My Search for a Literary Agent, Part III: Optimism

Optimism may be nothing more than one’s capacity to imagine that something, anything, might go one’s way and that we’ll receive that much coveted call asking to see the entire manuscript, or better yet, an offer of representation. Optimism may be that connection to an agency that has taken a chance on a writer; that has plucked that writer from relative obscurity and planted him or her in a place with enough sunlight and nurturing to grow. Optimism may be the capacity to fight off feelings of isolation and under-appreciation when all around you the world seems poised for success.

It’s hard to be optimistic when the rejection letters (or emails) keep rolling in. It’s hard to optimistic when a colleague suggests that you (a Ph.D. in comparative literature) apply for an MFA program when MFA programs are full of people more interested in writing than reading. Perhaps worst of all is the silence. It’s coming home to find no messages on the phone, no emails in the inbox, no text on the cell. But then, what does all of that matter when it comes right down to it?

At what point does a writer really become a writer? Are writers only those who have published in the traditional fashion? It used to be that writers who self published through a vanity press were seen as desperate “artists” who would do anything to see his or her book on the shelves of bookstores. Now, of course, with the advent of blogs and Internet publishers like Amazon, those days of illegitimacy may be coming to an end.

Over the past several months I have allowed myself to become obsessed with finding a literary agent. I’ve spent countless hours pouring through agent websites, books on how to land an agent, books on how to write a killer query letter, as well as books on how to write. The books on how to write fiction are awful and a complete waste of time. What has not been a waste of time is my coming to an understanding of how the publishing business works. It’s not unlike the job hunt in higher education. It (that coveted interview or request to read your manuscript) is almost always purely arbitrary. It has more to do with who you know that what you know. Okay, no big surprise there. Most jobs and breaks come from networking. With great excitement we send off our query letter and writing sample to an agent we think will be a perfect fit. The problem is that the perfect fits are few and far between.

The optimism one feels when one places the final period at the end of a manuscript does not last. In fact, that’s when the real hard work begins. I have put much more energy into finding an agent than in my writing, and that’s the problem. The traditional publishing industry is suffering not because less people are reading or reading physical books, but because the publishing industry is much more hesitant to take a chance on an unknown writer. Moreover, the days of the relationship between writer and editor and writer and agent have fundamentally changed, and not for the better. What’s missing is a sense of intimacy and loyalty. Publishing houses and literary agencies are in it to make money, and I do not blame them. But the loss of that relationship should be a cause for lament.

Moreover, as the cost of doing business has skyrocketed, so has the ability for unknown authors finding an agent, much less getting published, has decreased considerably. This is not good for the industry, nor is it good for the literary culture that is nearly non-existent in the contemporary United States. Do we really need another teen paranormal romance? Do we need another book by John Grisham or Bill O’Reilly?

I realize that all of this may sound like sour grapes on account of my inability to land an agent, and perhaps it is. Yet, I cannot help but wonder as I walk among the young adult shelves at my local bookstore of how much bad writing there is being published. Granted, not all of it is bad. In fact I would argue that the good outweighs the bad. Yet, even one bad book can spoil the most optimistic among us. Teen paranormal romance must especially popular for Barnes & Noble to devote an entire row of shelf space to it.

Be that as it may. My search for a literary agent continues and I have not fallen so low as to give up quite yet. However, I may be changing my strategy.

But more on that in another post.

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