So in my long career as a writer (it’s hard for me to say that because it doesn’t seem like much of a career), I’ve had four agents. Two of them didn’t sell the project they represented for me and two did. And yet I still have issues with those two (more about this later). As a result of my experiences, I have some firm opinions about agents, but these are only my opinions, based on my limited experience.
My first agent, as I often tell my novel classes, was my college best friend’s date to her high school prom who became an agent in New York City about the same time my friend finished writing her first novel, a historical romance. When he sold her novel, quickly, in those halcyon days when publishers were snapping up historical romances written in the style of Georgette Heyer, I also sent him my first novel, a historical romance set in Victorian London. He submitted it to a few publishers who all turned it down, and then sent it back to me with a note saying he was going on vacation. I did not realize this was a brush off, but I was discouraged. My best friend’s success (she was now on her third book) made it look so easy and it wasn’t. I left the novel under my bed for about a year, thinking my fatal mistake was that I had set it in Victorian London (not wanting to impinge on my friend’s territory) until I noticed another Victorian historical romance for sale at the local drug store. I got my novel out of its box, dusted it off and saw that there were two chapters written in a different point of view from the others, which seemed unnecessary, so I cut them out and sent it back to the agent with a note saying I had revised it. He sold it a few weeks later to Doubleday as part of a three book contract. I was elated. It was easy!
And then I had to write the other two books, a daunting task, that involved battling through a stubborn case of writer’s block and throwing out all but the first three chapters of the third novel. What I wished my agent had told me was that I was writing historical romances and that I had to keep on writing historical romances to keep my readers and my publisher happy. After three fluffy but fun books, I wanted to do something more serious and thought I had a great concept with a rather dark story of a rebellious Victorian young woman who was locked up in an insane asylum by her guardian when she refused to accept his proposal of marriage. Alas, Doubleday did not want that book.
My agent eventually sold it to a mass market paperback company and they required a massive rewrite so although I got a great advance which I tried to live on (I’m making a living as a writer!) did not cover my expenses for the two years it took to write and revise. It came out with a lurid cover that still embarrasses me (you probably can’t read the little line before the title but it says “Forbidden love is wild and sweet”).
What I wished I had done was consult with an industry expert about how to have a career as a writer. I’m thinking of Jennifer McCord who is still involved in various publishing ventures in Seattle and who knew the field I was writing in well. She would have undoubtedly explained to me that I needed to honor genre conventions if I wanted to make a living as a writer. I wish my agent had told me this as well. I no doubt would have done what my heroine did and refused to succumb to societal conventions but I would have known that I was throwing away a promising career, albeit one that would have constrained me to write historical romances, at the same time as that field was rapidly changing and filling up with erotic, historically inaccurate fantasies.
After this blow to my confidence, I spent the next two years researching a historical novel set in twelfth century Wales, effectively preventing myself from facing the dashing of my dreams. On a research trip to Wales, while sitting in Dylan Thomas’s favorite pub in Laugharne, I learned about a woman on Bainbridge Island who had written and published a novel about the same historical character who had fascinated me. That’s it! I thought. I don’t have to write this novel. My writing focus shifted to non-fiction and I began writing about seasonal holidays and eventually about time, specifically the distinction between natural time (day and night, tides, lunations, seasons, lifetimes) and artificial time (minutes, hours, weeks, months, years) and how those affect us. I then spent some years sending around a proposal for that book.
One agent told me she would take it if it were more prescriptive and sent me a copy of a book she had recently represented. It was so awful (exercise for ten minutes every day! eat three meals a day and two snacks–here’s what to eat! spend fifteen minutes every day meditating!) that I completely rewrote my book, which did have some suggestions, as a series of lyrical essays. Then after teaching the material in person and online, I rewrote it again and put the exercises back into it.
Finally I found an independent agent who liked the book. She sent it around and at one time we had interest from Time Warner. They were discussing it at the highest editorial level and she wanted me to be available for an interview. Would I be an expert for them? Provide some sort of media channel? I have to admit I choked, delayed my response, probably pissed her off and possibly Time Warner as well. They passed and my agent never sent it out again. Since I had signed a contract with her for a year, the book was effectively out of circulation for a year. Thus, my opinion that if you can possibly avoid it you should not sign a contract with an agent that binds you for a year.
When I finally got the book back, I put it under my bed and only dragged it out again some years later when I realized I could self publish it. That agent subsequently stopped being an agent. I suspect she found it simply didn’t provide sufficient support, just like my writing wasn’t supporting me. As I slowly recovered from my disappointment about my novel career and stopped reading historical romances, I began reading mysteries.
And so when I took up fiction again, I started writing mysteries. I had a character I loved, a private investigator who specialized in internet research (this was before Google). She lived in the Anhalt building I’ve always wanted to live in and drove a jeep like my daughter’s and had a ferret (like the one we rescued and then rehomed) for a pet. I wrote one book in which she solves a mystery that revolved around domestic violence and rather quickly found an agent for it, a big name New York agent, in fact, a woman who was the agent for one of my favorite self-help authors. What surprised me was that this experienced agent thought she could sell my mystery as a mainstream novel. I was thinking it was simply a mystery. She wanted me to sign a contract for a year and I told her I didn’t want to do that but she said that was the only way she would work with me. And so I signed a year-long contract with her.
Well, you can probably see the ending to this story. She sent it around to all the top publishers (I think—I never saw the decline letters) and they all said no. Then she stopped sending it around and so, for a year, that novel was going nowhere. My takeaway from this experience was that you should pick an agent who has the same vision for the book that you do.
But I wasn’t done writing novels. I’m stubborn. So when my good friend, Curt, showed up with the first chapter of a humorous mystery based on my daughter’s Chihuahua, Pepe, I suggested we collaborate. He needed a Chihuahua consultant and also someone to hold him accountable. (Curt is a dedicated writer when under contract but on his own he simply starts a new novel every time he runs into a problem in the one he is currently working on.) We had a lot of fun writing together and as the novel developed we started to think maybe we had something we could sell. Something like the Spencer Quinn mysteries which are told from the point of view of Chet the Dog who belongs to a private eye named Bernie. Or Janet Evanovich’s crazy and incompetent bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. So we needed an agent.
We sent out queries to 12 agents (and were totally surprised when the woman whose picture on the agency website showed her with a Chihuahua turned us down) and finally connected with our current agent, whose photo also showed her with her dog. She was willing to work with us (I understand some agents might not like to work with a writing team–more work) and did not require a year-long contract. Yay!
She sent our book out to all the top NY publishers and we got the greatest rejection letters. I still want to use the phrases from one as a blurb for our book. One editor said it was written “with sheer maniacal panache,” which has got to be one of the best things ever written about our joint style. But we didn’t get any offers, until she approached Kensington, a mass market paperback company that publishes hundreds of authors of romances and thrillers and an occasional mystery. We had never heard of Kensington and did some research, including talking to a local author published by them, before we signed the contract, thus becoming “paperback writers,” the bottom rung of the publishing industry in terms of reputation (at least in the literary arts world where I have a toehold as a teacher).
But what we didn’t know, and what our agent didn’t tell us, was that we had also just become cozy mystery writers. Neither of us knew what a cozy mystery was. Nor had we read any. I had, in fact, avoided the mystery section of most large bookstores for years because I was so offended by all those mysteries with the punny titles and too-cute covers about crafty old ladies and magical bakeries. And now our books had cute covers and tongue-in-cheek titles and we were popular at conferences like Malice Domestic, which celebrates cozy mysteries, but dismissed by one of the other panelists on our panel at Bouchercon (the more serious crime writers convention) and again at Left Coast Crime where one of the panelists on the animal mystery panel declared that she writes about “real animals” (our Chihuahua talks–or at least, he thinks he does).
As we’ve become more familiar with our new genre, we’ve come to appreciate many of our fellow cozy writers and their novels. I always find new authors whose work I love when I attend a conference. But I’m still struggling with the label because I don’t like most of the books in the genre. So again I’m wishing for more career guidance from my agent. Do we care more about being published? Or about being stuck in a category? Would we have turned down the deal if we had known what it meant? Probably not. We love being published. And we love hearing from our fans.
The epiphany for this essay arrived in the form of a conversation with Rachel Bukey, one of the authors whose mysteries I publish. We talked about how difficult it was to promote her books because, although they are well-written, classic mysteries featuring a female protagonist, set in Seattle, which I thought (before I became a publisher) was the unique feature, they don’t fit into any more specific niche. Private eye? No. Cozy? maybe by some strict standard but certainly not one of those books about magical bakeries with the punny titles one expects in a cozy, so no. Historical? No. Hard-boiled? No. Paranormal? no, not really.
And then I went home and was thinking about her second book, Notes from Hell, a really wonderfully tense and dramatic book, which revolves around a Seattle Opera production of Don Giovanni and mimics the plot of that opera in certain clever ways. And I realized that if Rachel wanted to create a hook for her mysteries that would make them memorable, she would write a series of opera mysteries, perhaps set in all the great opera cities of the world, certainly featuring tropes from various operas (which are full of deaths) and which would be referenced in the titles.
I’m pretty sure she won’t like this idea. I know she is more interested in writing intelligent, thoughtful, well-crafted novels. And I know she already has another novel in mind that would take her in a quite different direction. But I couldn’t help noticing that if I were giving her career advice, and if she were asking me how to sell more books, this is exactly what I would tell her. And so maybe the agents who were most successful in selling my books are also the agents who recognize the value of fitting solidly into a genre that is selling like hotcakes. And maybe I should stop trying to be a literary writer, and embrace my fate as a paperback writer.