Let me apologize in advance: this post is gonna get a little long. And it probably won’t be very funny either, unless you care to have a laugh at my ‘once-upon-a-time’ ignorance and naiveté. If that does happen to be the case, then go right ahead and laugh, my friend. And know that I’m laughing with you.
This post tells the story of my rise to being a Writer. If, at any point, it starts to get dry or boring, let me encourage you to keep reading to the end, cuz there are a few surprises along the way.
Cindy and I were searching through some old papers the other night, and I started going through my Big Box O’ Rejection just for fun. Cuz you know how distracting old papers can be when you’re looking for obscure documents. Anyway, I found an envelope full of correspondence, all dated from 1999, from my first agent. Yes, you read that right – my current agent is not my first agent.
Her name was Debbie Fine, she ran Southeast Literary Agency, and if either of those names sounds vaguely familiar to you, then you deserve a virtual pat on the back, because it means at some point in your writing research, you've gone that extra mile . Let's just say, they should be well known.
So 1999 was the year I finished writing my first book. I’d dabbled in short stories before that, most of which sucked (as evidenced by the section of my sidebar I call ‘Obselete Fiction’), but after writing a complete novel, I was feeling pretty good. So I bought some books on how to get published, and started doing all the right and usual stuff. I was careful and committed and faithful, but you know, the Internet just wasn’t as powerful a research tool as it is now.
The only good reference I had available to me was an earlier incarnation of The Writer’s Guide to Literary Agents. In those days (I’ve gotta stop saying “in those days” – it makes me sound old) about a third of the book was dedicated to listing fee charging agents. And as near as I can figure, there aren’t quite as many of them nowadays. I think because ‘fee-charging’ has come to be synonymous with ‘incompetent’, or ‘scamming’. Point is, that wasn’t quite as clear as it is today.
In those days I thought that simply writing a book was a monumental and victorious accomplishment. In those days I figured the writing was the hard part. Surely the publishing end of things was a damn near given. Probably the most ignorant and pathetic of all my assumptions was that, in those days, I thought my writing was good.
So after like sixty or seventy rejections, I started combing through the fee chargers.
And I quickly struck gold.
Within a month, Ms. Fine had requested a full manuscript, then offered to represent me. In her initial letter, she asked for a synopsis of any other completed works I might have, then she went on in detail describing the types of marketing materials she’d need when she began the submission process. Next she informed me that unlike most agencies, they only charged a 10% commission, but that she would need $150 up front to cover copying and postage. “At Southeast, we only charge you once and that covers all expenses for the term of the contract no matter how long your book(s) are in print.”
So I signed on, eagerly (subsequently ignoring a request for a full manuscript from Pema Browne). Over the next six months, I received regular correspondence from Ms. Fine, detailing her activities on my behalf. I’d like to include some excerpts here, if y’all don’t mind, because I find them fascinating now, and I’m hoping that it might be a little bit educational for some of the un-agented writers reading my blog.
Keep in mind – my book sucked.
I wish this could be your notice that MEGA House has offered a super advance, but it’s not. We’ve contacted Royal Fireworks Press, but they declined publication. Your work is presently being read at Orchard Boods, Bantam Books for Young Readers, Holiday House, Inc., Avon Flare Books and Chronicle Books. There are more publishers we will contact.
Don’t fret. More often than not finding a publisher takes time. Sooner or later an editor will recognize how good your work truly is. We’ll contact you as soon as we get a positive response from a publisher.
In addition to the publishers we’ve listed I our last letter, your work has also been sent to Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers and Bain Bridge Books.
If any suggestions or critiques are made from an editor, we’ll pass along the info. We’re still waiting for an offer to be made. You’ll receive a call once we do.
Our agreement is nearly completed and it’s time for each of us to re-evaluate our situation. I still feel as strong about [My Crappy Book] as when we first began. Your work has a lot to offer and I’d like to continue trying to get your work on the market. I’m disappointed no publisher has selected your work but there are still contacts that can be made if you are willing.
I hope you’ll consider one more attempt. I have enclosed another agreement. Sign and return one copy along with your check and I’ll proceed in my efforts.
Normally I love the smell of coffee in the morning, but when I woke up and smelled it in February of 2000, it made me want to vomit. (upchuck, hurl, spew – but not ralph)
I’d been scammed.
This coincided, almost to the day, with finding out that the number of children I’d sired was about to double. We were about to have two new babies, the publishing industry was slimy and cruel, and with a heart full of shattered dreams, I decided to give up on writing and focus on my family.
Don’t feel bad, y’all. You know how this story ends. After a five year hiatus, I went on to write nine more books, each a little better than the last, until I finally landed a kick-ass agent, Ethan Ellenberg. Oooo… did he just finally tell us his agent’s name?
Soon, actual copies of my book will be going to actual publishers where one will eventually be accepted. Soon it will be printed on actual paper and sent to actual bookstores and put in the hands of actual readers – actual money will flow in multiple directions. What makes me so sure?
Because I’ve finally learned the difference between agent listings and actual research.
Just for the hell of it, skip commenting and go right now to Google. Do a search on Southeast Literary Agency, and then Ethan Ellenberg. I want all of my un-agented writer friends to learn from my ignorance, to not repeat my sad mistake: you cannot stop with the name and the address of any agent that claims to represent your genre. You’ve got to go directly to the agency’s websites. You’ve got to find out what they’ve published, who their clients are, if their books are self-published or available in traditional bookstores, cuz Debbie Fine listed multiple titles and authors she’d brokered deals for. But it was a toilet full of steaming lies.
Debbie Fine, of Southeast Literary Agency, was such a gifted scammer, that Writer Beware eventually awarded her the number eighteen spot on their 20 Worst Agents list.
Mr. Ellenberg, on the other hand, has an actual publishing history.
I wish I could say I was proud to have been on both ends of the spectrum.