Weird Literary Agents

February 21st, 2017 | Posted by Steve in Fiction | Nonfiction | The Writing Life - (0 Comments)

Weird Literary Agents

So I’m once more using my database of agents to look for a partner in a new project.  I try to get all the information I can about an agent before wasting my time and his or her time. I carefully examine their web sites, any other web sites listing them, and I have several printed books to refer to as well, the best being Jeff Hermann’s annual guide. I do this in order to submit to them queries carefully tailored to their wishes.

I add to my database as I go. I always prefer agents who are members of AAR, the Association of Authors Representatives. That web site has a wonderful agent search engine and it’s free, so go use it. These are the gold standard and sworn not to rip off authors. Not being a member of AAR doesn’t necessarily mean an agent is bad; merely that he or she is not a member. But membership is a handy way to screen them. If I were a literary agent I would certainly want to be a member so, as a writer, I want an agent who thinks like I do.

But I run across odd agents. Not many. Some. A few funny, a few sad. Some general categories:

– The 20th-century fans. These refuse to use email for communication, preferring stacks of paper in packages with small stamps plastered all over the outside. Stamps went out with buggy whips. Do they use telegrams too? The sheer labor and expense involved aside, the main question is this: Do I want an agent who is uncomfortable with modern communications technology out there representing me? (Answer: No. I skip them. They’re likely too busy with their letter openers anyway.)


– One (only one, and no more, I hope) with an unchangeable and sweeping indemnity clause in the submission form I must fill in at their web site. Pass. I’m not going to cover their legal fees because some weirdo chooses to claim that my manuscript was something remotely like his manuscript. I’m accustomed to indemnity clauses in my nonfiction work but was always able to modify them to be more reasonable. But this one was a required checkbox on a form. I told Laura Gross, the agent, she was cutting herself out of may of the best professional writers — and then reported her to the ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors) of which I am a long-standing member. They agreed that the agent was out of line.

– I’m so special. The agent who insists upon an exclusive look at your manuscript. Only rarely encounter this any more. In fact some agents make apoint of saying they assume yours is a simultaneous submission — you have sent to more than one agent — and they are fine with that. I like to compare an exclusive demand to your telling a new car salesman to park that shiny car in his back lot and not show it to anyone else while you take up to two months (optimistically) to make up your mind. Let me know what his response is.


– Bad web sites. Lots of bad web sites. Literary agents aren’t the most technically-savvy bunch and some web sites were painful to navigate. But even that was better than the ten percent or so who had no web sites at all and no other clue as to what they want or how to communicate with them. Probably more 20th-century fans; I have no way to know. Pass.

– Burying the data inside the blather. Most agent web sites’ descriptions of their agents tell me where they went to school (I don’t care) or the names of their pets (I care even less) and brag endlessly about the authors they’ve repped in the past (usually far past; they don’t often update these web sites.) I don’t care, or care very little. I want to know what genres of writing they prefer to rep. I just wish to know if this is a person who wants to see the type of manuscript I have prepared. I don’t know why they make it so hard to learn that — and then complain about getting so many emails from authors who are off-topic. That information, if available at all, is buried in the endless verbiage. I’ve gotten good at scanning but, even so, it’s a pain.

– The dead. I even ran upon a few I could cross off my database because they died or retired. Even finding out someone is dead is not that easy; their listings in the various online sites go on and on. We’re all immortal on the Web, I guess.

But, with all the flaws, most literary agents are trying to do their best in a tough business and I appreciate their work. Spend a few hours per day reading agents’ web sites, interviews, blogs and personal descriptions and you can respect their efforts. Now, if you excuse me, I have some tweaking to do to my database …

I’m not much of an expert on advanced computer technology. That’s a generational thing. I still use a fountain pen and words Chaucer might have recognized. I’m of the generation that is barely hanging onto the tail of the technological  tiger and trying not to let go, lest it turn and consume me.

IBM Selectric I started freelance writing for magazines back in 1982. I was a part-timer, still working for a company in a downtown office and I wrote in evenings and on weekends. I used a typewriter, a portable at that. I dreamed of the day when I could afford a genuine IBM Selectric II, the crème de la crème of office typewriters, the one with the “golf ball” in it. (Those cost $1200 in 1984 and years later I bought one for $25 in a Salvation Army store, paid the last living IBM typewriter repairman in the area $100 to make it perfect once more—and then never had any use for it. I finally mailed it to another writer who had also long dreamed of owning an IBM Selectric II. The shipping cost me more than $50.)

At first I was concerned with perfection and if I made a typo or a small change in the manuscript I would re-type that entire page. Eventually I came to realize that it was sufficient to just make some pen-and-ink corrections and nobody would hold that against me. It was  one reason to double-space manuscripts, the other being that the editor and/or proofreader would use the extra space to make proofreading marks.

When the manuscript was complete I either drove to the magazine office and turned it in (I wrote for, at one time or another, every local city and business magazine) or I mailed it. Often I sent it by Federal Express.

I used FedEx because I’d learned about the sloppy and lackadaisical attitude of the USPS “Express Mail” system which rendered it useless to serious businesses requiring serious overnight delivery. In fact, at the company I worked for in the 1970s-1980s we used FedEx, the airline freight system overseas (seriously) and a nifty program called Delta Dash wherein airline pilots would hand-carry our mail to the destination airport and hand that over to someone there. Sometimes I even hopped an airplane and flew to airports around the country to hand-deliver papers. Sometimes we hired couriers to do the same.

epson QX-10In late 1984 I went full-time as a writer. I also bought my first computer, an Epson QX-10. It had two 5 1/4-inch floppy drives storing a vast 250 kilobytes of data (except that one was the program too), making it the Cadillac of computers. There was no hard drive but I added a memory card with an incredible 2K of storage and a separate power supply to keep that active.

I was the hottest thing in local writerdom. With my computer and my new printer (a daisy-wheel version that sounded like a .50-caliber machine gun) I could now make corrections and rewrites and those didn’t matter because I could print only when the manuscript was complete. I had one editor tell me that she was almost afraid to edit my work because it looked so perfect. I now sent or delivered both a floppy with the manuscript in digital form, and also a printed version. Even back then I thought that was dumb.

I recall two events from those times where I found myself astonished at the technology. First, I discovered that I could transmit a document—a manuscript in my case—direct to a publisher in Sweden for which I wrote articles about maritime trade. This was not called e-mail. I don’t think it was called anything at all. Before, I’d needed to mail those manuscripts and allow almost a week for delivery, just in case. Now I had an extra week before my deadline. It was very liberating to know that I could piddle around for an extra week before starting work once my deadline was upon me. Sometimes technology doesn’t make work more efficient, it only makes work happen later.

Then I discovered the Internet. There was no “web” yet but I could navigate through endless lists of connections and one day I found myself looking at some document stored in a library in Japan.

I’m in Japan, I thought. I’m inside a library in Japan. This is amazing. Wonder who’s paying the phone bill? Never did get an answer to that one. Most research involved phone calls to experts or visits to the public library to do long and tedious research. I learned to make a lot of phone calls; those were a more efficient use of my time.

Phone bills were a major issue. Every job had to have a separate phone invoice to be submitted for reimbursement. At more than a hundred manuscripts a year for me, that was a lot of time spent adding up phone calls. There were instances where the phone bill was more than the fee I was being paid.

Fast-forward thirty years. Computers with good solid, capacious hard drives and backups. E-mail, Dropbox and whatever for transmitting documents. Word processing programs easy to use and capable of almost any layout. I write articles and books in single-space in Word and editors still want those sent in double-spaced—why, I have no clue. Proofreader marks are an arcane thing of the past. We do editing now using Word’s Track Changes option.

For information we have web sites and blogs. The World Wide Web with all the information we could ever want at our fingertips—not to mention that latest cute kitten video. (When Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, was asked once what most surprised him about how it was used he instantly replied, “Cats. I never expected to see so many cats.” Me? I don’t think I’ve been inside a library in twenty years. Libraries, at their best, can access the same information sources I can use from home. At worst, they’re where printed books go to die and where street people go to stay warm.

Phones? I still have a land line only because it’s  free, bundled with my computer modem and it has a serious big ugly headset good for freeing up my hands for typing during interviews. But everyone has cell phones. More important to my sanity, everyone has phones with unlimited plans. No more toting up phone bills to submit with my invoice. Even overseas calls are too cheap to bother invoicing for. If I did a lot of those, I’d use Skype.

Back to modern technology being a generational thing and how some of us barely have hold of the tail of the tiger. And, apparently, some have lost their grip. Got a call a few days ago from a fellow freelance writer. In fact he was the first freelance writer I ever met and he’s been doing it a decade longer than I. He wanted to interview me for something about writing memoirs and I had just completed one for a client. I mentioned how I had interviewed the client, an hour at a time, each Tuesday and Thursday for about two months. The client lives in Los Angeles; I’m in Tampa.

“So . . . who paid for all those long-distance phone calls,” he asked me.

Your jaw just dropped. I know this even without seeing you. I said nothing at first because I was stunned by the question.

“You must use Skype,” he said into my incredulous silence. “Save on phone charges that way.” At least he knew what Skype was.

“Um . . . there are no phone charges,” I managed to say. “Nobody pays for long-distant phone calls within the U.S. any more.”


Pong“Yeah. Everyone has unlimited-calling plans.”

Long silence from him and then he changed the subject. We hung up shortly thereafter. I stared at my land-line phone, itself a relic most people today would laugh at.

He’s still paying for long-distance calls, I thought. How is that even possible?

One answer is that he’s one generation older than me. And technology is a generational thing. For all I know, he may still have a Pong game in his rec room.









Monday, 4 May, 2015

Busy week last week. Now I can relax and catch up. Last week I had:

– A May 1 (Friday) deadline for a ghost-written book.
– Corrections and discussions from editor and proofreader about a mystery novel.
– Urgent cry for help from a client wanting me to review/rewrite/write a portion of a grant proposal.
– Urgent (aren’t they all?) request to update a web site for a website client.

I think I got to bed at 3 am. Friday morning and was up at 7 a.m. to get that completed manuscript for the ghosted book off to the editors. Goes without saying (why do people write that when they fully intend to say it anyway) that later that day, and even the next day, I was getting changes of mind/changes of wording from the client. No surprise; some people don’t react to a deadline until it passes. I expect it. Just  part of the game.

The proofing of the mystery was an exercise in total humiliation. I’m pretty good at self-editing but seeing a professional proofer tear my work apart was embarrassing.

By Saturday things were under control and then I get a phone call from a longtime writing friend. He’s doing a piece for one of the local newspapers about memoir writing and can I help him? I’m not sure if the ghosted book qualifies but I offer words of Great Wisdom—which will likely never appear in print anyway. But then he asks me how many interviews I did.

“I talked to the client twice a week,” I said. “An hour each time. Noon for me and 9 a.m. for him because he’s in Los Angeles. For about six weeks. And there were a dozen or so other interviews too, with other people.”

“That’s a lot of telephone time,” he says. “Who paid for all those long-distance phone calls?”pagecontact2raw

I didn’t answer that at once. I was too stunned.

“You must use Skype,” he said. “Save money that way.”

“Um . . . no. I just picked up my phone. Nobody pays for long-distance any more.”

We both then reminisced about the Days of Yore when we had to keep phone logs and bill clients or editors for phone bills. But, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, He still pays for long distance? How is that even possible?

I did eventually come up with a few tidbits of use to the aspiring memoir writer. I’ll add those below:


We have two powerful tools today that we didn’t have in the past. And those are Google and maps. In my writing I have been able to check on client statements by reading old newspaper accounts or other documents available online. It’s not that the client is a liar, it’s that people’s memories aren’t all that good after decades. Today we can look up things in minutes that would have been all-day tasks in the past. And with the mapping programs we can zoom right in on locations and write our own descriptions (bearing in mind, of course, any passage of time that might alter what we’re looking at).

Some examples:

– Told by my client that a theatre he went to as a kid was ten miles from his house, and that he and his friends used to walk there to see movies, I checked the maps. Ten miles is a long walk for an adult. Each way too. In fact, the theater was about one mile from his old house. But back when he and his friends walked, he had short legs and probably remembers it as ten miles.

– As long as I was looking at a street view of the theater (it was still there) I could add some descriptive about the neighborhood.

– Told about an incident where an armed robber killed six people, I checked decades-old newspaper accounts. There were just three killed and a mention that the robber’s gun had jammed.

In short, we no longer always have to rely on the client’s memory of past events, or on whatever paperwork he might supply. (I have a big box in the corner of my office full of everything from his sixth-grade report card to his contracts with publishers. One good thing about completing a ghost-written book is being able to FedEx the materials back and clean up my office.) Today we can—often—double-check for factual accuracy.