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Sunday, November 3, 2013


OK: I have run out of excuses. The manuscript of my first novel has been vetted by bona fide published novelists. Three novelists I know have already published. Still, I would rather have a case of writer’s block than write a query letter. Why such fear and hesitation?
     I know writers who have great agents. I know writers who have self-published. I am taunted by the success of writers who, after myriad rejection letters, land million-dollar book deals with movie rights. But still I stare at the blank computer screen without even venturing a “Dear John.”
     Maybe my first experience with an ersatz agent holds a clue.

    My novel was still in its infancy, first draft finished but not yet a seasoned manuscript. Flush with exuberance and full of hope, I took the advice of my friend and mentor, Alexandra Grilikhes, who had suggested I start to query agents. Alexandra, a published poet and teacher, had promoted her first novel to a passel of agencies and - voila – after persistent queries had snagged an agent and a publisher. Riding on the crest of her success, Alexandra was very generous with guidance and support. She offered only three rules from her own experience:

          Rule No. 1: Look for an agent with good references or from a reputable source.
          Rule No. 2: A legitimate agent won’t charge a fee.
          Rule No. 3: Query agents who have published works like yours.

     Despite my respect and adulation of my mentor, did I heed those simple rules? In a word: no.
     Like a rebellious adolescent, I broke all three rules in one swell foop. I am very grateful Alexandra remained my friend and mentor after it all. We had a good laugh, I can tell you that. Here’s what happened.

     Broken Rule No. 1: Look for an agent with good references or from a reputable source.
     Yes, I should have known better than to look for an agent in the Yellow Pages. The experience likened itself to when I advertised for a roommate in the Want Ads. At the time, though, the Yellow Pages seemed to make sense. My thought was: a literary agent who advertised at the Jersey shore might be more enthusiastic about representing a writer from the Jersey shore. I wasn’t daunted that she was the only literary agent listed in the Yellow Pages, or that she was actually located closer to New York City. How bad could that be?

       Broken Rule No. 2: A legitimate agent won’t charge a fee.
     Right up front, my “agent” was enthusiastic and encouraging. Of course she would consider my manuscript. She was looking for new talent. If I would send her the first chapter of my novel and a check for $800, she would send me a contract and would represent me.
      Eight hundred dollars!!! Why wasn’t I concerned? I certainly wasn’t the type of person who spent $800 frivolously. I wasn’t even the type of person who spent $800 much at all. Looking back, I think my rationale was, I spent at least that much every year on professional dues and licenses, so I was willing to spend that much on my novel just this once.

       Broken Rule No. 3: Query agents who have published works like yours.
      Three months went by. Four. My $800 check had long been cashed. My “agent” had sent me a signed contract and lots of chatty self-promoting newsletters. But no feedback on my manuscript, which she now had in her possession. Humbled and more than a little embarrassed, I again sought Alexandra’s counsel. Lucky for me, she graciously acquiesced. Her advice: Why don’t I ask my “agent” for some titles she had represented? Good idea. And I was thrilled when my “agent” not only agreed, but offered to send me a copy of the most recent title for which she had found a publisher.
      There is still no way I can describe my reaction when I opened the envelope and gaped at what is probably the most pornographic paperback I will ever come in contact with in my lifetime. The excerpted text on the back cover was so graphic, I think I dropped the book. I actually disposed of the book in the dumpster of the commercial property two doors from my house, mortified to think that the recycling guys (this was Cape May County, after all), might find it in my trash.
       Equally as shocking was the affront that this “agent” would think my novel (which was suitable fare for my eleven-year-old nephew and my mother) was somehow kin to this erotica. When I finally stopped hyperventilating,  I queried her on that point. Her glib answer: “Oh, I take everything and just see if I can find a place for it.”
         Everything…and $800.

       But that was a long time ago. I have several professional workshops behind me now and the support of successful writers and good friends. I have the option to self-publish, as Carol Fragale Brill, one of our 4 Broad Minds bloggers, already has. My manuscript and I aren't getting any younger.
        Time to jump in?


  1. Mary, unlike you, I followed advice and queried only agents from reliable sources who represented contemporary women's fiction. I sent so many queries, i could wall paper my office with rejections. I was offered representation twice, and got close another half-dozen times. Like you, the first agent who offered me representation, turned out to have questionable fees/practices. Instead of sending her money, I made the gut wrenching decision to walk away. When I contacted the referral source, he was very apologetic, saying he heard other complaints and took her off his list of recommended agents. My second agent left agenting 6 months after taking me on and before finding a home for my book.
    I'm happy to share my lengthy spreadsheet, sample queries, and my experience when you are ready.

  2. Yep, it's time - I've been waiting to buy a copy for almost 30 years, Mary! Do it!

  3. Here's the deal...there are SO many options today that it is difficult to determine which one is right for you. I'm an author who self-published my first 2008, but I'm looking to traditionally publish for my next one. I'm so frustrated with all the "stuff"!!! So i joined a group of professionals from the industry and we are having a writers conference in Charleston SC in April 2014 that will help educate writers/authors about Publishing!!! Very different conference, but we will have agents and editors here too. Don't mean to promote, but honestly I could feel the pain in this post...lordy, I've been there and I think this conference could have real value for you.

  4. Mary, I don't have a book to sell, but I have followed Carole's journey with a vicarious dread. Self-publishing is an option if you have the stamina to do all the back-end work and then all the front-end selling. Sounds like Jacqui has done it and wants to opt for someone else (a publisher) picking up the work. Jacqui's conference sounds like a good option for you, and Charleston is a beautiful location.

    At least self-publishing seems like you are controlling your own destiny. I say go for it too.