Writer’s Corner: Does Jane Austen Need an Agent?

Whenever a newbie writer has had the misfortune (if that is the right word) to ask for my advice, I will always say the same two things:

1. Enter as many writing contests as possible. It will build up your resume, give you free opinion from someone who isn’t family or a friend if you are actually good or not,  and you never know who a judge might be (For example, my radio series, The Dante Experience, was produced and directed by a judge of a radio script competition I entered).

2. Try to get an agent. An agent’s job is to find you a publisher and help you succeed. They have contacts you don’t have. You need them.

The problem is with number 2; while it is right to say it, it does always leave a little bad taste in my mouth since my experience with working with agents has been lackluster at best. So far I’ve had four agents.

Agent round-up time!

1. Lightning something or other:  My first agent, I was sixteen.  They worked out of Florida (no idea why). I wrote a collection of short stories that they represented called INTO THE TWILIGHT (No, this is before vampires, I was just a moody teen). They once sent me a copy of the query letter they were sending to publishers, and I was stunned– They had compared me to Judy Blume. Judy freaking Blume! Definitely had to stop wearing all black that day.

2. No idea of the name:  The agent died. Kid you not! I signed with them (I was about 20), and I got a letter a few weeks later saying the agent has died.  My only hope is that it was not related to my bad use of grammar.

3. A blank on the name as well:  They wanted to represent my first novel, 3 DAYS IN ROME.  I signed a contract and never heard from them again. It’s been over 14 years, sometimes I wonder if they are still trying to sell it.

4. McIntosh & Otis:  I was with M&O for five years, and this to me was my first shot at the Big Leagues. They represent some great writers and one of my all-time favorite authors (Harper Lee).  They asked to represent me after reading my thesis from USC’s Master’s of Professional Writing program. I couldn’t have been happier, but what I didn’t realize is that I was entering…

Limbo

In the five years I was with M&O I sent them four different books, including the thesis that originally landed them.

Yet nothing happened, nothing ever happened. I would hear stories and get letters proving that my books were being seen by big editors and publishers (some were very nicely interested), but nothing… nothing… nothing…

I’m not sure why M&O kept me for so long. Every time I talked to them it seemed that they had passed me to another assistant or agent, and sometimes that person had no idea who I was or what my books were about.  They debated which book to push, and they didn’t want my screenplays yet; always promising to push them once a book was sold (which was odd since I got my degree at USC which has a great film writing program and I had received a lot more attention for my scripts than my books). Oh, they were nice (and I am still good friends with the person who originally supported me there), but they just weren’t sure what to do with me.

That last point was very obvious during my final conversation with them. It was with another new assistant. This person just did not get me at all. Why couldn’t this book be chronological order? Why couldn’t that book just be a normal mystery? And, what the heck, is up with the style of MY PROBLEM WITH DOORS!?

So the writing should have been on the wall for me;  yet, the nail in the coffin was still to arrive.  That rusty nail was A JANE AUSTEN DAYDREAM.

What to do with Jane Austen…

Yes, A JANE AUSTEN DAYDREAM.

My retelling of Jane’s life as a romantic-comedy told in a style reminiscent of  her voice with one surprising post-modern twist. The same book that you can find links to on this page that was just published last year on GreenSpotBlue.com. The same book that nicely garnered praise and attention from Jane Austen fans around the world…. And to put this in the time frame of the telling, there were Jane Austen “sequels” being published left and right, books about her, movies about her, and for me this felt like a no-brainer.  This wasn’t another money grab, this was a book about Jane that was trying to be different, and, dare I add, special. What publisher wouldn’t want a literary Jane Austen book like this?

Well, M&O thought all of them and let me go.

I must admit it killed my writing and creativity for a few years and it still smarts. See DAYDREAM was a work in progress for seven years. The actual writing of the early drafts was some of my most fun as a writer; it was also hard work and sweat and research. And to have this work of love added to the pile of other books dead in the water, it stung.

I focused on my family, hobbies, exercise, and a lot of video games; and tried to turn off the voice in my head that kept repeating: “What about your next book? What about your next book? What about YOUR NEXT BOOK?”

Anyway, jump to last year, and JANE is out there to be read online and it got some nice attention and I want to now see it in print and as an e-book more than ever.  Which brings up my concern, what to do with it?

Do I take it right to a publisher, or do I try to find an agent?

Agents have a job for a reason, they are the gatekeepers to the big publishing houses. While publishers may think this is a useful thing, I have always had some concern around this path that they had created. See, publishers can have “pet” projects, they can publish the occasion non-successful literary novel, the award-winning fiction so they can have bragging rights; but an agent needs to make money with every client, every book. They can’t financially waste their time on a work that won’t generate some green back in their pockets; representing a work is too much time, energy, and money to throw away on pet literary projects. They don’t want Faulkner, they want Stephen King. They ALL want Stephen King (In other words, easy to read and digest pop adult fiction with traditional twists and characters, set in universes people have seen before, in genres that are exactly what they are paying for. No surprises and no literary groundbreaking allowed).

Another problem I have with trying to find an agent is more personal. See, the last time I looked my five-year history with McIntosh & Otis came up with agents… It came up a lot.

Why couldn’t they sell your works? (I don’t know.) Were you difficult to work with? (No, I barely bothered them.) If they couldn’t sell your books, why do you think we can? (I have no idea. Hope mainly.) What was at one time a fact I bragged about to my writing friends (I have the same agency as Harper Lee!), now my five years with an established New York agency was an albatross around my neck.  And even though it has been a few years since I was with M&O my fear is that that damn dead bird might still be there.

So what to do.

This the conundrum I face. I do think a book like this could find an audience through a big publisher, but how to get to one without an agent? Or should I just try for a smaller press, but how to get one to look at it without an agent as well? I don’t want to self-publish (shiver again), but as I get older and older the more I wonder if this is the only way to get all of these books off of my shoulders. Or should I just suck it up and do another mailing to agencies and cross my fingers?

There has got to be a different path for a writer to take, and more precisely me with this book, but what that path is or how; that is the question.

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9 responses

  1. Though I’ve only been trying at the writing game seriously since 2009 (before that I sat in 24 hr. diners scribbling into notebooks for hours), I find myself struggling with the same types of questions. I don’t have a storied history with an agency, but deciding what to do with my manuscript is tearing me up. I’ve also self-published (shiver), but I did it to learn what publishing a book was all about. Now that I finally have a piece I’m ready to shop around, something that I’m proud of, I don’t know how to go about getting it looked at.

  2. The problem with self-publishing is that a lot of the book world is against you from the start. It’s hard to get someone to review it, it’s hard to get a bookstore to stock it (even the local ones). My last two books were published by a new press out of Canada called ipublish press, and I had to do a lot of explaining that it was not self-published; but it didn’t stop the barriers up around that world. There were reviewers that wouldn’t even consider it… and they were local for me!

    I would still recommend first trying a writing competition with the new book, there is a lot of them out there for books. It adds to the resume and anything you can say about the book getting good PR like a mention in a contest can help move it to the top of the agent’s pile for review (and they do get a pile of letters each day). Good luck!

  3. Hey, I think your website might be having browser compatibility issues. When I look at your blog in Safari, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other then that, great blog!

  4. Pingback: Finding That Right Literary Agent: Five Things to Consider « The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

  5. I might be late for the game here, but I just found your blog and it’s fantastic. I love your style of writing and I love your openness about the quandaries of your life as a writer.

    I’ve always loved writing but, being from Mexico, I never thought I could make a living out of it. It was until three years ago, when settled on coastal Ct, that my husband convinced me to give it a try. I’m not very prolific but I’ve written a few short stories and a novella (horror). To my great surprise, my novella (which I thought would never be published) and one of my shorts were published by a small press in early 2010. Now, let me tell you, I have no agent and I’ve been pursuing this path since those early successes. Though I’m in no way a bestseller, I’m happy with my experiences so far. There are plenty of reputable small presses out there for me to try and I don’t have to wait endlessly for an agent to be invested in my works (which would probably never happen).

    Anyway, I just wanted to tell you there is a way for you to see your books published and not do it yourself. You’ll see this way is most satisfying and I’m sure you’ll be incredibly successful.

    Best of luck!
    From Diary of a Writer in Progress

    • Thanks! Actually, no worries about being “late,” I only began working on this blog aggressively in January, but I have been writing for years. Your post was very flattering.

      In regards to small presses, I am a big fan as well. I actually had two of my novels (Megan and My Problem With Doors) published by a small press out of Canada a few years ago, after the house honored them in a writing competition. The personal experience with the publishing house was definitely rewarding, and the editor they assigned to work with me was first rate; I could not have been happier with the final products.

      If a small press was to contact me regarding A Jane Austen Daydream I would definitely talk to them about it (I never turn down an opportunity to talk about my writing). See, I played the game with the “big boys” earlier when I was represented by a big and established agency out of NYC (I’ve talked a few times about that experience already in editorials), and with the unending popularity of Jane Austen I feel like this work might have a better chance to find some larger success. So I’ve been in the “door” before, and I want to try and get back in first… at least that is the dream for now. I plan to spend a few months to half-a-year of trying to lock down a good agency or literary manager. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll probably aggressively start looking at the smaller presses.

      Thanks again! I hope you like the blog and good luck with the writing!

  6. Pingback: A JANE AUSTEN DAYDREAM to be ePublished! « The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

  7. Holy moley. That is kind of terrifying. I’ve only been seriously at this since 2009 (moving to another country and not being able to work for a year gives you all kinds of time to explore free time options…).

    I’m still searching for the elusive agent, but I’m almost kind of glad M & O been interested for either of mine now. I actually had an agent respond to my partial with exclamation points the other day and ask for a full. I’m encouraged but cautious.

    I mean…exclamation points. That’s gotta be good, right?

    • I forgot I mentioned them once in a post! (Usually, I try to avoid naming names). I wrote about my experience a few weeks ago as well in a post called ‘What I Learned Having a Literary Agent.” You should check that one out before you sign with them or any agency. I hope that helps and good luck!

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