The Unagented Life

Every so often, I get this kind of comment from people: “I’m really enjoying your work. It’s better than I would have expected from an indie writer. Have you ever tried getting an agent?”

It’s quite flattering to hear, and I’m very happy to be getting this kind of feedback from readers.

But on the other hand, there’s just a bit of frustration that I feel as well. The implication is that it would be better to have an agent, better to be traditionally published. And the corollary to those thoughts is that, without an agent and a traditional publisher, my writing isn’t reaching its full potential.

Public Domain Photo by Chaplin62
Public Domain Photo by Chaplin62

To which I have to respond, well, yes. That’s true. In a good month, I can sell around 30 books. If I had an agent and a publisher–with a budget and a website and the pull to get my books into libraries and brick-and-mortar bookstores, to set up book tours and signings, to get reviews in Kirkus or Publishers Weekly…my guess is that I’d be selling more than 30 a month.

But maybe I wouldn’t. One does hear stories of writers who get fat little advances from publishers and their books then proceed to sell very few copies. One hears about writers being told they need to develop their own websites, book their own tours and signings, etc. One hears about publishers that budget very little for publicity and only for a very short time…the less well-known a writer is, the littler and the shorter the money and time.

I can’t help but feel that in many ways I’m better off going it alone.

Here’s the thing, though: once upon a time, I did have an agent.

I’ve been at this a while. Before diving into my teaching career 20+ years ago, I tried getting a novel published without an agent. That got me nowhere. And then, about six years ago I decided I needed to get back into writing and got really serious about it, ending up with a pretty solid manuscript for the book that eventually became Take Back Tomorrow. This time around, though, I wasn’t going to mess with the listings for publishers in Writers’ Market. I was going to query agents.

And I did. And I did. And I did.

After a year of trying, I did get one request for the full manuscript and was thrilled. After three months of not hearing back, I started sending follow-ups. These were met with “need more time” replies. I won’t name names, but this guy was a pretty well known agent at the time. Knowing that, I didn’t pull the plug on the submission. And eventually I got the rejection, based on the agent’s overall dislike of time travel stories. Why he’d requested the ms in the first place is still beyond me.

However, still being serious about writing, I’d been at work on a second book, about shape shifting aliens invading 1940s Hollywood. When I was done with that, I started querying agents on both books. After lots of outright rejections and even more “passive” rejections (the kind where the agent just doesn’t bother responding to a query), I found an agent who wanted to read the new ms. She ended up liking the book but “not falling in love with it.” I was tenacious and wrote back saying, “You know, if you kind of liked this one, I do have another.”

She took a look at Take Back Tomorrow, had some reservations about it, but Take Back Tomorrow Coveroverall felt it “deserved publication.” She ended her email saying that if I was willing to engage in some radical revision, she’d be happy to represent me.

I jumped at the chance. After a few months, the revision was ready and the book went out. It got what I still think of as “positive rejection.” One editor, I think at Random House, called it a “page turner” and another praised my “nimble prose.” But all the major and minor houses that looked at the book found some reason to pass on it.

It was both disappointing and exciting. On the one hand, I’d thought having an agent was like getting my foot in the door; finally, someone in the publishing industry believed in me, someone who knew people in one of those it’s-who-you-know industries. Plus, just about everyone who knew about my finally landing an agent acted as though it was a foregone conclusion: with an agent, I’d get published. So, when it didn’t happen, it was kind of a drag. But on the other hand, I’d had my  book looked at (and rejected) by Random House and several other major publishers. Just knowing that was pretty damned thrilling.

At any rate, I continued on, doing a more radical revision on the alien invasion story (converting the aliens to demons), and then that book went out…with the same kind of results.

When I was ready to start the next book, I ran several ideas by the agent to see what she thought would be the most saleable. Aliens? No, aliens were definitely out. A literary SF drug addiction story? No, sounds too dark and depressing. A murder mystery set in a high tech dystopia? Okay.

So it was on to Strictly Analog. I must admit I didn’t like being told which book I should write next, but then again I did ask for advice. Still I had to wonder how many published writers had to get their agents to green light their next project.

epic_gold_300dpiI pinned a lot of hope on Strictly Analog, thought it might be the straw that broke the camel’s back if the agent couldn’t sell it. After all, she was in the business of selling books, representing authors whose work she could make some commission off of. It turned out that the book didn’t really have a chance. The agent released me, citing her increased interest in representing non-fiction and dwindling contacts among SF publishers and editors.

She did refer me to several other agents with more experience in SF…but they all failed to “fall in love” with the  book, so I was on my own again.

And within a few months I had self-published Take Back Tomorrow and started down the path that’s gotten me here…an indie writer with not a lot of sales, 2 novels and 2 novellas to his credit, and a small but slowly developing fan base.

Am I better off without an agent? Right now, probably. I have control over what I write and how I market it. Am I as successful as I would have been if the agent had been able to make it work? Probably not, but given things I hear about traditional publishing, I might very well be in just about the same position as I am now even if one or all of my books had been picked up by a publisher.

Am I better off for having had an agent? Absolutely. The experience taught me an awful lot about writing…about pacing and development and sub-plots and misdirection, about editing out the passive constructions and adverbs and strings of prepositional phrases.

If nothing else, it gave me just a glimpse into the industry I’d been dying to get into since the early 1990s and showed me that maybe it wasn’t everything I’d hoped for.

Who knows? Maybe with the next book, I’ll query a few agents before self-publishing just to see what happens. At least now I’ve got a fallback position, and those rejections won’t hurt as much. I don’t need an agent to fall in love with my writing for it to be a success…just a few readers, and that’s already happening.

What about other indie writers? Do you wish you had an agent? Have you had one and parted ways? Or are you sticking to your indie guns and going it alone?


7 thoughts on “The Unagented Life

  1. Never had an agent. Never got so much as a request for the ms. I gave up after 40 tries and self-published. Like most indie authors, I’ve sold some books and received some positive reviews but my sales get me a 12-pack of beer quarterly. 🙂

    I wasn’t under any illusions about being an overnight sensation. I’m happy I chose to self-publish rather than following the traditional model. It’s far better than not being published at all.

    1. Absolutely. While it’s a bit frustrating to have to fight for most sales, there are definitely some gratifying aspects to self-publishing that I hadn’t thought about before jumping into it. Thanks for reading!

  2. Every once in a while I take another look at how I might get published. This year when I looked at the websites of all the publishers I could think of I saw that none of them would even accept a query letter. The sites advised that I find an agent. Although I did not spend to money to look at the writers market website I found a printed version for 2012. While selecting the appropriate agents, of which I found four, I noticed that many of them only looked at recommended authors. As a result I have decided to give readers the chance to find me by showcasing a portion of my writing on my blog. It seems like the writing industry is going the way of self publishing and e-books anyways.

    1. While there are still the break-out sensations in traditional publishing, more and more success is being found among the indies, and the industry seems like it’s starting to take notice. It will be interesting to see where publishing goes from here. Thanks for reading!

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