What the Agents Said

My novel, In a Country Burning, has been pitched to eleven literary agents since 1999–six times by snail mail or e-mail, and five times face to face, eyeball to eyeball.

Of the traditional approach (query letter to an agent I’ve never met) I received one e-mail rejection in less than 20 minutes, which makes me wonder if it was on an auto-responder.  The snail mail rejections took longer, although a few times I marveled at the efficiency of Canada Post, the U.S. Postal Service or the Royal Mail, depending on the destination.  It was like a boomerang coming back way faster than anticipated, forcing me to metaphorically duck for cover.

I was initially flattered by Simon Trewin’s response from PFD in London, although I can’t help thinking of the agency’s name as an abbreviation of Personal Floatation Device. He’s since opened his own shop, which was probably a good idea.

He described my writing as “fluent” but declined because he “didn’t connect with the premise.”   Okay, well that’s nice of him to say about the writing anyway.  I’m fluent.  Except I later read on a website that he has passed on other novels with that same rejection letter.  It’s a form letter.  Did he even read the sample pages?

That’s the problem with mail and e-mail.  An author could believe their novel had been given careful consideration when actually he/she had been rejected by the receptionist before morning coffee.

That’s why I prefer to pitch face-to-face.  They may never read the sample chapters, but at least I know they have a sense of the premise before they boot me out the door.  Now I’m not advocating pounding on agents’ doors.  I met most of them by appointment at conferences in carefully orchestrated pitch sessions.  They knew I was coming and were prepared to listen.

So here’s what they said:

Dominick Abel listened patiently and then said that this simply was not his type of thing.  That’ll teach me to pitch a novel about war and religion and guilt to an agent at a mystery convention.

Beverly Slopen I pitched by accident.  About three months after 9/11 I went down to her condo in Toronto to drop off the first 30 pages and query letter.  I thought I’d be told to leave it with the concierge, which is why I had no qualms about bringing my one-year-old son along for the trip in his stroller.  I was a stay-at-home dad at the time and figured the walk would allow him to get his morning nap.

I didn’t know that she had just returned from the Frankfurt Book Fair and was eagerly awaiting a package.  She told the concierge to send me right up.  She met me at the elevator.

Awkward.  She was reaching for the envelope, saw my son and froze.  “Oh, this is yours,” she said, as if she’d accidentally grabbed my half-eaten Big Mac.  She didn’t wipe her hands off on her trousers after she handed it back, although it looked like she considered it.  She politely allowed me a two minute pitch, and that was about all my restless son was going to allow too.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I wouldn’t have any idea where to place it.  Everyone’s doing a novel about Afghanistan now.  Tom Clancy’s doing a novel about Afghanistan.”

Ms. Slopen let me down gently, the way you pass a crazy homeless person who is begging for change and raving about the coming apocalypse.

This is why I don’t recommend sandbagging agents at their offices.  It puts them on the defensive.  I sent her an e-mail apologizing for the intrusion, and she surprised me by responding, urging me to send the novel to other agents.  She’s a class act.

Jack Scovil was interested in my mystery novel (which I’ve shelved for now) but never responded even though he had invited me to submit.  He wasn’t at all interested in a novel set in Afghanistan.

Verna Dreisbach said she’d look at three sample chapters if I cut 30,000 words off the novel.  I spent three torturous months slicing it down, but she still rejected it.  What did I expect from an ex-cop who says on her website that she’s the editor of Why We Ride: Women Writers and the Horses in their Lives? My novel is just not going to excite her.

Stacia Decker of the Donald Mass agency wins the prize for asking the most intelligent questions about the novel.  After careful deliberation during the interview, she invited me to submit the first ten pages.  But she also set me up for the rejection that followed two months later.  She asked me how many agents I’d pitched this novel to, and when I said ten she shook her head.  “You’ve hardly dipped your toe in the water then.”

Which brings me back to publishing online.  An agency takes 15% of the meager royalties a publisher will pay to most first time novelists.  They’re great at vetting contracts with publishers, but what if a writer decides to go without a publisher?  No agent required.  I know that going without a publisher or an agent (the 20th century model) is controversial.  A couple of writers and my editor have already encouraged me not to give up on traditional publishing, but we’re in a new world with e-publishing.  Maybe I’ll have to eat my words.  That’s what’s fun about publishing right now.  No one really knows where it’s going.

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