Saturday, March 28, 2015

Forgive Me, Mr. Pissypants, for I Have Sinned!

I can’t stand Republicans. I can’t imagine that I’d get on very well with most professional athletes, as I find obnoxious both arrogance (other people’s, a least!) and piety. Many doctors are as arrogant as athletes, and get all, like, indignant if you don’t defer to them as Infallible Healers. But as I compose this, my least favorite group may be literary agents.

Full disclosure: I would probably feel very different if I had a good one, and were 15 years into the career as a novelist that I honestly believe myself to deserve. I’ve written four novels in the past four years — Insects On Fire (about the unspeakable cruelty of children), Formerly Wanton (a rock and roll detective novel), Kinky Sex Explained (the title tells it all!), and Who Is Keri Fetherwaite? (an uproarious imagining of the life of Taylor Swift, or whatever that annoying girl’s name is). They're all fab. None, needless to say, has been published. No more than half a dozen agents deigned to read the most-read of them, and none signed me up. Unknown "literary" (as opposed to genre) fiction has as good a chance of being published these days as Saturday Night Live has of being funny.

But I never say die. Last week, I had what I thought was a fairly exciting idea for a nonfiction book, about which I dashed off what I imagined to be a quite zingy description. I then sent it to an agent whom I know a little bit on Facebook. Replied she:
While I think this project may have potential, I would really need to see a full proposal before I could move forward in any way. A chapter by chapter outline, three sample chapters, a marketing plan, something outlining the competition and why this book would stand out in that market, and your credentials for being the right person to write this book.
She thinks the project May Have Potential! Whoopee! Adventures in mealy-mouthedness! And they all want a Full Proposal, including a marketing plan, in the same way that your spoiled niece wants a new Mustang convertible without having to do something icky like take an after-school or weekend job to help pay for it.

What impedes my compliance? My knowing from experience that when you do spend countless weeks working up a Full Proposal of the sort described, 70 percent of the agents to whom you offer it won’t even trouble themselves to respond to your email, and 27.5 percent will, sometimes as long as six months later, declare it Not Right for My List and tell you, in different words, to get lost. Ultimately, you have only a marginally better chance of achieving your goal by working up a Full Proposal than you would by pounding your head against a wall until you lose consciousness.

Thinking that I had nothing to lose, I sent my 500-word icebreaker to around 220 more agents this past Thursday. I didn’t write 220 discrete emails, but just hit all of them with one. A couple of hours later, I received this from an agent we’ll call Little Mr. Pissypants:
I can assure you that any and every agent worth having, [sic] will require you to start the process with a book proposal… you've already ruined your chances with most of us.
Forgive me, Mr. Pissypants, for I have sinned! Except for the fact that my own biggest literary payday came in 2001 when I sent to one of the cloutiest agents in the UKa 500-word description of the autobiography I proposed to ghostwrite for the noted London dominatrix Mistress Chloe. He immediately recognized (1) that the idea was saleable, and (2) that I could write. Within a few days — without A Full Proposal — he’d gotten us a £25,000 advance against royalties.

I'm thinking of a parallel with acting. The author who diligently prepares A Full Proposal is the short, tubby man with male pattern baldness who takes expensive acting classes for six years, and then doesn't get cast as a romantic lead because he's short, tubby, and has male pattern baldness. Except in acting, casting directors don't require you to have taken expensive acting classes for six years before  they'll deny you an audition.

But many modern American agents are all about protocol. The authors they represent may be unable to construct a grammatical English sentence (I know this from having had a little verbal sparring match with one of Miss Mealymouth’s clients recently). Deviate from the course they designate, though, and they pretty nearly hyperventilate with indignation. How dare you!

How dare you!


  1. I'd like to read it, John. I've known my share of kids that I hated.


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