In a recent blog, I mentioned a conversation I’d had over a couple of martinis with my overpaid, pain-in-the-ass NYC literary agent. It must have struck a nerve because it generated a lot of questions. Most of them boiled-down to some form of: “So, what the hell happened?”
Truth is, this gal was the best agent I’ve ever had. She knew everyone, had seen everything, and was a cut-to-the-chase kinda gal. Oh, we had fights all right, nothing to do with writing style or characterization, but everything to do with her just doing whatever the hell she wanted to and shotgun blasting my manuscripts to anyone at any time. She was a renegade and old-school, but boy, could she produce! Best of all, you always knew from one microsecond to the next where you were at. No games whatsoever and no back-stabbing. If she was going to stab you, it was a frontal assault with your guts flopping out on the floor while you watched. Ahhh, the good ole days…
But with the Agent from Uranus title, I’m not talking about M.G., but about the agent who signed-on to replace her…a well-known individual, but with a style so different from M.G.’s that I never knew what hit me. Years later, I still scratch my head. Without mentioning any names, and making any sly allusions, I’ll give you a blow-by-blow of how you can do everything right and get blind-sided anyway.
The first communication was a telephone call from New York…very cordial, and bordering on being effusive. This was clearly our honeymoon call. “First off, I don’t just love your manuscript, Henry, I LOVE it!” With this agent’s reputation, I felt like I’d just been asked to the prom by the captain of the football team…something like that. Then he proceeded to tell me chapter-by-chapter what he liked, loved, and what he thought could use a little work. I took notes while my wife jumped up and down in the kitchen, grinning from ear to ear.
He was very courteous, and his first question was, “Would I be amenable to considering alternate titles for the book?” My knee jerk response was, “Sure! Certainly!”
His second suggestion was, that I add several more humorous editorials to the book. In this novel, the protagonist was a newspaper editor with a propensity for writing politically incorrect editorials. Once again, my response was eager and positive. I told him I’d get right on it.
His last request was simple and straight-forward. He said that he needed them in four weeks. Once again, I was jubilant. “I told him that this was extremely doable.”
I got off the phone and Pamela and I did a little dance around the kitchen. I took his requests very, very seriously and got right to it. He had suggested a title for the book, and I placed that at the top of a short list for him to peruse. Including his, there were now four new titles to choose from. I didn’t give any indication of liking one more than the other.
Second, I slaved over not just three but five new editorials as requested…polished them and then repolished them. They were all pretty good, perhaps better than the originals I’d written, but he’d have his pick.
Lastly, he indicated that he needed it in four weeks. Working flat-out we managed to get the whole package out to him in a little more than two and a half weeks. We FedExed it to him, receipt requested just to make certain it got there all right and then went out to dinner to celebrate.
Now…here’s where it gets really weird. About a week went by and then I received a registered letter from the agent, ripping me…and the book into tiny little pieces of confetti. I had made not one, not two, but three huge and unforgiveable mistakes. Care to guess?
First, when he suggested that we consider other titles, that really wasn’t the case. When translated it was actually, we’re running with MY title and…how dare you even consider anything else?
Second: “Henry, I told you I wanted three editorials. You sent me five. Do you know the difference between three and five?”
Third: This one was strangely the most amazing of all. He wanted it in four weeks and I met the goal…….too soon. I got the project done roughly a week early.
Three strikes and I was out. I never knew what hit me. Oh, and the kicker was…now the story that he had loved a month ago was excrement. He didn’t like anything at all. Zero.
As it turns out, however, there are a pretty good number of literary agents out there. Most of them are pretty nice. Most of them are very professional. And there are a handful of wild cards. Always keep your guard up even when they’re effusive.