Mar 032011

PhotobucketAs a young writer, I thought getting an agent meant sure success, and I applied to a good many of them. Some turned me down with a form letter and others with a personal note praising my work but explaining why they could not take me on. I don’t know which was more depressing, but I experienced renewed hope when someone I knew in academic publishing wrote several strong letters to high-profile agents praising my work and enclosing the manuscript of my latest effort. I thought this might get me the agent I desired, but no success.

Then, a year later, I received an enthusiastic letter on the stationary of a well-known New York agency. It contained these wonderful words. “I know you must have been signed by now, but if by any chance you haven’t, I would like to represent you.” It was a little odd that it had taken a year for this delightful letter to arrive, but I did not hesitate to say “Yes.”  That’s how I got my agent.

Soon the contract came, with all its delicious references to royalties and percentages and movie rights. I was now in the position to make casual references to “my agent.”  I could hardly wait for the opportunity.

At first, it seemed that publication was right around the corner, even though my agent reported that, though editors agreed I wrote well, they weren’t sure I was solidly enough in the groove. I was just a little too different for genre fiction. What would they put on the book jacket? Still my agent swore that she would not let me down. I settled back, confident that I could rely on her expert opinion. Along the way, she set up her own office and continued to represent me. I was thankful I had an agent, because I was busy with teaching, which took a lot of time. I dreamed of a payday that would allow me to take some time off to concentrate on writing.

After a couple of years of failure, my friends started suggesting that I fire my agent. But she was so enthusiastic and so certain. Besides, if I got rid of my agent, I would no longer be able to casually refer to my agent, which always impressed my students. In all, I had that agent for over ten years and never got anything published through her. This included a four-year period when I heard nothing at all.

I didn’t want to be pushy, but eventually I called her after the four-year hiatus, and she told me that in changing offices she had misplaced my contact details. Even I bridled at that one. I thanked her for her efforts and suggested we part ways, and what do you think she said? “Give me six more months.” And I did. At the end of the six months, I heard nothing from her, so I assume we’re quits.

What is the moral of this story other than John is an idiot? It is simply that some agents are worse than no agent at all, even if they come with good credentials. A competent agent is well organized, realistic, and frank. A writer may think that agents have endless ideas for where to send a manuscript, but the fact is there are only a few publishing houses where they can place a book and make money. They can send a manuscript or proposal to them and get a response in six months or less. If they are unsuccessful, they will send you a list of the publishers to which they submitted your work along with the acquisition editors’ remarks, and they will say the words you don’t want to hear: “We can’t place your book.” This stings, but at least it frees you up to submit to the small presses the agent ignored because they give little or no advance. If your work is sitting on an agent’s shelf for more than a year without some sensible explanation as to why, you need to go back to acting for yourself or looking for a new agent.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR…John Ames has a master’s degree in English from the University of Florida, where he was a Ford Fellow. After graduation, he built a rustic house and lived for several years on the edge of a spiritual community located near Gainesville, Florida. John’s search for enlightenment ended when he decided that he was too far from a movie theater. He moved inside the Gainesville city limits and taught English and film for thirty years at Santa Fe College.

He has produced and acted in numerous short films and videos, including the cable TV series the “Tub Interviews,” wherein all the interviewees were required to be in a bathtub. For ten years he reviewed movies for PBS radio station WUFT.  He has appeared as a standup comedian and has designed and marketed Florida-themed lamps.  He coauthored Second Serve: The Renée Richards Story (Stein and Day, 1983) and its sequel No Way Renée: The Second Half of My Notorious Life (Simon & Schuster, 2007), and Speaking of Florida (University Presses of Florida, 1993). His recent book is a coming-of-age novel titled Adventures in Nowhere.

You can visit his website at

You can also follow along on his Adventures in Nowhere Virtual Book Tour at

PhotobucketBefore Disney and far from the palm-lined Florida beaches, ten-year-old Danny Ryan is transplanted to a tiny community on the hyacinth-choked Hillsborough River outside Tampa, a place his older sister calls Nowhere. But for Danny and his best friend, the irrepressible Alfred Bagley, whose fondest desire is to grow up to be a junk dealer, Nowhere is where adventures lurk and lure them into more trouble than they can handle. More trouble is not what Danny needs as he copes with a family that includes a father sinking into schizophrenia; two sisters, one very ill and the other ready to run away with a shady boyfriend; and a mother trying her best to hold it all together. Adventures in Nowhere paints a compelling, imaginative, and often humorous vision of a time, a place, and a way of growing up, allowing a reader to live for a while in the mind of a remarkably thoughtful and intense boy caught at the final edge of childhood.

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  • Dorothy Thompson

    Such a fantastic guest post. Agents and publishers want to pigeon hole you into one distinct category and if you don’t fit, they don’t want to use their brain to figure out how they can make you fit. Instead they tell you to change something to fit their mold or they tell you this is the reason why we couldn’t find a publisher (if coming from an agent). Always excuses so that they don’t have to find a neat little corner for you. When you get that busy, it’s time to go on a vacation. BTW, John…I fired my agent, too. ;o)

    • John Ames

      Thanks Dorothy. It’s nice to know that someone cares.


  • J.W. Nicklaus

    When I attended my local writing group I heard many such stories—lots of struggles, disappointments, and more than anything else lengthy periods of silence sporadically followed up with rejection letters. The more I listened the more it seemed that having an agent could be a terrific adjunct to your own searches.

    This was a terrific guest post!

    • Johnames

      Thanks for your comment J.W. I very much appreciate it and I like the fact that you tied it to your own experience. Specifics make a bit of writing so much better. Gratified you took the time.


    • Dorothy Thompson

      And I’m wondering if this is the reason why most of us get turned down? We’re thrilled to get an agent because you feel someone likes me, someone likes me, but maybe this is why they’re tightening up their strings and this is the reason why it’s so hard to get one? If an agent takes you on and can’t find anyone to represent the book, then the agent might go a little silent because it’s hard to break that kind of news to the author. For the seasoned agent, they’ve been through all this and they’re probably the ones who won’t take just anything; in fact, I think they’re the ones that will only take books that they absolutely know someone will take because it’s so much time involved on the agent’s part. So if an agent takes on a new author, I’m probably safe to assume one of two things – one, they absoutely know it will sell (e.g. celebrity first time authors) or two, they’re new at the game – the book sounds good but where they don’t have much experience, they don’t know it has to take more than good. Then I think that’s where the problems come in. The agent I had was highly recommended, although I’d never heard of her before. Despite this, she got my friend a contract with a NY publisher and her book was similar to mine. The difference, though was in the content – hers was the norm and mine was out of the norm. The agent wanted me to cut the out of the norm stuff and I knew that would completely take away from what the book was all about (true soul mate stories) so I had to let her go. Would she have done good things for me? Maybe but would I have been happy to know my book now was their book as most of my ideas were gone? My gut instincts was no. I found a small press publisher; in fact, the small press publisher found me and asked for the book without a query or anything. And that felt right. Listen to your gut.

  • Kate Dolan

    Very sensible advice. I have tried to get an agent off and on over the years and have had very little interest. In the meantime, by approaching publishers directly, I’ve had 8 books published. Most of them were with small presses that don’t pay advances, but even the ones from the bigger publisher probably would not have been obtained with an agent. (I was fortunate to catch an acquiring editor when a new line was starting up and than equally unfortunate when the publisher decided not the market it and then to pull the plug). Each time I try a new genre, I try again to find an agent. If I ever do, hopefully I’ll have the guts to give her/him up if it doesn’t work out. But who knows?

  • Cheryl

    Thanks for the great article. It definitely opens one’s eyes to how things can happen. I managed to get published without an agent, though I think I would still like to have one some day. Maybe then my husband won’t tell me to get a real job. :)

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