It was the hardest professional decision I ever made. Harder than leaving a stable think-tank job to join a start-up as its CEO. Harder than walking away from that successful start-up four years later to answer the call of an art-committed life.
After three years of labor, with the finished memoir in hand, I chose to leave my literary agent. I am now one of the thousands of people bombarding agents daily with query letters, hoping to rise up out of the slush pile.
Why would I commit what appears to be an act of professional hari kari?
Perhaps I should step back for a moment. I signed with this agent–let’s call him “James” after James Bond, an agent of the secret kind–in the fall of 2010. I had no manuscript in hand, only a vague idea for a book. I had just completed a life-transforming cross-country U.S. road trip in which interviews I conducted with artists inspired me to return to an art-committed life. I imagined writing a craft book on the creative process, documenting the lessons I learned from these creatives. (I started this blog at the same time with a similar mission.)
I knew James from the professional circles I traveled in; he was a literary agent, but his primary job was that of an intellectual property attorney. Over lunch I told him my idea for a book, and just like that he was representing me. I had an agent before I had written a word of a book proposal.
Now let’s fast forward three years. A lot changed over that time, including the direction of the book. When I workshopped a chapter in my first MFA residency in the summer of 2011, the reaction to this former journalist’s writing was unanimous: “Where’s the narrator?” When I worked with my MFA instructors over the next two semesters, their plea was the same: “Show me more narrator!” By the summer of 2012 I was no longer writing a creativity craft book; I was writing a memoir.
That, I believe, was a positive shift for the book. It seemed to come to life once I broke through my resistance and learned to put myself on the page. But it was a complicating factor for my agent. He knew all the key publishers for a craft book; he was the first to admit an unfamiliarity with the memoir genre and the appropriate editors and publishers.
Still, I chose to stick with James, and just as importantly he chose to stick with me, a writer who was making him no money and giving him nothing to sell (I had decided, based on advice from an MFA instructor, to hold off on soliciting the book until it was finished, to give me the freedom to take it in whatever direction it wished to go).
In early 2013, as I was completing the first draft of the book as my MFA creative thesis before my summer graduation, James launched a new law firm. When I signed with him in 2010 he had been focused on growing the literary-agent side of his work. Now his focus was on growing his law practice, and that side was doing well.
While at AWP in Boston in March 2013 I heard a literary agent speak who outlined a hypothetical scenario similar to mine. She said the writer would be best served by leaving the agent and finding a new one. The key, she said, is to have an agent who knows your genre and can best place your manuscript in the right hands. That agent also is best positioned to support your growth as a writer of future works. But at the time I chose loyalty over action.
Now we come to the fall of 2013. I have completed what I consider to be a final draft. I hire a published memoir author to give the book a final edit. And I discuss next steps with James. It’s clear he’s very busy with a legal case that has to take precedence; that client is paying him and I’m not. It’s also clear he’s looking to me for guidance on where to submit the book. I spend the weekend in a Barnes and Noble, reading the acknowledgment pages of published memoirs seeking shoutouts to editors. I ignore the suspicious stares of the store’s staff.
James can get my manuscript on the desks of editors at top houses. I cannot do that on my own. But what if we land on the wrong desks at the wrong houses? What then?
I discussed my concerns with James, and he understood. And we parted, on the best of terms. We are still friends. I follow his family’s doings on Facebook. He has said he’s happy to be a reference for my agent search. I haven’t made use of that yet; it seems awkward to communicate in a blind query.
I wrote last week about how I am entering Year Six of a ten-year professional reinvention plan. I will confess I had anticipated seeing a book published earlier on in this plan. And I likely delayed that possibility significantly by stepping back into the literary agent slush pile rather than making use of James to get my manuscript in front of editors. Do I regret the decision? I certainly do whenever I receive a rejection form letter from an agent, those agents who bother to turn people down (I’ve learned many simply don’t respond if they’re not interested). But I will keep at it.
Yes, self-publishing is an option. But for now I’d like to see what is out there in the publishing landscape, even if it might take me awhile before I can fully conduct that exploration. Did I make the right decision? It’s hard to know. Check back with me in six months.