The view from my desk

April 16, 2009

I quite often read about the mystery of literary agents. That to many aspiring writers, agents appear to inhabit some arcane universe, entered only by secret handshakes, coded and cryptic messages, insider knowledge. And that their decisions are unfathomable and capricious, if not downright cruel. A bit like the election of a Pope by the cardinals, dark smoke probably appears from our windows if an aspiring writer doesn’t achieve representation; white smoke means they’ve hit the jackpot – a new Pope! Everything’s going great!
But where is the logic? How we must be hated sometimes as we sit in judgment in our throne-room, making trite comments (or even worse, no comment at all) on work over which you’ve laboured for years. How you must long to say very rude things to us, shove that middle finger in our faces – and yet you daren’t, because we’re the magic portal by which you can find yourself suddenly teleported on to the desk of a publisher and living the dream.

It’s a tough life as an aspiring writer, but despite what you think, it isn’t all ambrosia for agents either – or publishers. This is a tough food chain, and the risk and the disappointments and the hunches that go right or wrong travel both up and down the line, all the way to the top. As agents we’re less likely to be sipping champagne than sitting in a Starbucks (because you can only look at contracts so long) with ten manuscripts on our e-reader, wondering where to begin. And there’s nothing to describe the physical sensations you get when an email headed with the title of a current submission plops into the inbox – and you know that this is the long-awaited response from an editor on your author’s work. Will the smoke be dark (a ‘no’? A ‘can’t decide yet’?) – or could it just possibly (please, please, please!) be white? Deal or no deal – it’s all focused on that moment and it can make you feel positively sick.

If you’re an emotional, passionate person (er, like me), it’s a rollercoaster that can have you sinking to the floor with head in hands, or jumping up and down whooping like a kid. Or sometimes just wanting to grab an editor by the neck, shake them and yell, ‘Look, just let me know, can you? Enough of the delays, meetings, discussions, vacations, dental appointments – just get on and make a %$#@ decision!’ But it’s no good – we are professionals. We must breathe deeply and be charming, measured and understanding, tempering the excitements, absorbing the pain, always staying positive and encouraging for the author who is hanging on our every word. Because after all, we are omniscient, right?

Most weeks are a mish-mash of so many different events – small victories, setbacks, lots of ordinary office stuff. But then there are the occasional flaming moments of glory – the ones that change everything and bring the sun bursting out. Ha ha, I’m an agent – and there’s nothing to beat it in the world!

I’ve had a few of those moments in the past week or so. Most excitingly, closing a deal yesterday for Lindsey Leavitt’s teen novel SEAN GRISWOLD’S HEAD, which has been snapped up by Caroline Abbey at Bloomsbury US. So many deals are fascinating sagas, with their own mini-stories attached, and that was true in this case. Bloomsbury narrowly lost out to Hyperion last summer as underbidders for Lindsey’s PRINCESS FOR HIRE. I know that hit them hard – they really loved Lindsey’s wit and voice. So when SEAN went out a few weeks ago, they were really excited to have another crack at acquiring her. It all went swimmingly and we’re so delighted to have SEAN (a novel Lindsey wrote before PFH) with them. And good to know there is still a market for a funny, quirky, poignant contemporary teen love story in our current market. Have a look at our Author section and you’ll see more about SEAN GRISWOLD’S HEAD, which is such a fun and lovely story.

But there have been more bits of great news too. A mini–auction in the Netherlands for PRINCESS FOR HIRE, resulting in a three-book deal with Uniboek (and I’ve just heard today that other foreign houses have had good preliminary reads following Bologna). A deal by Hyperion with lovely Tim Ditlow of Brilliance for audio rights in Sarwat Chadda’s DEVIL’S KISS, as well as Rights People’s sale of Japanese rights to Media Factory. Sarwat’s first radio interview on the BBC Asian Network (a star is born). Great cover proofs of Val Patterson’s THE OTHER SIDE OF BLUE, which looks so classy and enticing. And a new speaking gig lined up in Miami with SCBWI Florida for January 2011 – and more engagements on the way. Then there are the other things going on that I can’t tell you about (hey, it’s true – we really are secretive!) – the submissions that are out, the revision of the hot manuscript I’m awaiting next week, the quality manuscript I’m currently reading . . .

The one thing I can say about being an agent is that there’s very rarely a dull moment!

Welcome to my world. Today, the view from my desk, over my Vegas boots, is set fair – and the smoke is definitely white.