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Bewildering Stories

Gabriel Timar writes about...

Publishers and Literary Agents

For a long time I could not get a single Canadian publisher to read any of my manuscripts. My correspondence with the only local publisher replying to my attempt to communicate was like a comic opera.

I started most my queries with: “I am a professional Canadian writer...” Their first reply was: “We publish fiction only by Canadian writers...”

After I explained them I am a Canadian and offered to send the proof, they immediately wrote asking for the outline of the story. I sent them the summary of my historical novel, which had been published and well received in Hungary. They said they don’t publish war stories but any other genre was okay.

Fine, I said, and offered to send them a thriller. They replied that thrillers did not fit their corporate profile.

Grudgingly I suggested a sci-fi and received a similar reply. In desperation I offered to send them the outline of a romance, which I had written intending to sample that market. Yes, sir, you guessed right: they did not publish romances either.

Apart from one summary they did not read anything else. Sometimes I doubt they can read at all.

* * *

As far as agents are concerned I have to smile. I have tried and I am still at it despite the setbacks. Some time ago I read a piece on the Internet telling would-be writers like me how to find an agent. This was my reply:

Dear Sir:

I have read your well-written and precise instructions on how to find a literary agent. In comparison to the many articles available on the Internet, yours is the best by far. Nevertheless, I believe something is missing.

I am a professional Canadian writer, publishing prose in two languages. I am on the hunt for an agent because marquee publishers do not accept submissions from authors.

I obtained addresses from the Internet and several publications, including the godforsaken Writer's Market recommended by every major publisher. I contacted more than a hundred agents (since this letter I am past the two hundred mark) via e-mail, snail-mail, and telephone. This is what happened:

  1. I received four negative replies. These were to book proposals made in strict accordance with the agents’ requirements posted on their websites.

  2. After reading the summaries and samples of my work, twenty-odd agents offered to represent me for 10% of the royalties plus a measly $300-500 per month “to cover their expenses.” Their glowing comments suggested that I was a reincarnation of Hemingway and that selling my work was a cinch. I politely declined entering into a contract with them.

  3. Eighteen agents (forty-five to date, including yours) have had my snail-mail submissions since more than a year, but despite the proper SASE, they have not yet replied.

  4. I telephoned more than twenty literary agents (thirty-eight since the original letter), but I only reached their voice mail and, despite my repeated attempts, they never returned my calls.

  5. I sent e-mail queries to a great number of agencies (I lost count at one hundred). Only two said they were not taking any new clients, and a few had gone out of business. The rest just didn’t bother to reply.

After these frustrating experiences I decided to test a theory: I telephoned some of the agents who had not bothered to reply to my earlier calls, leaving them a message saying that I was trying to write a biography of General Idi Amin, whom I had the doubtful pleasure of knowing personally, but was having some difficulties. Every one of them called within a day asking what they could do to help. In fact, one offered ghostwriting services.

Therefore, I believe you should add warnings to your otherwise excellent instructions:

  1. More than twenty percent of the virtually impeccable agents are crooks; they are the ones who reply all queries.

  2. Don’t expect agents to reply unless your query suggests a recognizable name in the title, or you share the name of a celebrity.

  3. The literary agency business is often a racket, and it is extremely difficult to spot the phonies.

Based on my limited experience I believe the insistence of the major publishers on agented submissions is a disservice to themselves and their readers. After reading a summary and a couple of pages of a novel, any editor worth his salt could determine if the book is usable or not.

Yours truly,

Gabriel Timar

Copyright © 2008 by Gabriel Timar

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