This posting adds to the final chapters of the book, The Writing Arts: An Author’s Perspective by Charles A. Taormina. Earlier chapters are posted here at WordPress, in reverse order (see Archive for topics). To start at the beginning, scroll down to the first chapter, “Our Rebirth of Writing.”
“Beware of Agents: Our Predatory Brethren,” October 4, 2013
“Advancement & Transcendence,” March 30, 2010
“The Writing Life,” March 20, 2010
“Great Themes,” March 5, 2010
“The Novel,” February 15, 2010
“Autobiography,” January 27, 2010
“Nonfiction/Fiction/Drama,” December 30, 2009
“Spirituality,” October 30, 2009
“Experimentalism,” September 20, 2009
“Creativity,” August 15, 2009
“Retrospective of Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn,” July 29, 2009
“Self-Editing For Authors (Part II),” July 10, 2009
“Self-Editing For Authors (Part I),” June 26, 2009
“Acceptance of Individual Authors,” June 6, 2009
“Our Rebirth of Writing,” May 25, 2009
“10 Ways for Writers to Survive the Great Recession,” May 25, 2009
BEWARE OF AGENTS: OUR PREDATORY BRETHREN
(Failed Marketing Reps)
Charles A. Taormina
Copyright © 2013 by Charles A. Taormina
Most of the postings here have been aimed at presenting an entire book of literary concerns, which was completed in 2010, The Writing Arts: An Author’s Perspective (scroll down again for the entire text). I had finished the twelve or thirteen chapters in a thorough fashion, so as to complete the book and pass along the lessons I learned from nearly four decades of being an author. The lengthy chapters also were considered part of what I called “macro-blogging,” to present detailed and significant book chapters, not merely some daily reminiscence or weekly addition in three hundred words or so, the way most blogs are handled.
I did complete that, with a full manuscript posted of some 180,000 words, enough, I felt in the few years I researched, composed and posted the book, to interest and satisfy most readers—probably much more than they could or would handle, that is, to return on months of successive blog contacts to finish studying the book. In the meantime, an editor I wrote to about the blog suggested for me to add to whatever was already posted, to “update it,” and so did several alert readers, who wanted to return to see what was new on the blog. It is with that impetus that I decided the foremost essay or topic I might encounter is the bane of American publishing marketers, our Literary Agents. I have quite a bit to say about them and want to forewarn everyone that my experiences are not positive and I have nothing to recommend the predatory institution, whatsoever. This will not be a sort of “get-in-touch-with-your-next-friendly-agent” style of article found in many of our pop writing magazines. The truth will out; and mostly, rather than venting my spleen over these pages, I hope to detail enough, so that others might learn from my mistakes or the problems I had with agents, and avoid, I pray, becoming some new victim of these criminal and indifferent parasites, who live off of the creative in this country.
Before continuing, however, I should mention that I decided to add some blog posts, shorter than my original book chapters, but still worthy to supplement what I envision as a sort of appendix of varied additional material important to authors.
A literary agent is defined as an independent book marketing representative or consultant, serving between author and publisher or film producer, usually working for a fee only after selling an author’s book manuscript, the fee arranged as a percentage of the sale with both the advance and the royalties (10-15% of domestic book deals, 20% for foreign rights) and a continual percentage of any further royalties, often including subsidiary rights like ebooks, audio books, international rights and film or stage adaptations—this for the entire life of the book project. Agents are paid their royalty share before any author receives his or her remaining royalties. “Literary agents most often represent novelists, screenwriters, and nonfiction writers.” A literary agent can be a single person or work in a group with a small number of others in a metropolitan area as a full literary agency. (Wikipedia)
It should first be understood of where exactly our traditional book publishing industry is in America, or how it is operating now in 2013, certainly with still many changes happening each year. Our modern literary agents first appeared around 1880, according to Wikipedia, giving us less than one hundred fifty years to see what the cycle of such industry or results have been. We have reached a point where such a middleman, a literary agent, is king or queen or central today, for authors and publishers, not some luxury option for the occasional well-selling writer or maybe for promoting film additions or options of fast-selling novels already published.
Instead, we have reached the point, where almost all traditional or legacy publishers in America REQUIRE that you approach them as an author with new material via a literary agent—that is, the legacy publishers are refusing out of hand even to consider independently submitted manuscripts, what used to be called those sent “over the transom” (often keyed with that other frightening phase for neophytes, “slush pile,” where hundreds of new manuscripts by unknown writers might lay in some sort of massive heap, awaiting not the prayed-for Scribner-like editor such as Max Perkins to look over them, but usually some post-graduate intern or even a sophomoric student doing some July project during the summer). But again, at least in the old days one could send one’s manuscript through the U.S.P.S. and receive in several months some sort of form rejection—occasionally even with a few comments perhaps. After the 1980s, at least with my marketing of original material, often this was done in more astute fashion, with a preliminary letter or query to a named editor at a publisher asking permission to submit not an entire manuscript, but a synopsis say of a novel and three sample chapters, included of course with the ubiquitous SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope, for a trusty return). Again, all this has changed. Today the publishers don’t want to fool with new writers, or at least in this older, folksy and more personable way; rather they want to deal only with sure-thing “commercial properties,” and by that I mean, probable best-sellers or unusual or exceptional manuscripts which are completely screened and presented by a commercial literary agent, one often having offices in nearby buildings in New York City, naturally. The agents mostly want to talk to you if you have sold a manuscript already, or let’s be perfectly clear, if you have sold a book manuscript which has been published and sold at least modest copies, with some good review notices. That is, it’s the old Catch-22 again: you can find an agent only if you’re already selling; similar to the cynical line about only being able to borrow money from a bank, when you can prove you don’t really need it (enough resources).
This has led, I believe, to us now having in America some 1,000 literary agents (Quertytracker.net, Writer’s Digest), which can fall into three probable classes: authentic commercial agents mostly set on best-seller quality merchandise, some few who also will handle more high quality literary work and associated products (plays, film scripts, poetry, the occasional story collections), and finally a host of frankly criminal offal simply waiting for the naïve or desperate so as to siphon off funds from fledgling authors, curmudgeons really. For those thinking I exaggerate here, see simply a site like Writer Beware and read down over a few of the continual practices by these lowlifes: all kinds of initial fees, not simply reading fees at the beginning, but editorial fees which are “highly recommended” before any real agenting takes place, copying fees or extra payments for actual submission costs of manuscripts to different publishing houses (including phone calls, postage and presentation fees, maybe even extra charges not exactly for manuscript editing as preparation of sales materials to publishers), recommendations to vanity publishers (with kickbacks), and other fraudulent activities. These sorts of things will be detailed more in the further pages.
[See also “The Twenty Worst Literary Agents in America” at www.sff.net/people/doylemacdonald/twentyworst.htm (none of my agents appear here), Bewares, Recommendations, & Background Checks with Absolute Write at www.absolutewrite.com, and Writer Beware for files about some 400 or so questionable agencies and general advice at www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/agents/]
The other side to this, however, is one must and really do need, we completely have to understand the nature of publishing in the grand old USA today to see the significance of all this. First, there are few legacy publishers left in America; this will come as a shock to newcomers and anyone with active thought processes into “issues of colonization” and issues of true Freedom of Press (as guaranteed by our Constitution); it is frightening—this also should be guaranteed: Freedom of Distribution and Freedom of Thought, but those issues are being cribbed and nibbled at and are being pulled away from all of us at every angle across all communication and publishing forms. What I mean by this, is that most of the major publishers in our supposedly free country are not owned by Americans at all, four of six have European owners (Salon.com, CyberCollege.com). I find this shocking, one from the sensitivity and productivity of providing and maintaining some print culture or larger sense of literary or book culture in the nation at all, and two, from the understanding that more and more of this is being condensed or decided upon and focused elsewhere, to an extra-national degree, that some would find hard to believe. It’s one thing to talk about the German Bertelsmann owning Random House and Penguin (formerly British), and the understanding of the Deutsche Mark being the most stable base currency of the EU and Germany its most formidable member, and it’s another to watch the control and tightening monopoly, via also all the ISBN numbers and associated cataloguing of any book published anywhere in the West, again all centralized in Europe. (Bertelsmann has been accused in WWII of deriving profits from slave labor and propaganda, [Wikipedia].) ISBN designations are supposedly country-specific; yet the headquarters were in Germany, now in England (still European). We must remember, that when Hitler first published his Mein Kampf, it was not for foreign consumption; rather he intended to convince native Germans of a necessary aggressive policy (leading to actual war, inevitably WWII) but to convince the large portion of current Germans then, who simply wanted to conquer by a slower and more peaceful economic means, of controlling Europe by war. Now we have that, with economics. (Half of my own heritage is German, for those thinking I’m simply bashing a Nordic European power). But Harper Collins Publishers is now Rupert Murdoch’s business, Random House and Penguin (British) are Bertelsmann’s, Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings (St. Martin’s Press, Henry Holt, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Palgrave Macmillan) is German, and some consider the French Hachette among the big players (Little, Brown & Company, Grand Central Publishing—formerly Warner Books). Simon & Schuster and Time Warner at this point in 2013 are still American. Many of our newspapers though are headed the same way, with the British buyout of The Wall Street Journal in the last few years by Rupert Murdoch (Bezos, the American owner of Amazon.com, with his recent “personal” purchase of The Washington Post is a pleasant change).
Some will argue that there are 3,000 small and specialty book publishers still in America (Literary Market Place, GlobalPublishers.com), which is true; but again the very center of financial remuneration or economics with the majority of big publishers is almost all extra-national, as concerns U.S.A.
This leaves us then with more “bottom-line” considerations in publishing as a purely commercial enterprise (of course it always has been, but usually has been softened by the real considerations of literary art, new artists, and the good of the culture here in America, again, simply studying the legend of Max Perkins at Scribner’s shows enough joy of discovery and nurturing in the publishing world for decades of writers). But now the book industry must make a profit always and only consider what will turn a profit, so more and more emphasis goes to choosing the least quality, the thriller, tomes for universities perhaps, and romances, and adventure or kinds of simplistic novels which make calling their true “package controllers” or “content producers” as authors a real misnomer. Ultimately, of course, all this leads to a failing of literary quality, a falling of literary expectation, and a complete dumbing down of majority culture (if there’s anything left after TV’s finished muddling our brains), and finally of the end of more serious writers, who suddenly and constantly, simply cannot continue because they’re pushed to personal disaster, failure, bankruptcy. This is not a vicious circle; it is one that I believe is more than unconscious, a sort of PLANNED dumbing down of our culture or censorship, so there are less rebels, less distribution of exceptional books which might cause many in the culture suddenly to think, and less chance for anything exceptional in the arts, whatsoever. Is it any wonder, then, that so many advanced novels, or novelists today are marketed in a multicultural way, and who are in fact outside of America, or other than American-born authors? (I give a few examples like Salmon Rushdie as international stars and others prompted within America such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Chang-Rae Lee, Etel Adnan, Junot Diaz. These are acclaimed authors to be sure, but again, where are our American-born writers of merit?)
Before these notes appear as simply a tirade or even a politically motivated kind of semblance to our publishing industry, I do want to mention that I’ve been an author here in America since 1970, some forty years; and that I have had in the course of my career contracts or serious business with five agents, and none of them have proved worthwhile, effective or even professional; almost all of them have charged me for many fees, and most of them have believably or not, actually lost or misplaced or refused to return my original manuscripts once our arrangements were over in an official way.
It’s probably best to be completely honest and clear then, about my own concerns with agents and experiences. And for those who are saying, “Well, it’s sour grapes, if you had some success you wouldn’t be harping like this”—that is true to a point. And while I decry the nature of the business now, it should be known that up until last year I was still searching for a viable literary agent for a newly completed novel, Karma Bums, and that even now, I would consider a legitimate agent. What I want to make clear, however, is that I feel I’m the sort of author who really needs or merits professional representation, because I produce new work on a regular basis, and professionally completed manuscripts (via computer with synopsis, background notes, etc), but over a wide variety of types of material. I have authored six novels, four books of short stories, a book of three novellas, a book of short plays, three chapbooks of poetry, longer discrete plays and film scripts, and over a dozen or so nonfiction books (collection of published journalism, book of essays, book of literary essays, metaphysical books, an autobiography, a spiritual memoir, a small author’s book for apprentices and the larger blog book for writers). I detail that because all of it really requires some varied marketing resources and someone to represent the many types of books across a wide range of publishers; also, as I’m certainly not a hobbyist or “one-book” author, while I’ve done my stints at conventional marketing both to publishers in the old days and agents now, really I’m too active as a professional writer to be fooling with all this . . . yet, I’m poor, and worse, most of my work remains unpublished and unread (in last years I have gone about self-publishing, with two paperbacks done and five ebooks published, and will continue more). But the point here, is that I’m productive, professional, and in need of passing the book manuscripts on to a publisher now as each is completed, not simply trying to find a single publisher, agent or whatever!
Also, as part of the “sour grapes,” I will mention too, that for years I have had small-scale success or wonderful feedback on my work, so that it’s not as if I’m simply continuing out of some stolid obsessiveness. Again, I’ll be specific here, not to bang my own drum, but to provide personal detail. I’ve had many stories published in literary magazines, dozens of articles too, and did a stint for two years as a contributing editor for a community newspaper (with features, interviews, book reviews week in and week out), edited a literary magazine where my writing was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, did receive an Honorable Mention in a national essay contest (later published in commercial magazine), published my own intellectual, renaissance print newsletter, had comments early on from editors at Scribner’s (this in the 1980s) about submitted book proposal for my later self-published novel, Gratuity, that my writing “is strong and characters are interesting and well developed . . .” and later an educator in Virginia evaluated my short stories (now self-published in ebook form, Moments) with “You are one of the exceptions to the observance of Robert Frost that ‘half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can’t, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.’ You obviously have something to say and can, and I hope you keep on saying it.” Further compliments came most recently in later years even with the blog, where readers kindly mentioned “superb blog” and “you should be part of a contest for one of best blogs online.” Again, that’s some verification from external sources that I’m not imagining the perceived quality and high ambitions for my work from some inner arrogance.
I promised to go into more detail about my own experiences with literary agents, to show by example what might happen and the real predatory nature of these crooks. It should be noted that I first approached a writing or talent agent early on, in 1970, right after I was graduated from college, when upon a trip across country, where I was looking for employment opportunities. I had traveled to southern California with my young wife at the time, from Ohio, where we were residing. I contacted a few places for work there, one a teaching position for Spanish (language teaching with my college major and junior year aboard in Spain, so that I was bilingual) with the Peace Corps—only as a paid instructor, not a volunteer. That didn’t work out and so I tried contacting a local literary agent, whose name I have forgotten. I was treated kindly enough, but was told quite honestly that I should wait to produce a few manuscripts of commercial quality and then return—at that point, I had done many creative essays in school, free-lanced academic papers, and a stint as editor and writer for a strike newspaper on our college campus. I thought the advice was sound and seemed to suggest a good plan. Unfortunately, as readers will attest to the growing list of my completed works (some thirty-one finished books now), having such a satchel of finished work has done nothing for me with attracting or finding a legitimate agent. I did return East after that, wrote some short stories later that year, and finally started my first novel, Abbas and Merdan, which was completed in another year and marketed to publishers, yet failed to find a taker.
In total, over the years, I have had five different literary agents, which I will discuss here. Most were obtained only after first doing my own marketing efforts. To be fair to everyone and to avoid legal problems of slander or having to go to court before I could afford representation, I’ve decided simply to label each agent as A, B, C, D, E, and discuss how they worked and what was achieved or not achieved, again all anonymously. (These notes are on file, and should some publisher or reader wish details, I can provide them.) While this seems obvious, I want to mention also, that at certain times I went further too, because I’ve been so creative, and with so many different projects (by this I mean even outside of being an author, now doing some original ballads, acrylic painting, new architectural studies, projects for film shorts, plus still photography, and inventions) that I searched out marketing reps of a sort, agents really, for my still photography (as stock photos to be sold via an agent) and also with an invention marketing firm to handle a small innovation (from dozens of my inventions) that I wanted presented to industry. At one point, I could claim during my time I think in Akron, Ohio, during the late 1980s, I had a literary agent for my books, a photo agent for my stock photography, and an invention agent for an invention. Most of these required not only a lot of work to present my set creative material to various industries, but individual fees with each company. I felt it was a good investment for my future and went ahead. Nothing came of it; in this case, I lost book manuscripts with Agent C, and stock photos with the photo agent; fortunately, though my presentation of an invention to industry failed to find a buyer, my materials were returned in professional fashion.
My first contract literary agent was arranged from my residence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1976. I had written about and become friends with a renegade licensed architect there, Larry Hackenberg, who had published through UVA Press a decent, small book about green wood construction, The Green Wood House (building your own from green oak, this in the Hippie days when alternative housing was quite trendy). I was fortunate enough to be commissioned by Hackenberg to edit and become co-author on his second book, about creative ecological new designs for small homes that Hackenberg was doing in Virginia. We titled the completed manuscript, In the Search of a Soul, with both of us as co-authors and original photography by another friend, Tom Cogill (later to go on to publish work in National Geographic). After completing the manuscript together, we were shocked to have it declined by UVA Press and I think, maybe by some other contacts of Larry’s. I felt frustrated enough then, to go through a traditional literary agency in NYC, Agent A, which I saw advertised in several magazines and perhaps even the New York Times. The agent was with a standard and well-respected agency which had handled some very big literary names of the time, as well as newcomers, so I never doubted the company’s authenticity. But I think in retrospect, their treatment of new authors was quite shabby. I remember clearly of gathering together the hefty reading fee for new authors of $200 (this was in 1976 or so, when that was quite a bit of change, especially with me working a day job in a bar). I sent in my copy of our manuscript, the $200, a cover letter and synopsis I think, and felt confident that something professional soon would happen. Larry already had published one book, it sold in a small way, he had some attention from other magazines, from my own Times of Charlottesville articles that we published, and his free-lanced article to Mother Earth News, and I had enough credentials, with the community newspaper where I worked, as well as having completed three novels by the time (unpublished), many stories and poetry, and regional journalism. In a month or so, I received back a 20-page sort of answer, which I felt was awful. It was a rejection, but included for my $200 was this sort of sophomoric book review of the manuscript, not really saying what was or could be wrong, but simply that they felt it didn’t hold promise. I surmised, that it might be due to the many mentions of “blessings of God” from Larry’s original prose; he was quite spiritual then, and that seemed in the turbulent and irreverent 1970s the wrong commercial approach. At any rate, the manuscript was rejected. But that wasn’t the worst part. I received the long term paper in a manila envelope, with a note saying that the manuscript was being returned under separate cover and would arrive shortly. I waited and waited. I think I contacted them again, and they said they sent it to me, but again, I never received my manuscript. I felt shocked, and worse, exasperated, as the reading fee itself, along with postage for initial mailing and SASE, was so costly that I failed to make a copy of the book. This, of course, was in the days before home computers, so the only finished copy or close to finished copy, was from my working rough drafts. I lost my money, my chance to get the thing published (my only payment in agreement for completely editing and doing a line-by-line copy edit was part of the final royalties as an official co-author), and finally the manuscript itself. There was so much other turmoil in my life at the time that I failed to go to my friend and co-author and get another copy of our work. It was a disaster! Yet, too, many lessons learned . . . though, one will see, that this thing of losing or misplacing or refusing to return original manuscripts carries through with almost all the other agents I dealt with. Dirt balls!
Next, was my surprise in Akron, Ohio where I moved, to be closer to my young daughter with my broken marriage, to see an advertisement in The Akron-Beacon Journal, for a literary agent based in Pittsburgh, PA who was searching for new clients, Agent B. Immediately I sent in a prospectus, was asked to send in several manuscripts then, which I did, for a novel, a book of short stories, and I think a play and some nonfiction books, five or six total. I sent my original manuscripts, but of course this time made certain that I had good copies in my permanent possession. This agent seemed exciting for me, as he was handling several of my manuscripts simultaneously, had only a small reading fee, I think, and more importantly, this in 1988, was aggressive in his activity and procedures for submitting the work of new writers to New York publishers, via a sort of monthly newsletter/brochure from his agency, detailing each thirty days the varied authors and certain works, this supposedly in addition to traditional phone calls and independent submissions. To boot, the principal, whose name was on the masthead as the owner of the Pittsburgh agency claimed to have been a very successful free-lance writer himself, mostly with small articles, yet financially successful in the commercial magazine field in America.
Again, I waited and waited. I did receive regular notes about my manuscripts being represented for several months, and it was an exciting prospect at the time, as I had much work all completed recently in a year of revision and writing I spent alone in Montana (some 11 books completed in a year, three novels, three books of short stories, five books of nonfiction)—plus I was still writing new material and had completed by then, two short plays and the rough draft of a longer, three-act play. One of my plays at the time was being considered as the basis for a local Akron film with The Alive Center; but that too fell through. What I received next from the agent, however, was not word of some submissions of my writing through the agency, but requests for me to send additional money, these as manuscript copying fees, some $50 per book (I had five or six or so manuscripts with the agent at the time). I felt shocked; the agent said it was best to have several copies of each book all ready, so that when many book publishers requested copies, there would be no waiting. I was also upset about the actual costs, because at the time in Akron, I could get the manuscripts copied at local copy centers much more reasonably than these prices—but of course, I also had mailing costs to the agent for the shipping. I wrote back, that I should be contacted if several publishers wanted to review my manuscripts, upon which time I would immediately send the copies—or even a payment for one such manuscript, if that was absolutely necessary at the time. I sent one fee for $50. There were not many other details from the agent . . . after some months, I think, I contacted the agent again to find out that there were “difficulties” with the overall business, that the agency was closing, and not much more could be said. I later researched this myself, and discovered from reliable sources, that the person in charge of the agency had some sort of mental crackup (which was sad but understandable I thought); yet worse was that there were rumored to be all sorts of corrupt practices of overcharging the author-clients, in particular, requesting manuscript copying fees, which never went for any copying process at all! Perhaps, most disastrous, for a fledgling professional author like myself, were the dashed dreams, with what I thought might be more proactive and assertive agent, and one I felt at first, “was from my own home state of Pennsylvania,” who might prove a good compatriot in the lit-biz.
This was not to be the end of the sad tale with Agent B. Not only did I suddenly lose my newly-found agent, but upon contacting the Pittsburgh office several times, I think by phone and letter, I could not find further details about the business and was worried about the now defunct agency holding five or six complete manuscripts of mine! I received no answer nor reply to my remonstrations; and I felt very upset. Again, the loss of possible decent agenting was stressful enough, but in my times of writing constantly and professionally, I was still working day jobs which I could barely stand and living on paltry wages. I could not afford to recopy all my manuscripts, when they simply should’ve been returned to me. Let me fast-forward a bit here, because by the end of a year or so of other problems in Akron, working on now a series of short plays (for a combined book), I decided to move again back to Pennsylvania. Only these days, I was without work and without much savings, really living as a pauper, almost homeless. I remember staying for the fall of 1989 in a beat-up boarding house in Pennsylvania and deciding to write directly to the Attorney General of Pennsylvania, about the agent’s activities and especially the lack of return of my book manuscripts. To my surprise, within a month I had a personal letter directly from the former agency owner, B. He was sincere and apologetic, said that he had many personal difficulties with his business for which he was sorry, and that in fact, if he could be reconciled with the Attorney General, he would return my book manuscripts forthwith. I was so pleasantly surprised to hear from this person, and so naïve still to all the varieties of lies possible with a proven con man, that I right away wrote back to the Attorney General, saying that the agent had contacted me and had promised to send me my manuscripts. I thanked the attorney’s office for helping me recover my books. Need I go on? Of course, I never heard from this crook again, never received my manuscripts nor even a note saying he couldn’t find them (which should’ve been accompanied by a check for over $150 for copying fees)—yet again, nothing! Unbelievably enough, this same crook as of some years ago was still operating as a literary agent!
Agent C was a representative I met through the disaster of this Pittsburgh agent, which should’ve tipped me off about shady practices. She seemed to be more open and forthright in her processes with me, even understanding of my poverty and willing to handle me at first, for one novel, and to see how things would go. I later kept in touch with this person as an agent in Pittsburgh for one novel, and had other encounters with her, which at first seemed quite positive. At one point I was invited down to her office for a special event, which local newspaper journalists would cover and maybe even TV, it was in support of Salmon Rushdie, at the time in 1989, with all the hoopla for his most recently published book, The Satanic Verses. I didn’t particularly care for Rushdie, and certainly not for any book having anything to do with Satan, even in its title; but I had written one novel set in Islamic Morocco, Abbas and Merdan, and thought it would be a good showing in support of literature and maybe get some notice both for my new agent and my offered book. I did attend and did actually get to speak with a journalist there, from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I remember talking to the woman journalist, mentioning that I was an author represented by Agent C, with a literary novel, that I had written quite a few books and been a journalist myself, and that one of my novels had an Islamic background or setting, and too, that I thought the Rushdie book was a problem or an insult, in that with his title in the fundamentalist world of Islam then, it should’ve never been published (similar to if it were a book about communism or radical socialism attempting to get published in our consumer-crazy, capitalist West). More, I felt it was a propaganda ploy by the British government to publish an unknown Pakistani author because his work was anti-Islamic, or more to the point anti-God. I was shocked from this incident, when I later read the journalist’s published review of the event at my agent’s office—there was no mention of me or my book or my opinion whatsoever, in fact the journalist was a bit flippant about the authors there, writing something to the effect that one author was a real estate agent with a mystery novel, who considered himself a “weekend novelist” and had no other comments. It was a good lesson in how exactly the newspapers are fully censored in America (probably at the journalist’s level), and how impossible it is or was (before Internet news and social media or live news blogging by thousands across the world) for real news or the authentic facts to be reported, especially if there was some twist that just didn’t agree with someone’s preconceived notions (Rushdie was accepted, the agent was new and couldn’t have any worthwhile authors represented, or worse, nothing sincere or commercial was being done there in Pittsburgh which merited serious attention). This naturally had nothing to do with my agent, she had provided the opportunity and had steered I think the journalist toward interviewing me; however it fits with the general publishing malaise detailed here in this post.
I later did some free-lance work for this same Agent C, in that she was offering to her new authors book revisions or close book editing, with novels being noted in almost page-by-page written suggestions. I was contracted to do this for a new novel for a payment in 1989 of $100. This was an awful low amount for such work, which took me nearly a month, but it helped me out with my child support at the time; and I thought, maybe if I did a good editing job, other higher-paying jobs might become available. I had by that time quite a bit of experience with editing—first, I had written 12-15 books of my own, and was used to revisions and going over my original manuscripts, sometimes years later after sloppy rough drafts, and finishing them on professional word processors. Also, again, I had done exactly the same, including a line-by-line copy edit of the architectural book in Virginia, In the Shape of a Soul, plus had served as full contributing editor in Virginia to the community newspaper, which often required us more experienced writers to edit many citizen-submitted articles, so that they were publishable. I had edited and published a small press literary magazine in Virginia, The Blue Ridge Review—thus I felt by then, I was bringing decades of real editing experience to my duties. I did finish the novel and was proud of my detailed notes and hopes that it would sincerely help the new authoress; and I was paid quickly my fee of $100.
This did lead to an odd request by Agent C, in that she heard of my difficulty at the time of finding even day jobs (I don’t know why exactly that the obvious solution of successfully marketing my novel already with her agency didn’t seem apparent?). She offered me a small position with her agency, both clerical and doing more editing as that might proceed, and in the meantime, asked if I would house-sit for her and her husband, that is actually move my small things (mostly clothes and a personal computer) into her house; and for a week or so, work at her office as literary agency—doing small tasks like straightening the office, some typing and prep work, which would be expanded once she returned from vacation. I took her up on the offer; especially, as I thought it might be a way to put all my very real editing and literary talents to work for some day job sort of income during those troubled years; and too, why not work directly inside a literary agency and maybe help the actual marketing of one’s own work? I took off then, visited with the agent and moved my things into her house; this all seemed a bit odd to me, as I knew of the person only from occasional business contacts, and never spent any social time or friendly time at all getting to know her. I did go to the office and was shown around before she left. I went in the next day, and I think, another day or so, but in going through the files she wanted straightened in the file cabinet, came upon some receipts and notes which bothered me quite a bit. One was a short story that she had sent to me, from a different author, asking my opinion about editing the thing, if it were to be improved. I think it was a sort of “test” to see how strong my editing abilities were; and it was simple enough with that piece, to suggest cutting the beginning and part of the ending—many newcomers open a short story with backstory, instead of starting closer to the actual dramatic center of a story, and some other notes. I never thought anything about that; it was a regular duty of mine, again with submissions both for our community newspaper and my own literary magazine in Virginia. What shocked me however, was now seeing that Agent C had used my notes for the short story exactly as a professional editor’s response (which was fine), but with a substantial charge to the original author. I received no payment or acknowledgement whatsoever. Worse, was when I found the author’s materials for the novel I had edited so thoroughly and did receive payment for, I realized that my payment of $100 was certainly profitable for Agent C—she had charged the poor author some $800. I felt irate! I could barely pay child support, was busting my butt for the editing work, and here it was being marked up some 8 times! There were other problems I suddenly felt about this entire process here, and some from conversation, and some from what I saw in the files, in that most of the business profit seemed to come not from selling or promoting books and book manuscripts or any literary material from the author-clients, rather it came from exorbitant fees for all kinds of editing and prep work. I remember, not controlling my Italian temperament too much upon discovering all this and the terrible feeling that here I was, actually inside an agency which seemed to be pilfering and fleecing young authors on a regular basis. One of the agent’s friends worked in an adjoining office—and in my muddled fury (yet controlled anger, I actually completed all my clerical duties professionally, I always do my job!), I soon heard that the friend had contacted the agent and I was asked to leave immediately and also to depart from the house. I didn’t object; left the office, returned to the house for my clothes and portable personal computer, and departed the same day; all within three days of my actual “new job.”
That total experience was settled amiably, in the sense, that my manuscript was returned from Agent C—and I had no further dealings with the person. I’ve gone on here a bit, however, to show new authors a view of the inside of one of these places and what seemed to me no morality or ethics whatsoever in charging inflated fees to many authors (to be fair, I still feel that the woman who paid $800 for the complete editing of her entire novel did receive good value—only I didn’t, in payment for the editing work). Again, these places exist not to help authors but to fleece them, mostly living off extended fees of all sorts and rarely if ever actually selling an author’s work to a legitimate publisher (even after the payment of fees and completed revisions!). Agent C even set up her own vanity imprint. Readers will be unable to check my further research here about Agent C; but let me say that several years ago, when completing my autobiography and researching some of these notes, Agent C was fully rebuked and condemned by many authors online, for doing all the sorts of fleecing of authors and rarely selling any book manuscripts. Beware!
Agent D I was introduced to by a friend, another published author, which is touted as the best way to find an agent. I had worked with Deborah T., when I was an editor of my literary magazine in Charlottesville, VA, The Blue Ridge Review. She wanted to write more seriously, had submitted a creative short work to the magazine, which I rejected, and when asked why, in person, I went over it in detail. She asked if she could revise it and resubmit it; and we went through several brief author-editor sessions, after which I felt the short fictional piece was good enough and published it in my magazine. Years later, I noticed a picture of the same writer, Deborah, in a publication from the Edgar Cayce Institute out of Norfolk, Virginia. Most of my life I’ve had an interest in researching psychic events (and recently completed my own spiritual memoir detailing all my spiritual experiences) as well as having visited the Edgar Cayce Institute. What surprised me about the photo, was there was my once writing student listed as the author of a book about angels that had been published. I called the institute to see if I could obtain the address of the author, was informed that it was impossible to give out private information but I could send a letter to her care of the institute, and she could contact me. I did; and received a kind letter and soon talked with Deborah by phone. I think there was a lot of tension somehow between us, but the author was sincere enough to hear me out, my plight about still writing and unable to find a publisher, and she suggested that I get in contact with her agent in NYC, and even generously suggested using her name as an intro. I thanked her and very much appreciated it. I wrote to Agent D then, only felt that instead of trying yet one more book this time that I would do something a bit different. I included a proposal for an informational tape set, similar to the commercial Nightingale-Conant series (which I listened to often for business), only the set was to be about the Renaissance, in specific, about doing a renaissance now for the average person, business or creative leader. This sounds far-fetched, but I had spent then over a decade researching renaissance themes, books, art, and had visited Florence, Italy (birthplace of the Italian Renaissance), had published a renaissance newsletter, and even had authored an original 30-minute tape cassette (which I offered free as an intro gift for my newsletter subscriptions). The tape, “Renaissance: An Introduction,” was the first part of a longer series (which I’m still working on). So, I sent a good intro letter or query to Agent D, which mentioned the referral from my published friend, the synopsis of my renaissance series and all my work about Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci (a lifelong inspiration for me and source of constant study), the tape, and asked about the marketing possibilities for the entire set. I included enough background with my published and unpublished work, to show that I was a professional.
This makes tedious reading here, as the same negativity constantly pursues me with commercial agents. In a reasonable time, I received a fairly perfunctory reply letter saying that he, Agent D, couldn’t help me and wished me luck. I felt surprised enough then, especially with the complete rejection after the referral from a published author and his own client—and worse, there was no return of the sample cassette that I submitted or all my synopsis and materials showing how marketable all this would be, for the business and cultural community in America. I even called Agent D, spoke to him and asked for details, again hearing in nonchalant fashion that he didn’t think it marketable. Then I mentioned, that even through he didn’t care for the opportunity to represent me, that I’d appreciate the return of all my materials in the SASE I enclosed for that purpose with my original submission. I was told that he could not return it. I asked why, and he said he couldn’t, and that was the end of the conversation; again, I felt completely floored! Why was my material being kept almost every time or lost or misplaced or never returned from these guys?
Cynics will say, in this day and age, when professional agents are deluged with so many proposals that it’s unrealistic to expect them to return the material—probably it was simply thrown away. But I have another possible explanation and mean this most sincerely. Within a year of the lack of representation for renaissance material and a renaissance tape being sent to New York—where evidently it was considered of no commercial value whatsoever, suddenly guess what was published in book form, and later as audio cassettes: How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael J. Gelb! I don’t appreciate this; at one point, years earlier, after trying to freelance article ideas to major magazines (which were rejected, and in a month or so I noticed the magazines had their staff do the same article ideas!), seeing other book projects copied, and the same for film knockoffs, I’m under no illusion whatsoever, that my material and that of many other unsuspecting creative individuals might simply be stolen, with a few minor adjustments to original ideas, concepts, creative scripts (for stories or novels change geographical settings, change center or focus a bit, add other background), then used without the original authors being reimbursed, credited, or worse acknowledged in any way. Again, my original material was never returned, and in this case, perhaps it went to another author or more probably some book marketer to arrange with another innocent or unsuspecting author, to do essentially the same thing! If people in America think that the copyright infringement and stealing of intellectual property from books and films are only the prerogatives of China or India or parts of the Middle East, believe me, we first should investigate New York City!
Once in Charlottesville, while working in a gourmet French restaurant, I was introduced to a person doing some editing or associated with a popular men’s magazine. I remember in a casual conversation with the person mentioning my own writing and editing background and also saying how interested I was in biography and biographical material, especially for the person I was talking to, about those special magazine interviews. I proposed then that maybe I could work on a “Collection of Magazine Interviews.” The person I spoke with shook his head and said he didn’t think there was enough interest or commercial marketability for the project. Of course, a few years later such a book or series were published; I’m still waiting for my credit or reimbursement!
Upon returning to a residence in Akron, Ohio once more, my last decade of residing there, right before moving from Pennsylvania, I found another small literary agent in Medina, just West of Akron, Agent E. I contracted with the agent for marketing my second novel, Endgames, and after submitting a synopsis and sample chapter was accepted. I knew ahead that this agency required a small fee per month, as reimbursement from authors who had not published a book yet with a commercial publisher, and yet decided to go ahead. This was in 1998-9 and the charge was about $20/month, with a guarantee of a six-month contract. My contract was signed and I felt the fee was reasonable for postage and handling; I still had trouble marketing myself with the earlier, somewhat experimental novel, Endgames, so this was worth a try. I did receive regular reports in the mail after paying my first fees, showing where the book was marketed and the results.
After six months, I had decided to move again actually to Akron and felt it best, to be positive for the new millennium (after 2000) and my writing career to continue for another six months or so with the same agency, for similar fees. Again, I did receive regular notices about the results of the submissions, where the novel was being considered, and the reaction; but still, even after this other period, the book was rejected. I got in touch with the agent to ask if anything else was suggested; decided it best to stop the process and asked for all my materials to be returned, once more a full manuscript of the novel, Endgames, plus synopsis and background material. I did receive not long afterward a package in the mail from Agent E. I opened it, and discovered that most of my novel manuscript was returned in good condition, except . . . except, the entire 46 pages of the first section or chapter were missing. I got back in touch with the agency; they said they thought they returned the entire book manuscript. I asked that they check their files and return my first forty pages. Later, I received a note saying nothing was found and that they were sorry and hoped it was no inconvenience. Inconvenience? How is this possible with supposedly professional or commercial representatives in the literary business? How? I did, of course, learn my first lesson in 1976 and had complete copies of all my book manuscripts, which I never let out of my possession, but it was a nuisance taking a good copy and remaking the missing pages. Again, the shock of these agents.
My experience with contracting officially with agents ended with this last Agent E, but not because I had learned fully my lesson. I guess, too, with being so productive and regularly completing new book manuscripts every few years, with all the positive hope and expectation for marketing suddenly a new work, one wants to be optimistic. After completing my fifth novel, and this one more of an adventure or genre specific novel (most of my work is more literary or what was called in the 1980s here “mid-list” books), The Entropy Wars (a Christian spiritual warfare novel), I set about to do my own marketing. I had a longer novel, one that was obviously commercial, one that had a sort of millennialism combat or apocalyptic edge (this in 1999-2000)—so I spent over a year marketing the thing. I was rejected by some twenty publishers then, or more, and also by a similar group of agents (even posted online at an author’s agenting site for Christian Writers, Evangelical Christian Publishers Association’s http://www.epca.org, which also was a waste of money), until finally the following year—a time when I thought I’d do a fool-proof agent package, an adventure novel with a film script. So I learned and studied the film script business and wrote a film adaptation of the same novel, so I could say I had that completed. An agent expressed interest, requested the first three chapters, then refused them and the film script because he didn’t care for the style (exactly where do these goofs come from?). I finally found another agency, for the novel alone, but when I sent the novel for their perusal (after a preliminary letter with synopsis and background sheet), I was told I was approved. The procedure for this place was even more of a doozy than any of my other experiences with agents combined! These people wanted me to sign a contract for the payment of a marketing fee which entailed I think something like the charge of $20-40 per submission (not per month), but the best part (criminals pay attention to this rip-off here!) was that after paying for a set number of submissions on the agency letterhead, I actually had to package the manuscript myself at home and mail off the thing and include return postage, to a list of publishers the agency would provide. I think here I finally reached the end all and be all of not only rip-off agents, but ones that while they were siphoning off your hard earned funds, had actually figured out how to easily continue the torture and additional expense for the author—him or her having to do all the dirty work for him or herself!
So, where does all this leave us, besides yet another set of testimonials about the predators so prevalent in the American literary business? First, I’ll mention a couple of sites to check before anyone starts searching for agents to provide more objective background: Preditors and Editors (www.pred-ed.com/pubagent.htm), Writer Beware (www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/), and the Association of Authors’ Representatives (www.aaronline.org/). Second, I think several coherent things need done in our country to reform and revolutionize this entire criminal area of publishing.
I suggest first that book publishers in America be refused ownership by any controlling entities which are not American. This would do much at least to converting the burden to native-born corporate Philistines, versus foreign who can only have in mind the colonization and victimization and siphoning off of our media profits. Second, I suggest that the literary agents in America be supervised by the government, because obviously, they like our banks are simply unable to police themselves for criminal activity; we need to shut done the phonies, the crooks or the ones partly legit but still siphoning off funds from new authors; we need some national way, maybe again a U.S. Predator List, for victimized authors to report and keep current information about awful agents and their detailed abuses, some way too, for authors to do the opposite—recommend the few honest agents out there; and finally for there to be major investigations of these illegal and foolish and cynical purveyors of supposed literary success in this nation. We shall forgive them, yet not forget the culprits.
What do I think is the real answer? I’m sure astute authors are way ahead of me, especially with the DIY age here, in POD self-publishing and all the self-promotion available for authors of their own works, once the author has published his or her books him or herself. But is that really a strong or let’s say, practical alternative? Some will say it’s our only alternative, but I think, too with all the possibilities of the Internet that some sort of more effective marketing system might be born. Here’s a place for a young programmer to make his or her mark! We’ve already seen sites as I’ve used and mentioned earlier like the Evangelical book marketing site—but again, I found it totally useless. I did, too, take advantage in year 2000, of another site, where different creative properties (books, audio cassettes, plays, etc) were auctioned off, which was called Rightsworld.com. I filled out all my paperwork, uploaded several projects, and within months the entire thing fell apart. Again, no remedy—but that doesn’t mean the time has passed. If we as authors already are facing a time when publishers are being offered as almost outside the normal publishing system these days, then why, why in God Almighty’s name, aren’t we already eliminating literary agents? Maybe there could be a universal submission site, where a novel is uploaded, synopsis and background included, and all the publishers simply sort through that—or even legitimate agents? Surely that might work, but again, how to avoid the scams, pirates, con artists, and simple foolish predator types from ruining our efforts?
Our real role as writers is to create, but at some point, we each as professional authors must take the reins of marketing and distribution into our own hands. Unite!