The Slow Death of a Literary Agent

Submission protocol, query etiquette, and strategies that work
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Adam Heine
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The Slow Death of a Literary Agent

Post by Adam Heine » October 4th, 2010, 8:44 pm

Average American
You are an average American. You sleep 8 hours, eat 2.5 hours a day, work 40 hours a week, and commute a quarter of an hour each way.* The rest of your time is split pretty evenly between things you Have To Do (cooking, cleaning, fixing things, buying things...) and things you Want To Do (watching TV, reading, playing guitar, having a social life, etc).

* Those last two are actually below average, but I'm being generous with the numbers in this post to make a point.

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No Response Means No
You decide you want to be a literary agent. That means, in addition to your regular work hours which make money, you have to read query letters. Thinking a query letter is something like a resume -- you send it out widely and only hear back if you get an interview -- you adopt a "no response means no" policy.

Still, it takes you an average of 3 minutes to read and make a decision on each query. Getting through 200 queries a week, plus partials and fulls, means 12 extra hours of work. Fortunately you weren't very good at guitar anyway. And you probably don't have to see a new movie every week.

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Form Rejections
Writers, you discover, are needier than the average job seeker. Without a response, they pester you endlessly wondering if you've gotten to their query yet. After talking to your agent buddies you adopt a form rejection policy. Copying/pasting everything, including the author's name and their book title, takes an extra minute per query -- over 3 hours more each week. No big deal, but it does mean you have to stop watching those reality shows.

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Improved Form Rejections
After a few years of interacting with writers on your blog (which you do now instead of going out Saturday night), you decide form rejections aren't enough. You're eager to give writers what they want, so you personalize your rejections -- not all the way, of course, but since a query usually gets rejected for one of a few reasons, you create five "personalized" form rejection letters.

What you didn't realize was how difficult it is to stop and analyze every query for why it doesn't appeal to you. And some queries don't even fit into your categories. It ends up taking another 2 minutes per query, leaving you with only 4 hours of "Want To Do" time a week. You survive though, trading sleep so you can play Halo or read a book occasionally.

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Personalized Rejection
It's still not enough. Instead of being thankful for your help, the writers are arguing with you over why you didn't like their story! Years later you'll learn it's just human nature, that it's hard NOT to defend your work even when faced with hard evidence. For now, you decide you'll write truly personalized rejections. It takes a while -- about 10 minutes per query, actually -- but it's worth it if it helps writers improve their craft.

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Of course everything you eat is ordered online now, weekends are something that happen to other people, and cleaning is right out (and you can't afford a maid, of course, because you're not getting paid for any of this). But finally the writers will be satisfied.

Won't they?

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