When I was 23, I landed one of the top literary agents in the business.
He handled Big Ones in the book world, scoring huge deals and deeply ensconced in the movie industry, and I was ten levels of atmosphere beyond giddy. I’d gone through the slushpile and had a partial requested, sent off the partial and got a request for a full. Not long after that, my phone rang. He asked how many books I had written, and when I said five, he said that he wanted a copy of every single one. I sent them the next day.
The phone rang again not long after that. He wanted us to meet, and for me to sign. We had lunch, and I promptly destroyed my efforts to appear professional by swallowing water wrong and coughing for four very long minutes. After I signed the contract, he said that he would be in touch in three months, and of the book I was currently finishing with final edits, he wanted it once I was done.
A frequent lament of agents is the Needy Author who phones incessantly demanding attention. I resolved not to act this way, and though I was interested to which publishers my books were being ferried, it seemed best to let him do his job while I did mine. He had more important matters than reviewing his selection process with an author who wasn’t even making money for his agency yet. So I wrote for a blissful summer, believing that my breakthrough was on the horizon. In the fall I received a phone call. While vague about where he had sent my books, he was delighted with the book I had recently mailed and wanted a synopsis of the planned series. I ran to my computer.
Months stretched out, and I was so worried about being a pest that I could not bring myself to call. The wheels of a publishing house turn with excruciating slowness, especially for someone who is a no one to the editor. The agent said that he’d call once he had news, and we could review the responses together. So I would holster my impatience to wait.
I waited for a year and a half.
Due to hearing loss, tinnitus, and auditory interpretation problems, the phone is difficult for me. If I can’t watch you speaking, and if I don’t know the context of the conversation and the cadence of your voice, I’m frequently lost. Even in person, I have a mild degree of difficulty. What sounds to you like someone saying, “That’s the plan!” sounds to me like, “Thaah’s uh PLA-uh!” It takes my brain time to figure out what you have said, and if you keep rattling while I’m piecing together a stream of nonsense into words, you’re going to have to repeat yourself. So I had my Lady Friend call, and stood by as she left a polite message for the agent to please call back with an update on my work.
Ten days later, there was a note at my door that I had a package waiting at the post office. Feeling vague dread, I drove over and received a box from the agency. Within it was every manuscript, and a scrawled note from someone else in the agency that read: sorry we couldn’t help you. He hadn’t sent my books anywhere. I don’t think I got out of bed for the next three days.
I’d canvassed agents long before him and gotten plenty of rejections, and I knew how hard it would be to find another. Then I remembered at our luncheon how he’d bewailed the cost of making copies of books to send to editors, how it wasn’t fair for him to pay it all. I hadn’t read the subtext to his complaint. He was asking me to shoulder the burden, but I had not understood. While reputable agencies are not supposed to do this, what one says and what one does, well, those can be very different things. I had waited 18 months having no idea that I’d blown everything over what seemed to be an off-hand comment over turkey sandwiches.
Had I grasped what he was saying, I would have emptied my local Kinko’s of its paper and ink, and likely I wouldn’t be writing this post right now. But I didn’t, and I am.