Notes on Literary Agents

I’d been thinking about writing a couple of books (a collection of fishing related essays and a travel journal). And while I have a fair amount of editorial experience I have very little experience with the business end of book publishing. So I thought it would be wise to contact an agent. I did some research and compiled a list of agents whose data indicated they had handled or at least had a general interest in the type of books I was proposing. A couple of agents were suggested by colleagues but by and large I learned that writers who have contracts with agents keep that information close to the vest.

It proved to be an enlightening experience.

I quickly learned, for example, that most agents don’t respond unless they are interested in your ideas, which means that most don’t respond at all. I understand agents are busy people – everyone I know is busy. But in today’s age of instant e-communication not responding doesn’t translate that an idea has been rejected as much as it says that you’ve simply been discarded. Forget about courtesy. This simply does not seem like a wise business practice. A simple return e-mail of “no” or “not for us” is an answer.

I have received a few responses. In an exchange of e-mails one agent said she actually liked one of my ideas but already had a writer under contact who was working in “a similar area of expertise” and couldn’t take on another. This seemed fair, if a bit fuzzy. I was encouraged.

Another responded with an e-form letter rejection and I actually spoke with two agents by phone. But most simply remained silent.

Then, a few days ago, I received this, via e-mail:

The agent said he was “drawn to outdoors and fishing material” but couldn’t get excited about my ideas because so few publishers are doing outdoor books. I thought this over and decided to make another pitch, strengthening my argument by noting, among other things, that fishermen are readers and there are 50 million of us in the United States. I’m not a marketing specialist or analysis but that seems like a fairly strong potential audience. And of course one doesn’t have to be an angler to enjoy reading angling related materials. I sometimes enjoy reading murder mysteries but have never killed anyone.

This was his reply. I’ve omitted the names of the two publishing houses he listed, but they are well-known publishers you would probably recognize and that I would be proud to be associated with:

“I appreciate your response,” he began. “But I don’t prefer to do business with PUBLISHER A or PUBLISHER B, the two places I know with lists that cater to this audience. Advances are small, royalties are poor. It’s just not worth the time, sad to say.”

I read this with stupefaction. Any book that I would write might not sell 10 copies. I wouldn’t debate that. But to essentially disregard a potential reading (and book buying) audience that includes millions of people of all ages and crosses gender, racial and socio-economic lines seems, well, short sighted if not plain goofy.