While there are other posts we need to write, this is the time of year when posting something reflective is much more appropriate. The new decade has dawned, and, with it, the beginning of our 11th year in the industry. Yes, that’s right. Eleven years. And we’re still sane…sort of. Go figure.
While most folks try to do something profound as one year clicks over to the next, we purport to do no such thing. Years pass. It’s the nature of things. In publishing, we’re already into 2012 and beyond, so 12:01 A.M. on January 1st means nothing to us, except we have yet another excuse to kiss each other and dance, as if we need one, and, well, yes, it is the beginning of another year in the business for us, so we’re happy about that. By the way, in case anyone is overwrought at this point, yes, agents can kiss if they’re both in the AAR. It’s in the Canon of Ethics, near the bottom.
We decided to make a list (and check it twice, of course) of “stuff” that came to us as we discussed the year in review. We have business meetings frequently, just like a real corporation except ours have actual outcomes, and review what’s worked and what hasn’t over the last several months. This last business meeting, however, the December carry-in (I carry in the popcorn; Robert carries in the cupcakes), is more of a “year in review” type get together, and it never fails to descend into a bittersweet and nostalgic 15 minutes of reminiscence. This year we thought we’d share with our readers—both of them—what we ruminated on. Here goes…
1. People used to ask us, as if it’s a trick question, how long it has taken us to sell a book. As if we’d say, "Oh, about five years," or "What are books?" The truth is that the longest it’s taken us to sell something is two years. The shortest amount of time it’s taken one of us is twenty-four (24) hours. Such is the nature of agenting. It would be nice if we could say how long it might take to sell a book, but things, such as life, happen to any and all players in the publishing game. Editors take pregnancy leaves. Writers quit writing. Agents die (not that we’re saying we have it worse than anyone else, although we kind of do).
2. Working together is great for a husband and wife team, but it truly can have its down side. For example, the other day, one of us was expecting a phone call from New York; the other wasn’t. The phone call came, but it wasn’t the expected sale. It was an unexpected one for the partner. While we don’t ever get glum about a sale, it can be a bummer when one of us gets a pleasant surprise and the other gets to go back to work until the phone rings again.
3. One of our first book sales was interesting. The editor who offered on my client’s novel was really nervous about talking to Robert about it if he answered the phone instead of me. It wasn’t until later we realized she thought he was trying to steal my sale. He wasn’t. In the early days, we actually both worked the same clients a lot, though now we rarely do.
4. We both come from “bag reader” families. In other words, we come from families in which a variety of relatives would trade brown paper sacks full of mass market paperbacks after having read all of them. There were always books around, but not hardcovers or even trade paperbacks, which didn’t even exist then. That’s why it is still difficult for us to not shake our heads at the whole hc/tp philosophy of some publishers. Apparently, coming from a poor to middle-class family gives one a different perspective, by which I mean a realistic one. Most readers can’t afford to buy the hardcover or the trade paperback when it first comes out, or just have the sense enough not to (patience is a virtue, you know). We know this from years of experience. The average consumer will wait until the mass market comes out, or s/he will go to the library, or borrow it from a friend who did spend his money. The idea that someone will save and save for the next expensive tome from her favorite author is sort of ridiculous. The only exception to this is that group of readers who, due to age or genetic bad eyesight, can’t read small print. However, there are several magnifying devices and this magnificent invention you may have heard of called “reading glasses.” There’s also large print versions of books and e-readers. For those of you thinking this goes against conventional publishing philosophy and that consumers don’t care about price, convenience, and eyesight, I give you one word as proof: e-books.
5. I find it fascinating that it seems like--and this is just my observation--many writers view agents as necessary evils but view editors as some kind of literary gods. It’s been this way since we can remember. It’s as if somehow editors are closer to them, like they’re one of the gang, the intelligentsia of the publishing world, whereas agents are some kind of sleazy car salesmen crashing the party. This has never ceased to amaze me, especially since I’ve met editors and agents who are writers themselves, not just editors, and now, because of the economic downturn and lay-offs, many of those editors, some of whom were not too keen on agents, have now become agents. I’ve also known editors in my tenure as an agent who consider writers lower than snake diarrhea, and correspond regularly with at least one who writes in what I assume to be code. I will send her a note that asks something like, “Have you read Green Eggs & Ham?” And she will respond with something like, “The rodeo starts at seven. See you there!” I’ve also worked with a few editors who, having sworn themselves to some ancient Japanese poetry code, can only respond to messages in 17 syllables or less (also known as the Haiku method of communication). Why, then, you might wonder, don’t we spend all our time on the phone instead of trying to correspond through e-mail? Well, let me put it this way: Don’t. Go. There.
6. When we first started out, not many people had too much faith in an agency from Kokomo, Indiana, prospering, or even surviving past year one. Looking back, there were some folks in publishing, as in other agents and editors, who were just unsure because we were such an anomaly, but they were supportive or at the very least indifferent. However, there were others who were mean and passive aggressive and, to be blunt, discriminating snobs. We don’t dwell on the negative, though, and believe in letting bygones be bygones. That doesn’t, however, mean that we will represent their books, so they need to stop asking. Muhahahaha.
7. Writers often ask us if editors and agents pick books based on their own personal preferences. Yes, they do.
8. Being an agent is like being a treasure hunter, and we still love doing it. Our role in the publishing world is changing, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s like a marriage where the two people grow and change over the years. They either grow together or apart. They either call it quits or, as the Captain and Tennille song goes, love will keep them together. Needless to say, we’re still in love with the written word and would marry it all over again.
9. One of the secret weapons of our success is our critters--our dogs (RIP) and cats. No matter how big of a sale you make, your ego can never get above a 3/5 on the Agent Ego Scale as long as your cat is rubbing its butt on your computer screen.
10. Every agent has those times in his career he will never forget, and one of ours is the "mis-titling" of one of our first sales. The manuscript came to us with one title, one we didn’t think was marketable, and we brainstormed with the author until we thought we found the perfect moniker for it. We all loved it. After it sold, the publishing house decided to change the title to one none of us found alluring (a diplomatic way of saying we really didn’t like it at all). To this day, that book is remembered as the working title, and when we meet with our client, we all laugh about it.
11. This could go on and on, but we will stop here on a final, hopefully profound, note. If you want to be successful in publishing, or in entertainment in general, define your own success. Don’t let anyone define it for you, or you will be running to catch up your entire career. We've seen careers destroyed by writers aspiring to someone else's dreams instead of their own. Remember, nobody really believes you can do anything, possibly even you, until you actually do it (I think Cher said that once on her transition from singing to acting). So, in 2010, reach for your own dreams.
A big thank you to our readers, and may you have a happy, prosperous, and peaceful 2010 filled with great books!