Since I'm writing about traditional publishing paths (and not doing my layout--bad! bad!), I thought I would touch on the subject of agents. I have had three, and obviously, I have not been published, so you might expect me to be all angry and bitter about them. And there have been ups and downs--my brother once offered to beat up one of them for me, which is certainly the first time he's ever done that. But honestly, I really appreciate the agents I've worked with--they gave me a tremendous amount of support and intelligent feedback, they gave me copious quantities of their time and expertise, and they genuinely shaped my nonfiction project.

And none them ever saw a dime for it. I can point you to Writer Beware's section on agents and to Absolute Write's Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Checks thread, and I can tell you to check agents out on Preditors & Editors, but the basic rule of thumb in sorting reputable agents from the other kind is: They don't get paid until you get paid. Up-front fees = SCAM!! SCAM!! SCAM!!

Real agents take a percentage (usually 10-15%) of the money a publisher pays the writer. So, do a little math there, and you'll see that an agent is not going to be interested in a small-press book. A small press might pay a $2,000 advance--that's $200 for an agent taking a 10% fee. A large, commercial house, in contrast, will be paying more like $20,000. That's $2,000 for the same amount of work. Large houses won't consider a writer who doesn't have an agent; small presses avoid dealing with agents like the plague because they're just not on the same page, budget-wise.

So, you notice how those three agents gave me their blood, sweat, and tears, and made a whopping $0 for their trouble? That's the problem with new writers--they are less likely to sell. So if you are a new writer looking for an agent, you need to be prepared to deal with a LOT of rejection (and to spend a hell of a lot on postage sending out either finished manuscripts if it's fiction, or detailed proposals with sample chapters if it's non-fiction).

Many agents simply won't represent new writers--which is fine if they're willing to admit that up front. When I first started looking for an agent, I found lists of agents that allegedly were willing to represent new writers. I would send them my manuscript Priority Mail, with a stamped, self-addressed, Priority Mail return envelope. Priority Mail takes two to three days to go one way. Many times, the manuscript would be back to me with a rejection notice five days after I mailed it.

Now, I know agents all say that they carefully review everything they get, but who are they kidding? I used to screen stories: I'm a fast reader, but there's no way in hell you're getting through that many manuscripts that fast if you're actually reading them. Why waste my time and money? Just say you don't represent new writers and save yourself a truckload of mail every day.

So I was already pretty annoyed when I went to a convention for science-fiction writers, sat in on a panel about finding an agent, and listened to a narcissist tell a room full of writers that we should all pay to send her our stuff for the 0.05% chance she might represent it. That really irritated me, and later in the conference I mentioned that to one of the other panelists. She said, Yeah, what you need to do is to check out Locus, which is basically the Publisher's Weekly of fantasy/sci-fi, and look at the new book deals. If you see an agent who has represented a new writer, that's who you contact.

And that's what I did. It worked great--it got me in contact with that honest agent, who was also an extremely prestigious guy. Obviously, he didn't feel my sci-fi novel was commercial enough (and once he gave me the key to the code, I realized that that was what the other agents who actually read it were saying as well), but he suggested that I try to cook up a non-fiction book.

So I did. And he liked it! He really liked it! He REALLY, REALLY, REALLY liked it!! Except at this point I was noticing something a little worrying about the guy. He was really, REALLY UP!!! one week, and really, REALLY DOWN!!! the next. I honestly don't know if he was a tad bipolar, or if he was just struggling between feeling enthusiasm and going, Oh, fuck, a new writer! but I've tried dating guys like this, so I knew where it was going to go. And sure enough, one day his random mood generator swung very low indeed, and he told me he couldn't represent me.

But he'd coaxed this awesome book idea out of me and helped me develop this awesome proposal for it, so I was really thankful for that, and I felt well-prepared to go find another agent. The only problem was, I wasn't looking for someone to represent a sci-fi novel any more, so Locus wasn't going to help. I poked around and poked around, and I finally found Agent Query, which in my experience is the most up-to-date listing of agents. If AQ says that an agent takes new writers and represents X kind of literature, that's usually in fact the case--not always, but often enough that I didn't feel like I was flushing money down the toilet every time I did a mailing.

And I found another agent! And she was awesome! She was an editing whiz (agents in general have great ideas on how to market books, while writers tend to focus very narrowly on the book itself). By the time she was done with it, that proposal was beyond awesome--it was staggeringly good. Unfortunately, she'd been having family emergencies all along, and she decided to retire. But, being awesome, she passed the proposal along to another agent--this guy was so far up into the stratosphere that I never would have made it onto his desk without her help. And he LOVED it!! And he submitted it to publishers with great enthusiasm!

And it didn't get published. Yeah, there's not a nice, neat happy ending here that you can tie up with a bow. The thing is, getting an agent is like buying a lottery ticket, if buying lottery tickets were really, really hard--if you had to pass a test or something, you couldn't just walk into 7-11 and pay a dollar to get one. Once you have the ticket, there's no guarantee that you'll win.

But frankly, I wouldn't have the confidence to do what I'm doing now if it weren't for these agents--there's nothing like being told you are good by people who work at the very top of the industry to encourage you. At least one of my books-to-be would not exist in the first place if it weren't for these agents. And while I know that "It's about the journey, not the destination" is a cliche, developing yourself as a writer is indeed a quest. Rewards like publication (assuming that even qualifies as a reward) aren't really the point.