Six impossible things

The Great Wall of Publishing

I hadn’t planned on doing more about agents, but all this talk got me thinking.

See, there’s a big difference between how the publishing industry (or anything, really, but I’m talking about publishing today) looks from the outside, compared to what it looks like from the inside. Most people know that, at least intellectually, but too often, nobody stops to really consider what it means.

From the outside, it looks as if there’s this big wall around the Promised Land of Getting Published, and every so often there’s a door in the wall labeled “Editor at work!” In front of the doors, there’s a long row of agents, and in front of them is a vast crowd of eager would-be writers, waving manuscripts and query letters. Every so often, one of the agents takes one of the manuscripts, reads a bit, and then looks up with a discerning nod. She/he waves the Chosen Author forward and escorts him/her to one of the doors, which immediately opens to let the author and agent in. A few minutes later, the agent emerges to start the process all over again.

Obviously, from this perspective, the absolute most important thing is…to get inside the wall. It’s next to impossible to catch even one agent’s attention, and since all of them seem to be doing pretty much the same thing, it doesn’t seem to matter who the writers choose. Heck, it doesn’t seem as if the writers have much of a choice; it’s the agents who are doing the picking and choosing.

The view from the other side of that wall is a little different. For starters, it isn’t a green and pleasant field; no, it’s more like a maze of twisty little passages, all different, all interconnecting, all ending up in slightly different places. When the agent and the author walk through the door and start down a passage, what happens next can be very, very different, depending on things like how much experience the agent has, what sorts of choices the agent makes about navigating the maze, and which place the agent figures they’re going to end up (which may or may not be the same place the writer was envisioning).

And the agent doesn’t just walk the author through the maze to the editor(s) and then bow out. On the contrary, for a first novel, the agent/author pair may make many stops before they find an editor who’s interested. Then the contract negotiations begin, and after that, keeping an eye on payments and production…all with an eye to how this is going to affect the writer’s second book, and third, and so on. And then comes selling the next manuscript, and negotiating, and so on.

Publishing being the slow, lengthy process it is, the agent doesn’t hover at the writer’s elbow every minute. There are weeks and months when she’s busy negotiating and selling and collecting things for other clients, while her new client is writing. But it’s a long-term relationship…and even if you figure you’ll move on to someone else after a few books, you will still be dealing with your original agent on every book that agent represented for you, probably for years, if not forever. (It depends on the contract.)

An agent who is very good at getting a writer through the publishing door, but who is lousy at everything else, is worse than no agent at all. He can do everything that Eager-Would-Be-Writer wanted, back when EWBW was outside the wall – and if that is all that he is good at, EWBW is going to be desperately unhappy, at the very least. At worst, the so-called agent can make it much, much more difficult for the newbie writer to get a career off the ground – not out of malice, maybe not even out of incompetence, but just by automatically steering the newbie writer in a direction that said writer isn’t happy with.

From inside the Great Wall of Publishing, the agent isn’t just a gatekeeper; in fact, being a gatekeeper is probably the smallest and least important thing he does. From inside the Great Wall, agents aren’t all doing the same thing; different agents have different approaches and are good at different things. From inside, an author-agent relationship is something you’re going to be stuck with for years. From inside, it pays to do your homework and be a little choosy, even if it seems to be to your disadvantage in the short run.

Because from inside, it’s all about the long run.

The difficulty is always, always in communicating all this to the Eager Would-Be-Writers on the outside. Because from the outside, all that stuff sounds impossibly far away. The immediate, important problem is still Getting Inside, and it seems like the folks inside just don’t understand. Meanwhile, the folks inside are equally frustrated, because all the EWBWs Just Don’t Listen. (Well, obviously not – they’re being told all this stuff about problems they don’t even have yet; why should they care?)

I don’t know that there’s a solution to this (and if I knew the solution, I could probably make mega-bucks as a successful international mediator). It’s part of how people are wired: getting across the river to the grove of juicy fruit trees is a lot more important right now than worrying about the snakes and scorpions and tigers that won’t be a problem until we’re over on the other side where they are, especially when one can see the river and the fruit, but the snakes and scorpions and tigers are all hiding. But really, planning ahead so that one brings along the insect repellent and the snakebite kit and the elephant gun is a really good thing to do beforehand. Wishing for them after one has been bitten or stung or pounced on is too little, too late.

  1. Do you know about how many authors the typical agent works for?

    • Katya – I’m afraid I don’t know how many clients a typical agent has; it’s not something any of them seem to talk about much. I suspect that it also varies depending on how productive the clients are – if it’s taking two or three years for each person to produce a novel, an agent could handle a lot more clients than if they’ve got a bunch of people who’re producing a novel every three to six months.

  2. This is a very apt metaphor. Reading it, I definitely realized that I was guilty of that attitude, “just anyone, please,” (though I have standards, because I am a little bit of a snob- sometimes snobbishness is self-preservation). Now that I think I have something really good, I veer entirely the opposite direction, and I’m expecting clamor and bidding wars… well, once my second readers get back to me. The more realistic side of me is hoping that they provide an injection of reality and can make me slightly more rational about things.

    • Cara – It’s a balancing act. On the one hand, there are, as I’ve just laid out, a whole lot of good reasons to be a bit picky when it comes to finding an agent (or at least, to have a list and start from the top, working your way down, rather than just grabbing your best friend and saying “Hey – ever thought about being an agent?”). On the other hand, it isn’t easy to get someone to take on a totally unknown writer, so when someone says “yes, I’ll be your agent” they are definitely worth looking into, and maybe even thinking twice about even if they weren’t on your short list. Which is why it all starts with knowing what you must have, what you can live with/without, and what you will not put up with under any circumstance whatsoever.

      Oh, and it’s a good idea to think a bit about how you’d feel about firing your agent, too. A lot of people, me included, have a hard time firing someone (sometimes to the point of keeping an agent for YEARS longer than they know they should, just to avoid having to give the person the bad news). If this sounds like you, you ABSOLUTELY do not want to take the “I’ll take whoever I can get and then switch agents after a book or two” position. Even if you’re sure you could do it, you want to think about it; it’s harder than you might suspect to deal with someone for months or years and then tell them it’s not working for you.

  3. Yikes. I can definitely imagine working with someone whose not right just because I’m too shy to say so.

    I really like your snakebite kit and bug spray analogy. It really got the point that you need to plan, and you need to know where you’re going across.

  4. This is not really on topic — though it does have the word “publication” in it.

    A couple of days ago I pre-ordered _Beyond the Great Barrier_ from I received mail *today* that it had shipped.


    Surely you only turned in your draft a week or so ago and are waiting for editor’s comments?

    (Amazon’s description said, as it’s been saying for months, that the book would be available August 1. That’s next week.)

    Are Amazon off their collective rocker? Or is it merely that the shipping department doesn’t talk to the order department? (I’ve worked in offices like that.)

    Unless what just shipped is a piece of cardboard saying “Good for one book when the printers deliver it.” My family has done promissory notes at Christmas for years.

    Or the printers use thiotimoline in their ink.

  5. Hi Patricia

    I really love this post and think it’s such an important thing for us EWBWs to understand. Having the wrong agent can actually be worse than having no agent at all. That’s really hard to keep in the front of my mind but your post made so much sense to me that I think I have a much more solid grounding in reality now. Thanks so much for the insider’s look into the agent/writer partnership.


  6. Thank you for this series on agents. It has made me feel a little less crazy for planning the “make a list and start at the top” approach to querying.

    If any of us do make it past the first hurdles and get to the point where an agent is deciding whether to take us on, is it considered bad form to ask said agent upfront about her agenting and submission philosophy and/or how she envisions the author-agent relationship developing over the long haul? And can we talk about what we’re hoping for career-wise and what we’re looking for in an agent, or is that considered rude (sort of like we’re putting the cart before the horse)?

    • Dorothy – You just ordered Book 2, Across the Great Barrier. I just turned in Book 3, The Far West. The timing is confusing…but wouldn’t it be lovely if it really did work that way? 🙂

      Karen – You’re welcome.

      Cindy – It’s not rude to get all the expectations out on the table up front; it is, in fact, good business policy. And the author-agent relationship is a BUSINESS one. It is as well to remind oneself of that periodically. You want to like the people you work with, but if they become your bestest friend ever, it can be exponentially more difficult to express even minor discontents (much less actually firing the person if that ends up being what’s needed). Most of the agents I’ve talked to expect to have a long conversation about this stuff before they take someone on, and it’s useful to talk it over periodically afterward, as situations change and expectations change with them.

  7. …I want an elephant gun.

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