? What if you can’t do that? But is getting a book published a “careful what you wish for” syndrome? What happens when, like you said, your book is dismissed by 100% of the buying public? You’re right, agents mean squat, but a champion means everything. Is there a list somewhere? If not…how do you find a champion if you’re an aspiring writer with 7 novels in the drawer?
JE: I’ve got six early novels under my hip-waders in the basement, and a couple more buried in the earth behind a trailer in Oregon. One thing should be clear to anybody querying agents: Finding a champion is NOT a numbers game, rather a game of positioning. Carpet bomb every reputable agent in midtown and you are no less than guaranteeing your failure. There IS a list of champions, and it’s up to the writer to compile that list, whether or not he has an agent. A writer in the 21st century ought to be able to say to his agent: “I think Gary Fisketjohn at Knopf would like this.” Or “David Rogers at Picador seems like a perfect for this.” And the agents should say back: “That’s great. I’d also like to try John Williams at Harper Perennial, and a few other editors I have in mind.” To position oneself, the writer must profile prospective editors and agents as though he were a CIA operative. You need to know exactly why they should connect to your work, who they’ve published, how they found said authors, and if you can network those agents or writers through a third party. It’s no secret that most agents draw the majority of their clients upon recommendation, and who can blame them? The agents are overwhelmed. They need somebody to act as a filter for them, just as they act as a filter for editorial staffs. There’s just too much crap glutting the slush piles.
Most writers in a slush pile have no business being there, as far as I’m concerned. They ought to get their asses back in the basement for six or seven more years and learn how to write. Those writers that’ve already put in their time on the craft, those that may actually be ready for publication (and for the record JR, that’s you), I think you gotta’ get out of the basement and start mixing with as many book people as you can in whatever capacity. You already do this. That’s good. It will serve you in the end, mark my words. You just need to be patient. I know you think you’ve been patient, but you need to be more patient. I think you’re really close, but hey, I
was really c
lose in 1993. The key is to just keep writing great stuff, keep pushing yourself as an artist, and quit looking for external validation. The bottom line is, publishing, even publishing well, doesn’t change much in the quality of an author’s life. In fact, sometimes the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Shit, I’ve sold a lot of copies of Lulu, sold another book to Algonquin, and optioned three books to film–and I still don’t have dental insurance. But if you’re determined to try to make it a living, I would recommend to any aspiring debut novelist (read: anybody who has already written at least three unpublished novels and doesn’t have dental insurance) that he look for his champion among the small presses, where he is more likely to get an education, and a fighting chance of survival beyond book one. Quit reading publishers lunch and dreaming of six figure advances. Accept that you’re only going to have to work twice as hard and the stakes are higher.
JR: You’re right about it being a positioning game. I’d say before we started the 3 Guys Blog I was singing in an empty room. Now there has been more exposure to what’s going on in my world, but it’s a double edged sword. Writers write, buy they have to work, too, day jobs are more of a reality than anything. I’ve done a million different things, film, TV, worked at Random House, BN and done a shit load of odd jobs, but it’s all of that stuff that makes you write what you write, or draw from at the very least. I know hundreds of writers who are just pecking away and haven’t done what you mention, write three books, and learn the craft. With that in mind, do you suggest finding a champion or an agent at a writers colony, or in a group of your peers? And or course it’s foolish to expect the six figure advance, but what about writers who are mid-list, who churn out books every year and never rise or fall. As an unpublished writer that can be deceiving. But there was a hell of a lot of work that went into getting to that point.
I see myself trying to find a foothold in the indie world, especially in online literary magazines which seems to break my fall every time I sit down, they’re everywhere. When you see the wealth of content out there, you know there are millions of people like you trying to get a leg up. I think the best advice you ever gave me was to write in a the short form, 500 to 1,000 words, and I really felt like things took a turn for me. I was able to get my work out there to more people, faster, (you know me, faster than a speeding bullet when it comes to output) which did two things, helped my self esteem and depressed me, as I want to get more exposure…again it’s a double edged sword. Even if you subscribe to your idea of profiling editors, it doesn’t really work unless you find that third party (so far editors I’ve known have written lovely rejections, but my detailed profiling did squat, so there is no trick to it), and do it without looking like your in it for yourself, (which everyone is) and all of that can be exhausting and after a while you think, why am I doing this…again? It’s cliche to say it all goes back to the writing, but it does. I think there are an incredible amount of challenges out there for writers, most people don’t have it in them to solve that puzzle, but to be honest, getting a book published is harder than quitting drinking, smoking, and over eating, I know cause I’ve quit them all.
JE: Getting a novel length work of literary fiction published is statistically harder than playing baseball on a professional level– that is to say, all levels of professional baseball. And if we’re to believe the numbers agents and publishers use with regard to how many people actually make a viable living writing fiction– I’ve heard between 100 to 200 writers– it is statistically harder to make a living writing literary fiction than it is to play Major League baseball. In fact, it’s seven to fourteen times more difficult–so, we’ve got that going for us! JR, it’s just too early in the game for you to say that your profiling hasn’t done squat, because those editors and publishers who wrote you those lovely rejections, may still be the folks who will one day publish one of your books. As far as finding champions, let’s use Brad Listi’s online writer’s collective, The Nervous Breakdown, as an example of an excellent way for a writer to build a network, and find a champion. Dozens of really talented writers post blogs on TNB, and I know at least a half dozen writers who have been approached by agents and publishers as a direct result of their involvement in that community. Yes, involvement.
It’s not enough to simply post stories or blogs, you have to pay attention to other writers, support and perpetuate them in their pursuit of publication. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is more instrumental to your personal success as a writer to promote other writers than it is to promote yourself. Because you know what? They are your audience, other writers– other writers, and educated middle-aged women. They’re virtually the only people who read literary fiction. Writers are helping each other at TNB, critically, promotionally, and otherwise. Greg Olear is helping D.R. Haney, who is helping Lenore Zion, who is helping Rich Ferguson who is helping Aaron Dietz. Maybe these aren’t household names YET, but some of their TNB predecessors are on their way– Ron Currie Jr, Tao Lin, Roy Kesey, ahem, me. It’s like a music scene, where there’s a lot of crossover, and you see a lot of the same faces here and there at shows. Sooner or later, some of these folks are gonna’ break through, and chances are, they’re going to do their best to help the people who helped them get there. They are individually forging connections and paving inroads that will benefit the whole scene. Also, more importantly, they’re bouncing off of each other creatively, drinking beer and corresponding and commiserating.
Lastly, to address your comments about the mid-list author, I would say that the mid-list author who has managed to survive for more than two books is an endangered species. In the current climate, if your sales record isn’t decent out of the gate, there’s little to no chance anyone is going to publish your second book. But the good news is this: 4000 book sales is considered decent in the literary fiction market. This is where it becomes imperative for writers to start sorting out their demand even BEFORE they have a publisher. You have to find an audience.
The difference between 500 sales and 4000 sales is hustle. Luck helps, media coverage helps, but mostly it’s hustle. Maybe that doesn’t jibe with the literary genius who wants to sit in his ivory tower and let everybody else do the heavy lifting in terms of sales and publicity, but whatever– those writers are gonna’ starve in their ivory tower in the 21st century. Hustle is a matter of survival now.
-JR & JE