The good news is that the process of finding a literary agent is pretty well understood. One emails a query to the agency, being careful to follow the rules laid out in the submissions policy, which usually includes an introduction, a plot synopsis, and some number of pages (I’ve seen everything from the first five to the first fifty). One attempts to be businesslike, respectful, and charming. Then, one waits for a response.
In general, when they come, the replies happen very quickly and the agents are very polite. I have no complaints about any of the responses I’ve received, except, of course, that none of them has been positive. So far, I’ve contacted twenty-two agents, received replies from about two-thirds, and requests to see additional material from four. As already stated, all of them have passed.
I have no idea where my results stand on the continuum of expected behavior. Two questions plague me:
1.) Am I doing the submission process wrong?
2.) Is the book wrong?
I’m pretty sure the answer to question #1 is “No.” There are lots of guides online that explain what agents do and do not wish to see and I am nothing if not good at following directions. I’m pretty sure my query letters are fine. The replies I’ve received have indicated I’m not hitting any sour notes or misrepresenting myself.
Which leads to the in-every-way-more-disturbing second question. Please note I did not say “Is the book not good?” I’m pretty sure it’s technically sound as well and has some literary value, which is not to say I don’t think it is inviolate. I would welcome the eye of a good editor, but you can only get one of those if you have an agent. And the loop continues to whip around…
Having discussed this with a couple friends who’ve read Kirby, I’ve decided that the main issue is that the book is its in-betweenness. It’s not either completely a young adult story or an adult story. It’s neither a straight-up fantasy nor a horror novel. While it’s about being young, it may not be a story for young people (or perhaps only a certain spectrum of young people… or young people trapped in old bodies). I really don’t know and, frustratingly, have no way to figure it out.
Of course, it is possible that the work is fundamentally flawed. I accept that as an option, but no one has made a strong case for that yet, so I’m going to just let that idea hang off to the side (Yeah, right — sure.).
Way back when, a long time ago, I thought the hard part was going to be writing the book. I never expected this part, finding someone to help me sell it, would be so frustrating.
One of the odder aspects about this whole situation is that I’ve been an editor, even a submissions editor, and I know something about what it’s like to slog through the slush pile. There are scores, probably hundreds, of letters out there somewhere in someone’s files with my signature on them saying, one way or another, “Sorry, but this doesn’t fit our needs.” I get that. I really do. Intellectual property is product. In most instances, it has to fit into a specific kind of box or the audience won’t know what to make of it. Therefore, producers — publishers, in this case — want to deal with something they recognize. A book about a kitten and a cat and a dog and a fox and some hornets and a bear and some bees and this strange woman who lives in a cottage… It’s an odd fit.
Do I persevere? Well, yes, of course I do. For now, at least. One of my friends has made a compelling argument for going on to the next book and not worrying so much about this one. The next book, she says, might be less awkward and be more appealing to a publisher. Sell it. Get it out there and then you can say, “Oh, hey, I have this other book…” It’s an appealing idea. It might even work.
The other option, naturally, is to change the book. Give it a less awkward shape. It may be possible, but, honestly, I’m not sure I would even know where to begin. Kirby has settled into whatever it is and I would require some compelling evidence to alter it very much.
In his most recent book, “That Is All,” John Hodgman presents a fascinating story (I have to assume it’s semi-biographical) about a literary agent at a conference meeting prospective clients. He makes it sound horrible. The agent is exhausted by the drudgery and listening to every writer explain why their book is both a unique literary vision while also being the answer to every publisher’s dream. Every book is the first part of a seven-book cycle backed up by a dense mythology and unexpected twists. Everyone sounds the same and, horrifyingly, everyone sounds like me.
I don’t know what else to say about this at this juncture. This post was not particularly funny or revelatory. I acknowledge I’m being a little bit whiny and self-indulgent, but this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Any thoughts or commentary would be welcome.
And now, because you’ve been so patient, a picture of a cat filled with bees: