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Agents and a big sea change

Petrol Queen
Some of you probably remember that almost two years ago I signed with Cameron McClure with the Donald Maass Agency. What most of you don't know is that we parted ways last May.

Over the nine months of our association I rewrote Petrol Queen twice. Each time she read it she had more and more concerns that weren't there when I signed with her. Many of them I agreed with and fixed. In the end I think what happened was she didn't know how to market Petrol Queen, telling me it's not really urban fantasy, nor is it steampunk. What I told her was that it's really sort of a cross between China Mieville's Perdido Street Station and Swanwick's The Dragons of Babel, which didn't mean much as she was unfamiliar with both novels. In all our conversations, I came to the conclusion she wasn't firmly grounded in the fantasy genre.

Anyway, we parted ways amicably, and I set to work writing Jimmy-Don and the Texas Hill Country Ordeal with the plan of finding a new agent who was a better fit.

Having finished Jimmy-Don, I started querying agents again in December of last year. Then the oddest thing happened. Out of 64 queries sent out, I only heard back from 25.

Wow, that's 39 agents who couldn't even bother to send me a form rejection. Sure, a few of them were "only respond if interested," but many of them were agents I'd received feedback from before. Three of them were agents I'd been referred to and used that person's name, a person who was a friend and/or colleague of said agent.

I've since learned that I'm not the only one with this dilemma. Two other writers I know are being completely ignored by agents. So what's up?

Who knows? My best guess is that with the big change in New York publishing brought on by the e-book revolution, agents are feeling the pinch, perhaps trying to ride out the sea change to see what happens. Don't know what else it could be.

I've since come to have serious reservations regarding the whole traditional publishing thing. Frankly, what I'm writing probably doesn't fit in with what they're looking for. The only two authors I can truly point to who've been doing the sort of thing I am are Tim Pratt and Michael Swanwick. I really like Pratt's Marla Mason series, but he's now self-publishing the latest book in the series since Spectra decided not to continue the series. And Michael Swanwick used to be with Tor, but his latest book Dancing with Bears is out on Nightshade, a publisher with a lot of internal problems.* Gee, if Michael Swanwick can't get a deal with the Big Six what chance do I have? Oh, I probably could if I persisted. I could write a slick commercial novel and leave out most of the things that make my stuff me. (I could also go sell life insurance.) I've come to the realization that life is too short to not have fun at this writing thing.

So what's a writer to do? Same thing so many others are doing. Self-publish and join the e-book revolution. I used to hate the idea, but now I'm embracing it with a new sense of freedom. This will be fun. I've already got a short story collection I'm about ready to put out, and two completed novels I can release soon. And two half-finished novels to complete.

So that's the current state of MP. Been wanting to make this post for a while but have been waiting until I had a plan of action. And perhaps some of you searching for an agent have had the same difficulties. I had no problem with writing another novel and to keep querying agents, but when the last batch of queries didn't even get much response... See what I mean?

*Ironically, as I was about to put up this post I saw that Cat Valente has parted ways with Nightshade. 

Comments

( 49 comments — Leave a comment )
j_cheney
May. 14th, 2012 02:46 pm (UTC)
Wow, that's 39 agents who couldn't even bother to send me a form rejection.

This really bugs me too, Marshall. I do realize that they have a lot of queries, but a form e-mail or letter isn't asking too much, I think. But the industry seems to accept this as the norm, so I don't think it's gonna change.

Good luck in your publishing process. ;o)
marshallpayne1
May. 14th, 2012 02:54 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Jeannette! You probably saw my post where I bought a new Kindle Fire. One of my first orders from Amazon was Iron Shoes. I look forward to it. ;o)
j_cheney
May. 14th, 2012 03:01 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Marshall ;o) I got Matt a Fire last fall, and he loves it for everything but reading in the sun....there the old Kindle wins...
stillnotbored
May. 14th, 2012 02:54 pm (UTC)
But the industry seems to accept this as the norm, so I don't think it's gonna change.

I asked my agent about this the other day. She was totally baffled. She had no idea why this was happening or what might be behind the lack of response from agents. The response time and the policy of responding to all queries hasn't changed at her agency.

It's not the industry "norm". It's something new and weird and recent.
j_cheney
May. 14th, 2012 03:00 pm (UTC)
The last time I mass subbed was in Jan of 09, so my experience isn't recent (and it was only 3 subs). But one of those three didn't bother to respond. In 2008, when I did about 12, I think about 40% didn't respond.

I haven't asked my agent, but she did respond every time I sent her something, even back when they were form rejections...
marshallpayne1
May. 14th, 2012 03:43 pm (UTC)
I hate to point this out, Jeannette, but 12 queries isn't enough to catch the average. The first time I queried and got an agent, I sent out 29 and got signed. But out of that 29 70% got back with me. My recent batch of 64 queries should be enough to catch the average. Something has changed and I'm hearing this from other writers, too.

Then again, you landed an agent. All it takes is one if she's the right one. ;o) In my case it wasn't.
j_cheney
May. 14th, 2012 04:13 pm (UTC)
She's the right one for me ;o)

But in my case, I landed her through pitching rather than querying...so none of my query statistics matter a darn anyway. (I honestly suck at queries. My queries read like business letters. My pitch was also terrible, but it opened the door to send a partial...)
gwynnega
May. 14th, 2012 07:48 pm (UTC)
Yes, 70% response (or maybe 75-80%) seems about right from when I was doing my agent search a few years back. It does sound like something has changed since then.
marshallpayne1
May. 15th, 2012 12:56 am (UTC)
Yeah, it's kinda weird. A big part of being in business is answering your mail. But hopefully people will start talking about it now.
asakiyume
May. 14th, 2012 03:03 pm (UTC)
I wonder if the agencies themselves are kind of falling apart, and so systems are breaking down. But maybe that's too apocalyptic an imagination....
j_cheney
May. 14th, 2012 03:35 pm (UTC)
Wouldn't shock me too much.
marshallpayne1
May. 14th, 2012 03:48 pm (UTC)
That's exactly what I'm thinking, but without any proof I just hinted at it in my post.
asakiyume
May. 14th, 2012 02:51 pm (UTC)
Interesting all around Marshall. Yes, everything's in such a tumult. I'm working on this one novel, with one agent in mind (not that she's agreed to represent me, but we have a relationship, so that's something), and yet I'm not sure we'd actually be a good fit, and if we're not, I suspect I'll end up doing as you do.

After all: I only got back into writing due to the stimulus and excitement of interactions on LJ. My readers for my first two novels (after getting back to writing) were people on LJ--and that was wonderful! To have people read and comment? Bliss.

I still--and probably you still--have this yearning to reach thousands of people with my writing, which I don't think will be possible for me, if I self publish. But who knows? And it very much might be possible for you. Petrol Queen always sounded like a cool story, and I hope it comes out, one way or another.

marshallpayne1
May. 14th, 2012 02:58 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Francesca! Sure, I'd like to reach thousands of readers. My thinking is just to keep writing and learn the self-pub aspect of the biz while everything is in such tumult. In two or three years we'll all have a better idea where the industry stands and I'll have done something positive in that time.
asakiyume
May. 14th, 2012 03:01 pm (UTC)
That strikes me as a good attitude and a sensible plan.
j_cheney
May. 14th, 2012 03:05 pm (UTC)
Yes, that 'two or three years' down the line may look very different from the publishing world today.
sksperry
May. 14th, 2012 03:25 pm (UTC)
I would have thought that with all the people opting for self-publishing lately, agents might have found a bit of a lull in business. At the very least I had hoped it would encourage them to be a tad more professional, but I guess not.
marshallpayne1
May. 14th, 2012 03:35 pm (UTC)
Hard to tell what's going on, but I didn't have this trouble the first time I landed an agent. I got a 70% return. So something is funny now. And 64 queries should be enough to catch the average.

Edited at 2012-05-14 03:57 pm (UTC)
vaughan_stanger
May. 14th, 2012 04:43 pm (UTC)
Definitely agree with "life is too short to not have fun at this writing thing".

Good luck with your proposed self-pub path. I'm trying self-reprinting at the moment, with modest returns :-)
marshallpayne1
May. 14th, 2012 04:45 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Vaughan!

birdhousefrog
May. 14th, 2012 06:48 pm (UTC)
Hmmm...deja vu! :D

Go you, taking the bull by the horns!

Oz
marshallpayne1
May. 15th, 2012 12:35 am (UTC)
Thanks, Oz!
kimberlywade
May. 14th, 2012 07:46 pm (UTC)
I've sent out about 30 or so agent queries in the last year and i'd say the response rate is about 50%. It no longer seems the norm to response if not interested.

Good luck with self publishing!
marshallpayne1
May. 15th, 2012 12:35 am (UTC)
Yeah, but this is just plain weird.

Anyway, thanks for the encouragement, Kim!
kimberlywade
May. 15th, 2012 01:08 am (UTC)
I agree. It's an abrupt change. I've been sending out agent queries since 1994 and the response rate used to be near 100%.
peadarog
May. 14th, 2012 07:56 pm (UTC)
Yup, if you don't know Michael Swanwick and China Miéville, you're not at the races...
marshallpayne1
May. 15th, 2012 12:37 am (UTC)
To use a horse racing term, you got that "on the nose."
southernweirdo
May. 15th, 2012 02:00 am (UTC)
Man, I completely relate. I haven't sent off an agent sub in over a year. They all demand funky formatting, you do the work, and as often as not, never hear anything back. And honestly, the longer stuff I write tends to end up 40-60,000 words. Just below the length most ask for, and I refuse to add fluff just to meet guidelines. A good story ends when it ends.</p>

Besides, I write all sorts of things for specific needs by deadline in my day job. I honestly don't want fiction to be my day job. I need that time to write what I want to write, for me, for my audience, no matter how small that might be. For fun.

I remember Neil Gaiman saying you don't need an agent until things get so complicated you need an agent. I'm not there, yet. And quite frankly, I wouldn't trust any agent interested in me at this point. If I were an agent, I wouldn't want to waste my time with a writer who hasn't already proven they can sell books in this economy. Self pubbed success is becoming the new gatekeeper, I think.

marshallpayne1
May. 15th, 2012 02:08 am (UTC)
Thanks for your thoughts, TJ. Neil Gaiman might be right.

When I signed with said agent above, and finally stopped pinching myself, it still seemed to good to be true. Boy was I dismayed with the treatment I got. At one point it stopped being my book. The suggestions came as demands. I wanted to fire her after two months, but toughed it out hoping something would come out of it. When she said she didn't think she could sell Petrol Queen I was greatly relieved.
pjthompson
May. 15th, 2012 11:19 pm (UTC)
You're not the only writer of my acquaintance who has had this problem with this particular agent. I don't think I'd ever query her now based on these two stories.
marshallpayne1
May. 15th, 2012 11:54 pm (UTC)
Very interesting.
pjthompson
May. 16th, 2012 04:14 pm (UTC)
Yep. That writer/agent relationship wound up ending, too.
geniusofevil
May. 16th, 2012 08:13 pm (UTC)
Hey, you're talking about me! And the book I'm self publishing tomorrow! (as long as all my formatting problems are fixed.) That's some niiiiice timing!
geniusofevil
May. 16th, 2012 08:26 pm (UTC)
I was represented by the same agent in 2007 and a different one in 2010 and I found this to be a very common thing, the taking over of the novel by others. It was why I left both of them.

The 2010 agent was much worse, she was going through some stuff and the changes she wanted me to make activly reflected the conflicts going on in her life.

She would also call me and just have the most random suggestions like 'I think you should open in an airplane with your character reflecting on what got her to this point'.

It just goes to show that agents are not writers and they don't always understand or respect the time and thought that went into what you wrote.

Good luck.
marshallpayne1
May. 16th, 2012 09:01 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that was exactly my thought on a few occasions: "You've got the wrong job. Deep down, you truly want to be a writer." Yet when the advice got very specific, it was so off base it was laughable.

Thanks for your thoughts on all this.
geniusofevil
May. 16th, 2012 09:06 pm (UTC)
Your comment on the specific advice reminded me of one other thing; When the second agent went through the manuscript most of the things she wanted me to change or cut were the things I added to make the first agent happy. Agent two didn't know this, but I thought it was very interesting that she could tell what didn't fit, even if she didn't know why.

I'll be interested to see what you decide to do.
isaiah13
May. 15th, 2012 04:56 am (UTC)
I'll be starting the query process all over again before the year is through, so I guess I'll find out first hand how many agents are doing that whole no response thing these days. I think last time around I had a response rate of about 80%. As for going the self-pub route, I think it's going to become more and more commonplace as e-book popularity continues to rise, and for those writers who excel at networking and self-promotion (not me), I think it might not be a bad way to go. Hell, it might not be a bad way to go just to avoid the aggravation of the traditional route, which can be extra aggravating if you end up with the wrong agent, as you and I both know.
marshallpayne1
May. 15th, 2012 12:06 pm (UTC)
You pretty much summed up my thinking, Kurt!
jakobdrud
May. 15th, 2012 06:53 am (UTC)
If you don't answer your email, you're not a professional (unless you have a stated policy on your website regarding submissions). I have to wonder how long these people will be in business, publishing world changes or no.

Have you considered submitting directly to small press? Hadley Rille Press has a good reputation around LJ -- just ask the Bogwitch.

Anyway, I really appreciate you sharing your experiences with this. I'll begin hunting for my first agent later this year, so I'll take non-responses with a grain of salt.
marshallpayne1
May. 15th, 2012 12:13 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that's what I thought about not answering one's mail.

Yes, I thought about Hadley Rille a few days ago and was wondering why Eric hasn't been posting on LJ recently. Still, I'll go check out the site and see what's new.

You're welcome, Jakob! Good luck. Hey, it can be done. I did it once, just to not the desired results.
wendigomountain
May. 15th, 2012 03:38 pm (UTC)
Marshall, I realized I went on WAAAAAAY too long. I'll be putting a post about this out there today. Thanks for the riot fuel.
marshallpayne1
May. 15th, 2012 03:42 pm (UTC)
Cool, Clint. I look forward to reading it. I really do. *g*
wendigomountain
May. 15th, 2012 04:44 pm (UTC)
I hath posted it. Yon. der.
jakobdrud
May. 15th, 2012 05:18 pm (UTC)
That's a great post. It's a wonder more people don't get disillusioned with their careers as glorified salesmen.
pjthompson
May. 15th, 2012 11:12 pm (UTC)
I've come to the realization that life is too short to not have fun at this writing thing.

I've come to the same conclusion. I want to write what I write, and my stuff will never be a conventional fit. I would love to have a traditional publishing career, but I suspect it just isn't in the cards for me. And once my RL settles down a bit, I'm probably going to be pursuing this same strategy. (Though it may be a long wait on that front.)

So good luck to you! If you start a Kickstarter campaign, let us all know. :-D
jeanhuets
May. 16th, 2012 02:02 am (UTC)
Hope your venture goes well--artistically and financially!
marshallpayne1
May. 16th, 2012 02:04 am (UTC)
Thank you, Jean! :-)
kara_gnome
May. 16th, 2012 10:55 am (UTC)
Lol, as I was reading your post, I was thinking, "...e-publishing...?" I was glad to see you're going to give it a go.

Good luck on the adventure of it all :)
marshallpayne1
May. 16th, 2012 11:16 am (UTC)
Thanks, Karen!
( 49 comments — Leave a comment )