On looking for a literary agent, the Imposter Syndrome, and writing the next book
I’ve been writing since before I could write. I’d bet this is the case with a lot of writers. We were making up stories before we knew what we were doing. My mother lovingly transcribed some of mine like “Batman and Robin meet the Parkrit Family” (that’s how I pronounced “The Partridge Family”). I also, somewhat apocryphally, convinced my grandmother to stop smoking by writing a piece of propaganda called “Batman and Robin Don’t Smoke.” Each page of the pamphlet displayed a sticker or several and one line of judgement: “Cowboys and Indians don’t smoke,” “Cops and robbers don’t smoke.” You get the picture.
I make up stories when I play with my niece. That’s what we do. What set my childhood experience apart was that my mother wrote my stories down. In that way, I’ve been making books my entire life. I recently uncovered a book I’d written in grade school about a boy who taught coding(!). The cover was a piece of fabric glued to cardboard and stitched through the pages to bind it. I’d literally made the book after writing it.
I wrote my first novel in college. It wasn’t for an assignment, just to see if I could do it. It took me three or four years to complete and it’s terrible. But I knew from the time I was 22 or so that I could write something of novel length.
Around 1998, I wrote a long short story that had the first promise of being something good. In 2002, I wrote a novella with the same characters and put it together with the short story into one book, giving it a post-modern structure that my writing didn’t have on its own. I researched self-publishing and finding a literary agent. I started querying. I don’t know if I even received responses. With only one book completed–and it a combination of novella and long short story–I wrestled with Imposter Syndrome like any artist does. I know that fearing I couldn’t duplicate my accomplishment withheld me from querying agents aggressively.
But Imposter Syndrome has never gotten in the way of my DIY / Fuck It attitude. Two years later, I self-published the book, Being Good.
Knowing that I could do that really motivated me. I immediately began writing another novel, Barry’s Cherries. That was more of a proper novel, not two longish stories sewn together. Again, I queried but not too enthusiastically. Instead, I self-published about one year later and threw all my energy into promoting it. Social media consisted mainly of MySpace at the time. So I had a MySpace profile for myself but also one for the protagonist. I told weekly stories about the writing of the book on my blog. I gave PDF copies away free to bloggers and garnered some good reviews. I sold some copies but never made my money back. Still, I knew I could write books. I’d published two of them.
In 2009, I began collecting the information and writing the essays that would become my next book. Because it took me five years to find the time (and gather the working experience) to write it, I didn’t bother with looking for an agent or publisher. I published it through Kindle Direct Publishing last September and began work on a paperback format through Lulu.
As I’ve worked on the web through all those years, I know how to use the tools of the web. I’m not a savvy nor enthusiastic marketer. I’m a terrible salesman. Unfortunately, salesmanship seems to be the main skill agents want to see an author demonstrate, not just proficiency in the tools.
If you don’t know how querying an agent works, here’s a brief overview: I have a book called the Guide to Literary Agents. In its index, I can find agents interested in the genre of my next book: memoir. I also follow a lot of agents and authors on Twitter. From those sources, I visit the agents’ individual websites to determine who might be receptive to my story. Though the Guide to Literary Agents gives detailed instructions on how to create a proposal for a nonfiction book, some agencies don’t want a full proposal or they have their own proposal format. Fiction queries are also different from nonfiction proposals. Some agencies will tell you on their website what genres they’re looking for at that moment.
This is all to say: an author can’t simply create one proposal and send it to each agent in the same format.
Agents also sometimes want to know if you’re querying other agents or agencies. Even when they want that information, they aren’t always able to notify you if they’re passing on your proposal. So I could query my favorite agent and say, “I’m not querying anyone else until I hear from you” and either never hear from her or hear from her 6 weeks later, after which I’d have to start my search over again.
There is an easy argument that the entire querying process rewards one-hit wonders more than career writers. This starts at the point when an agent announces she is looking specifically for “fantasy YA, no vampires.” So the writer who fits that demand can land an agent even if she doesn’t have another book in mind to write.
The system also creates one-hit wonders because, to succeed within the system, a writer must spend time querying and waiting instead of working on the next book. And because feedback from proposals is non-existent outside of a writing convention or workshop, one never knows if the proposal failed because of a technical problem or because the subject wasn’t commercial enough. An author could spend years hammering out a query and proposal for one work (as I did with my first novel and as I’ve watched another writer friend do with his first book) and not working on a new book.
I’m a commercial writer, not an author. Margaret Mitchell was an author. She wrote one book.
— Mickey Spillane
Instead of putting so much emphasis on the query or proposal, it would seem to be in an agent’s interest to find out what else will this author do? If I were an agent, I’d ask every author, “what’s your next book?” (Maybe agents do this, I’ve never heard specific feedback from one.) Speaking for myself, I never had any interest in writing just one book so I have an answer for this question.
One term of art that appears in all information about finding an agent or publisher is “author platform.” Like “content strategy” in the web business, this term is a bit misleading since individuals use it differently. But theoretically, it is this “author platform” that helps an agent see what an author can do on her own.
Depending on whom you’re asking, the “author platform” is either the actual technical platform you have constructed to promote yourself (your website, social media profiles, mailing list) or the audience there. Using myself as an example, I have a pretty great author platform, technically speaking. My website is clean and direct and easily links to my books. New content appears weekly. I have a decent Twitter following. I have a sporadic email newsletter that summarizes what I’ve been publishing. I have a Patreon profile with two proud patrons.
However, my audience is lacking. I don’t get a lot of interaction on Twitter and even less on Facebook. Though my email newsletter has a great open rate and great click through rate, I don’t have a large subscriber base. My articles aren’t shared that much and my books don’t make me much money. So if an agent wants a built-in audience, I can’t bring one.
Or, rather, I can’t bring an authentic audience right now.
By virtue of being a web content and code guy, I know how to build an artificial audience. I could employ some growth hacks and advertise in order to gain followers (as I have done with my book’s Twitter, @goodsimpleopen, which has around 3500 followers). But none of that seems genuine for my personal profile.
This is the same paradox I experienced when I was 18 and sending my band’s demo tapes to labels. The agents, publishers, and labels like it when a creator brings an audience with him. However, if I had an audience, I wouldn’t necessarily be looking for a publisher or agent.
I know how to write books. I know how to publish books. But I want to make money doing it. So I’m going back into that cattle call. For all its faults, the agent system does seem to be the best way to get someone to advocate on my behalf.
I turned 40 and quit a high-pressured job in 2014. I immediately started writing the book about work for which I’d been making notes since 2009. I knew in my mind that I wanted to stay out of another full-time, pressure-filled job until I could write a few more books.
I’d like to turn this into a career. So I bought the 2015 Guide to Literary Agents. I’ve made a spreadsheet to keep track of whom I’ve queried. And I’m cranking out a proposal.
That proposal is for a new book that I’ve already written. At the start of the year, I gave myself a deadline of June 1st to complete a memoir. I finished the manuscript a few weeks ago. I need to add a few short chapters and make some big edits. There is work to be done, for sure. But just the thought of an agent search puts me in that limbo where I place writing (even polishing the current manuscript) on the back burner while I deal with spreadsheets and query letters and worry over the proper way to sell what I’ve written.
I don’t feel the Imposter Syndrome as intensely as when I’d only completed one book. But I feel something similar: that I’ll never have the personal popularity to sell myself as an author. My personality isn’t that large. I don’t want to work on building an audience at the expense of writing. I’ve wrestled with anxiety my entire life and I feel that anxiety creep in when I consider the inauthentic ways in which I could expand my audience.
That anxiety tells me to stick with what I know: publish the book myself on KDP and Lulu. That’s unhealthy in one respect (not straying from the familiar) but it’s also sensible. If my goal is to publish, then why should I delay the publishing and writing of the next book? I’m a do-er. I make things.
This is the devil of anxiety: it never wants you to stray into unfamiliar territory and it makes really reasonable arguments. So here’s what I’m doing: making a list of the agents with whom I feel I have the best shot of acceptance, sending a query / proposal, and finishing the book. If I have no news by August, I’ll self-publish.
Now that I’ve written all this down, I’m accountable somewhat.
And yes, I know what the book after this book will be.