Agent Angst

Here’s one that comes up on day one in every creative writing class.

Student: “Ah, before we get started I was wondering, ah, how a writer like me gets a book published.”

Professor: “Well, we won’t be encouraging clichés in this class but it really is, particularly in today’s publishing world, a catch twenty-two!”

“The standard answer is that those who have been published get published. I beg to differ, which may at first blush sound like I have good news. But the fact is that the days of “over the transom” publishing miracles are passé. Back when Maxwell Perkins was sharpening his pencil and wearing a green eye-shade at Scribners, a manuscript might just come flying through that tiny window above his doorway (the transom), hit the top of his slush pile and before he could say Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Wolfe, Scribners would be rolling the presses.

Well, it’s a different day, a different time and certainly a different business. So, if you really want to get published you might as well know that the transoms are closed and the editors’ doors are locked…. unless of course you have the key—A Literary Agent!

So, write the “saleable” novel and then find that literary agent.

Now, I’ll tell you the story of my hunt for a literary agent.  Back in the mid-seventies when the bagging of someone with a Manhattan address who would agree to handle your written word, help you package it, make it—through constructive criticism—more saleable, wasn’t easy. But it was a day when something of promise at least had a shot of turning the head of  the group (and it isn’t just Hollywood agents) who Fred Allen characterized thusly:  All the sincerity in Hollywood you could stuff in a flea’s navel and still have room left to conceal eight caraway seeds and an agent’s heart.”

Well when I landed my first agent—and it wasn’t easy—that wasn’t the case at all.  Jane Wilson, a well respected longtime agent with JCA (John Cushman and Associates) in New York was wonderful, a lady with a big heart, one of gold.  But the road that led me to Jane wasn’t a super highway or without its share of  “speed” bumps.

Having purchased Writer’s Market (and you should do the same), the “how to get published” BIBLE of publishers and agents, the quest began to find that literary birddog. I fired off query letters to agencies (along with my first novel BEHIND THE EIGHTBALL) that would take me to the Land of the Published.  The response was overwhelming.  For several months our mailbox filled with letters of rejection.

Dear Mr. Cairns

Although we found BEHIND THE EIGHTBALL an amusing tale, in today’s market first novels are becoming increasingly hard to place.  So it is with regret that we won’t be able to offer representation at this time.  We wish you the best of luck. …..blah, blah, blah, etc.

Sincerely yours,

Agent Form Letter

 Then there was the letter from an agent from upstate New York, a gentleman whose name I do not recall. And just as I was about turn his little dismissive into a paper plane and fly it into the trash I read the final sentence: “Although I don’t think I’m the person to represent this novel I would suggest that you send it along to Jane Wilson at JCA, in the city. I think this is something that might be of interest to Jane.”

Off it went to JCA.  Jane wrote a lovely note back saying that it might be a while before a decision could be made but if I was willing to wait—explaining that it had to go through a reading and approval process (1st reader, 2nd reader) within the agency–that she would indeed consider representation.

Finally the letter arrived. Jane Wilson would be my agent.

Jane was a gem. She knew my children’s names, sent them Christmas cards.  And sadly, sent me publisher’s rejections for Behind the Eight Ball, always, kindly including a line or two loaded with great encouragement, reminding me that a publisher HAD taken it to “committee” which meant that they HAD seriously considered its publication.

Then came the day of infamy (which for a writer’s moment is akin to Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assignation and 9-11). I was at my desk in Watauga Hall at NC State University, my loving wife Alyce called and asked if I was sitting down. I was and heard her say, “They are going to publish your novel!”

Skyrockets in Flight. . . Afternoon Delight!

She was reading now, I’m in a fog and somewhere after the Dear Mr. Cairns and the early raves about my work, there was a pause, the rarefied air cleared and I heard her sob.  Well, hell I was emotional too. And then she said, “I got so excited I didn’t finish the letter.”


‘It’s the last sentence,” they said, “They regretfully have decided to pass!”

Writer’s elevator going down!

Okay, Behind the Eight Ball  currently resides in our attic packed neatly away in a one of those Tupperware tubs where you put things that some poor relative is going to have to heave out after you’ve gone on to Glory. And it has company—numerous book proposals as well as a finished  children’s novel called Caught in a Kona Wind, and an adult novel, The Sand Fiddlers.

Before I published my first novel Jane Wilson retired. I guess the poor dear woman had had enough.  On her way out the door I recall her saying, “There’s a nice young man in our office who has agreed to handle your work!”

And he did and I shall be forever grateful for his hard work that led to the publication of my novel The Comeback Kids and my non-fiction Pen Men “Baseball’s Greatest Bullpen Stories Told by the Men Who Brought the Game Relief.”

The novel brought some nice reviews, Sports Illustrated calling it “… funny and profane!”

Pen Men knocked it out of the park (not in sales) with rave reviews—the New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, Booklist, etc.

Then came the dry spell. I was under a great deal of pressure in my new position at NC State University (where I created and wrote several books for the University) and admittedly not producing anything that New York could or would consider.

Hey I had a day job, two kids in college!

And that’s when, sadly, the agent—who I thought was a friend—just suddenly disappeared from my life (Fred Allen wasn’t kidding), refusing to return my calls, or e-mails.

Turns out it is a business!  And, I might add, one that is becoming tougher by the day.

And as I close this piece I do so with the following thoughts for anyone who has a yen to become a published author:

      • Buy the Writer’s Market then read it from cover to cover.
      • Google How to get a literary agent, it will take you to good advice at:
      • Beware of Vanity Publishers (looking for suckers willing to pay to be published), the Internet is full of them.
      • Look carefully at the agencies (in the book or on the Internet), know their interests and their guidelines and pay attention to what they are suggesting.
      • Make a stop at the Writer’s Market’s HOW TO section on the writing of a query letter or Google that on the Internet and see what Publisher’s Weekly has to say:
      • Should an agency ask for the finished product be sure that it is in fact finished in every sense of the word—-packaged to read, copy edited, etc.
      • Think of this as the book version of the Westminster Dog Show. Have your pet primped and ready to parade in front of judges who will do everything from check out its teeth to grab it in the testicles.

Never forget that literary agencies are in BUSINESS for one reason—to make money and that a first reader in an agency is trained to do one thing—-look for manuscripts that are saleable and of course, writers with the potential to produce other manuscripts that might generate revenue.Be thick skinned, learn to handle rejection (it isn’t personal), be persistent, don’t give up and should you find a good agent be sure to mention my name. I have a finished novel called Animal Home, which I think of as my very best work. That’s what I think but the few agents who have taken a look have yet to agree.

Bob! Remember it isn’t personal!

Ah, guess what popped up on my computer as I was writing this blog. So—thick of skin and still willing after all these years to accept rejection—my search for representation goes on!

Dear Mr. Cairns,

Thank you for querying about Animal Home, your latest novel.  We have evaluated your materials and regrettably, your project is not a right fit for our agency.  We currently have a very full clientele and must be highly selective about the new projects we pursue.

Thank you again for thinking of us.  Please know that we wish you much success in all of your future writing and publishing endeavors.


_________Literary Associates​