Literary Agents

Literary agents and their meticulous work fascinate me. I presume several other authors feel the same about them. Perhaps agents are equally immersed in and captivated by the publishing process. Theirs is most definitely a labor of love. Agents have to be fervent about good ideas, unstoppable at the bargaining table, shrewd in judgment and advice, and brilliant at editing. There’s no doubt that we authors need literary agents in the contemporary publishing scenario. Without them we are like fishes out of water. They know things that authors do not. They, therefore, bridge the gap between publishers and them, and, in some cases, become protectors. Authors feel insecure in their professional worlds without supportive agents. Of course not all agents are the same. Some who fall into the wrong profession can become the cause of authors dwindling into nothing.

I propose to hold the mirror up to agents and do for them what they have very kindly been doing for authors. Fully realizing the complexity of their vocation, I will try to suggest how agents might help authors even better. I believe I can do this because the work of literary agents lures me and I read with interest virtually everything related to them. What I say here will include some of the problems faced by authors living in countries like India. Living in such countries and writing to the world at large is no easy task. Certain confusions arise in how agents read queries because authors and agents belong to different cultures.

As a first step, I would suggest that agencies be at least as caring as agencies like Bookends Literary Agency are. My work has been rejected by an agent of this agency but I do find a world of difference between most agencies and this one. An example of what I say can be seen in the video on their website. See how pleasantly and carefully they inform authors about ten things they and other agents need:

They take pains to describe what basics like voice, plot, characters, writing, market, etc., actually mean. We all know what these are. But an agent can better describe what the author is expected to know from the publisher’s point of view. They attempt to clear misconceptions on issues that are vitally important for authors. They go to the extent of pointing out that a sub-genre that was recently popular could have gone out of fashion and would be difficult to publish. Authors need to know such small details. Besides, this agency seems to realize how hard authors work to complete their books and the encouragement they need.

Then, an agent such as Ayla Zuraw-Friedland, of Goldin Literary agency, has the vision and wisdom not to cut her reading choices so fine that she loses out a number of authors she may have liked had she not done that. Some agents limit their authors by specifying in minute detail what they are looking for, sometimes by mentioning books that contain those details. This means that authors have to force themselves to fit into categories that do not come naturally to them if they want to get the help of the agents they value. The concept of “best fit” can be ill conceived. I think that an agent should cast a wider net and be broader in their wish lists rather than asking authors to narrow down their talent only because that gives the agent some convenience. The marriage of author and agent should indeed not be for convenience alone.

I know that practicality demands that agents cater to authors living around them. A Canadian or Australian agent, for instance, may normally not encourage authors in South Asia to query them. But the love of books should help them to go beyond boundaries of nationality and race, and dig out the best talents from across the globe. An agent such as Nicole Aragi, based in the US, never limits herself to American authors and therefore is a class apart. I highly regard agents like Kristina Pérez of the Zeno Literary Agency because of the varied experiences they have had only because of the fact that they’ve lived in so many countries. They have the added advantage of appreciating authors of several cultures. Also commendable are agents such as Heather Carr (of the Friedrich Agency) who can offer such wonderful advice to authors: ‘An ideal debut author is clear about their career goals and knowledgeable about their own professional and creative needs. They are focused on their craft and the ultimate expert on their own work while willing to trust their publishing team’s industry expertise. ‘

I marvel at the late Jill Kneerim who could help turn a scholarly book of literary criticism into such a commercial success. I have the books of academics like Stephen Greenblatt in mind. I am certain there are other gems like Greenblatt; those that need to be discovered. An agent should try to discover authors lying unseen somewhere rather than put to naught authors trying to get discovered. Thomas Gray’s lines come to mind:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,

The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:

Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Whereas most agents virtually shun literary criticism (they prefer to handle cultural criticism) Kneerim could find the right channels to make literary criticism a bestselling category. That, I think, is a great literary agent.

A number of agents seem to pride themselves on the fact that they accept only an infinitesimal number of authors. For instance some say that they get about a thousand submissions annually and accept no more than two or three of them. They do this because they can serve a few better. They may be right but they shouldn’t state statistics that can stifle authors. I don’t know how they can make a virtue of such claims. It is something like God saying that He listens to no more than 2 or 3 of the 1000 people that come and pray to Him, even if He actually does that. An agent should be like a publishing editor only in a limited way (in the sieving-out process). They should strive to help many more authors to find homes for their books and if they can’t do that they should not make authors feel hopeless. The rationale behind the squeamishness probably is that publishers are very choosy. Publishers are somewhat justified but agents are not in allowing success to such a small number. They should not dampen authors; they should rather guide them in how to do better.

When an author’s work is reduced to a commodity like a tooth brush or boot polish that needs to be bought and sold in the market, something is not quite right in society. Things manufactured mechanically and those created by the should not be treated at par. An agent can play a little role in stopping that from happening. Art and scholarship should be given a little more respect than items of utility. Agents who understand this seem angelic to authors.

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