Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Thanks But No Thanks

For those of us who have dedicated our lives to the pursuit of literature but earn our living as hack writers, it’s been a rough year. In my case, I finished the revisions on my novel in the Spring. After negative responses from a number of agents, one finally replied that yes, she “liked it.” Listening to her voice on the answering machine, I knew this wasn’t going to turn out well.

“Is she drunk?” asked my wife. “No, that’s just the way she speaks,” I replied.

It was a sort of pseudo upperclass accent, a manner of speaking I thought had gone out of fashion decades ago. It was as if she couldn’t be bothered to be polite or businesslike or to fully pronounce her words.

When I spoke to Ms. X the next day, the casual dismissiveness of her voice was unmistakable. “Where’s it going?” she snapped. I replied that I could tell her the ending if she wanted, but what I really should have told her was that I had already sent her a brief plot summary and that the premise and plot of the novel were outlined there. What she appeared to like about the work was that one of the chapters was set in a famous resort in the west of England which she and her husband had visited on their most recent vacation. This appeared to be the only thing that interested her about the manuscript, an entirely self-referential reason for liking a book if there ever was one. It struck me that she had read sixty pages and had not understood a word. As it turned out, she was going on vacation for the next month, would be in New York for three days in August, then would be on vacation again. We could talk about the manuscript when she was again briefly in town.

When August came around, I half-heartedly attempted to make an appointment with her assistant, only to learn that Ms. X was “seeing an old family friend” and could only speak on the phone. My feeling was that explaining a complex work of fiction required a face to face meeting. Ms. X replied rather rudely that she was only available for phone calls while she was in town. I sent her a diplomatic but mildly sarcastic e-mail saying “thanks but no thanks.”

Now, the manner of a spoiled and faintly ridiculous woman should not have enraged me, but it did. Throughout our exchange, I felt as if I were being interviewed for a position as a domestic servant, her family’s nanny perhaps. We most definitely were not equals—her time was far more valuable than mine, at least in her own mind. It struck me as particularly bizarre that she not only didn’t want to meet in person, but was only willing to have a phone conversation during a three day period in August.

The truth is, she simply wasn’t that interested in the book. But more to the point, I would not have wanted someone who was unprofessional to this extent representing me. People who work in book publishing have enough problems without having to deal with Ms. X.


  1. This is all too typical. But bear in mind that not all agents are as crass as Ms. X. Some even know how to read. The ideal agent is one who sells the book, not one who tries to turn it into something else.

  2. I don't understand why you are looking for an agent in the first place. It seems that they have become just so many remoras that are getting in the way of good books. They are the first tier of focus-group publishing.

    There is a lot of hand-wringing in the publishing industry, half of it the old guard because the future is unclear, the other half looking forward to the collapse of the old guard. Even if you were to find a publisher, the marketing for your book would still be upon your shoulders. While there is some value in having gate keepers to sift through the drek, they themselves have become too remote. Either look to a smaller publishing house that doesn't need agent interference or do it yourself.