An Author’s Journey: Agents & Publishers

I was incredibly excited when I landed my first offer of representation from a literary agent for what was then my novel “Skin of Tattoos,” a literary thriller set in the gang underworld of L.A. I’d sent out about 90 queries, had received a few requests for pages but no bites and I was starting to despair.

Then I got the call. During our conversation, the agent said, “I don’t really like agenting. I’m just, sort of, doing this.” It struck me as odd, but I couldn’t turn her down. What if I didn’t get another offer?

I signed and we met. During the conversation, she told me that a publisher had agreed to take one of her books but had never followed through with the contract. Again, it didn’t paint her in the best light, but I figured that could happen to any agent.

Several months later, my book had been rejected by about 10 houses, and she stopped submitting. Then I got an email — she had submitted to one more publisher. Relief. Then I waited. Was she submitting it to more? Was this really it? Wasn’t she supposed to keep submitting? Or maybe this agent didn’t have a very deep bench? I recalled her previous comments. She didn’t like being an agent and she couldn’t close a deal. It was dawning on me that I hadn’t made a good choice.

Nevertheless, I soldiered on. I told her about my second novel, “Girl on the Brink,” a YA about a teen romance that turned abusive that was inspired by true events. She seemed excited, and I pounded out a draft in several months and submitted it, hoping for a meaningful critique that would help me develop it further, a la Maxwell Perkins. That’s what agents do, right?

Nope. She was scornful about my manuscript, but couldn’t articulate what was wrong, instead telling me to read “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” which I’d heard of but never read. I looked it up. It was published in 1964.

She made it clear she didn’t want to read revisions — “It’s not good for us to read the manuscript multiple times.” Huh? Instead, she recommended a “book doctor” so I called the person. By now, my eyes were far less starry and I asked discerning questions. The “doc” had no publishing background. She’d been a screenwriters’ agent and her YA credential consisted of having a 15-year-old daughter. For $500, she’d read my manuscript and give me a critique over the phone. She repeatedly stressed the phone part. Talking, of course, is much easier than spending time writing a detailed critique.

Luckily, I wasn’t convinced. I got off the phone and immediately felt the crushing disappointment of realization that I had simply signed with a lousy agent. My depression lasted a week, then I realized something else.

What I did have were two detailed critiques from top editors at major New York publishing houses. I studied what they said, pulled “Skin of Tattoos” apart and rewrote extensively, now making it an adult book which worked far better.

By the time my contract expired six months later, during which time I never heard again from the agent (She never even responded when I sent her a polite email thanking her but stating I wouldn’t be renewing the contract.), I had a new manuscript.

I started seeking an agent once again. This time I honed my search carefully and eventually landed an agent whose name I had plucked out of the Acknowledgments section of two crime books published by major houses. This agent really was a professional. She loved the book and promised to keep sending it out until we got a deal.

While this novel was on submission, I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote the “Girl on the Brink,” working on the voice and inserting more suspense elements, turning it into a romantic thriller with a social message. My agent didn’t want it so I submitted it to publishers on my own and eventually got a deal.

To my great disillusion, however, “Skin of Tattoos,” didn’t sell after about 40 submissions despite garnering some real praise from top houses. I realized a hidden truth about publishing — the quality of the writing didn’t necessarily matter, nor even the story, as much as whether it was deemed commercial and fit neatly into a genre.

Eventually, I started researching publishers and sent lists to the agent, who sent it out to those she deemed worthwhile. But after two years, the agent told me she could do no more.

I went back to the manuscript yet again, cutting about 12,000 words, deleting stuff that both agents had told me to include but really didn’t fit the story, again paying attention to the few worthwhile things rejecting editors had said, and mostly to my own gut.

Five months later I had a contract with a small publisher and I wondered if I had done the right thing. Should I have just shelved the manuscript? Waited until I landed a major publisher and developed an audience and then dusted it off?

I’m so glad I didn’t. Both “Skin of Tattoos” and “Girl on the Brink” were published in August and have received excellent reviews from Kirkus Reviews, as well as from readers. It had been an unbelievably long journey but I am thrilled I never gave up. There are far more routes to being published than the traditional one.

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