The Ploughshares Round-Down: How Publishing Looks From the Agent’s Side

If I were forced to write a mission statement, it would be short and sweet: “Help authors. Have fun.”

It’s easy for anyone in this business to lose sight of the fact that we do what we do because we love books, and that everyone else we meet is here for the same reason. That’s why my favorite article from the past two weeks is this one from Jonny Geller. Geller is the CEO of Curtis Brown, a big British agency, and the BBC had him give his ten tips for anyone starting out in the business. But a couple of his tips are especially useful for writers, too.

nt1z7cxOf all the tips on Geller’s list, “Look for career writers” might be the toughest one for writers to hear. If an agent is going to invest time in an author, they want that author to write many successful books. That means: the less time this person has spent on some other career, the better. There are examples of bestselling authors who wrote their first book very late in life, but they’re the exception, not the rule.

Geller also recommends that agents “get involved” with every aspect of the publishing process, which many claim to these days—even if few actually do. I think the way Geller describes his job is the way the industry is heading, though, and this is something else authors needs to hear. Agents ought to be doing a lot for their 15%.

“Be honest with your clients” is another great tip, both for agents and for authors. It’s better for an author to hear from me that their book idea is terrible than to hear it from the twelve editors passing on it. Still, the temptation is always there. Pretty much every client I have competed for and lost was a potential client I told “unfortunately, you have a lot of work to do before this is ready to show editors” while some other agent said, “you’re practically done!” I don’t know if the other agent really believed that, but I hope those writers came to their new agent ready to make some of the changes I recommended anyway.

It’s Geller’s last tip, however, that contains both my favorite and my least favorite advice: “Believe in your instincts and don’t take it all too seriously.” Good instincts are really useful in an agent. Good instincts backed up by research is a lot more useful. But the other point is something I’ve reminded lots of colleagues: “Try to remember what it was like when you were an obsessive reader at the age of seventeen, because that’s the person who matters—not the wise old agent who seems to know everything but doesn’t.”

Geller also inspired me to pass along a few more tips of my own for aspiring agents, and I hope they also turn out to be useful for writers.

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why “Do What You Love” Is Bad Advice

find a job you loveIn 2005, Steve Jobs gave a now-famous graduation speech at Stanford University. “You’ve got to find what you love,” he said.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

“Yes! This is the Truth about careering!” Said everyone, ever.

Or okay, most of us. Who read or heard it.
And who also are privileged enough to have lives in which such an admonition has any chance of being follow-able.

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Roundup: Getting Rejected

In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we have posts on getting rejected.

In baseball, if you get out seven times out of ten, you’re considered a great hitter. You’re considered great at what you do. Like baseball players, writers have to face rejection, and they have to face it most of the time. 

rejection letter

Wine helps.

From Ploughshares:

  • In “Many Forms of Rejection,” Thomas Lee writes, “If there is an award for taking rejection without being fazed, I’m pretty sure I could win.”

From the Slush Pile: Have You Got What it Takes?

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I’ve said it before: you have to play to win. And I’m sorry to say, in terms of the slush pile, “winning” is a bit of a crapshoot. To rise out of the slush pile you must submit and keep submitting. It’s a numbers game and resiliency and pluck pay off.

And there’s the rub. It’s a roll of the dice. The only thing you can do is submit your very best work and if it gets rejected, send it out again. Jasmine Sawers, winner of last year’s Emerging Writer’s Contest, received a multitude of rejections for her winning story, “The Culling,” before she got the call from Ploughshares. As a screener for that contest I read hundreds of stories and as soon as I read it, I said yes without hesitation—that piece had to be passed on. I can’t guarantee that a fellow screener would have felt the same way however, and therein lies the dilemma.

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Simultaneity

Not much fazes me in the World of Creative Writing—a terrifying realm, to be sure—and though occasionally bummed, I don’t get too shaken up by phrasing such as “Dear Writer,” “we regret to inform you,” and “over x hundred/thousand/million/billion applicants.” So it goes.

There are six words, however, that cause me to recoil involuntarily when I see them in writers’ guidelines: “We do not consider simultaneous submissions.”Continue Reading