Speaking truth to agents

So, a few days ago over at one of my favorite blogs, Literary Rejections on Display, there was a hell of a conversation going about literary agents and how we writers should approach them. Not in the “please publish my novel” way, pitching your work and begging for acceptance; we’re talking about talking back to agents after a rejection. One of the ultimate taboos. But the writer in question, Jackson Bliss, dared to write a killer (and, in my view, respectful) response to one of literary agent Nat Sobel’s assistants.

And that’s not even the ballsy part.

When Writer, Rejected (the anonymous author of LRoD) posted Jackson Bliss’s letter (this was back in September), the criticism was immediate and multitudinous: people were appalled at pretty much everything Jackson Bliss and written and done. “I just don’t get a) why you might send anything but a positive, “Gee, I really appreciate all the consideration you’ve given my manuscript!” respons,” [sic] one reader wrote. “For all you know, that agent’s assistant might someday become an editor somewhere. Do you want to her to remember you as an overly picky picky type? and b) why you would publicize your sass on an openly accessible blog?” Another reader disliked Jackson’s comments about the Asian-American “platform” he would use to sell his novel: “Why in the hell to fiction writers need a platform to write fiction. It’s made up. [. . .] God gave me this creative brain and I create what I want with it, “platform” be damned.”

And then, a few days ago, Jackson Bliss fired back, responding to critics of his response to a rejection. And what he wrote is so thorough and fantastic is reads like a freaking manifesto.

“Personally, I’m sick of all the kowtowing that aspiring fictions are expected to do in this industry,” Jackson writes in one point of his five-point reply. “We’re supposed to shut up + just take it until we’re too famous to shut up. But I think we have important things to say BEFORE we ever become famous.”

Later, he comments on the nature of the industry itself, essentially pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz that is our modern publishing industry and showing us the timid little man cowering in the booth: “Prominent agents are scared shitless about publishing fiction from debut authors. It’s a hostile landscape to art, + yet you’re criticizing me for feeling (expressing) that the industry is fucked up + that I have issues with it? That’s insane.”

And, in one of the best passages from the whole piece, he directly addresses his critics and establishes his place in the literary landscape:

For many years, I played the diplomacy game. I took each kind rejection, shut my mouth + hoped that my hard work would be enough, but now I don’t want to + that doesn’t make me dumb, or arrogant. It makes me human. I simply want to express how I feel + not censor myself just because I think it increases my chances of getting it published — I really don’t think it does, by the way. You need talent intersecting with luck intersecting with people with power. There are tens of thousands of aspiring fiction writers who will never be published EVER + it’s not because they’re not talented enough, it’s because some of them give up, some of them lose heart, some of them find other media to publish their voices + only a few actually make it. I’d rather hold on to my stubborn confidence, which has kept me in this game for awhile [sic] now, + by the way, has given me some fantastic responses from agents + some decent publications + a lot of hope for the future. If you disagree with my approach, I can respect that, but to call me arrogant, dumb + irritating because I have the gall to simply communicate anything besides “thank you ma’am” to an agent’s assistant seems very harsh + judgmental to say the least.

Overall, it’s a terrific read, and well worth perusing, both in the original post on LRoD and the follow-up post (make sure to read the comments, too!).

My favorite part of all this, though, is that it led me to Jackson Bliss’s blog, Blue Mosaic Me, which is awesome and definitely a must-read for any literary writer. In addition to his postings of rejection letters he receives (we get rejected by a lot of the same journals!), he has some very cool things to say about the writing life in general, and as in the letter he wrote to the agent and to his critics on LRoD, he doesn’t hold back on any of it.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

12 thoughts on “Speaking truth to agents

  1. Thank you for posting this. I am always glad to support other writers. I’ve added his and your blog to the ones that I will start following. Much luck to you.

    1. Thanks for reading and thanks for following! I hope you enjoy Jackson Bliss’s blog — it seems great to me so far and I’m looking forward to keeping tabs on it. And much luck to you in your writing, too. 🙂

  2. “Industry”

    That word says it all, and we shouldn’t forget it. We do not have a God-given right to be published simply because we write, even if we are talented. We all acquiesce to capitalism in every aspect of our daily lives, but get angry because supply of written work exceeds demand. Publishing houses and literary agents are made up of men and women trying to make a living; they aren’t a charity, they aren’t a liberation movement, they’re businesses.

    If we do not like this concept then we should have a revolution and overturn the whole applecart, and then become the griots of our own communities. If not… why then, we have the internet, where we can ‘publish’ to our hearts’ content.

    My own agent never fails to tell people just how high the proportion of submitted work to published work is, particularly in a recession. He is always courteous to enquirers even to the huge number whom he tells he can’t help. He always gives advice free of charge, and reminds people that one thing that can never be taken away is the satisfaction of having completed a work of art. This kind of response to authors costs nothing. Neither does being polite back, even when disappointed.


    1. If we do not like this concept then we should have a revolution and overturn the whole applecart, and then become the griots of our own communities. If not… why then, we have the internet, where we can ‘publish’ to our hearts’ content.

      There’s a lot of talk, for better or worse, of the Internet and the e-publishing, as well as advances in print-on-demand services, as precisely this kind of upsetting-the-apple-cart revolution! I remain on the sidelines of that revolution for now, because on the one hand, I agree that the “industry” of publishing has become too market-driven. Or, worse — as Jackson Bliss comments on the more recent LRoD post I linked to above — the industry has become market drivers, not determined by but determining the market we’re all then subjected to. I’m not sure which is true; I suspect both. And on the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for agents, editors, and publishers as guardians of the printed word, because however poorly they may or may not be doing their jobs lately, they do still act as moderators of taste: even when what they publish is drivel, it’s still the best of the drivel, to judge from the unintelligible mass of self-published work now available on Kindles and iPads everywhere.

      Which isn’t to say there are loads of stories about unfettered creativity breaking into wealth and recognition through self-publishing, but statistically, those breakouts are just as one-in-a-million compared with their self-publishing cohorts as the famous authors publishing through traditional routes. It’s all still is a bit of a toss-up, I think.

      I prefer the middle road. (I am a Buddhist, after all!) I suspect that the true future of writing as an art lies in indie publishers and small presses, who can use the free availability and low expense of e-publishing and print-on-demand combined with the traditional editorial filters to champion great works of literature. And the industry of publishers creating and promoting their writers, hack and holy grail alike, can go on as usual.

      I must say, though, that I’m still a bit unsure what role agents will serve in this changing publishing world. Their traditional function remains more or less the same, but I have the impression that as much as their livelihoods depend on the sales of their authors, many agents still have art as much in mind as money. I could be wrong, but I don’t want to be. And as long as agents like Betsy Lerner (who keeps an impressive blog on the industry — look for her name in my “Authors and Poets” links) are out there working as the middle-ground go-betweens for authors and publishers alike, we’re all still in business! 🙂

      1. “There’s a lot of talk, for better or worse, of the Internet and the e-publishing, as well as advances in print-on-demand services, as precisely this kind of upsetting-the-apple-cart revolution!”

        I tend to disagree. It is individualised. It smacks of personal pique. A true revolution would redefine the whole value of creativity, return it to its native ‘village’ if you like. What we do by self-e-publishing and p.o.d. is say “I damn well OUGHT to be in Random House”, we buy into the publishing ethos by mimicking it. I know I have a blog (two actually) and I do put some things there – particularly on ‘Kvenna Ráð’ where I put a short burst of poetry every day, mainly as an exercise, a ‘free-write’ if you like – and therefore I don’t automatically exclude myself from this phenomenon. However, there is a great deal of unadulterated tosh ‘out there’, and while I commend people’s chutzpah and wouldn’t stop them doing it if they really want to, the overall thing seems to me to devalue rather than add value to the art.

      2. the overall thing seems to me to devalue rather than add value to the art.

        Exactly! 🙂 This is why I remain on the fence — as many great things are getting done in this way, they’re drops in a very large, very polluted bucket.

        On the other hand, mainstream publishing is looking murkier and of less value every year, so, who’s to say. The pessimist might suggest literature on the whole is on the decline, but I think this is more the “awkward hair” phase of change. I think publishing has a relationship with self-publishing these days something akin to the American Republican Party’s relationship with the Tea Party movement — the establishment is simultaneously dismissive of the independent-minded upstarts and wary enough of them to want to somehow subsume them. So I guess I have the moderate view that the revolution is happening, but it won’t wind up nearly as revolutionary as some might think or hope for. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

        Or maybe it is. How would I know?

        In the meantime, I plan to keep plugging along in the old habits of traditional publishing, though I’m much more interested in the indies and small presses than the large publishing houses; but after I land a book the “old-fashioned” way, I’m certainly not averse to putting out some small chapbooks and limited edition small collections on my own. 🙂

  3. “So I guess I have the moderate view that the revolution is happening, but it won’t wind up nearly as revolutionary as some might think or hope for. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.”

    You know me – I always say there’s no point in having half a revolution. 🙂


  4. Dear Samuel Snoek Brown,

    Thanks so much for writing this + thanks for your support. I really appreciate it. Also, it’s always nice to know that other writers are fighting the same fights. I’m a Buddhist too, by the way (which is part of the reason I try to avoid violence as a plot solution in my writing whenever possible). Speaking of which, it’s time to sit. I wish you tons of luck with your writing. Stay in touch. I’ll drop by your blog now + then to see how things are doing for you.

    Peace, Blessings,


    1. Hey, Jackson! This is totally awesome that you’d stop by here, man! Thanks for reading and appreciating. You rule.

      Some day I’d love to swap ideas with you about Buddhism in fiction. (I tend to love violence in fiction, both reading it and writing it, which is ironic to the point of hypocrisy, I know, but it’s become for me a bit like that practice where you meditate on a corpse to understand impermanence. Or so I tell myself.) Several years back I attended a conference panel on Buddhist fiction, and everyone there said it’s basically impossible, since character-driven fiction is ego-driven fiction, but I didn’t buy that argument at all, and now I have two collections of Buddhist fiction on my bookshelf and two novels that deal heavily with Buddhist depictions of death and the bardo state. To say nothing of Herman Hesse, however wrong he got some things. So, anyway, I hope we can pick each other’s brains someday.

      And thanks again for dropping by. Too, too cool.

      Sam 🙂

  5. Exactly! I guess it’s not an agent’s job to encourage those who yearn to be published. But, with encouragement and usable comments to queries, they might find themselves with a best-selling author. Okay, so they’re busy people … but are they all so busy they can’t give a more substantial reason for rejection than “Sorry, this doesn’t meet my needs at this time”? Thanks for leading me into the discussion.

    1. Glad you found it useful! I hope you enjoy Literary Rejections on Display and Jackson Bliss’s various blogs, too.

      I was just remarking on this issue the other day on Facebook: I’d gotten a rejection for my story collection and was indulging in a little self-pity, which prompted a lot of friends to console me and encourage me to keep in the game. Which was wonderful to hear, but I know this is really how the process works. Eventually I left this comment: “I don’t actually blame the publisher. I’ve been in this game long enough, inside and out, to know that it’s never just a matter of being awesome — it’s also a matter of being the right fit for the press, and the press being the right fit for you. I liked this press a lot and would have loved to work with them, but if something’s off, something’s off, and maybe we wouldn’t have been right for each other after all.” More recently, a good friend of mine was making similar comments about the job market and a position she interviewed for but didn’t get: as tough as the rejection was, and as much as wel all fall pray these days to the idea that any job is a job worth having, she knew the position wasn’t really right for her and was actually a bit relieved not to have gotten the job. I feel the same way about publishing and agents, especially agents: you need an agent not merely to agree to work with you but to believe in you, to be passionate about you. We might be willing to settle for anything we can get, but what we want — what we deserve — is the right fit for both parties. In my Facebook conversation, I made a lot of jokes comparing the author-publisher relationship to dating (at one point, I joked that “I’d pay a press to sleep with my book, but I think that’s illegal in most states. I’m just kidding, of course — I don’t want to be the guy who has to pay for it!”), but by the end of the conversation I was making a serious analogy out of it, because it’s an apt analogy. We want a publisher or an agent who can fall in love with our work, and we want to love and respect them too.

      All that said, though, I also know that I have a pretty idealistic view of the business, and as many people here, at LRoD, and on my various other online discussions and rightly pointed out, agenting and publishing is a business, and you’re right, most agents really are so busy that unless something genuinely grabs their attention, they don’t actually have time for personal replies. As an editor with a literary magazine, I can tell you that stock replies are basically essential, or else we’d never get around to responding to people.

      I’ve written about rejection letters in another post, if you’re interested: https://snoekbrown.wordpress.com/2010/02/09/%E2%80%9Cthey-said-my-writing-was-funny-just-not-%E2%80%98archie-comics%E2%80%99-funny-how-to-read-a-rejection-letter/

      good luck with your own blog! I’ve been enjoying it.

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