Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Agents, Authors, Power Dynamics and You: An Encouraging Thought

So, I'm not sure if this is a new phenomenon caused by the publishing industry's recent shift (corporate conglomerates, fewer editors, more agents) or if it's always been this way, but literary agents seem to hold a LOT of power over aspiring authors.  Once you finish your book, your next goal is to find an agent, and the task can seem completely daunting.  You agonize over writing a query letter.  You workshop your first five pages to death.  You read every agent blog you can find, follow every agent you can think of on Twitter, and hang on their every word like gospel.  Every time they complain about something, you immediately think, "oh my god!  they're talking about me!"  Every time they say something good about something, you think, "Is that me?  No, that can't be me.  Oh my god, they hate me!"

Pretty soon you put yourself in a position where your happiness is entirely contingent on whether or not an agent notices you.  It's like being in high school again.  You remember how that feels -- the dreamy (insert appropriate object of affection: jock, cheerleader, geek, musician, chess club champion, etc.) actually made eye contact with you across the room!  Oh, the fluttering heart!  Oh, the swooning!

With each tiny interaction, you go through a rollercoaster of emotions.  A request makes you burst into spontaneous tap-dancing and song.  A rejection fills you with bleak despair.  All you can talk about is querying, but of course you can't talk about querying because you don't want your agents to think you're desperate, or misconstrue something you say, or think you're a pessimist, or whatever.  So you bottle it all up inside and then it comes bursting out every second you catch anybody alone.

C'mon, writers.  Snap out of it.  We're not swooning 8th graders.  Agents are not sweet puppy-dog loves.

And they shouldn't be.  That's not healthy -- for you, or for them.  Agents are people, not gods, not idols, not bulging-muscle-athletes with sensitive eyes and souls of gold (well, ok, some might be that last one, I guess -- I'd hate to be exclusionary).  I'm pretty sure that most agents would be (read: are) horrified by how much we've built them up in our heads.

Agents don't want to be the source of your happiness and misery.

They don't want to be the thing that makes you hope and cry and hate yourself and love yourself and eat ice cream and run around in circles sobbing hysterically because you are so overcome with feeling.

They just want to find good books and sell them so that they can make money.

Ideally, they want to find an author who produces good books so that they can continue to sell them and make money.

Agents love their jobs.  They love books.  They'd have to love their jobs because a tremendous amount of work they do is unpaid.  Their job may even be the most important thing in their lives (although, y'know, most have those pesky things like "friends" and "families" and "pets" and "hobbies" that they probably like a whole bunch, too.)  But we are not the center of their universe.  And they are not -- should not -- be the center of our universe.

So for fuck sake, stop freaking out so much about agents.  This is going to be a hard pill for some of us to swallow, so I'm going to put it in big bold letters, okay?  Agents work for writers.   

I know.  It's mind-blowing.  But let me reiterate:  They work for you.  They are independent contractors that you hire to provide a service to you.  Yes, they are business associates -- even friends! -- that stay with you (ideally) throughout your career.  Yes, they make it easier for you to publish your book in certain types of (very attractive) markets.  But they still work for you.  You still hire them.  You pay their commission.  You provide them with the goods that they sell.  Without writers, there would be no literary agents. 

Which is not to say that agents don't know what they're talking about.  They do.  Their entire career is predicated on selling books to publishing houses.  That means that they know better than anyone what those publishing houses want to buy.   They are masters of that domain.  You should listen to their advice.  But that's not the same thing as basing all of your values judgments about yourself, your writing, your career or whatever else on their comments. 

Let me provide you with a thought experiment.  Work with me, here.

Say you are starting up a business, and you really need to hire someone to work for you.  So you put out an advertisement on, I dunno, Craigslist.  Or some other job board.  Anyway -- you post your advertisement explaining who you are, what kind of position you're hiring for, and the duties that the job would entail.  Then you sat back to see who would apply.

Many of the people who aren't interested in the job won't respond to the ad at all.  Maybe they don't like doing that kind of work.  Maybe they don't like to work those type of hours.  Maybe your job ad actually doesn't make any fucking sense -- whatever.

Then some people do inquire.  They say, "Hey, can you tell me a little bit more about this job posting?"  and you tell them all the details and you know what?  A lot of those people are going to say, "Oh, never mind, this isn't the job I wanted at all."

But you, as a business owner, are not going to be upset about this -- because you don't want employees who don't want to be there.  You don't want to hire someone who's not a good fit for the job.  They might be great carpenters, but what you really wanted was a stone mason.  It's no big.  Eventually you'll find someone who fits the ad better.

And hey, sometimes you realize that the job ad you posted doesn't make any sense, or it describes the job so poorly that nobody wants to apply for it, or the only people who apply for it are totally not what you're looking for at all.  And every so often you realize that actually, the job you're trying to hire people's not really a position that's ready to be filled just yet.  If you hired them, all they'd be doing is sitting around sharpening pencils because the business isn't ready for that particular job.  You'll have to put the ad out again later, when you have a job for them to do.

So think of it in those terms when you send out your query letters.  When you get rejected, it's not that you suck and you're ugly and nobody wants you.  It's just that the position you're looking to fill hasn't found the right applicant, yet.  Keep your chin up, dude.  Take the agent off the pedestal (it's uncomfortable up there, and really bad on their ankles).  We're all humans, and we're all working toward a single goal:  producing and selling a kick-ass book.

So relax, ok?

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