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