The Literary Agent Era

by Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

Inexperienced and unpublished writers are continually asking me, “How do I go about getting a literary agent?” And “Do I really need a literary agent?” Having once been an inexperienced and unpublished writer, I can empathize with their concerns and confusion. Here are some answers to the questions:

Free-lance or hobby writers of stories and articles who do not have a writing reputation or a track record of sales should not bother enlisting the aid of a literary agent. Most agents will not accept them as clients. Their work is not worth much money.

The average agent’s fee is 10% to 15% of what the publication pays. Selling one story or article every four months for $1000 may impress the writer but it represents only $100 or $150, every four months to the agent. That would not cover the phone bill or stamps.

Literary agents are not engaged in furthering the cause of American literature or literary works. Most agents are just dreary merchants with artistic affectations. Business people are not sympathetic to penny-ante writers with long-term hopes. They are geared to function for writers who produce big goods that will turn them a high profit.

Without a literary agent to represent them, free-lance writers must search out their own resources for getting published. The four standard publications that are devoted to listing possible outlets and the methods for reaching a particular medium are: The Writer’s Market, The Literary Marketplace, The International Dictionary of Little Magazines and Small Presses, and The Writer’s Handbook.

They provide the name of the publication, the address, the editors, and a brief summary of what type of material they favor. They cite the circulation, terms of payment and the rights they acquire when the material is purchased. There is little more that the writer needs know.

When you write a story you consider salable, send it to the magazine you believe will be interested in publishing such material. Since it is only a story, it is not necessary to first forward a letter of inquiry to the editor to learn if he is interested in the work. Send the entire story with a brief letter: “I am submitting my story, “The Grim Reaper Titters,” for publication. Thank you.”

If you want to sell an article, it is not necessarily to write the article first and then submit. You send the editor a query letter stating what you intend to write. Offer the title (“Is the Fountain Pen Making a Comeback?”) and use the manner or tone you will use in the writing. Example: (breezy) Tired of those ballpoint pens that run dry when you are signing a million dollar contract? (Actual) When the first ballpoint pens were introduced in 1941 the sale of fountain pens and liquid ink dropped for 33%. (Informational) The original fountain pen, made of an Asian bamboo stalk,  used a bladder made of fused guppy lungs. It was invented seven minutes after King Leopold VI was dethroned. He took the fountain pen with him.

Include in your letter of inquiry the sources of information and if photos or drawings of your subject are available. You can also include why you believe readers will be interested in such an article. It is not immodest to present a brief view of your writing background, and a list of other magazines that have published your writing.

The query letter should be typed single space and no longer than one page.

The greatest difficulty is the waiting. Popular magazines will not respond quickly to your submission. Their excuse is that they get hundreds of submissions a month. The unknown writer is in no position to antagonize them.

Wait a month and then send a letter asking for information on your article or story. After another month send a more emphatic letter. Persist until the story is accepted or rejected.

If your story or article is rejected, violent suicide is not the sensible way for conducting a successful writing career. Nor does a cold form rejection mean that your writing is unpublishable. It could merely mean that the material was not submitted at the right time.

If a magazine can only publish eight articles and three stories a month, and it receives 83 articles and 94 stories then 75 articles and 91 stories will be rejected. They are not all rejected because they are unsuitable. There is just no room for them this month.

My advice is to send the same material back to them. You might touch the right time or, by that time, the magazine will have a new staff of editors, or it will have modified what it deems acceptable.

The literary agent is necessary only when the writer has a big property. A book. If they are competent agents, they have the contacts and know the contract. They can haggle for larger advances. But they have become more influential and powerful than they should be. They believe they are directing the course of the writer toward an illustrious destiny. They offer themselves as critics and collaborators. But they are still only merchants peddling the written word.

©2013 The Estate of Leonard Bishop

(first published August 4, 1988 the Manhattan Mercury)

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