Literary Agents and the Terrifying World of Publishing

Am I the only one who gets overwhelmed when looking as the massiveness that is the writing and publishing business?  We’re all looking to find the secret to being successful writers, and there are about a million agents and editors and publishers all telling us something different—though that isn’t to say any of them are wrong.  Suddenly, it’s a requirement to have a following before a single word gets published.  We whore ourselves out on Twitter and Facebook.  We starts blogs and follow others, hoping someone might wander our way full of praise for our inspiring work, funny pictures and witty anecdotes.  Why?  Because we want an editor or an agent to find his or her way to our sites so he or she can pass along our manuscripts and eventually immortalize our work between book sleeves.

Janet Silver is an agent at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth (ZSH), but started as an editor and then a publisher and VP at Houghton Mifflin.  If anyone knows the business it’s Janet.  So when I heard that she was going to be speaking at the University of Baltimore, I made the long trek from Jersey just to hear what she had to say.  It was worth it to listen to her share the ins and outs of the business.  She answered many questions that I’ve had for a while now.

Sometimes I think about what I want for my work.  Do I want it to be published by a huge publishing house like Penguin or Random House and get a widespread release?  Yes, that would be nice.  But so would being published by a small press.  Even this is a daunting task.  So I have to think about what I must do to make that happen.  This is what terrifies me.  The world of publishing and writing completely dwarfs me with its size and structure.  Amongst millions of talented writers, I have to make myself noticeable, marketable, desirable even.  Just thinking about it makes my stomach tighten, as though anticipating the blow that will be my failure.

So what do I need to do in order to make sure I don’t fail?  According to Janet, I need an agent.  Maybe not now, but when my work is ready for publishing, when I’ve been published in a few literary journals and yearn for something a little bigger.  Sure, you can send your finished manuscript to a publishing house without an agent, but the chances of it getting a glance are even slimmer than they used to be.  Editors used to keep a pile of unsolicited manuscripts to look through if they had the time, but now that everything is electronically sent, there is no physical pile to look through.  They just need to click a button, “and that button is usually delete,” as Janet says.

It seems odd that an agent is necessary for me to succeed.  I never imagined myself with an agent or with anyone who would be managing my career.  Of course, there are those who argue that it isn’t necessary.  Some find success by independently publishing their works as e-books.  But this seems to be something that happens only to the lucky few—though I don’t mean to suggest that these few have succeeded by their own merit.  Besides, you don’t get the editorial advice that you would if you were going through an agent and editor.  I would feel lost without the input of those I respect.  And I know if I slapped my work up on Amazon without this guidance, it would get a grand total of two hits and probably zero purchases.

But now I have two things to do.  First, I have to work on my online presence.  I must shove this blog down people’s throats until they love me, tweet and retweet, and consistently post.  Second, I have to get better at networking.  My instinct is to quietly slink out of the room once the lecture is over so nobody can engage me in awkward small talk.  I must resist this urge at all costs.

I’m glad I came to see Janet Silver and to gain any wisdom she can pass on.  She restored some of the hope that escapes me some days when brainstorming leads to nothing but headaches and unsatisfying drafts pile up on my desk covered in red pen and the sweat from my brow.  There is a place out there for my work.  I just have to find it.  It might not be those giant publishing houses, or even any of their imprints, and that’s okay.  All that matter is that it’s right.

So I guess sooner or later I’ll be in the market for an agent.

2 responses to “Literary Agents and the Terrifying World of Publishing

  1. just had to comment! im a rider alum- also unemployed and a feminist. good luck with everything! :)

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