Tiny Writers’ Conference, Week 4: Literary Agents, Part 2

As promised, today I’m tackling part 2 of a big topic: working with a literary agent.

If we were in a room at a writers’ conference, this would be the precise moment at at which somebody would stop me to say, “wait, poets don’t have agents!” I can’t tell you how often I hear or read from otherwise excellent sources—both in person and online—that no legitimate agent will represent a poet unless said poet is already famous. The Poet Laureate of the United States kind of famous. Let’s take a moment to clear up any misconceptions about this point: there are poets who have agents! I am one of them. (And I only wish I were the Poet Laureate.)

First of all, you can be, like me, a poet first while being a writer of other genres as well. Your agent may well represent your nonfiction or fiction work while still taking an interest in seeing your poetry well published, or at least in helping you negotiate contracts on your small press poetry titles.

Second, the small press isn’t the only place that poetry lives and thrives. You may have heard, for example, of Kristin Elizabeth Clark’s debut book, a verse novel titled Freakboy, which sold to Macmillan. That’s right, you saw the correct words in that sentence. Verse. Macmillan. Sold. Debut. Just because it’s poetry doesn’t mean it’s not salable; perhaps it just comes in the form of a novel in poems, not a poetry collection. Maybe it’s marketed to young adults rather than to academics in departmental offices. But yes, you can write poems and have an agent care about those poems.

Glad we could clear that up.

So now on to what you’re really here to read about: once an agent has signed you, what’s next?

There are no guarantees

Sorry to start with the bad news. It’s easy to think that, once you’ve inked the line at the bottom of a contract, you’ve finally made it as a writer. Your agent will surely—surely!—have your book sold in mere weeks, and you’ll be on the path to world domination, right? Unfortunately, no. You may love your book, and your agent may love your book, but that doesn’t mean that an editor will love your book, at least not enough to take a big financial risk on publishing it. There are wonderful books that, through no lack of hard work on author or agent’s part, may take years to sell, or may never sell at all. In publishing, as in life, there are no guarantees. We writers have to get comfortable with that fact.

Your job isn’t done yet

While you’re getting comfortable with the previous fact, I’ll lob another at you: during the pitching process, you’ll be working just as hard as your agent. Your agent is the one pitching your book, of course, but before and during the pitching process, you’re not enjoying a break. Now’s the time to head off to speak at—yes—writers’ conferences, to hold workshops, to get your work out in journals, and to give readings around town. Basically, your job is to make your agent’s job easier by being as active in the literary world as you’re able to be; the work of promoting a new book begins long before a new book has even been accepted for publication.

The waiting feels like gestating an elephant

Frankly, given that elephants gestate a mere 640 days, perhaps I should say that the waiting feels like gestating multiple elephants in succession. However much everyone wishes it could be otherwise, selling a book can take time. A long time. Pitching may be slow going, editors may hold a book for a long while before responding, or they may never respond. Throughout this time, it’s the author’s job to be patient, to work on other projects, and to curb that instinct to hassle the agent every five minutes for an update. The best advice I can give with regard to making the waiting period move a little more quickly is to begin work—immediately—on another project. Let your enthusiasm for the new project buoy you and remind you of why you do this writing thing in the first place.

Your agent is not your mother

After you’ve gestated a few of these rhetorical elephants, it’s easy to feel not-so-rhetorical dread setting in. Will I ever publish anything? Am I a terrible writer? Should I just go to law school, already? As much as you may be tempted to lay your emotional baggage at your agent’s feet, don’t. Remember that this is a business relationship more than it is an artistic one. Your agent wants your book to sell just as much as you do, and is working hard to help both of you succeed. Save the angst for happy hour with your long-suffering friends.

You’re in the long-haul; you’d better like each other!

I keep mentioning that the author/agent partnership is a business relationship, but you know what? It’s a personal relationship, too; most authors aren’t in this business for the big bucks, and neither are most agents. We’re all in this industry because we love the written word, and there’s a certain camaraderie in that fact. I’m lucky to have landed with an agent who not only cares about the business angle of writing, but who has a respect for what I do from an artistic perspective, too. I’m even more lucky to be agented by someone in whom I have total trust and the highest respect. It may be corny to say so, but it’s true: I want my books to succeed as much for his sake as for my own.

So if there are no guarantees, and it’s hard work all the way through, why not just self-publish?

That’s a big question that deserves it own blog post…next time.

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