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One of these guys could get the job done for you.

I’ve been contacting agents for my recently finished YA novel and it’s been an interesting mix of responses so far. Interesting because I’ve been rejected by all the ones I’ve submitted to casually, but have received enthusiastic reviews and notes from three agents who were my top picks anyway. Each of these agents has offered notes and has asked me to resubmit after a rewrite. So the weird part is, I’ve been rejected by agents who have average reputations, but given encouragement and an invitation to re-submit from three giants in the world of NYC literary agency, each of whom represents top writers whom I idolize.

It’s like being accepted to Yale, Harvard and Brown, but turned down by 7 different state universities. It’s like being picked last for a casual backlot football game, while at the same time, three NFL teams are considering drafting you as a rushing linebacker.

When scientists get this sort of mixed signal, they throw out their test instruments and just start over. Or change their emphasis to philosophy.

I started my agent search with the latest copy of “Writer’s Market” and by contacting several friends in the publishing industry and at Hollywood studios. One Hollywood contact landed me a nice response from her favorite NYC literary agent. The other agents on my contact list came out of “Writer’s Market”, though I didn’t contact any of them until I’d read about them on the web, checked out their submission policy, figured out who they represented and took a look at their recent sales.

My top-top-top pick is a woman who ranks high in all these categories. Her assistant read the first two drafts and offered detailed notes on each version. The third draft is about ready to send back to her now, pending any notes from my in-house reader (my wife, sitting up in bed right now, reading the manuscript as I waste time here on my blog).

Here’s the other odd thing: the three agents at the top of my list all responded instantly to my query, two of the three read the manuscript within weeks (the third one just got it the other day), and responded with notes and an invitation to resubmit.

The agents who rejected the manuscript were casual about responding to the query, took their time about reading the manuscript and either responded after months had passed, or never responded at all (some, in fact, say on their website, “if I don’t respond in 3 or 4 months, just consider it a ‘no’.”) We all have part of our lives we put on autopilot, so I understand that, but I actually find this one a bit odd: reading and accepting or rejecting manuscripts isn’t just ‘part’ of an agents job, it’s the seed for the whole business. Maybe that’s just me being a compulsive communicator.

I had a similar experience years ago when I was looking for a agent for screenplays. Most were rude, slow, unresponsive or some combination of all of those. The ones who gave notes back or at least sent a nice, personal rejection, were all the top agents in Hollywood. Remember Michael Ovitz? He founded Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and was, in the early 90s, the most powerful and feared of Hollywood players. I just knew that he was an agent on the WGA signatory list with heaps of recent sales, so I sent him my script. Within two weeks I got a really polite rejection letter gently informing me that Mr. Ovitz was pretty chock-a-block full with is current client list and not looking for new clients (any idiot could read between the lines of this note and catch the “unless you have a Pulitzer Prize play under your belt…”. But I hadn’t yet risen to the level of ‘idiot’).

So, my experience is that top-notch people tend to be top-notch because they’re on top of things. They read their mail and respond. They don’t act arrogant to newbies. They have a polite response to even the most naive approach, and they give you a hand-up if it looks like you have a bit of talent. Even if it means they’re letting themselves in for more reading.

As William Goldman famously said about the screen trade, “Nobody knows anything.” As soon as you put your work on the market you start to understand what that means. You think there’s consistency of opinion amongst people who make movies or publish books, and who have seen the variability in the flood of submissions, but in fact there’s no consistency at all. One person’s literary masterpiece is another person’s doorstop. Your work is ready-to-go from one point of view, still-needs-some-tweaking from another, and not-worth-the-effort to a third.

In an age where you can easily skip the whole process and just ePublish when you decide, for yourself, that your work is ready. is it really worth all the rejection and hoop-jumping of looking for an agent? Financially, it may well not be. But artistically it forces you to measure up and to reach for something better than your first idea. That’s what public art is all about.

Written by Alan

August 31st, 2012 at 11:14 pm

Posted in Writing