This site, Entertaining Welsey Shaw, was supposed to disappear last month, but so far it hasn’t, so while it’s up I thought I’d add one more post.
For those who still want to follow me, my new site is https://www.authorjohngrabowski.com/. I’ll be attaching a blog to it when I can. I also have a Facebook page and a Twitter feed,
But back to the topic in the headline, agents.
I hate them.
I hate them because they are literally nothing more than arbitrary tastemakers and interpreters who know little more about what will sell than Morris the Cat. But they make or break writers.
Their web pages are frustrating. They all state the same sorts of things:
I’m interested in writing that grabs me, leaves me wanting more. I like a strong narrator, compelling characters, surprising twists that stay with me after I’ve finished the book…
Then you see they list Twilight as one of their favorite novels…
Aside from their obvious bad taste, who doesn’t want “writing that grabs me,” “leaves me wanting more,” and “compelling characters”? I mean, really, that puts you, dear agent, in a different pile from all the other agents I come across who say they want dull writing, flat characters, and forgettable plots. That helps me so much.
Another one I love is the agent who says they’re looking for unique writers writing unique stories. Then on their site’s submission form, they ask something like, “Name Five Comparable Novels for Your Manuscript.” And they put a asterisk, meaning you can’t leave this blank.
Really now. Why don’t you just admit you’re looking for the next YA hit, something that can be marketed in the same breath as Hunger Games/Harry Potter/Gone Girl?
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I realize the world does not read James Joyce every day, and an agent or publisher who only publishes such material will disappear quickly. But don’t represent yourself as looking for originality and brilliance when you really want something you can present as the next Insurgent.
So many agents’ sites seem to be more interested in using your material as movie rights fodder as well. And I’ve heard from people inside the industry who admit they worked for agents—especially younger ones, Millennials—who really aren’t interested in books but who want to get someone’s work optioned by a studio so that they can piggyback on as a producer and leave the word-gig for Fox or Showtime or Netflix.
Which again is fine if that’s what you crave, but be upfront about it. You’re not looking for a Tom McCarthy, you’re looking for an E.L. James.
Honestly, here’s the thing: I strongly suspect most agents have no idea what they want. So they cast a wide net, looking decisive while being broad enough to include nearly everything. They love YA and magic and fantasy because everyone else does—right now. They say they don’t consider short stories because, so the popular mythos goes, short stories aren’t popular. Yet I’ve personally met so many readers who say they love short stories more than long books. Publishers just rarely push them.
A few years ago there was such a hubub over a book, City on Fire. It broke records for an advance offered for a novel. A movie deal was all but guaranteed. Pre-release reviews were RAVES.
As you can see, it did okay among readers, but just okay, probably not earning back its $2 million advance. The movie deal seems not to have happened. The same is true other much-heralded novels. Agents fought it out over Beginner’s Greek, a comedy of manners for the modern day, and again a movie deal was in the works. I believe, if memory serves, Tom Hanks are being looked at for the male lead. Never happened. Beginner’s Greek turned out to be just another upmarket fiction book, and did about average, I believe, despite the agent believing with all her heart that it was the best thing since the invention of whipped butter. Something similar happened with a trueish-to-life story, How Starbucks Saved My Life, by the son of famed New York social critic Brendan Gill. Big expectations for this book, and again a movie deal, and again, if memory serves, Hanks was to play the part, though maybe his name just keeps coming up because everybody loves Tom Hanks, and just attaching his name to a project could be seen as a way to increase its odds of being born.
At any rate, it too disappointed, despite all the high hopes of Those Who Know What The Public Wants, and despite lots of money changing hands, the book didn’t meet expectations, and the movie deal evaporated like the coffee at the bottom of an espresso cup.
I know one can cherry-pick the successes, too, but my point is exactly that. The agents and editors know about as much as you or I do. You know that trick they do (or used to do) every year where they ask top stock pickers their opinions and also have a monkey throw darts at a board and later see who picked the best stocks, only to find the monkey did about as well as the Wall Streeters? It’s no different in publishing. I often wonder how different things would be if the marketing push that went into tired favorites and trends were instead moved to new, untried ideas. Very possibly some new favorites and trends would be created, that could then be mined, but few today want to work the way a Maxwell Perkins or a Frank Norris did to advance careers when they were moved, and not worrying about “comparables.”
I suspect how difficult something is to market largely determines how much (or little) agents and publishers like them. Short stories are a tough task for the marketing department, a group usually hired based on their youthfulness and looks. YA in the style of Outlander, however—my pet monkey could market that.
I think eventually, except for blockbuster projects with an eye to movie or TV rights, agents will be seen as superfluous. They’ll always be there, of course, but so are typewriter repair services. Maybe agents should try to make trends instead of following them. But that is a lot to ask…