There’s a part of me that’s pretty anxious writing this post. Anxious because I have no idea how it’ll be received. I’m gonna do it anyway, *deep breath*.
When did literary (lit) agents become more important than writers?
Okay, let me back up. What I mean is, there are things like #MSWL (manuscript wish list), or the Agent Query website, telling us everything individual lit agents want. We then try to emulate those wants, fighting for their attention. In some cases, we even go as far as to write on an idea or in the tone they’re looking for, just to get them to notice us.
I say “we” and “us” because I’ve been there. I haven’t gone as far as to create an entire book for attention (although Scarbor Island was initially based on a story type an agent I respected spoke about). I have jumped through hoops to please though.
I’ve done all the things for a seat at the traditional publishing table. I’ve asked respectfully, I’ve cited my prolific writing career, I’ve played the diversity card hoping for a look-in, entered Twitter contests, and I’ve written query letters based entirely on how the agent I queried liked to be queried. I got so good at it in fact that for about three years I edited and helped develop other writers’ queries.
I got so lost asking myself what lit agents want, I didn’t ask the more important question: What do I want in a lit agent?
Things are skewed and now writers everywhere “bow” in reverence to lit agents. They “prostrate” themselves on social media, hoping it means the agent they’re targeting will remember them whenever they query/enter a contest. It doesn’t make sense that this should be the case. Both sides should be on equal footing.
> Writers provide the commodity lit agents need, while lit agents provide the services to develop and take that commodity as far as it can go. <
We’ve flipped it so lit gents are the major commodity, while writers struggle to be heard and for a seat at the table.
It’s all about supply and demand, so the idea is, there are so few lit agents as compared to writers, writers have to be competitive with each other, battle for a chance, and sit there hoping for the best after doing the most. If you aren’t successful this toss, try again. If you aren’t successful submitting for two decades, don’t worry about it, just try again.
Literary agents have been called “gatekeepers”, which many hotly disagree with, but isn’t that the case though? Like in any other business situation, if you have the right “in” you’re likely to move ahead of the line (providing all other necessary events line up).
Publishing is a business. If you have an agent, or editor at a publishing house backing your work, you’re likely to be heard. Even if this doesn’t result in a major deal, your career is already advanced in some way.
Please don’t misunderstand me, literary agents deserve respect for what they do. They work hard and strive for the best for their clients. There is however, a difference between having respect and grovelling.
Writers shouldn’t have to beg for a seat.
You shouldn’t have an agent carelessly spell your name wrong, or talk about their new baby making them pickier, or simply not respond at all – especially when there’s no email auto-response feature. These aren’t things you should have to deal with after taking time to craft your story and research submission requirements. Just like lit agents don’t want to deal with crap from you after taking the time to sign you as a client.
I’ve gone through all these things and more in the process of going the traditional publishing route. So much so I self-published for a spell just to avoid it. In recent times especially, I’ve dealt with agent after agent telling me how great my work is, how they love a story, only to pass with an email smile.
Without a strong mindset and belief in your work, these experiences can make you question everything you do. I even stopped writing prose for a few years in the past, overwhelmed by the process. I’m thankful to be in a different place now.
I get it, agents are busy people. Please don’t start with me on that one. I get it. I’m a pretty busy person myself, so I get it. It’s one of the reasons I feel humbled judging the Ink and Insights’ competition. No matter how busy I get, I have to spend time with the subs that end up in my inbox. Sometimes it’s hard to juggle but I figure it out so writers get the best from me.
Of course, lit agents receive way more in their inboxes than me. I also get that they’re going to focus on their client list before anything else that’s flooding their inbox – it makes business sense. It’s just the base principle I’m dealing with here:
I want more for writers who haven’t been picked up yet. A bit more compassion maybe? I’m not sure, just something other than – “great writing, send me your next project, Buh-BAI!”
So what about me? What do I want in a literary agent?
What I want in a lit agent is someone who understands the business they’re in well, even if they’re new to the job. Someone willing to learn and try new things, even if they’re a veteran. A lit agent with a healthy respect and understanding of my work, as I’d have the same for theirs. Someone I can have conversations with and be heard.
I’d like a lit agent who isn’t afraid to take on out-of-the-box or risky projects, or a writer like me who writes across genres and age categories. Preferably one who knows how to navigate the TV and film industry too, not just for existing stories, but for the screenplays I produce.
My lit agent would be kind, but very critical, knowing it’s the best thing for the work. My lit agent would keep in touch, doesn’t have to be all the time, but would have to be enough that I at least know they’re still in my corner.
I’d love a lit agent who doesn’t have an issue with my diversity (black Barbadian-British woman originally from the Caribbean). My agent would try to understand how that background impacts my writing.
Their gender, ethnicity and background wouldn’t matter, this would be my lit agent, so if you come at them with discriminatory crap, you’re coming at me.
My lit agent would rely on me to get my part of the job done, and I’d rely on them to get their part done. We’d be partners working to get the best out of every project and from both our careers.
That’s what I’d want in a lit agent. What about you? What would your ideal literary agent be like?
The next Pages Unforgotten post is April’s newsletter on the 6th. Until then, try: Opinion: Being A Reader Isn’t Only Reading Books | The Dangers of Sitting on Content Without A Plan | Stop Playing A Part That Doesn’t Suit You | The Wardens Universe Revealed!
Multi-genre reads available on my Fiction page :).
For help with your writing project, visit my For Writers page.
To see what I’m working on and novels available for submission click here.
For more info, questions, or comments, share below or contact me :).