Searching for an agent

part two of two

As I told a reader in our correspondence this week, despite—or maybe because of—my experiences, I still think optimism is warranted in the submission process. A lot of good people work in the publishing industry, and publishing your work takes some combination of luck, hard work, talent, and connections, and someday, on some fiction project, all four will align for me. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing fiction because that’s what I like to and need to do.

In summer 2016, I began querying my second good novel, People along the Sand. I’d written this novel in 2009, then rewritten it from scratch between 2013 and 2015, then revised it between 2015 and 2016. Between 2016 and 2017 I queried fifty agents in batches, five agents at time, as well as sent it to a dozen small presses. In summer 2017, I attended the Tin House Workshop, where I had quick one-on-one meetings with a high-profile agent and with a senior editor of a publishing company. (This conference cost $1,200 at the time, and now costs $1,600, but fortunately, it took place in Portland, so I didn’t have to pay the additional money for lodging.) The agent was kind: he praised my novel query, and gave me the names of three agents who he thought might like the story’s premise. The editor told me that if I was serious about writing, then I should look for an agent, not publish through a small press.

In retrospect, I should have known this was not good advice. Wasn’t I copyediting excellent novels and collections for West Virginia University Press, a company a writer could approach without an agent? Wasn’t I reading amazing work from other small presses that accepted unsolicited submissions? But I stupidly thought he must know more than I did, and I was serious about my writing, so I withdrew People along the Sand from small presses. Between 2017 and 2019, I queried over sixty more agents, again in small batches. I didn’t land one, though five requested that I send them my next project. I joke that I can recognize the name of every agent who represents literary fiction.

As a side note, that god-aspiring agent at the live-querying event I mentioned in the last newsletter had just one suggestion on my People along the Sand query: to state first thing that I’d attended Tin House. The Tin House acceptance rate the year I attended was 17 percent, while my master’s program acceptance was less than 5 percent, so I’d highlighted the latter, but apparently, at least according to her, Tin House is more prestigious though it isn’t more selective. To play the game, I moved my Tin House credit to a place of prominence, as she’d suggested.

In 2018, I sensibly began submitting to small presses again. People along the Sand was one of five finalists in Forest Avenue Press’s 2018 open reading period, and in 2019 a different small press requested I do some deep revisions for them. I did them, and sent the novel back, but after I didn’t receive a response for six months, and in the interim heard negative reports on that press from a writer friend, I pulled the manuscript. As a publishing professional myself, I wouldn’t have invested in an author then ghosted them; I decided I didn’t want to work with such an unresponsive press.

People along the Sand is about five characters working for or against the Beach Bill, a 1967 legislation that made all Oregon beaches public land. Next year, 2022, is the fifty-fifth anniversary of that bill, so I might publish this novel myself, then use that anniversary to promote it. Parafine Press is the hybrid publishing arm of Belt Publishing, a wonderful small press in Cleveland that publishes nonfiction books—in fact, the Substack newsletter of the owner Anne Trubek inspired me to write this newsletter. If I went this route, although I’d pay upfront costs, I’d receive 80 percent of the profits, well over double what I’d receive through a regular publishing contract. I know the in and outs of editing, layout, production, and printing, but I’ve never learned the metadata, distribution, marketing, and publicity aspects of the industry, which Parafine Press would assist me on. I’ll decide in the next couple months if I want to go that route. As Anne Trubek wrote in a recent newsletter, Jane Austen published some of her novels using the hybrid model, so there are some high-profile precedents. It could even be that, in the long history of publishing, the corporate model of the twentieth century is more of an anomaly than a route we should expect to last.

I hope everyone is doing OK out there. Next month, I’ll post a short story.