A few weeks back I blogged about 'Queryfail' - where agents were sharing on Twitter the worst approaches made to them by writers. This has caused rage and frustration in the writing community: go to http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/2009/04/agentfail-right-here.html to listen in to writers getting their own back by grousing about the dreadful behaviour of agents. I took a look at this last week and it was already a very lengthy thread and although I felt sympathy - and recognition - I also felt that it was a bit of a Pyrrhic victory to sneer at agents and complain about them. Sadly, many of the complaints were badly spelled and expressed - and this does the would-be clients of agents no favours. We need to stay calm, professional, icily articulate. Do go across and take a look: some of the experiences recounted are truly shocking. After a while, though, I bet you'll start feeling weary or uncomfortable - where does it get us all? I enjoy a good bleat as much as the next hard-done-by writer (oh, you noticed that, did you?) but there comes a time when you have to detach yourself and think of ways of taking practical, independent action. You have to have your pride, even if you don't have the cherished book-deal.
That said, I did recognise one of the cardinal sins of agents, and publishers, repeated over and over and over, and I have been at the receiving end of this so many times. What is it? Cruelty, a sneering dismissal, a promise unfulfilled, a stolen idea? No. It's SILENCE. It's the hardest thing of all to cope with. You put together the best submission package you can, you write a smooth, brief, ultra-professional letter, you dutifully follow all the guidelines on the agency's website, you act keen but not insanely desperate. You send material off by snail mail or through the ether. Then you wait.
You know you should be writing something new but you can't settle to it until ... until you know, once and for all, whether your beloved project has found a home.
You wait some more.
You agonise about when it would be permissible to make a brief, humble enquiry - did my material, perchance, reach you safely? When do you think you could let me know whether you're interested? You draft an email enquiry with more care than you put into the whole novel. You wait.
And you wait
And you wait.
Christmas comes. Another birthday. Your children grow six inches. So does your waistline. The photo you fondly thought might do as a publicity shot bears less and less resemblance to your current haggard state.
You keep waiting. Weeks, months - and sometimes years - down the line, an answer comes. When it does, it's a weasel-phrase, a wriggle-clause, written by an overloaded overworked agent (or minion) who, in spite of the fact that an entire geological epoch has passed since you submitted the thing, hasn't really had the time to read much of it, or read it with care. You suspect that these time-delay judgements are also, paradoxically, snap judgements. Not quite right for our list, bleh bleh. We wish you luck placing it elsewhere, blah blah. The knowing for sure, is cruel - but it certainly beats, believe me, the NOT knowing for sure. Tread on my dreams if you must - just don't skirt them and wander off without any comment at all on their pretty colours, their soft textures.
Several writers on the Bookends blog were particularly upset by failure of agents to reply even when material had been solicited! Another grouse is that agents put up on their websites that they will reply in four or six weeks - and then don't. Or they say that if you don't hear in a certain time, it's a no. Hmn. You'll still be left wondering - did it get to them safely? I must know, I must know! So you'll still chase them. Glitches do happen: when I revised my last book for my agent and waited several weeks for her response, then emailed her, I was told she hadn't received it. In fact it was at the agency, lying on somebody else's desk, for the best part of a month, further delaying the time when it would be sent out to publishers.
Now then, because God forbid we should sound biassed and unfair, let's take a look at an agent's perspective. Go to agent Nathan Bransford's excellent blog (in my blogroll to the right) - he's been conducting a very interesting experiment. He posted, with the writers' permissions, fifty genuine query letters he'd had and invited us to judge whether we would, as agents, have requested material from those writers. If you go to the blog, scroll right down to the beginning of this process: it's a lot of material and takes a while to read. I have to say I just read the queries rather than the hundreds of comments people were making on them, because I do actually have a life and it's really too short to follow up all of this. What is fascinating is that he buried in the midst of this three queries where the writers did go on to get publishing deals. He invites you to spot them. (This is why it's important to scroll right down to the start of the process and read upward, as it were). Well, I didn't. In fact, I can't remember any of the queries making my pulse go faster. Maybe I'd be a really mean agent! Try it for yourself: be an agent for a day. It'll fill up some of that waiting-time.