• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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First You Love Me Then You Hate Me

Dear Betsy,
I signed on with a prominent New York agent to represent my debut novel, but in the end she wasn’t able to sell it.
(She only tried selling to some of the big houses.) Despite the fact that most of the editors wrote glowing reports about my novel, they were hesitant to take a chance on it in this difficult market. My agent and I have now parted ways. Is it a waste of time searching for a new agent? Will I be considered “tainted goods”? I would really appreciate some sage advice. I am not sure how to proceed.

Thanks so much!

Dear Tainted:

I’m afraid it’s over. Not all aspiring writers understand that when you make a submission to Joe Blow at Random House,  that he speaks for Random House. If he rejects it, you do not have the opportunity to try his colleague Jane Blow down the hall. You get exactly one chance at every house. When we make up a submission list, we think long and hard about which editor to send it to because you only get this one shot. So a new agent will not be able to resubmit for you if your agent basically covered the waterfront. Your parenthetical about your agent only going to big houses — that’s appropriate and what most agents do. You, however, can try small presses and should. Look at Tinkers. You need to find a new agent when you have a new work. Why did you guys break up? It sounds like you had a lot of close calls and much reason to think the next book might sell. I hope you’re back on the mule. Thanks for writing.

Commenters: can we have some  spectacularly nasty stories about break-ups with editors and agents to get us through the night?

30 Responses

  1. Shame it’s limited to editors and agents . . .

    But I will say this. Just read yesterday’s post and decided I had no strong views on fonts. Correction. I’m hating this teeny tiny font. It’s making my prickles stand up.

  2. Dang, lady. Harsh. Put a little Wild Turkey in my coffee!
    It’s four thirty in the morning and, yes, it’s ADD me up and checking to make sure the world is still out there.
    Way back when – in my younger days- I got a phone call from a guy named David. “It’s over,” he said. And I said: “Who is this?” Come to find out it was David, a guy I’d been out with once months before ( he kept a gun in his glove compartment- hey, I’m from the South). Oh, some people just hang on, don’t they? Oh, to be tainted, it is as though you have walked into the world of shadows- poor David, not me.
    Oh, dear Tainted: This has happened to most of us, I’d guess. The big six, the big six….I long decided this was not going to happen ( and I’m not ever going to comment on Oprah’s selection of Freedom…no, shut yo mout, girlie). So I struck out on my own. And it happened. I sold my book to a small, new, up and coming press – sans agent -and have been working with some super people. (no, I do not do this for money… it doesn’t help my ego)Then lo and behold, an agent I had been after calls and wants to rep another book I’d sent out god knows when. I think his name is David.
    I’m going to give advice here- and Betsy, please correct me if I’m off the mark- google yahoo independent and small presses….make sure they have published good works in your genre…they usually have good websites…follow instructions and send your work…it will take a while (but they respond quicker than big agents or publishing houses). Then write another book and go for the agents again. It’s a long treak down the circles of hell for most of us. So welcome to the club, Tainted. Have heart, you are not alone.
    Shit, I just looked outside. The world is gone!

  3. Gonna have to disagree with Betsy.

    I had this agent. She submitted my debut ms. EVERYWHERE. After a ton of rejections, she told me that the story was dead in the water. Kaput. That I should get busy writing something else. I told her I adored her and went out and found another agent. That agent was crazy and I mean this in the most fundamental way. Got another agent. He found me an editor and a big house and the book went on to sell a bunch.

    I certainly don’t have the experience Betsy does in this business, but I have been doing it longer than a couple of weeks. It’s been my experience that the publishing world is so fucking disorganized they wouldn’t know if you submitted to somebody else in the building. They wouldn’t know if you had previously submitted to THEM. (Had this happen, too.)

    • As someone who did work in one of the big six I can confirm that publishing is a HOT MESS right now; you’re right about that. However, I still think what happened to you has got to be pretty rare and perhaps to be filed under ‘don’t try this at home’. Publishing is still a very small world.

    • I live for these stories. DId your new agent know that the book had been widely submitted and rejected and didn’t care? Had a few years passed? DId he go to all new people? Most agents will not take on a book that has been passed on all over town. So this is FANTASTIC story and outcome. And I agree that houses can be very disorganized. But when I was a young editor, agents would dump old books on me all the time and when I brought up those I was interested in at editorial board, invariably someone would say: didn’t we see that, or I passed on that. And your battleship would be sunk. Tell us the name of the book. This is a great story.

      • Yup…I told the agent that the ms. had been submitted and he didn’t seem to care. Just a few weeks had passed. He might’ve submitted to new people, you know, I just can’t remember anymore. The book went on to sell over 200,000, (And is still chugging along) made the NYT extended list, nice foreign rights and every once in a while somebody brings up making it into a movie. Went on to publish two more books and number 3 will be out next year.

        I’ve found the best thing to do when it comes to publishing is forget the rules. Be a nice terrier.

        Sorry, I can’t tell you the name of the book, Betsy. I want to be able to stomp my feet and piss and moan without anybody getting their nose pushed outta joint. (Love your blog too much to give it up.)

    • Holy Mother! Makes me wonder how other than dumb luck anybody gets published! Right up there with car salesmen and real estate agents! I have ZERO experience but this business is so glaringly tripping over itself I’ll probably opt to take up some other mindbending pasttime than burning up the midnight hours when my muse pushes me out of bed to write. (I should be so lucky!)

  4. I’m singing my own song over here… I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me … I have no agent and know nothing at all.

    I’m puzzled, Betsy. Why couldn’t Tainted’s (I want to call this poor person Taint, which is just salt in the wound, really) agent go to the smaller presses? Is it not worth the agent’s time, money-wise? Also, if the first book doesn’t sell, is the agent/client relationship automatically over?

    Do most people who get an agent have just the one manuscript? I could wall myself in with my pages and I’m just now beginning to query. My strategy was to get a few arrows in my quiver, so if the first novel doesn’t sell there would still be fresh work ready to look at. Of course the agent might not like any of my other projects, but I thought part of the point of having an agent was for their guidance. Why has poor Taint – ehrm, Tainted – been left high and dry?

    Sorry for the question mark extravaganza. I’ll go back to my song now.

    • Lots of agents do go the smaller presses like Greywolf and Soho Press. But not the really small presses who do six books a year. In part because there is almost no money in it, but also because, at least in my experience, these presses don’t much like dealing with agents. An author can get just as far on their own. I’m sure others will disagree but this is my experience. Tainted should approach small presses but do her research first and go to ones that would be simpatico. There is no automatic reason to think that not selling a book would sever the relationship. I’m always happy to see that writer’s next work and am hopeful that I will be able to sell it. But if a writer leaves, I understand as well. It’s a very disappoint, sometimes crushing, experience.

  5. I’m in the same position as this person except my wonderful agent quit the business entirely; so we didn’t break up exactly (sorry Betsy, I know you wanted horror stories).

    I’m about done with a new novel and when it’s polished will be looking for a new agent. I never went to the small presses with my first book, should I have done that then? Should I do it now?

    • If you’re read to go out to a new agent with a new book, I would probably hold off. If it’s going to be a while, why not send them out to some presses and contests?

      • Thanks Betsy. I think I held off originally because I was so close with a couple of big houses that it seemed like I’d have another shot of I put my energies into writing a new novel. Will see what happens in the next couple of months…

  6. I was briefly represented by an outfit called “Eden Literary,” most remarkable for its Colorado location and 15 percent take.

    The agent, to remain unnamed, signed me with much enthusiasm and a month later wrote saying she was having a nervous breakdown and leaving the business. I wrote expressing my sympathies and relaying how the development would affect me. She wrote me back furious that the latter part of the letter (the negative impacts on my efforts) was included. She added that my letter had been circulated throughout the agency, which didn’t strike me as fair or necessary, and then informed me that she was awaiting a call and an apology. There was no reason, other than courtesty and manners, to do so, but I followed through, and got berated some more.

    End of story.

  7. In my one and only experience with an agent I went from golden child to bastard in about a year. I wrote a similar query to Betsy a while ago, and it got used as fodder for whatever on this blog. But, basically, I kind of have given up on the agent model. You’re either a cash cow or worthless drivel. If I ever try again, I’ll need an agent who will stick by me through the awkward times. Otherwise, I thank God that the market is changing so that writer’s can represent themselves.

  8. Yikes. Now I feel really good about starting the submission process. It’s probably a good thing I don’t get riled too easily. Passionate but not pissed.

  9. Just out of curiosity is a book looked at more favorably if there is a sequel in the works? I am in the waiting process hoping for some good results to my book being submitted to some publishing houses. I see possiblities of continuing with the same characters and so I wondered if a second story can help in anyway to make the publishing of the first one better received?

  10. Betsy,

    I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with you. It’s not over for this writer, not by a long, not if you look at the history of my own first novel. I’ll spare you the gory details (I know, I know, it’s what you really want to hear) and just say this: I had three different agents (Nina Collins, Rolph Blythe, and Heidi Lange) try to sell my novel (or not try to sell it, as was the case with Heidi Lange; long story). After Heidi, I took a long break, six months, before I went to new agents. I cold-emailed Emma Sweeney, who read the novel, who loved it, who sold it in a week IN A BIDDING WAR after she took me on. She not only sold it, but she has been a complete advocate for my novel ever since, getting me out of that same contract when my editor went bat shit. Now, I’m with the glorious Chuck Adams at Algonquin Books.

    Publishing has never been all that kind, not to me, not to many, it seems. You could see this story of mine as a cautionary tale or a tale of out-and-out triumph. It’s probably a little of both. Three agents on the same novel?!

    All of this leads me to believe that it’s about timing, but also that it’s about finding the right agent who then finds the right editor. Granted, the market now is even tougher, but I hope you’ll amend your message to that writer and tell him/her that it’s NOT OVER, not just yet.


    • Dear David: Please answer some questions. Did the first two agents make submissions?. Did they cover the waterfront or only sent out to a few editors? Did you fully disclose the “history” to each new agent? Did you change/revise or work on your book between agents? The bottom line is that your tenacity and belief in the book won out. But I think you are the exception. Most agents will not take on a book that has been widely exposed. When does a writer turn to the new book or keep going or self publish for that matter? I know that John Grisham was rejected by something like 20 plus agents and publishers for his first book before it was sold to a smaller outfit. I applaud you. I admire you. I will buy your book.

  11. Dear Betsy,

    Yes, the first two agents not only covered, but strafed the waterfront. The third simply sat on the novel, for some reason still known only to her. (Why take someone on only to do nothing? Makes no sense to me.) I revised the novel between Agents 1 and Agents 2, but it went out again with Agent 3 in exactly the same shape in which Agent 2 had submitted it.

    I tell my friends who have not been able to sell their novels to give it six months, change the title, and find an agent who can sell it. Easier said than done, of course. I think Agent 3 simply understood what she had in her hands. I did some minor edits before she sent it around. I was very honest with her and sent her the list of editors who had seen the manuscript previously. Her list was completely different from the list I sent her! And—she said she never would’ve sent my novel to those editors in the first place. (And you know something, I believe her.) So: right manuscript, savvy agent, who knows where to place it?

    I lost track of how many rejections this novel of mine received, but I’m sure it’s somewhere in the high forties, if not more. The real kicker is that the editor at the big NY house we sold it to turned into a complete nightmare and we broke my contract with her because, basically, she wanted to turn the novel into chick lit. I kid you not. So, this novel of mine has had three different agents and two different editors and it hasn’t even come out yet! (Airing dirty publishing laundry is such a relief.) That said, I hold no grudges against any of the agents or my former editor. They were merely doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. But somewhere along the way, the ball got dropped (mistakes were made…). When this happens, I believe it’s up to the writer and only the writer to tighten the slack and, if he believes enough, to see his novel into print.

    A writer, I believe, should always turn to his next book, as I have, as we all must do. I’m hoping that my next novel will not have such a hard time making it into the world. But I can’t plan for this. I can only sit down and write.

    And, to answer your question about self-publishing: I have no idea if it hurts or hinders a career. I’ve heard stories of great success, but then those are the only stories I’d hear about it. Self-published writers don’t tend to stir up a cloud of publicity, do they?

    Thank you for your support. It means quite a lot coming from such a wonderful writer like you. And thank you for taking the time to answer me with questions of your own. I think these sorts of dialogues are important and are what is missing in today’s literary sphere. We need to support one another. I fully and whole-heartedly embrace this.


  12. I think I meant to say Agent 4, as Agent 3 simply sat on the book for months….Sorry for the confusion. It’s hard without names!

  13. This conversation got so cool and informative. I hope people are stopping back by to get it all.

  14. Betsy — I’m a few days behind. The Kindle piece has muscle and power and that great cry-in-the-wilderness quality that we love, usually from desperate characters.
    However I hate the back-on-the-mule shit. At an appalling publisher’s lunch for reviewers and influence peddlers one year for Nan Talese’s list Nan was talking about writers having trouble working after having published a book and was I working on a second because Gay you know has had such a terrible time for twenty years blah blah and so she looked at me with a genuineness purchased in a private room at Saks, and asked, have you gotten back on the horse? [pronounced haws], and I look at her and the table’s quiet for a second and I say ‘They shot my horse. I’m walking back to the clubhouse now, carrying my saddle.” A uncomfortable moment and then people began talking of other things. This became an archetypal moment drawn upon in many many many therapy sessions thereafter. My shrink’s shorthand for it is, that time you shat all over the table at the lunch.

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