Attracting an Agent Is Like Going for a Job Interview

For the past 10 years, going back to 2003, at least, I’ve pitched ideas to agents, hoping to interest one of them in the commercial potential of one or another of my ideas, and the effort has come to nothing. I had literary representation decades ago, and what I wrote seemed to be accepted well enough in the commercial fiction market of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But that was then. Today, what I’m interested in writing, and how I’m interested in writing it, is of no use to literary reps or to publishers. I’ve debated why, and most of my answers are the same ones you’ve no doubt confronted many times. If I read one more blog or article that echoes how (1) the competition has never been fiercer, (2) the agent really has to fall in love with your pitch or your manuscript, or (3) you as the writer must never give up because the writers who get published are those who persist the longest, I’ll  — Well, I don’t know what I’ll do. Nothing, is what I’ll do.

No, I honestly think that where we are now in terms of writers and their agents is a reflection of the corporate ideology that has been taking over all aspects of American life for the past 30 or 40 years. It is this corporate emphasis that killed the midlist, for example. It is this corporate mentality —  driven by the bottom line, needful of regularity in the marketplace by which to base growth projections, and suspicious of novelty and creativity — that will give you the best clue to attracting an agent.

Attracting a literary agent is now exactly the same as applying for a job interview.

This doesn’t negate anything mentioned in the first couple of paragraphs. For instance, when I’ve gone on job interviews, I’ve made it a point to say to the person interviewing me, “Here’s my skill set and work history. How can I use these to help you? What can I do to help you with your business?” What I’m saying to whoever is interviewing me is that that person, as a potential employer, has a need to be filled, and if I’m the person with precisely the right skill set and experience to fill that need, then we shake hands and I show up next Monday to begin filling out the paperwork.

So along with all of the talk about writers needing passion and never giving up and believing in themselves and writing what they love and learning how to write crackerjack two-sentence pitches and how luck and whom you know play as big a part as having a mechanically perfect and grammatically correct manuscript, what’s really going on is that you, in your pitch to an agent, are applying for a job. You’re the potential employee. The agent is your potential employer.

Think this way and you’ll cut through a lot of folderol about writers and agents needing to work together for a vision, or agents needing to fall in love with characters or become enthusiastic about a manuscript and its passion or whatever.

These things are true, but exactly the same thing occurs during a job interview. Everyone in the room is working toward a profit-centered or growth-centered horizon. Everyone needs to feel that she or he is, if not falling in love, at least talking the same language and becoming enthusiastic about the possibilities each offers the other. These are the words and terms we use when we describe opportunities to express ourselves, to move forward, to make something of ourselves, to gain fulfillment — and those things are as true for a trucking company, a pancake restaurant, or an insurance agency as they are for someone promoting any other kind of product, such as commercial fiction.

I don’t think it used to be this way, not entirely. Publishing used to be much, much smaller, although even back in the early 70s, when I was trying to interest people in my adventure-fantasy novels, it was obvious that, even though you can’t make a living as a writer in America, you can make a fortune. All that’s changed is that the odds have increased and the fortunes have gotten larger.

But especially with agents such as Donald Maass, who may have been the first to promote this career-novelist approach to the talent he’s attracted, the idea of books as products and writers as product-producing profit-centers has become the norm in the commercial popular fiction arena.

It never used to be that formulaic, is perhaps what I’m getting at. It was not a formal algorithm, as far as I know, and the metrics involved were more generous for those writers-turned-authors who needed to get several paperbacks under their belts before settling into a profitable groove.

Publishing is now moviemaking is now the music industry is now finance is now social media-ing. Just as certain writers flourished in the past because their talents were perfect for their times, be it writing for pulps or paperbacks, radio or television, so certain writers today are perfect for our times. We can discuss matters of taste or talent or vision or any of those things for the rest of the week, but what really matters — consistently producing a product that meets the demands of the marketplace in a predictable, growth-oriented manner — is why you, as a potentially successful author, should approach agents as though you are applying for a job.

How to engineer two-sentence pitches to reflect that I’m not sure of yet. And a few other things, as well. I’ll try to come up with some ideas if this is useful to anyone out there. Maybe it’s simply a matter of working with the agent once you’ve gotten past the I-love-your-pitch stage. Then again, I am the guy who hasn’t successfully engaged any agent for more than 10 years, so do keep that in mind. I wouldn’t trust me too far on this.

When I talked with Don Maas over supper a long time ago, the day after Columbus Day 1989, I told him that I saw myself as a novelist fulfilling a role similar to that of a movie director. Movie directors are free to undertake a variety of pictures. The best of them, at least, historically have done comedies as well as dramas, flat-out genre pictures such as Westerns or thrillers as well as anything else that intrigued their intelligence or creativity. That’s what I wanted to do: a couple of thrillers, then some horror, then maybe try my hand at a mystery, as well as writing some historical fiction. (I’d still love to dramatize the attempt to create the state of Franklin out of territory that eventually became part of Tennessee.) Maas told me that I had it wrong: novelists aren’t movie directors; they’re actors. They become typecast. Audiences want to see the actor do more or less the same thing in successive pictures throughout their careers. Same with writers of certain kinds of stories.

Maas was right, of course. True movie stars with undeniable talent — a Tom Hanks, for example — eventually can earn enough clout to be allowed to stretch as far as his or her talents will go. But given how the entertainment industry is structured, this situation is the rare exception. And given how the popular commercial fiction industry is structured, it’s unusual for authors, as well. Stephen King writes a lot of horror and then says that he wants to be a more or less serious fictioneer and write more substantial fiction; that’s fine, but he’s still basically a very successful hairdresser moving to a new salon and taking his clientele with him. Same with James Patterson, whose success has been incredible. He started out in advertising, which may be the best possible start for someone to develop the mindset of anticipating and then feeding audience expectations. And when Patterson got caught behind the curve — say, with the boom in YA fantasy fiction or the Diary-of-a-Young-Doofus clones, he moved smoothly into line to take his place in racking up sales. That’s how it’s done.

These agents who represent your manuscripts also now guide your career, so they are basically managers. It’s job security for them and assists you, as well, in staying on top of things in an environment that has changed so dramatically. We’ve gone through so many corporate buyouts, and so many editors and other industry specialists lost out when publishing hemorrhaged talent after the 2008 crash, that it makes sense for agents to reinvent themselves as literary reps-cum-managers and whatever else they can do to keep things moving forward.

I believe these agents, in that regard, when they say that what would have sold 5 or 10 years ago has no chance in the publishing environment today. Those ideas that I pitched over the past several years? Seasons of the Moon was one of them; I still think that the concept of a rural, pagan, matriarchal community embodying in its own fashion the most ancient of social constructs, that of justice, makes for a great novel. But the commercial appeal? Nada. Nothing. Zilch. Crickets chirping. Call of Shadows? Too adult, maybe. It’s my old David Trevisan novels reinterpreted as more mature material. I’m still annoyed that Maas dropped the ball and never talked to Doubleday, in the fall of 1988, after I’d pitched Doubleday with the concept of the first Trevisan novel, eventually published (and mismanaged) by Avon in 1989, titled as The Fair Rules of Evil. But the idea worked once; why not use that concept of an ageless sorcerer, make him a grown-up, give him a lot of baggage, and set him in situations that would really resonate with contemporary events as well as historical themes? Many pitch letters later — nada. Zilch. Crickets. I really thought it would make a great series.

Maybe it’s as simple as my not knowing how to write temptation-filled pitch letters. That’s entirely possible. But it’s also entirely possible that, whatever else I’m doing, I’m approaching this in the wrong way. I’m looking for someone to represent my novel about the psychopathic writer and the young book editor caught under his spell, someone to champion my reincarnation story or my novel about the mysterious disappearance of a movie star. Wrong approach. What I need to do (despite all of the advice about writing what you love and bringing your passion to what you write) is to think in terms of fulfilling a need in the marketplace by approaching a potential agent as a possible employer. Do the research, identify a potential money-making idea, and go for it. Hire me! After all, that agent would not only rep my story but sell me as a product and manage my career, and we would build this as we would a trucking company or a chain of pancake restaurants.

As I said, I think that this is the proper mindset to have in pitching agents, and if it is of assistance to any of you out there swimming upriver or fighting the good fight in the trenches against impossible odds — well, you’re welcome to it. I’m not sure how exactly to go about it — I don’t have an algorithm or game plan — but there you go.

Although, again, I’m the guy who couldn’t interest any of dozens of agents with the adult-sorcerer or pagan-women ideas.

As for me, I’m at 41,000 words with my literary sword-and-sorcery novel, which really is something new and different, as far as I know, but I doubt that there are many editors or agents out there who’d be interested in an oddball experiment such as Sometime Lofty Towers.

Anyone? Any takers? Anyone?

Ah, as I thought. Crickets.

No problem. I’m coming up on 43,000 words any day now, though, and I’ll keep it going because I do feel passionate about this story!   : )

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