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Should I Cool It Or Should I Blow?

The great paradox of being an agent, or at least being me as an agent, is that I can ask for anything for my clients. I can rise to occasions and sink to new depths, I can plead, beg, cajole, nudge, charm. I can stroke, joke, whisper, clash. I can smash my fucking head through a plate glass window and tap dance. But what I can’t do is ask for myself. I can’t even speak up for myself when a person cuts me. If they can’t cut in front of me, who can they cut? I am so fucking tired of catching more bees with honey.  I am so tired of the foxtrot. Tommy, can you feel me?

Does your writing come first?

It’s Just A Box of Rain, Or a Ribbon For Your Hair

Meds? Check. Passport? Check. Notebook? Check. Panties, socks, striped shirts.  Check. Secret project? Check. Powerbars, pencils, lucky necklace, crap magazines, manuscripts. Check. Did I say Passport? Jesus Christ where did this day go? Going to London to bid farewell to one of my dearest friends and the agent who taught me the only thing you really need to know: play it straight. No matter what mess I was in, I could call Abner for advice. He’d listen carefully, turn it over, you could feel his mind working like a master chess player, and then he would  say, you know, I think you should play straight. Every time I went to London, he found a new restaurant for us to try that specialized in Dover sole because he knew I liked sole. And every time, after I took a few bites, he’d look at me and smile and say, “how’s the sole?”

She Was Slammin And Her Ass Was Jammin

First day back from vacation, mother Louise. Over 300 e-mails, two blasts from the past, still chasing money, still hammering contracts, signing a new client, getting a new project out the door, notes to three writers, (call my accountant, dog walker, airline, mother), three manuscripts delivered, send David Orr’s starred PW all over town, (call psychopharmacologist, gynecologist, dentist, and mother), manage expectations of three writers on the brink of publication, commiserate with business partner, gossip, (call contractor MIA), pull together submission list, get London Book Fair shit together.

Sorry, that’s all I got.

I Ain’t Gonna Do You Wrong

Dear Betsy,

I recently parted company with an unresponsive agent.  Her total lack of communication leaves me in an unfortunate position.  Several times I’ve requested a list of editors to whom my ms was sent, but have received no response.  I have no idea if the ms ever saw the light of day.  I am about to start querying agents again.  Should I mention my situation in the query letter?  Or, should I wait until an agent expresses interest in the ms and then say something?

Signed, Between a rock and a hard place

Dear Hard Place: Unless there is something you are not telling us, for instance that you called her every day ten times a day, including being the first 9 a.m. call of the day, showed up at the office unannounced, sent a barrage of emails with passive aggressive sweet nothings, didn’t listen to any editorial feedback, started referring clients such as your squash partner’s daughter’s mother-in-law, unless you are guilty of these client crimes, what happened just sucks. Was your agent registered with the AAR?  Are you registered with the Author’s Guild?  THe first organization holds member agents to a code of ethics (and if you’re just starting the process you should check that your agency is a member), the latter provides advocacy on authors’ parts. You might want to see if you can investigate your agent further.

That said, my guess is that the agent did not submit the book at all. I think you should approach new agents and not burden the query with the backstory. Once an agent expresses interest and you start to talk about your publishing history, you can explain what happened. But if the agent has faith in the project, hopefully he or she will go boldly down editorial row and submit the book with confidence. Go for it, dude. Hopefully your previous agent will get hit by a truck.

Love, Betsy

What is the meanest thing you ever said to your spouse? Just curious.


You Place The Flowers In The Vase That We Bought Today

Spent the day in Boston. I’m going to be honest with you: my hair looked great, which sets the tone for the whole day. Am I right? First, I met with a client. I was the editor on her first book 23 years ago and we’re still going strong six books later. We’re like an old married couple except we don’t find ourselves silent at a diner where we have nothing to say. Then I met with a prospective client who you can immediately tell is not only a leader in her field, but a great communicator. Very exciting to spend some time in her lab. Then I had lunch with one of my first authors. She’s a big deal reviewer now and the author of eight or nine books. As gifted as she is gracious. I used to always joke that she should write an author etiquette book.

Then, it was a two publisher afternoon. One an old friend, the other a new colleague who is publishing one of my client’s books. Her office was grand with books of substance everywhere. I forgot how much I love a good field trip. I love seeing the offices where people work. I like stepping into their world. It was unseasonably warm and I had a few minutes to think about things as I walked through Boston common. Is there anything more lovely than a young man with a satchel strapped across his chest and gray slacks hurrying with a paper cone of flowers for his girl? Or a pretty table set with best dishes and candles? Every beginning is beautiful. Every vase filled with flowers on a cold February night. I didn’t feel like myself. In other words, I felt good.

How was your day?

You’re Leaving There Too Soon

If you think I’m going to respond to that outpouring of love and support, you have another thing coming you beautiful motherfucking writers. Like my friend and colleague Erin “The Hose” says, I hate to be a bitch, but I hate not to be a bitch. Or something like that.

So today, I was the distinguished guest at a Master’s tea at Yale. I was invited to talk about publishing, writing, agenting, the usual. I thought it would be really clever to eat a few “pop’ems” before I left the house. These are Entemann’s idea of munchkins, only a little more dense. Anyway, I like to show up for these gigs with a little white powder on my chest in case my cred is in question. Then I like to remind the kids that life is long, but not that long. That if they do enough drugs they will become great writers. And that getting published is like getting spit on. It’s exhausting being this inspirational. The students, by the way, were gorgeous and hip and one dreamy young man, the last one on line to ask a question, told me he was writing a memoir about his search for love. Sign me up.

What would you tell a college student who wants to be a writer?


There’s a sad sort of clanging from the clock in the hall

This just in: Nathan Bransford is quitting agenting. He’s the biggest agent blogger  I know of and he’s trading in his agenting badge for honest work. According to Galley Cat, he plans to continue his blog and forums, etc, but naturally there will changes up ahead. I recommend his blog to many people who ask me for useful advice because it is down to earth, smart, concise, and basically right on target with all the advice. That said, if you are one of his million followers and are in the mood for something a little different, please give my blatantly narcissistic, positively negative, wholly abject, downcast, and embittered blog a try. Ditto for all the people who have been handing out the blogging awards to Bransford.  We have a hugely self-destructive and vaguely suicidal project underway over here and we’d be glad to share some of that glory now that the king is stepping down.

I’m hoping to monetize the misery mid-2011 if at all possible. Can I get blood from this cold stone? Someone suggested I write a book based on the blog. Ha ha, I did it other way round. What a maroon. Anyway, Mr. Bransford, agent and gentleman, we will bid you adieu from the dark side of living off the backs of writers, au revoir to 15% percent commish and enjoy a real salary.  Most of all, thank you for helping me when I was getting started with my project. Your generosity is as infectious as is your love for books and the writing process. I wish you well in your new endeavor. I’m sure your clients will miss you enormously.

Here’s tonight’s question: how hard would you cry if I left? Only kidding. (As if anyone would employ me.)  Here’s tonight’s question: an agent, an editor and a writer walk into a bar. Which one buys the drinks?

Guest Blogger #5 – August

I spent a few days thinking of ways to mortify Betsy in this space, but I don’t have a copy of her updated book, and I don’t have the patience to click on every link in her blogroll looking for things to hate. I considered writing about how your publishing ‘team’—your agent and editor and publisher—functions like a family, more specifically a family in which your publisher fucks you under the stairs while your editor pretends not to notice.

Instead, however, in an effort to be helpful, here’s some shit writers don’t need to care about:

Query Letters

If you can’t write a good query letter, you can’t write. They’re business letters—that’s a lower form of writing than Tea Party signs. Describe the book. Either your description sounds like money to that particular agent, or you get a form letter.

Still having trouble with your query letter? Try this easy tip: take up scrapbooking.


Before you have an agent, your goal is finding an agent, not making agents’ lives easier. Screw agents’ lives. The only reason they have lives is that after they clawed from the grave, they hungered for 15% instead of blood.

Worrying about guidelines is bullshit. If they like what you’ve got, they’ll ask for more. If they like that, they’ll want to represent you, and you’ll slavishly agree. That’s the nature of the relationship.

Worrying about wasting their time is bullshit. Agents are hip-deep and sinking, dealing every day with the desperate, the manic, and the spittle-flecked; and those are their –clients-. Don’t worry about alienating them. This is a group of people who one day looked at writers and thought, I want to represent them. They’re not gonna remember your half-assed crazy.

Just remember that this relationship is based on mutual trust and respect, so never reveal your true self.

The State of the Book

Is publishing in decline? Yes.

In other news, you’re fat and lazy, a talentless hack. Nothing will change any of that. Publishing is in the shitter. Our goal is to swirl around as long as possible before we’re flushed. We’re not gonna reverse the direction of spin here.

Will e-readers revolutionize publishing? Sure, because an influx of semi-literate control freaks is what every industry needs. Our problem isn’t the shortage of digital formats, it’s the shortage of customers.

The one thing that distinguishes people in publishing is that instead of faking expertise about corrugated paper products or commercial real estate, we fake  expertise about books. We’re nothing special. There’s the same proportion of assbaggery in publishing as in the Solid Waste Association of North America. The difference is one group pushes a product that’s full of crap, and you know the end of this sentence.

People are idiots. People in publishing are, largely, people. We’re working in a crazily dysfunctional industry, and when by some miracle a book actually sells, we desperately try to reverse-engineer the success. But that only works when luck isn’t a determining factor. You can’t reverse-engineer a coin toss. Why is Lethem more popular than Everett? No reason at all. Why did Harry Potter sell more than 3,000 copies? No reason at all.

None of that matters. Franzen doesn’t matter and Vargas Llosa doesn’t matter. Gish Jen and Stephenie Meyer doesn’t matter and I don’t matter and you don’t matter. Editors, agents, readers, the state of publishing, the technology of reading, the insulting advances and print runs and jacket copy, the blogging, the twitting, the social media, the self-promotion: doesn’t matter.

I’m trying to write this like a comment without worrying where it’s going, but I think where it’s going is here: the first step is admitting that we’re powerless over everything but the writing. And the second step is coming to believe that the best way to deal with all those distractions is to hate them.

What do you care about as a writer, that you shouldn’t? What do you not care about, that you should?

Steada Kisses, We Get Kicked

Often when I turn down a project, the writer  will ask me to recommend other agents. Obviously, I would like to help him or her but it’s sticky. In the first place, I often don’t know who to recommend, or I don’t feel comfortable making a referral which implies my belief in the project. But there’s something else: agents do not look kindly on agent referrals — at least in my experience. If a writer approaches me and says Slinky Suburban at ICM thought you might like this, my first thought is: why didn’t Slinky take it on herself? I wonder how other agents feel about this. Are you happy to get a referral, no matter from where? If I turn something down and have a  very strong hunch that another agent will like it because of some inside knowledge, I will refer that agent to the writer — and once in a while make an introduction.

Otherwise, my advice is to go to your library: PublishersMarketplace.com has a database of all deals that have been done over that past five or more years. You can search it by category and agent, and you can quickly come up with a list of appropriate agents to send your work to. Until now, writers had to comb the acknowledgments pages of favorite books, or  hope to meet an agent or two at a conference. Now, you have this remarkable database, you have Publisher’s Weekly on-line, you have agency websites that show you client lists and submission guidelines. I’m not saying it’s easy to get an agent, but it should be easier now than ever before to put a list together of agents to query.

What’s your experience?

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?