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Getting and Losing an Agent
Why is an American publishing his novel with Macmillan New Writing? After all, I reside in the US of A, where we have publishers of our own (Admittedly they mainly sell diet books, with the occasional novel by Nicole Richie or Pamela Anderson, but they are publishers nonetheless. No, really.)
Actually, I’m not the first American to publish with MNW. That would be Michael Stephen Fuchs, whose excellent novel The Manuscript was one of the six MNW launch titles. And it’s been slated for US publication, and UK paperback, and optioned for film, and deservedly so. But Michael lives and works in London, so he’s one of the locals.
So what’s my excuse?
Glad you asked. Gather round, kiddies, and after he secures the perimeter to prevent escape, Uncle David will explain.
In 2004 I completed Smite the Waters, a novel about a group of Americans who decide to fight terror with terror. (Spoiler: Their ultimate plan is to nuke Mecca.)
Now, before you get riled and start sending hate mail, let me note that this isn’t a jingoistic, flag-waving fantasy where untainted, home-bred good conquers unmitigated foreign evil It’s more in the nature of a cautionary tale. I suppose it’s a “thriller,” and perhaps even a “technothriller,” but its ancestors are more Graham Greene than Tom Clancy.
I admit Smite isn’t easy to pigeonhole. There are two protagonists. There are five points of view, and, although there is a noir tone overall, the book also has a heaping helping of techno-candy, and even some caper elements. It abounds in moral ambiguity and nuance, and is more character-driven than most recent thrillers. A description of the story line sounds like (wince) Men’s Adventure, but the embittered female soldier who leads the terrorists is the book’s main selling point. Despite all those facts ("features" to me, "drawbacks" to most of the publishing industry) it wasn’t hard to find representation—two excellent literary agents simultaneously offered to take me on while seven others were still reading. To someone with a couple of previous novels sitting in my drawer (good novels, I hasten to add, but perhaps a touch too quirky for the market), it seemed as though I’d finally arrived.
My agent was a good one—well-connected, and able to go directly to the high-level folks at each house who could flip on the green light.
Those green lights all stayed red. I’d heard of being damned with faint praise, but the rejections we received damned the book with effusive praise. They loved the characters, the plot hook, the prose, the pacing…at any moment, I expected to hear that someone loved my 12-point Times New Roman. There were just two tiny, but fatal, problems.
One editor came right out and said it, after larding on the compliments: “The fact that the bad guys are Americans makes this a hard sell for us.” There were variations on this message, most of them more subtle, but the overwhelming response was that New York was shying away from “9/11 fiction” in “the present climate,” and it was explained that if they went down that road they wanted a “real hero” to “lead the narrative charge.”
Another editor even offered that she was sure she “would be kicking myself for turning this down.” (I haven’t yet checked to see if she’d like me to save her the work by dropping by and kicking her myself, but if she happens to read this—hey, I’m willing.)
By the end of 2005, my agent was giving up on the book. Not on me, bless her heart—she wanted to pick up another of my earlier books and get to work—but after only a handful of rejections, she’d decided that the subject matter and the characters of Smite would preclude publication.
I’d been steeped in the tales of folks like James Lee Burke, whose breakout novel was rejected by 111 editors, so less than ten rejections struck me as barely having begun. Not so, my agent counseled—this was “a big, commercial book” and only a few houses could “give it what it needed” in terms of distribution and promotion. She refused to consider smaller presses; she refused to consider more literary imprints, even though the lack of a “real hero” and the ensemble nature of the book made it a touch more thoughtful than many thrillers.
Fine. Over the years I’d heard of many fine American writers who had to go overseas to publish. John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, now considered a classic, was turned down everywhere in the US before it was published in England; James Purdy’s novels were all considered unpublishable in America until he’d built up a body of work in Europe; folks like Chester Himes and Jonathan Carroll finally moved to Europe altogether because they were appreciated abroad and comparatively ignored at home. More recent debuts by Americans like Carol O’Connell’s Mallory books also found a home in the UK before NY publishers would touch them.
I asked two friends, who are well-established American novelists, if I were crazy to consider publishing in the UK. Neither of them thought it odd—and both of them informed me that their UK sales were typically twice their US sales.
I asked other friends, and they laughed. The general impression they gave me was that “The fact that the bad guys are Americans” would make no difference in Europe, and might even be a selling point.
So, I asked my agent if she would try to sell Smite the Waters to houses in the UK. Her agency boasted outstanding overseas connections, so I expected at least a few trial submissions. Instead, she told me that my book was far “too American” to be of interest to any publisher in the UK
I think there often comes a time for writers—usually long after the process of writing is over—when it isn’t about you, the author, any more, but instead about the novel. What do you owe the book? I thought Smite needed to be given a real chance.
But it’s nerve-wracking for an unpublished novelist to drop an agent voluntarily. After your novel’s been shopped to the top half-dozen NY houses, no other agent is going to want to pick you up. Unagented, you have no track record; agented but unsold, you have a negative track record, because your other agent has already, to use the industry’s charming term, “pissed in all the ponds.”
I contacted my agent and said I wasn’t ready to give up on Smite. She said she understood, added that it really was a good book, and wished me luck.
And so we parted company. Many writers have compared leaving their agent to getting divorced. If so, it’s a strange sort of divorce, as the agent still has dozens of other spouses. It’s more like leaving someone’s harem…except that you no longer have the admittedly limited advantages of your virginity.
Jump to Part II