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Bad Advice Column: Why I Don't Have An Agent

When the question of self-publishing comes up in my undergraduate fiction writing classes, I usually say that it's only a viable path if the writer is also a designer, editor, publicist, distributor, etc. That is, a self-published author needs to be able to do at least five jobs brilliantly, instead of just the one—writing. Given my lack of expertise/instinct in those other areas of book production, I'm super fortunate to be with a publishing company that puts a crew of creative problem solvers behind every book I write, but there is someone missing from my team. An agent. Every writer has to have an agent, don't they?

I don't. I've had a few close calls with agents before, but my discussions with them have never been as successful as when I'm able to speak directly to publishers. Publishers get me, agents don't, and when they sorta kinda do, the experience invariably goes all high school on me. I act like the plain girl who thought she had a shot with the football captain because he was nice to her. To put it more directly, all of my dealings with agents have left me feeling crappy.

And this isn't about rejection. Rejection is a part of a writer's life. This is about being told how wonderful I am, and if only I could just (insert art-killing compromise here), then we might have a relationship.

I am pretty fierce, but it would probably surprise my friends to know that I'm also very obedient and especially receptive to writing advice when it comes from an authority. This worked well when my first publisher told me to re-write the second half of Death Wishing with the same fizziness that characterized the first half, or when my friend read a flash I'd written about priests jumping from a burning seminary and told me it should be a novel (that became Crybaby Lane). But when agents have asked me for similar adjustments, the outcomes have never been good.

Generally, the agent drifts off, which is very unsettling because if they are interested in me at all, they initiate with enthusiasm. At a reading in New York, an agent actually pushed people aside to get to me (might have just been a New York thing). She also cornered my publisher at the time, who was mildly concerned that the agent might be harassing me. That kind of attention always turns me into a blushing idiot—I love a fan, no matter how loopy they are. If you ever see me at a bookstore event, tell me you love my writing and then ask me to help move your sofa. I'll do it, stars in my eyes.

I'm bringing this up now because a friend of mine (referred to as Friend, going forward) is agent-shopping with a debut novel. Friend is getting bites, as well he should because the book is damned good (I read a draft). Eventually, Friend gets an agent email that is full of gushing praise surrounding a singular bit of advice—if you could only rewrite this more like (insert famous horror writer here) . . . Friend gets excited but is unsure about the advice, so Friend contacts me. Well, I'm Lady Killjoy in this scenario, because I've got a similar email from an agent from a couple of years back—love you writing and your quirky characters, but if you could just rewrite this in the style of (insert famous writer of Florida comedy-thrillers here) . . . I won't give you the whole messages, but the set up and pitch of both were eerily similar.

After we chat more about it, Friend responds sensibly—"I can't go down that rabbit-hole." Smart Friend. I wish I had someone like me to talk to when I received my email, because I went all the way down the rabbit-hole for most of a year. The agent and I corresponded with specific ideas, and I rewrote the novel for my readership of one. It was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made as a writer. When I was finished with the rewrite, the agent had lost interest.

Bottom line—I committed to her without her committing to me, and I'm not going to make that mistake again. The above agent-experience is one of three that stole time away from my art, and the interactions all followed the same pattern. I am not saying agents are bad. I'm saying I have no idea what one could do for me. I only know what they want me to do for them.

More importantly, no publisher ever asked me to write like another writer. That said, I'm not shutting the door on agents forever. If one comes along and says, "Hey, you need to write more like Joyce Carol Oates," I'll get to work on that.

In the meantime, I feel like I am in a very lucky place. Perhaps I'm deluded, but I know I'm writing the books I've always dreamed of writing.

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