A Tale of Two (or More) Agents

January 29, 2021 § 20 Comments

By Kathy Stevenson

Like many of you, when I started publishing my work – mostly essays and a few short stories – I always had a bigger project in the back of my mind.  I kept notebooks and files on these ideas.  Sometimes these projects seemed like they might be books.  I even self-published a novel (historical fiction) in 2001, just as Amazon was starting to be a big player, and sold the 4,000 copies I had printed, before I decided to move on.

A literary agent in Chicago read that book, and I signed with her to represent me in order to either sell that novel to a bigger publisher, or perhaps generate something else appropriate for her list.  After a year or so of back and forth, we amicably parted ways, as it became clear that we didn’t have the same goals or vision for that book or other books I was doodling around with.

I felt freer after I was back on my own, kind of like when you break up with a nice boyfriend, but you know he’s not really The One.

I continued publishing essays and short stories, and working on ideas for longer projects.  I have always worked on several manuscripts at once.  This is just the way I work best.  I also queried various literary agents at different times, first when I put together my published essays with a similar “theme” (how I hate that word…), then when I wrote a novella.

I knew that writing a novella (it was 115 pages long) was a hard sell, unless you were Joyce Carol Oates, whose novella Black Water I had the chutzpah (idiocy?) to compare my novella to.  Then I put the novella together with my published short stories and saw that they did kind of go together in that they were mostly about women who get themselves in trouble with the men in their lives.  (The men often die in my stories, which keeps my husband wondering what I am thinking whenever I get quiet and moody.)

I meticulously researched agents who might be interested in my collection, and crafted a stellar query letter.  Some nice replies, and a few requests for the manuscript, but ultimately it became clear that a short story collection with a novella at its centerpiece wasn’t going to be the launching pad for my literary career.

Then I received an email from Jeff, a literary agent at a prestigious agency.  He had read one of my short stories in a literary journal, and wondered if I had any longer projects.  Did I ever!  Oh, my dear Jeff, how joyous I was that you plucked me out of the slush.  By the time I replied and sent him my newest manuscript (a memoir) and a few other ideas, I had us lunching in New York City (where he, of course, is based).

The problem was that Jeff didn’t want a memoir.  Could I make my memoir fiction?  It turned out that I could not.  God knows, I tried.  But then one day I figured out that I was rewriting my memoir for one person: Jeff.  And it wasn’t fun, or true, anymore.

We parted ways amicably, and I often think of him – and my trip to New York City to meet with him – fondly.

I continued to write essays and short stories, and occasionally query an agent I scouted in Publisher’s Marketplace, and that’s how Liz and I met.  She read my query and loved my memoir, and of course I signed with her.  She, too, was with a big deal agency in NYC.

We worked together for six months to get my book in perfect shape to send out.  I didn’t go to NYC to meet her, but I could tell she and I would have a blast together if I did.  We would have dinner, and toast our upcoming success, and …

I got an email one day from Liz.  She was leaving the agency, and couldn’t take her current clients with her.  I was assigned to one of the partners in the agency.  I was mad/sad for a few minutes, and then realized “PARTNER.”  I immediately Googled him, and contacted him, and once again thought, “This is a win/win.”

He was really nice, but he didn’t have the same enthusiasm for my book as Liz.  Adios, Michael, and another Big NYC Agency.

One might think that after all of this, a normal person would regroup, or perhaps find another line of work.  But, as my husband often remarks, I am one of the most stubborn people he has ever met.  (I prefer to think of myself as persistent.)

Amazingly enough, throughout all these years of elation followed by defeat, I kept my hopes for that book alive, and kept publishing essays and short stories.

Then last year I signed with another agent.  For sure Emily and I were going to be besties.  She and her partner Susan were so nice, and they loved my book, and we all had the same vision, and I signed another contract, and…

Then the virus hit, and I don’t blame Emily or Susan, but I waited a respectfully long period of time before emailing them, after checking several times to make sure they were still alive.  And there was a very long silence, during which time I had several bad thoughts, and worried thoughts, and then mad thoughts.  And then I saw that the one-year date to re-sign my contract was approaching, and I decided to break up with my agents.

It was actually a bit freeing.

Just recently though, I thought of Jeff.  I wondered how he was, and if he would remember me.  Just a short note – something chatty, yet informative.  He was, after all, my first.

Kathy Stevenson’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other publications.  Her short stories have been published in several literary journals.  This is her 10th essay for the Brevity blog.  Follow on Twitter @k_stevenson01 or her website www.kathystevenson.com


§ 20 Responses to A Tale of Two (or More) Agents

  • Caren says:

    Great piece. To get one’s writing in the hands of readers, and feel happy with it, is a process — but a worthwhile one. No one said art was easy. Hope to read more from you!

  • rachaelhanel says:

    This is such an up-and-down process! Being persistent is key. There is just the right agent out there for you. On a side note, is anyone else irritated when an agent or editor suggests changing a memoir or other nonfiction to fiction? I feel like it’s slightly insulting…like the real story of this life doesn’t merit being told in that way. I’m wondering how often this happens to women writers at the hands of male agents/editors. I’ve written a biography of a woman and one agent wouldn’t take it as is but if I fictionalized it he wanted it. The more I think about it, the more I’m insulted…insulted on behalf of this woman I’m writing about, like her life isn’t worthy of the truth and I have to “dress it up” in order for anyone to be interested in it.

  • Oh, you can’t know how much I love your essay. I have never been quite this attractive to agents, but like you, I have thought several times I had found my “bestie” and no, I never have. Thank you so much for sharing your story in this humorous manner. (And both stubbornness and persistence are assuredly called for.)

  • Great write up of the trials and tribulations! ❤️

  • Barb Knowles says:

    I laughed out loud because, of course, your writing is awesome. I live for the day when I have an agent with whom I can break up. I admire your tenacity and when I get discouraged I will remember that you did not. Thank you for a beautiful and humorous piece.

  • Gayann Thomas says:

    Great essay. I for one am waiting patiently for that memoir.

  • Raelene Bowman says:

    I have read Kathy’s memoir and I say it needs to be published. Her sense of humor shines through all of her writing, no matter how serious the topic. On long walks by the lake in our town Kathy has shared her experiences with agents with me. Yes, she is definitely persistent and she won’t give up writing, with or without an agent.

  • Suyog Ketkar says:

    All I can say is that I could not help but read through the essay/memoir effortlessly—effortless reading is far from effortless writing, I know you know that, Kathy. Your writing style, despite all your ups-and-downs with those agents and publishers, has remained true and loyal to you. I wish you a lot of success.

  • When I got tired of looking for an agent, I decided to go straight to small presses who don’t require agents. Perhaps that’s a foolhardy thing to do with my first full-length piece (non-essay) but I’ve grown fond of small literary presses and their ways. I used DuoTrope to focus on small presses who would most likely appreciate my style, reading editor interviews and taking stock of the work they publish. It’s an option and worked for me.

  • Virginia Amsler says:

    Courage, dogged persistence, and a sense of humor in you life and on paper. So glad I discovered this article. You are a wise woman. Stubbornness with a smile.

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