On being Rexroth: Living with a Literary Agent

March 25th, 2010 • WebMonkey

“Hello, my name is Doyce Testerman.”

[GROUP, murmured] “Hi, Doyce.”

“Hi. Thanks.” [deep breath] “So… I’m a writer, and I’m married to a literary agent.”

[Supportive, if automatic, applause. Comments like “just keep talking” and “doing great” are half-heard.]

“She, umm…” [shaky breath, followed by chuckle] “She specializes in a different genre.”

[Silence. In the back, one young woman stands, jerking to her feet. Her folding chair crashes to the floor and collapses. She rushes from the room, hands to her face.]

[Watching her leave.] “Yeah… it’s kind of like that.” [Looking up.] “But… not really. I’m okay. I’ve learned a lot. I thought I’d tell you about it.”

[One person claps. It doesn’t last long.]


In the world of super-agent Daphne Unfeasible, I have a lot of names. The main one is (thankfully) my own, but there are quite a few others. Some of you ktliterary.com vets might know me as WebMonkey. Thanks to Maureen Johnson, I’m also known on the interwebs as Rexroth Implausible, one half of Unfeasible-Implausible Enterprises.

I also have a lot of jobs. One of them is, as I said, webmonkey, but primarily I write stuff for a living. Part of it (the better paying part)  is Boring Writing: training manuals, online interactive courses, white papers, RFPs — business writing, they call it. Not exciting, but quite handy when it comes time for pleasant activities like buying food. The other part is Not-Boring Writing. The Not-Boring Writing doesn’t (yet) pay as well, or as reliably, but it’s a very satisfying kind of work, one that I enjoy a great deal, and which has been the source of many joyful moments (fair payment for the lurking hypertension that comes with it).

So: I’m a writer, who lives with a literary agent.

Presented with that fact, other writers usually say something along these lines.

“[Exclamation/Expletive], having that kind of [insight into the business/fuel for your writer’s cynicism/[other]] must be [descriptive modifier].”

To which I typically reply:

“Sometimes.”

(Oh, Madlibs, is there nothing you can’t do?)

My point? Hmm. I had it here, just a minute ago… I tell you, you’d think I couldn’t find anything when Kate’s out of —

OH! That was it.

Since Kate’s out of town this week, I found myself pining miserably err… reflecting on the fact that I don’t miss bachelorhood nearly as much as you might think.

I required distraction.

Kate suggested I write something for her site, THEN suggested that it might be interesting for people to see the inside of “agentry” from the point of view of another writer.

“But I’m not one of your authors,” I pointed out.

“Even better!” she replied.

I gave her a skeptical look, but she was in Italy and didn’t see it.

Y’see, I love my wife dearly, and I’ve learned a lot about the publishing industry from her (an education which my own agent has voiced her appreciation for on several occasions), but that doesn’t mean that Kate and I always… agree. As some of the real veterans around here might know, I’ve got some pretty strong opinions about how publishing works today. It leads to some… wonderfully spirited debates.

So, just to make this as clear as possible, what follows is entirely my opinion and impression. Not Kate’s. Not ktliterary’s.

Literary Agents and Sturgeon’s Law

Sturgeon’s Law is, in short:

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.”

The Literary Agent Corollary to to this law is:

“But we have to read a query about it anyway.”

Let me see if I can paint a word picture about what I’m talking about.

Let’s say you work at an agency, and you get 100 queries a week. Sturgeon’s Law predicts that of those 100 queries, 90 of them will be crap. (I have never seen any evidence to dispute this estimate. If anything, it’s generous.)

But it doesn’t matter if, going in, you know that 90 of them will be crap. You’re an agent — you still have to read all of them to find the 10 (“oh please, let it be as many as 10”) that aren’t crap.

Each of those queries (not counting the story excerpt) is about a page of text, give or take. Each agency varies, but in ktliterary’s case, I can check the website and see that author’s are supposed to include the first 3 pages of their story as well. If a query follows the rules, it’ll be 4 pages. That’s 400 pages of queries coming in every week, assuming everyone followed the rules.

  • The rules are there to help deal with the constant influx of queries.
  • Not everyone follows the rules.
    • Those that don’t follow the rules did not either because they think they’re an exception, they couldn’t be bothered to read them, or they couldn’t figure out how to find them. Not following the rules is the easiest way in the world to spot a query (and, to be honest, author) that belongs in the “90% pile” and, when you’re looking at a huge stack of queries, throwing those out RIGHT AWAY would be a really effective way to speed the process up.
    • I point this out to Kate often. She agrees, and then reads all the queries anyway, because she’s like that. Other agents are not so kind.

So, at the end of the week, you’ve got 10 decent queries out of every 100. You contact those authors to ask for a partial. A partial is (in most cases) exactly the first 50 pages of your story. That’s 10 partials. 50 pages each. 500 pages total.

Every week.  On top of the queries.

Sturgeon’s Law is still in effect; 90% of those partials won’t work for you, either, but that doesn’t mean that you get off the hook — that’s still 900 pages of stuff you’re reading this week.

But wait: there’s more.

Out of those 10 partials, Sturgeon’s Law says that there’s one that will be worth a Full Read. This is when the agent asks to see the whole thing.  This is a pretty good sign, but still, in my experience, Sturgeon’s Law is there: even if your story is good enough to get to this point, that doesn’t mean that it won’t end up being in the 90% pile for that agent — tastes vary, and it just might not work for that person. That’s just the way it goes.

Anyway, back to the agent who, as a result of reading 100 queries and 10 partials in any given week, has asked for 1 full manuscript. Which is probably around 300 pages.

Now we’re up to 1200 pages of reading. That’s the full Lord of the Rings trilogy, including the introductions from every published edition since 1954, the Prologue, “a note on Shire reckoning”, Appendices A, B, C, D, and E, the Quenya alphabet and pronunciation guide, and the Index.

Every week.

It looks quite a bit like this. Uphill.

It looks quite a bit like this. Uphill.

And, if the agent keeps that up every single week, then about every two to two-and-a-half months, they’ll find a story that they think really ought to be a book, and more importantly that they want to help become a book.

Then (and this is my favorite part), the agent signs a contract to represent that book, turns around to face the rest of the Publishing Industry, and starts submitting that book to editors.

Now, let’s say you’re an editor, and you work at a publisher, (stop me if this sounds familiar) and you get about 100 queries from various agents, every week…

Does that seem Daunting?

If the answer is “no”, then I’m telling it wrong.  What I’ve just described is, in my opinion, a really tough job.  Keep in mind that “100 queries a week” may be and often is a low estimate.

I love reading, but the hardest thing I’ve ever had to finish was something I had to read. “J.D. Salinger” was a handy expletive that I would shout as I shook my fist at the heavens — until school let out for the summer and I got to read Catcher in the Rye on my own time.

Agents do that Every. Single. Day. (Kate (and every other agent I know) reads so fast that she makes me feel like a sub-literate third-grader, by the way. Seriously.)

And that’s only about half of what they do. Roughly. Give or take. There’s also contract negotiations, handling money coming in (invariably) late (and in six different denominations), dealing with editors and publishers and all the kinds of things you see people doing in Jerry McGuire (except with less shouting, and Cuba Gooding Jr’s character works full-time as a fifth-grade math teacher to pay the bills).

Which begs the question…

Why?

Why would any sane person do that, willingly?

I’ve given it a lot of thought, and examined a number of possible options. Only one really makes any kind of sense.

Love.

I love books. I love the feel of them and the smell of them and the weight of them. More than that, I love stories. I love the way the characters get into your head and wander around like they own the place, keeping you up too late and eating all the cheese in the fridge.

But I’ve come to the humbling realization that as much as I love stories, I don’t love them the way Kate loves them; they way agents as a species love them.

People (and by “people”, I often mean “me”) talk a lot about indie publishing; bypassing the gatekeepers, embracing new technology, reaching your audience directly — all that stuff. It’s good and valuable discourse; it truly is — I believe there are changes coming, will-they-or-nil-they, to publishing, and I’d rather like to be a part of those changes.

And yet I have an agent.

And yet I agreed to post this… meandering thing about what it is that an agent does, as seen through my writer eyes.

Again, why?

Because – and I hope I’ve made this clear – an agent is an ally; one of the very best that a writer could ever hope to earn. I think, in the long slog of query-rejection-query-rejection that makes up so much of a starting author’s march to publication, we lose sight of that. An agent isn’t someone to be beaten; they aren’t the Elite Boss Fight that lets you finally get to Main Dungeon: they’re someone you recruit to be on your side.

Because, man… if you can get one on your side? Wow.

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18 Responses to “On being Rexroth: Living with a Literary Agent”

  1. Tim White Says:

    Nice Tags.

  2. Michelle Says:

    This is one of the best posts I've ever read on any blog ever. Well played.

  3. Rebecca (Fie Eoin) Says:

    You make this sound so daunting, but so worth it.

    And everyone should go read your blog if they aren't already. You always seem to post about the things I need to read about, when I need to read about them. Go Doyce!

  4. Tim White Says:

    I keep thinking about how those green shoes clash with that sand.

    But then I keep looking at the rest of the picture, and it's all OK.

  5. Stephanie Perkins Says:

    Oh, wow, Doyce. This was FANTASTIC. And fascinating! I'm so happy you guest posted!

  6. Chantal Kirkland Says:

    Some days, I wish I could just be an agent for a day…then I remember how hard they work. But I don't think I'll ever wish that again now–your viewpoint (and astoundingly awesome way of putting it using math–not my strong point) really makes a ton of sense. Back to the easy part: writing.

  7. Suzanne Casamento Says:

    Love this post. Love books. Love stories. Love characters who eat all the cheese in the fridge.

    And I can't believe you write training manuals, interactives and white papers too. I suddenly don't feel so alone.

  8. Julie Polk Says:

    What an awesome, awesome post. So…. Doyce, that's you in the green pumps on the beach, right?

  9. Karen A. Hooper Says:

    I love that Kate didn't see your skeptical look. As I'm sure you've learned she is always right. Look how wonderful this post turned out. 😉

  10. Moonlighting elseblog – doyce testerman Says:

    […] that for tomorrow and instead point out that I wrote a guest blog over at ktliterary.com today: On Being Rexroth: Living with a Literary Agent. Enjoy. Share […]

  11. Sandy Shin Says:

    Great post! Funny and heart-warming. I love books and I love reading, but like you, I don't think I can ever aspire to be a literary agent because I'm not capable of loving books all the time the way a literary agent does.

  12. WebMonkey Says:

    Julie, that's obviously not me in the picture. *Obviously.*

    Green looks terrible on me, and I usually go for peep-toe pumps on the beach.

  13. WebMonkey Says:

    Rebecca: the easy way to avoid the daunting nature of the culling process is "write the other 10%."

    Do that, and you're in, right?

    Right?!?

  14. Becka (Fie Eoin) Says:

    Well, at least you have a better chance of being in 🙂

  15. Kiki Hamilton Says:

    Yay for agents! Yay for dreamy webmonkeys who can write funny and heartfelt posts! Yay for Kate!

  16. Carrie Harris Says:

    So… uh… I'm sorry for running out on you during the support group meeting. It just… *gulp* I guess the suspense was too much for me. I'm glad you transcribed it all so I can read it from the safety of my own home.

    😉

  17. Musing about Great Stories – doyce testerman Says:

    […] the point of view of a writer. People seem to like it a lot, which is kind of a happy surprise. Check it out. A couple days ago, I blogged/reposted a comment I made about Games and Stories and Could One Be […]

  18. The Umpires are Human – doyce testerman Says:

    […] wall view of what it’s like for those ‘in the industry’ — I’ve even written about it. Sharing my life with Kate has given me the ability to speak frankly and (often) sanely with my own […]