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Talking to a literary agent- Clash of cultures

Updated on June 14, 2013
Celtic A
Celtic A | Source

I’m a second generation writer. I grew up surrounded by the original experts. I didn’t, however, grow up with the micro managers in modern publishing. In the old days, authors submitted hard copy manuscripts to people looking for talent. Now, it’s a micro-managing bureaucracy full of “me too” people, or whatever they are.

So I was on a bit of a learning curve looking for an agent. Being an Australian writer comes with some baggage:

  • Small market. Too damn small. The usual move for Australians is to go overseas because the crowding is pretty destructive.
  • Territorial interests. Everyone vending their peanuts. Not impressive.
  • Shopping list/intern readers scanning author submissions, not businesspeople. You can see the results in any bookshop.
  • Hick culture in some areas of media. These guys are all about status and enforcing their right to exist in the business. Who wants status? The people who don’t have it. Nobodies with high opinions of themselves.
  • I checked out the websites. Some of them hadn’t been updated for years. I eventually found one working contact.
  • The idea was simple enough:
  • I have a lot of books on Amazon. They include some unique products with nothing else like them on the market, the Threat-Hamster series in particular.
  • I’ve already done all the work. If I hook up with a publisher, I even have the Amazon files ready to go. All a publisher needs to do is add their name and a few links. I provide product, they go “click”. Risks, nil.
  • I want the sort of exposure hard copy provides to readers, not seminars on “how things were done a million years ago”. Interested as I am in archaeology, this is business. It’s my business. I need outlets, not procedural museums.
  • I know I have a saleable product. I get a thousand hits a day on various sites. People seem to like my stuff.

So what do I get?

In a single word- 1950. I get a person explaining to me that publishers don’t look at self-published books. (Since when? If an SP book sells 20,000 copies, they want to know) This despite the fact that Amazon enforces industry standard practices in its books, top quality print quality, and all the technical issues are solved by the time a book gets published.

I also got a lecture about international copyright from someone who’d never heard of the Madrid and Berne conventions or tangible form, which is a primary principle of copyright, when asked. Enough said.

As unproductive conversations go, that one is now in the “warning” category. I now know who not to talk to, to do business. The overwhelming impression was that there were endless areas where the expertise of this person would be costing me time, money, and patience. My supply of patience is strictly rationed.

This is business. The situation was that I had products to sell. The correct expert professional response to that situation is Yes/No with a very occasional, highly qualified Maybe.

I was talking to a middleman. I don’t particularly like middlemen. I make product. To me, anyone or anything between production and sale needs to justify their existence. I want service delivery, not history lessons.

I also don’t like talking to museum pieces with obsolete business and operational models. The industry isn’t going to be like this 10 years from now. Cost efficiencies will get rid of the deadwood. If it’s not “Click/done”, it won’t be in the marketplace.

I don’t want to wait 10 years for business efficiencies and the slow incremental growth of understanding of the modern book market out on the prairies. I’m in advertising myself. I want exposure, now. Without the song and dance routine.

Now the “community service” element of this article:

The other thing I noticed talking to this bacterial specimen was that it thought it could talk to me like that. The impression I got was that it was used to talking to writers as if they were all mild, retiring little woodland creatures, barely human.

I’m not like that. I’m quite capable of biting off limbs, literally and figuratively, when sufficiently irritated. I resented the instant demotion to office boy status. This could never have been a relationship even if it had known what I was talking about. Like many creative people, I’m a foul-tempered, vicious bastard when insulted, so the only real result of talking to this agent was to prevent a homicide.

So here’s some advice:

Pay attention to the vibes when you talk to these people.

They’re not gods. They have areas of expertise and non-expertise.

If the agent is a lousy communicator, they’re likely to be a lousy agent.

The has-beens are the ones with “published authors” you’ve never heard of and featherweight market presence. Try to find someone credible who publishes the range you’re in.

They need to have business savvy. This idiot could have simply picked up a phone to see if there was a market and made a lot of money for the price of a phone call. It didn’t.

If they talk “ritual” at you, you’re in for a long haul of slop bucket/admin work before you start talking real business. That’s not good enough. It’s expensive in terms of time and distraction, not good for people who are busy trying to write.

Listen to what they have to say, but don’t just swallow it whole. Check out what you’ve heard. If there are contradictions between what you’re told and what you see, there are problems.

Control issues- POA be damned. Do not give up your own legal rights under any circumstances. Get a real lawyer. Understand the various forms of “rights” like electronic reproduction, scripts, movie rights, etc. Any agent who’s vague about these things isn’t worth spitting on .

If they don’t talk about types of product, marketing and similar bread and butter issues, they’re not worth talking to. It means they’re looking at their own bureaucratic world, not looking at market potentials.

It fascinated me that I could be talking to Bollywood one minute and some hayseed the next about the same products. That’s media. If you still have any delusions about dealing with some mysterious process, lose them now. You’re dealing with people.

This really was a cultural clash. I’m new media, the agent is old media. There’s no room for compromise. I’m not comfortable dealing with old media. I distrust it, and I dislike it. My experience may not be typical, but it has a place in the “Look out!” category.


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