Why is this aspiring author so angry at ‘lazy snob’ literary agents?

After the smattering of positive feedback I usually get from readers seeking to know more about the realities of Australian book publishing, it was thoroughly refreshing to read this lambasting from aspiring author Jeff Martin in response to one of my most popular posts (from 2012), Australian writers: think twice before diving into the publishers’ slush pile. I reprint it in full, unedited, so you can feel the full force of the hot wind that blew in my face as I read it.

Have to shake my head at your utterly off-the-mark explanation for publishers seeking to acquire manuscripts directly. The REAL reason publishers have opened their door to direct submittals is because agents want NOTHING TO DO with authors that write fiction. Especially commercial fiction. They issue knee-jerk rejections of said manuscripts as fast as they can get them out the door. This trend has become so rampant worldwide that publishers are not getting the volume of manuscripts in certain genres that they should. In short, agents are not doing their jobs. These lazy snobs are deliberately damaging the careers of talented new authors because, quite simply, they can’t be bothered to invest in them. Story quality doesn’t matter. Story originality doesn’t matter. Story creativity doesn’t matter. 5-star reviews don’t matter. Nothing matters. Unless the newbie is a celebrity! Then they’ll fall over themselves to request the manuscript. Stephen King himself, if twenty-five years old today, could not get published because of these agents that should be more properly be viewed as roadblocks. In fact, in light of this, some time ago, King advised new authors to skip agents entirely and submit directly to publishers. He said a new author has a better chance of his/her manuscript being plucked from a slush pile and read than an agent reading it. He was absolutely right. Just so you know, Virginia, I sent a query for my outstanding work of (eerie) commercial fiction to thirty-five agents in the U.K. that stated their literary preferences included the genres of horror, the paranormal, fantasy, etc. Thirty-five. The novel had received rave reviews from major websites and top reviewers on Amazon. The query letter contained those reviews, of course. Guess how many agents requested the full manuscript, Virginia. Zero. Guess how many agents requested reading material, Virginia. Zero. Well, that did it for me. I changed course for good. Sent my manuscript (as a soft-cover book, complete with artwork. Very slick looking.) straight to editors/senior editors/editors-in-chief with the top publishers in the world. Within six weeks, four had replied with personal messages! Two informed me they would take a look at it. (One of them — an editor-in-chief — asked for the story in MS Word form.) The third — an editor-in chief — said to get an agent! LOL! (This person is utterly disconnected from reality.) The fourth actually wrote a personal reply, commending me on my ‘compelling’ query letter. Added he is not able to accept unsolicited submittals, however, and wished me well. But he has the book. In response to his note, I thanked him for his courtesy and asked him to give the novel to someone outside the publishing industry for his/her feedback. Should he do that, and that person comes back two weeks later and tells him the story is great (and it is great), he may well skirt the rules, read it himself and take it on. At the very least, he will regard the book differently than before that may lead to something. But NONE of these four publishers would have even become aware of me/my novels had I not done as Stephen suggested. If left to agents, my books would have died on their computers right then and there for agents are in the business of not helping authors of fiction but stopping them from going any farther. They ruin careers. And they enjoy it. They actually think they speak for the literary public when they most certainly do not. 75% of all agent-approved published books are flops. 75%! They don’t make a dime. Book bin material two weeks after release. That tells everything you need to know about agents’ judgment. But ask yourself, Virginia — how many best-selling authors can you name that have PUBLICLY COMPLAINED about the number of rejections they received for their works? Off the top of my head, I can think of Stockett, King, Meyer, Rowling, Grisham and Forsythe. No doubt there are others. No doubt. What do these authors have in common, Virginia (beside the fact they are/were best-selling authors)? I’ll tell you — they all write commercial fiction. The biggest selling books in the world are those of commercial fiction. And what do agents do when they receive this genre from new authors? They reject them out of hand no matter how good they are. Isn’t that amazing?! THAT’S why more and more publishers want to directly deal with authors. Oh, and by the way, the editor-in-chief of Tor Books in London, fed up with the number of complaints she has received from authors regarding agents’ outrageous behavior towards them, invited authors to submit to Tor. No agents needed or wanted. Well, as of late September, Tor has, I believe, acquired nineteen manuscripts that had previously been rejected and likely numerous times by know-it-all agents. If I were the chief editor of Tor and so alarmingly discovered that publishable material was routinely being tossed in the garbage by these incompetents, I would never use agents again. I mean, what do I need them for? They are DAMAGING my business as a publisher, keeping from me tales I can sell. In point of fact, Tor’s open submittals portal has yielded TONS of excellent product neither this publisher nor any other would ever have seen if left to agents. Stephen King was right. Submit to publishers. Forget about agents. Don’t waste your time with agents. And, Virginia, I do not want you making excuses for these people. I have no interest in reading anything you have to say in defense of them. And likely neither does Tor. I have all the proof I need of agent arrogance and apathy towards authors of fiction, and nothing you say is going to change that. But tell you what, Virginia — YOU write a work of commercial fiction and submit it to as many agents as you want anywhere in the world. Use a pseudonym. Jane Smith. See how far you get, Virginia. Yes, get ready to paper your house with form rejection letters from people that didn’t read a word of your manuscript, don’t want to and perhaps didn’t even finish reading your query. Yes, good luck with that.

So as a lazy snob who rejects commercial fiction manuscripts no matter how good they are, I can’t really explain my excitement at news overnight that advance copies of Wife on the Run, the new novel from my client Fiona Higgins (whose The Mothers’ Group was the bestselling Australian commercial fiction title of 2012) will soon be in my destructive hands.

This Post Has 18 Comments

  1. That’s great. Now tell us about all the queries you rejected that went on to become best-selling books BECAUSE YOU DIDN’T READ THEM. Tell us why every single agent in the world rejected J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript — that it took a secretary(!) with the Christopher Little Agency in London to intercede on Rowling’s behalf to prevent the agency’s ‘gifted’ CEO from rejecting her, too. What about these people? They made the single most colossal blunder in publishing history. And they have the nerve to still call themselves agents, to continue judging other authors’ works??? These people aren’t agents. But they’re either grossly incompetent or they’re saboteurs. Take your pick. I’d like to know why they still have their jobs. If you were an author, Virginia, and you knew Tom Agent or Sally Agent had passed on Rowling’s query, would you submit to either of these two clowns so that, once more, they could trot out famous agent excuses like ‘it’s not right for my list’ or ‘the story didn’t draw me in’ or, when all else fails, they’ll nitpick the writing — as though agents can write better than authors, can write at all? These career-killers are still out there, still rejecting other future best-sellers, destroying more author efforts and potential success. And that’s what agents are. Career killers.

    On your website, be the first agent in the world to let your readers know how many books you passed on to editors that were either rejected outright by these editors or published and fell flat on their face in the marketplace. If you’re going to brag — and you did — state your failures. I suspect you’re going to need a lot more than a paragraph to do that. You put yourself in a position of authority over authors, possibly suggesting you have some special talent we do not. That I doubt.

    In obvious fact, an agent wouldn’t dare reveal how many times he/she has passed on best-sellers or how many books he/she promoted to a publisher that collected dust on a bookshelf. Who would want to submit to an agent that has such an ugly track record? But authors do because, simply enough, that information — the agent’s true performance — is kept from them. So, instead, tell us why agents believe they are so superior to authors of fiction when nearly all of them could not conceive, let alone write, a story of commercial fiction anyone would want to read, that they blow off excellent novels just because they can, all the while patting themselves on the back for a job well done. Lastly, tell us what is required to call oneself a literary agent. Answer? Nothing.

    1. Jeff,
      I’d hoped that your original ‘comment’ would inspire some other reader responses, but it appears that your style of communicating has put others off from joining in the fun. If you read the About page of my website you would see that I’m an author myself, so as much as you may doubt it, I do see things from both sides of the gate. The thing is, it’s never been a better time to be an author because you can bypass agents and any other gatekeeper who irritates you, and publish when and how you like. It seems rather naive to think any agent would consider him- or herself infallible. I have a client right now who is self-publishing because I couldn’t find her a deal with a traditional publisher. I can’t force publishers to acquire a manuscript, and publishers have many ways of discovering authors apart from agented submissions. Perhaps you should consider becoming an agent yourself, given that you believe it’s so easy to become one.
      As I have published in full both of your comments, I feel I’ve been more than generous to you and will now say farewell and good luck. — Virginia

  2. Let me explain to Jeff why mega-best sellers like Harry Potter and Twilight were rejected. Literary agents want commercial fiction that will become a bets seller because they only make money via royalties. They want commercial best sellers but they also follow trends. Harry Potter was very different from what Literary agents knew, and many thought that a book about a magic boarding school will not sell. They didn’t have a similar book to compare it to. Twilight was the same story. Only after Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey became mega best sellers, literary agents understood the potential of this genre and immediately represented many similar books. In essence, literary agents follow trends or want to compare any book to another book that did well. That doesn’t make them incompetent, it makes them risk averse because they spend many months on a new book with being paid. Personally, I regret that I’m not an Australian so can’t send a query to Virginia Lloyd. Best wishes to both of you.

  3. Personally I think Jeff’s two ‘blasts’ are so well written that I would publish them both in pamphlet form as ‘One Cheesed Off Writer’s Advise to Writers in General’.
    Let’s face it, as harsh as they may seem, there’s no denying the grains of truth they contain. There’s no particular competence required to be a literary agent; or at least no standards and tests, as there are to being just about anything else. It’s all guesswork. I’m reminded of a phrase in William Goldman’s book ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ where he continually emphasises the truism, “No-one, but no-one, knows what will Sell’. It’s all guesswork, of course, and what the public likes today they may not like tomorrow. So one can’t really blame the agent, but neither should one ascribe any special knowledge to someone just because their shingle says Literary Agent. Ditto for publishers too. They take an educated guess; what else is there? Even writers don’t know. You can write a book to order, puting in all the currently fashionable elements, and do it brilliantly, and it can bomb. You can write a book totally out of left field and have a hit. So I’m inclined to agree with Jeff that Literary Agents have no special dispensation, but at the same time not blame them too much. And of course they’re still good for cutting away the dead wood, the talentless scribble they no doubt receive in volume. There’s always that.
    I don’t know what the answer is. I can’t get published, and I’m only one of millions. I know my writing is to professional standard; editors have told me so. But ‘It’s not for us’. What is for them is stuff I have no interest in and wouldn’t buy in a fit. I can’t help thinking of J. R. R. Tolkien’s remark: “No one would write the books I wanted to read so I had to write them myself.” (Or was that C.S. Lewis? Good company either way). I feel the same, but editors obviously feel that no-one wants to read the books I want to write. I’ve been writing since I was 14 and I’m now 68, so do the math. Time is running out.
    And yes, like Jeff I am cheesed-off. However, one tends to get philosophical in one’s old age. I guess they’ll just have to put on my tombstone: ‘It’s not like he didn’t try, but the Gatekeepers just wouldn’t let him in.’

    1. Hi Paul
      Thanks for writing. Grains of truth, perhaps, but in a desert of angry bombast. However, it seems to me that you’ve answered some of your own concerns in your very first line, in which you say you should publish something yourself. Many writers share your frustrations with the traditional publishing system, which is why self-publishing has become so popular. It has never been easier, or cheaper, to be a published author. The gatekeepers across a range of creative industries might still exist, but they are not the impenetrable force they might once have been. And increasingly publishers pay attention to the self-published bestsellers in order to offer independent authors a traditional publishing deal. So publish your work yourself and prove the agents and publishers wrong. By the way, agents cannot sell anything to a publisher that the publisher does not want to acquire. And in Australia fewer books are being acquired via agents, a trend which might give you the satisfaction of schadenfreude. Good luck — Virginia

  4. To an extent I agree with both Jeff and Paul.

    Having been valiantly trying to get published for the past 25 years, either by approaching agents or publishers directly, I realised that some of us will simply never get past the gatekeepers or across the drawbridge.

    After months of blood and sweat to write and polish a novel, when it is published, I receive a pittance while they profit from my work ? I think not. Yes, they do alot of work, marketing, publishing costs, etc, yet they then still expect me to market my own book. That’s what their share of my money us for. So, I now only self e-publish. Every dollar I get goes into my own pocket.

    Unless agents and publishing houses make it easier and more financially viable for new authors, things will only get more difficult and tougher for agents and publishers.

    This is how I view agents and publishers now: ‘There is a finite number of agents and publishers. It doesn’t matter that you can pick and choose who you represent. Why should I choose you to represent my work?’

    1. Hi Quintin, thanks for your comment. I think that all writers should ask such questions of anyone offering to represent their work. Unfortunately I receive emails regularly from people who have not asked pertinent questions of third parties in their quest to be published, and have ended up out of pocket or losing rights to their own creative work. I hope that self-publishing has been successful for you, whatever kinds of books you write. –Virginia

  5. I understand the frustration some can feel when trying to get their works published. It is made even more frustrating when you factor in a mathematical equation to better understand to true problem. This is often neglected by the writer, leading to resentment; rage; despair to name but a few feelings. Chance of your book being published = publishing houses ÷ by the number of writers. As the number of writers have multiplied, while the number of publishing houses has diminished, meaning you have a very slim chance of your work even being published. This is made worse by the fact than supposedly separate publishing houses are mostly owned by one large publishing house, thus even less chance of you being published.

    Just as there are many ways to cook an egg, so are there options available to publish you’re works.

    Using a publishing company to self-publish.
    Even if you were to use a publishing firm to self-publish your book, you will find it hard to sell the book through book shops as they are mostly franchises or if they are truly independent, reliant on a large publishing house to supply them with books. This means they can be intimidated if they were to try and sell your book if the large book publisher didn’t want your book sold there.

    Using my sister’s example to highlight some problems an (eager) writer can face when using a publishing house to self-publish. My sister over the years had amassed a number of short children’s stories. With the arrival of grandchildren, she wanted to publish her stories in a sort of picture book so she could read the stories to her grandchildren.
    The long and short of it was:
    • It cost her of over $10,000.
    • Didn’t like the fighting and arguments with the publishing house about layout and drawings. She still didn’t get want she wanted in the final production.
    • She had to purchase the books from them to sell herself;
    • They provided an internet site to sell the book as an E-book/Kindle. The problem I saw was than you needed an agent to keep tabs on the sales. I told her that the book was being sold on a Japanese website which she had no knowledge about.

    Self-publishing.
    When the alternative health field was new, they had to adopt a different way of marketing their books and products as publishing houses weren’t interested (before they became main-stream). They published their own books then marketed them on the internet. This is a much cheaper way getting your book/product out into the market. I have purchased books from self-published authors over the internet. It doesn’t even have to be a true book. I have downloaded a PDF file as a book. There’s no need for a flash cover as they purchaser is mostly only interested in the content. Just remember to keep the price low. Less than $10.00 for a novel/novella and around the $20.00 for books on certain subjects (opinion pieces) and $20-30 for self-help manuals.
    I believe that is the future for writers. Waiting for that phone call/ email from a publisher is never going to eventuate for 99.99% of writers. As for a decent living from writing — not likely. Speaking to a lawyer who wrote a book on evidence which I purchased. His main gripe was that amount of time it took to write then getting it published, wasn’t worth his time and effort. As I have said, write because you love writing and not just for profit because you will be disappointed.
    What must be emphasised is that it doesn’t matter if you never sell a book on the internet, write because you love writing or you have something that might be of interest to others. Just don’t brood or give up.

    1. Thanks Ian for your long comment, which I hope helps some writers considering self-publishing. It has always been difficult to get one’s work published, and today seems harder than ever. The good news is that today there are, as you demonstrate, other options for writers. But one should proceed very carefully into self-publishing, just as into any entrepreneurial venture. I hear regularly from people who have been burned by a self-publishing experience that has either gone badly for one reason or another. –Virginia

  6. In reading the original article, I noticed a few things.

    While Jeff did receive four responses, two were out and out rejections, one simply said the format was wrong, and the last one seemed to be nothing more than a polite acknowledgment that the book was received. I’d hardly call that success.

    I am still in the process of editing my book, so I have no actual experience, however I do have a question. When these best selling books were rejected, did the authors make changes to the manuscripts? Or were they simply sent elsewhere, unchanged?

    I tend to think changes were made, as every time I read through my story I find things to tweak. Every time I learn something new as a writer I look to see if that story needs improving. I sometimes wonder if I will ever feel the book is ready to be published.

    1. Hello Newbie,
      It sounds like you’re doing the proper work of writing – which is rewriting. I have no idea about what, if anything, the much-rejected authors changed about their manuscripts between submissions to publishers. But you are right that there’s always something else that could be changed or improved. Even when one’s work is published you can open the book to any page and find something you’d probably prefer to change. Also keep in mind that publishers will often acquire a manuscript while thinking that it still needs some further development. So authors must be open to more revision and editing after the book deal. Good luck with your writing –Virginia

  7. Jeff has a point, especially about the success rate of books represented by agents (the gatekeepers) which I believe is much lower than what he stated.

    I also read an article that compared the success rate of books released by publishers and that of self-published authors. Surprisingly, 8-10 out of 100 books released by a publisher go on to be bestsellers, while 30-35 out of 100 are self-published.

    I would also like to add that literary agents, if they even read submissions, should read them open-minded the same way an actual reader would in a store. They shouldn’t judge whether the writer has had previous best-sellers, publications, writing qualification or whether they’re famous to determine the books potential in the book market.

    Like hell, I’m an avid reader! What makes me laugh as a reader is the amount of books Australia seems to publish about politicians and other so-called “famous people” I could care less about! Seriously, I hear enough about politicians on the news and in the newspaper to care; reading a book about them would be torture. Books are about entertaining the reader. They should take the reader to another world.

    An agent claimed that Australian books were doing poorly in sales in comparison to American books. They went on to say that Australian readers preferred American novels and that’s why they couldn’t risk taking on new authors. Have they ever wonder why Australian’s preferred American novels? What is it about American novels that appeals to us Aussie readers?

    Maybe it because they publish a lot of fiction novels. YES, FICTION novels that are entertaining. How about they start accepting more novels in a similar style to Danielle Steel, Janet Evanovich, Jackie Collins (RIP), Nicholas Sparks and Stephen King… to name a few. These are simple and easy reads that are entertaining. There seems to be fewer Australian ones like this — Di Morrissey, Fiona McIntosh and Kirsty Brooks…etc.

    If you’re going to publish books about celebrities, unless they have lived a crazy, drug-fuelled and partying lifestyle that led them down a road of destruction which they bounced back from (and are not footballers or pollies) I’ll buy it and read it! (Hint-hint: Wolf of Wall Street) I WANT JUICY SCANDALS!

    Dear Agents and Publishers,

    If you want my $$$$$, start reading books from the eyes of a reader, and do so honestly. Don’t be biased. Ask yourself “Am I enjoying this book?”. Don’t say that you are, because if you were doing so “open-minded and honestly” there’d be more best-selling Australian books.

    Don’t drill down your selection on manuscripts to the type of books that are YOUR favourites, especially if those books NEVER made it on a best-sellers list. That there is a clear indication that you don’t read mainstream books that appeal to a wide audience. You don’t know readers! Perhaps it’s time for you to consider changing careers.

    I wonder how many great books were turned down and never ended up being published because of rejection based on:
    A. You didn’t know the Author personally
    B. The writer never published anything before
    C. The writer didn’t do any courses or degrees
    D. The writer wasn’t famous
    E. It wasn’t your genre or style of writing. Remember: extremely well written books don’t mean it they’ll sell great. It’s the story and meaning behind it that counts.

    Regards

    Reader who owns a library of books and is dying for more entertaining books to read.

    🙂

    1. Thanks Klaudz for your lengthy and thoughtful comment. In Australia there are many avenues for authors who are not having luck with agents to get publishers’ attention, among them writing competitions and merit-based manuscript development programs. Publishers pay close attention to those who are short-listed and naturally the winners. Similarly it’s easier here to make contacts through classes and seminars with people who either work in the industry or who are connected to those who are, so getting around the ‘introductions’ aspect of an agent’s work. Agents are not the gatekeepers in Australia to the same extent they are in the US or UK. You are right that agenting is a business of personal taste, and so writers must find an agent who loves their kind of book otherwise the relationship is doomed to fail.
      I dispute the idea that self-published books are becoming ‘bestsellers’ at a rate higher than that of traditional publishers. I would appreciate the source for that article. If that were so, then traditional publishing would be on its knees or already dead.
      As for the variety of books being published, including those which you would never buy yourself, keep in mind that the publishing industry is like a supermarket. It publishes books for all sorts of readers, which include books that you or I would never pick up in a million years. But it’s on the shelf because a publisher believed that there was a market for that book.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment. It’s always great to hear from passionate readers. –Virginia

  8. In response to Klaudz comments. It seems to be true that there are a lot of books about politicians (boring) but, there must be a lot of people who like reading such tripe (are the publishers telling porkies?) or else they wouldn’t publish such books. What I find annoying is that for the most part, these books are not ‘written’ by the politician but by a ‘ghost-writer’ who just uses bit and pieces from stories the poly has told them that they then stretch out into a book. My main grip (well I do hold many, this being one of them) is how publishers get around having to pay royalties by off-loading unsold books to third-parties as there is no royalties for second-hand book sales. I recently purchased a number of hard-copybooks such as More money than God by Sebastian Mallaby; Warriors – secrets of the Clan by Erin Hunter too name a few for $2.00 each and brand-new from a shop that sold all books (hard or soft covers) for $2.00. How much of this money went to the author? No wonder the internet is thriving.

    1. Hi Ian,
      Thanks for your comment. There are plenty of ghost-written books – be they biographies of celebrities, sports stars, or politicians – typically when the subject of the book is not a natural writer. They are most often identified with a phrase such as ‘by AUTHOR as told to NAME OF GHOSTWRITER’ or ‘by AUTHOR with NAME OF GHOSTWRITER’. As for your gripe about publishers not paying royalties, keep in mind that the majority of books never earn back the (often very large) advance that the publisher pays the author for the right to publish the work. So then the publisher’s warehouse is full of unsold copies, which after a defined period of time (agreed in the publishing contract) they then offload by engaging specialist third party resellers.

  9. Here is a response I got from a literary agent when I submitted my Young-Adult, Science-Fiction:

    “Thanks again for sending us your proposal for _____. I’ve had a chance to read through the material you provided and, while I really enjoyed reading it, I’m afraid that I don’t feel we are the right agency to represent this work at this point in time.

    Your writing felt fluid and natural, and the language seemed authentic for the time and place about which you are writing. I particularly enjoyed the presence of a strong female protagonist in the genre. However, the commercial reality of YA publishing is that the fantasy market is hugely over-saturated at the moment. Many publishers are telling me that they won’t really look at fantasy at all at the moment, unless the work is from an established author or is exceptional or different in some substantial way. I’m afraid that I just don’t feel confident that I could find a local publisher who would be willing to take it on.”

    Now, I can tell this letter was based on a template, because my story does not indicate a time or place. She also said Fantasy, but it’s Science Fiction. This agent tried to shift the blame onto publishers, saying they don’t want to see what I have to offer, simply because of its genre. She goes on to say:

    “My best advice would be to try directly approaching an overseas publisher who specialises in YA fantasy (we don’t really have specialist fantasy publishers here) – or you might try a smaller local digital-first publisher (Escape Publishing comes to mind).”

    At least her advice about approaching a publisher directly was good, but again she labels Science Fiction as Fantasy, which leads me to believe she barely skimmed through my query letter.

    1. Hi James
      Thanks for your comment, and sorry it took me a while to reply. You may be right that the agent is unclear about the differences between science fiction and fantasy – which is one reason why she is not the right agent for you. If you’re an Australian author in either genre, then you will struggle to get a local agent. (Though there are one or two I’d recommend.) But if you do approach a US or UK publisher directly, and they offer you a publishing contract, please make sure you hire a lawyer or a person familiar with publishing contracts to review it for you.
      To be perfectly honest, I think you should take this response as a compliment on your writing, because most agents will not bother with any response, let alone this level of detailed information. There may be template-style paragraphs on which the agent based your letter, but consider that agents get dozens, if not hundreds, of queries each month. Would you have time to assess each manuscript and craft a letter from scratch to each author? If so, then you should write a book about time management!
      The reality is that publishing is a business. It’s the agent’s job to know which publishers publish what kinds of books. There are certain types of books that I no longer agent, because I know I won’t be able to convince a publisher to acquire it. Publisher’s tastes change in response to market conditions and the size of the audience for a particular genre. An ‘over-saturated’ market sometimes means that publishers, having acquired too many books of a particular genre in too short a time, are now repenting at leisure as they release the books into the world and find insufficient numbers of buyers. So it’s about timing as well as luck – on top of your excellent story and writing.
      Thank you so much for writing with this experience. All best wishes with your path to publication — Virginia

Leave a Reply


Close Menu