Literary Agents

To a writer and would be author, a literary agent is everything. Most publishers have a caveat on their websites that they are only taking new work through agents. I’m only speaking of fiction-novels-because that’s all I know.  So, to get to a traditional publisher you have to go through an agent. I think agents mainly help people who have some sort of fame or notoriety that enables book sales. Well, I guess that’s business. However, lightning does strike and I’m sure some agents can point to an unknown writer that he or she got published. We all hope for that, don’t we?

So, it’s simple. Just get an agent and send some of your writing. You will be on your way. Not so fast. Many agents have notices on their websites that they are not taking new writers. Some say maybe ten percent new writers. Others are not so discriminating. However, you will have to ask nicely and say pretty please to get them to look at you. You have to write what is called a query letter. No over the transom manuscripts. The query letter must be written to the strict specifications  of the particular agent. Some only accept emails but no attachments. Some only want snail mail. Send the first five pages of your novel! Can you really evaluate a three hundred page novel in the first five pages? Apparently so, as I got numerous  form rejection notes that the novel did  not sufficiently grab the agent. In five pages?

Oh, and you have to carefully select the agent to whom the Q letter is sent. You do your best to try to figure out which agent likes Biblical Thrillers but I can tell you it’s not easy. Even among those who accept fiction, the rejection letter often says that they appreciate your sending the work but it’s not their cup of tea. The excuse is always that they have 700,000 submissions and only a forty hour work week. What can they do? They are overwhelmed. They cannot possibly read your manuscript so good-bye and good luck.

For my first book, Judas the Apostle, I queried every agent in the book who accepted fiction and new writers. I followed the submission instructions to the letter. I sent letters, emails (without attachments) and waited. And waited. Then the rejection letters began to come in, flooded in. Most were just forms-we cannot possibly write anything personal to everyone we reject. They broke my heart. Only a writer would understand. Well, maybe anyone who had undertaken a project, wrote ninety-five thousand words and re-wrote it twenty times with endless letters and queries, might understand.

However, God is good and even the worst round of golf you ever played contained one or two good shots. In my case, I received five actual responses. My editors though this was pretty phenomenal. The responses varied but were generally in the vein of we kind a, maybe, might  like what you sent. Send along a couple of chapters or a synopsis. More work. More letters and, eventually, the rejection letters was were unanimous, ”don’t give up your day job”.

I didn’t, but I didn’t give up either. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that the agents and the publishers they represent-I think many agents used to work for publishers-hence their connections, represent a dying industry. They have made the path so difficult for new, fresh writers that the internet has figured out how to go around them. Internet publishers are truly turning out some of the best fiction while the traditional publishers continue to publish celebrity books and safe books from legacy authors.  That can only last so long.

Know that I don’t write literary fiction. A hundred years from now no one will mistake me for Melville or London. I just write good stories that have something in them about biblical history that you might like to learn. Some have said they are “beach” books, something you might read on the beach on vacation. So, if the agents I queried had had their way, my books would never have been published and sold. My readers would never have enjoyed that afternoon read on the beach or wherever. That they did is plenty for me.

Check out the books at Amazon under my name. See if you think the agents were correct. In the end, literary agents are everything to a new writer and, unfortunately, for most of us, nothing.



About vrmayhalljr

Van R. Mayhall Jr. is the senior partner in a Baton Rouge, Louisiana law firm where he practices corporate and business law and handles selected litigation. Born and raised in Baton Rouge, he was educated at Louisiana State University and Georgetown University. He and his wife, Lorri, have three grown children and enjoy boating on Lake Pontchartrain.
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