Monday, June 29, 2009

Announcing the "Really Bad Literary Agency"

Steve here:

The other day Chris and I were having lunch with some writer friends when somebody made the joking comment (I forget the exact context), "just so you don't hang up a shingle and become an agent!"

Which got me to thinking. Why the heck not? I mean, I'm qualified, or at least as qualified as many of the so-called agents out there. More so actually.

Now, am I qualified to be the sort of agent I'd want to have? Probably not. But I'm plenty qualified to be the sort of bad agent that most people desperate for an agent are going to end up with.

First of all, let's look at the basic requirements of being an agent:

Okay, drawing a blank here. That's because there pretty much are no qualifications. One editor I know has reportedly said, "You know what you needed to be an agent? Stationery."

I'd qualify that, because we live in the age of computers, laser printers, email, Facebook, and Twitter. You don't even need stationery any more. In fact, if she could type her name into the computer, my cat could be an agent.

Yes, that's right. Anybody can call themselves a literary agent. There's no license required. No certification. No required training. No required degree. No test. Simply the willingness to call yourself an agent.

Of course, good agents are better qualified. They have extensive knowledge of business, contracts, and the publishing industry. They're skilled negotiators and have a gift of salesmanship.

But that's not what we're going for here at the Really Bad Literary Agency, so it's really lucky for us that most agent-hungry writers out there would never think to ask about their agent's qualifications and experience. The agent might be insulted and fail to sign them up, and as we all know, having any agent is way more important than having a good one.

This, of course, simplifies the first apparent obstacle (though less-so than you'd think; read on) in starting the Really Bad Literary Agency: getting clients. Beginning writers are desperate to get an agent, because they've bought into the double myth that you can't possibly sell (or even submit) a book without an agent, and that if you do have an agent, your book will automagically get sold.

They don't know that there are many alternate ways to reach editors (queries, professional networking, pitch sessions at writers conferences, just to name a few), and lets not educate them, shall we?

And they don't realize that sending something to an agent is no assurance in itself that they'll do anything to market your work, or that they'll even send it out at all. And just between us, a manuscript submitted by a really bad agent may get no warmer a reception than if you'd just submitted it yourself cold. In fact, being submitted by a really bad agent can even prejudice an editor against you. But that's just between us.

Okay, how else am I qualified to start the Really Bad Literary Agency? Well, for one thing, I don't live in the New York area where most of the publishing industry still lives. Sure, there's the phone, and the internet, but publishing is still a small, tight, industry that runs on lunch-meetings and handshakes. In fact, I live right on the Pacific coast, about as far from New York as you can get and still be on the mainland. In fact, I'm not even close to Hollywood. Or any major city for that matter. I've got to drive more than a hundred miles even to get on an airplane.

Not that you heard that from me. If anyone asks, "I'm just a train-ride away from Manhattan." Of course, that train is Amtrak's Empire Builder, and it will take me at least three days, and I'd never do that anyway, but never mind that. Anyway, it's sixty miles to the Amtrak station, and I'd have to take another train to Seattle just to get on the Empire Builder (which only goes as far as Chicago, but...)

Okay, let's go with the personal qualifications. Let's see. I'm an introvert who doesn't much like dealing with strangers. I'm uncomfortable at parties, and don't mingle well. I don't like telephones, and in fact, I'm kind of phobic about phone calls. Really, I'm not a people person at all.

My idea of dressing up is a black tee-shirt with something printed on the back instead of a plain one. For a special occasion, I'll throw a Hawaiian shirt over that.

I hate those award ceremonies, trade conferences, and other places where industry people mingle. In fact, I'm not that crazy about traveling at all. I'm comfortable here at my little house in the boonies.

So, in terms of starting a Really Bad Literary Agency, that's check, check, check and check!

What else? Well, I've never sold a book for anybody else. Fortunately, that's another thing people don't talk to agents about. There's the myth that agents (any agent) have a mystic ability to sell books. But how do you know unless you ask? Fact is, even with good agents, they end up representing a lot of books that they did little or nothing to sell. A lot of prolific authors I know have never had one of their books sold by their agents. They were all sold, through one means or another, sold directly by the author (or because the publisher approached the author about the book). Simply because an agent has a book on their resume doesn't mean they actually sold it. Just because they have a name for a client doesn't necessarily mean they've sold anything for them either.

Speaking of client lists, here's a little something we really bad agents like to keep quiet: once you've handled a contract with an author, you're with them for the life of that contract. Even if you screwed up. Even if they hate you. Even if they've fired you and you haven't handled any of their new work in years. As long as the book is still in print, as long as the contract is still active in some form, they're still technically your client, and you can put their name on your web site as honey to attract wanna-be writers. Shhhhhhh!

Now, you may be saying, "Steve, if you don't have any clients, and aren't selling any books, how can you stay in business?"

Well, define "staying in business." As a really bad agent, I don't have much overhead. I don't live close to New York so real estate is cheap. I don't have an office (devoted to the agency anyway). My one employee works cheap (see line item: cat food). And this is most important, I don't make my living as an agent.

That's true of a surprising number of us in the bad agent community. We're supported by spouses, or trust funds, or we're retired, or this is the really good one: we have a day job! Yup. You've heard of hobby-farms. Well, there are also hobby agencies. No crime in this, exactly, except you really can't expect to be your agent's top life-priority, ever.

Fortunately, that's another question most people wouldn't never think to ask of an agent. Is this your primary source of income? Nah, that would be rude. Ignorance is better. Ha!


Did I say shhhhh yet?

Anyway, money is no problem. I have a business plan. As I've said, there's no shortage of eager, would-be clients out there. It might be difficult to reach them, considering my anti-social tendencies, but for once, I'm willing to make an effort. After all, properly -- uh -- exploited, literary clients are gold, baby!

Heck, they don't even have to be clients. We've got this nifty scam -- uh -- revenue stream, called reading fees. Yes! That's right. Non-clients can actually be asked to pay a fee to reject their stuff! Man, it doesn't get better than that!

Look, I'm fully justified in asking for a fee. The very fact that I'm asking for one is pretty much an assurance that I'm not expecting to see anything I'll want to represent. I'm saying, "you're wasting my time, so you're going to have to pay for it." But what's really fun? I don't have to read anything!

Okay, any editor will tell you, most of the stuff in the slush pile rejects itself in the first page, if not sooner. And in this case,I suppose "it sucks," isn't a satisfactory rejection. Okay, maybe it is. What are they going to do? Ask me to unreject them? No need for repeat business. Plenty of fish in the sea and all.

But just to be careful, we'll read just enough to put together a plausible bull-shit rejection. You know, throw in a couple of character names, pick on their manuscript format ("I hate silver brads!") and generally make them seem personally hated. Not that we need repeat business, but it doesn't hurt.

Anyway, beyond that, newbie writers are so eager to get, talk to, even see (from across a crowded room) a agent that we're much in demand. Writer's conferences can't get enough agents, and so they actually pay agents to show up and court suckers -- uh -- potential clients. Heck, as long as I call myself an agent, I could probably sell my worn underpants on eBay. (Note to self: revise business plan.) Speaking fees? Not a problem.

Yes, I will travel. But only if the price is right. Of course, all the time I'm doing this, I'm nowhere near New York, and I'm not in my office either. I'm not doing anything agent-like. But that's okay, because I still haven't sold any books.

Okay, here's another revenue stream. I'd tell you about it, but it's all right here in my book! Only $28.85. They make great gifts! I'll even sign them for you (for a small additional fee)! If I'm qualified to be a really bad agent, I'm just as qualified to write a really bad writing book. Never mind if I can't even sell my own book (though I probably can, because like I said, us agents are much in demand). I'll just publish it myself. That way I don't have to share the profits with anyone. Not even my agent, because, I don't have one! Is this a great country or what?

Okay, maybe you're saying, "but Steve, what if I really do become your client?"

Ha! Fat chance of that, writer-boy! As we've seen, we don't need actual clients to keep the gravy train rolling. In fact, if we had clients, we might actually have to start answering our phone!

But wait. I guess we do need a few clients. People to list on our web-site and to sing our praises (for no good reason we can see, but they're just glad to have an agent).

Okay, how do we keep them out of our hair? Well, Skippy, we have a plan for that too. Since we clearly know than any really bad agent has a fool for a client, it's obvious that you wouldn't know a publishable manuscript if it slapped you in the butt.

Okay, neither would any self-respecting really bad agent, but that won't stop us! Yes, for any three-hundred page manuscript, it only takes three or four pages of "notes" to keep you busy for months! A simple, "I think you should rewrite this in second person, from the viewpoint of the briefcase," could keep many writers busy for a year. Especially if the book doesn't have a briefcase! Brilliance!

Okay, the point of these rewrites isn't just keeping you running in circles. It's also about our ego, and keeping you in line. After all, it's clear that if we know so much more about writing than you, we really don't need you. We're doing you a favor just opening your stinky writer mail. And of course, if makes us feel pretty good up here on our agent throne, watching you little writers scurrying to and fro at our every command. Yeah, it's a little like being Stalin, or Idi Amin. Good times!

After a while, we might even start to believe our own press, that we really can take your sow's anus of a manuscript and turn it into a Gucci bag. And if one of our clients actually does manage to produce a Gucci bag, and it somehow escapes our "improvements," and really does turn out to be a best-seller, score! It doesn't matter how it happened, or who is really responsible. The credit is there, and we're glad to take it.

Okay, okay, confession time here. This is where I'm really, really poorly qualified to be a really bad agent. You see, as a really bad agent, how can I possibly tell you how to rewrite your book if I've actually written books of my own. Multiple books. And sold them. To major publishing houses. For money.

And how can I possibly tell you how to write best-sellers when I've actually been on a best-seller list. Twice. Oh, the shame.

Okay, good news though. Though I'm a national best-seller, I'm not a New York Time's best-seller, so I'm completely unqualified/qualified to tell you how to cross that hurdle!

Okay, but there's one flaw in my business plan. What with hawking my book, speaking engagements, writer's conferences, and hiding in my left-coast house with the shades drawn, there's not much time left to meddle with even my most prized clients.

But we've got a solution for that too, and it works for all aspiring suckers -- uh -- writers, client or no. Yes, for a small fee I can refer you to a highly-unqualified book-doctor who can tell you how screwed up your book is for not reading exactly like Harry Potter with the names misspelled. For which I get only an -- uh -- modest, kickback.

So, with no further ado, I'd like to introduce you to my book doctor:

So that's it. The Really Bad Literary Agency is now open for business. Want to be a client? Ha! The line is already forming! What you need to show me is that you're just a little more eager than anyone else. Bribes cheerfully accepted! Just click the "donate" button below.

No promises of course. Except we will take your money.

[J. Steven York is the national best-selling author of over a dozen books (and counting). He is not an agent, nor does he want to be one. He will, however, still take your bribes.]

Because everyone seems to love Bad Agent Sydney, and technology lets me do this stuff, I've created a Cafepress shop where a full range of Bad Agent Sydney tee-shirts and other goodies are available. Find it HERE.

Did you find this article useful? Your donation, big or small, will encourage us to do more like it. Every little bit helps and is appreciated. Thanks in advance: Chris and Steve.


  1. Can you give me your cat's e-mail so I can send a query letter? ;-)

    Ty Johnston

  2. Sydney is looking for questions to answer in a future blog posts. Perhaps if she likes batting you around the carpet, she'll take you on as a client. (False hope is the best hope there is, isn't it?)

  3. Sydney-- my cat, BarnKitty refered me to you regarding representing my Coastal Murder Mystery. Oh course, she wouldn't give me your email address until I gave her some Pounce treats. Katz have to stick together.


  4. Thanks for the blog. I just received my first rejection from an agent this last week. My wife was worried about how I would take it but I just laughed. I sent a query and two pages of manuscript. It was hard to get worked up over two pages of manuscript being rejected.

    I am about to go through one more edit on my book and then send it out again, I think I will look for one who maybe takes 5 pages ;)

  5. Made me laugh my ass off:) Thanks, I needed to do that!