Accidents, Agents and Other Disasters

by Janis Patterson

People always ask me why I self-publish. Isn’t it a lot more work?

Yes, it’s a lot more work, but the upside is that I am in control. No more the unholy circus of repeated rewrites and equally annoying ‘minor tweaks’ to fit the visions/prejudices of agents, first readers, secondary editors, senior editors, acquiring editors and God only knows who else. I do have a very good editor (I’m not a fool) but she edits the story I wrote, she doesn’t transform it into what she wants.

These days to sell to New York (to use common nomenclature for traditional publishing) you need an agent, mainly because traditional publishers have gotten too cheap to hire first readers any longer. Agents now serve that function almost everywhere. Getting a good agent is often more difficult than getting a good publisher. Thank goodness we now have choices!

Back when the dinosaurs were browsing outside the cave and I sold my first novel to New York there were still a few houses (and there were a LOT more houses/lines then) who read author-submitted manuscripts, but I was a traditionalist. (I was also very young and foolish…) Real authors had agents, so I set out to get an agent.

I have had surgery. I have had auto accidents. I have even been in a plane crash. I would rather do any of them again than deal with finding, getting or dealing with an agent.

My first agent was okay – not very good, but he was indeed An Agent, and he took me on, so in my rosy ignorance I was happy. He sold a couple of books for me… then he died. I guess I have to give him a pass on the bad agent thing… He was fairly decent and I mean, you can’t blame someone for dying can you?

So after a lot of querying and begging I got a second agent, one who for some reason seemed to be a little higher up the status pole than my first one had been. She was smart, she was connected – I thought I had it made. At least, until I couldn’t get in touch with her. I sent her letters (this was pre-internet days). I even imperiled my continually endangered budget by calling a couple of times, but all I got was an answering machine.

Finally I contacted a friend of mine who went to New York regularly on business and asked her to go by the office on her next trip and see if she could see what was happening. She did. The agent’s name was still on the door, but the door was locked. My friend is a forceful lady (that is what her friends call her – her enemies…!) so she found the super and talked him into unlocking the door.

The office was empty. No furniture. No manuscripts. No nothing, not even dust bunnies. Even the telephone was gone. And no one has heard of her since.

I went back to the search and after about a year signed with an up-and-comer who was supposed to be a firebrand. The third try, I reasoned, has to be lucky.

Wrong. Oh, she was a go-getter. I kept getting reports from her that although my book had been turned down So-And-So had simply loved it. Or Thus-And-Such had thought it spectacular, but they had just spent a lot of money on a similar story. On and on – everyone always loved it, but there was never any specific criticism or reason. This went on for a few months and I was getting suspicious when this ‘agent’ sent me another glowing rejection from an editor whom I knew. I had never sold to her, but as we had both been bouncing around the writing world for a long time we had become reasonably close acquaintances.

So I called her, looking for elucidation on what was wrong with that book.

She had never seen the book, had never even heard of this ‘agent’ and neither had anyone in her office. She got justifiably angry that someone was using her name like that, so she requested the names of my books and the names of the editors involved and went off on her own investigation.

None of them had ever heard of her, me or my books. The whole thing had been nothing but smoke and mirrors. I don’t know why the ‘agent’ did this – this was not a ‘pay upfront for representation’ scheme, so she wasn’t making any money. Maybe all she wanted was the feeling of power and importance. Anyway, she quickly vanished from the scene and was never heard from again.

I must not be very bright, because I tried again, this time with a bright, canny young man I met at a writers’ conference. I was more knowledgeable then, and he said all the right things, so I signed with him. Now this is third hand gossip, so take it for what it’s worth, but the last time I heard anything about him he was serving time in Federal prison for mail fraud. And he never sold anything for me either.

So that’s why I’m self-publishing now. It’s true that there is no one who is as interested in your career as you are, and if you want something done right do it yourself. It’s a lot of work, yes, and my sales are less than they were in traditional pubbing (you can help by buying my books!) but to be honest my income has stayed just about the same because I get to keep more of my money. 60-70% of cover price beats the heck out of 20-50% of net…

To all of you who have good agents, I wish you joy and lots of sales, but while you pretty much have to have an agent to thrive or even enter traditional publishing, you can have a great career as a writer/publisher all by yourself. Like most of life, it’s a matter of choices. Good luck to you, whichever path you choose.

6 thoughts on “Accidents, Agents and Other Disasters

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I’ve never had an agent, though I have tried to find one. It’s all so frustrating. I have some books with small presses, but it’s much less stressful to self-publish. That’s what I’m doing now. In the back of my mind, I still feel like I want to try for an agent sometime in the future, but with all the things I’m reading (like this post), searching again for an agent probably isn’t the best idea.
    Anyway, best of luck to you with your self-publishing endeavors.


  2. Wow! My story is similar, but not nearly as bad. But the truth is, I feel I’m better off self-publishing, so in the long run, they did me a favor. And I can tell you feel the same way. The publishing world changes every single day, too, but the readers don’t care. They just want a well-written story, which we try to provide them. Thanks for sharing.


  3. I had similar circumstances. While it’s a ton of work, I like being the one who decides which of my books makes the grade and how they will be promoted (cover, blurb, price). Good post, Janis!


  4. Enjoyed your post immensely! It’s a relief to know I’m not the only one who’s had terrible luck with agents. Ha! My two never sold anything, but through contests and direct submissions, I sold 8 manuscripts to traditional publishers. After 5 years of working directly with an editor at a major house, I gave up and started getting my rights reverted. Now, I’m SLOWLY traveling the self-published route, which is the pace I find far less stressful.

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  5. Oh, yeah, been there, done that, never going to do it again! I fired my first agent and the second was pretty good, then she dropped me. Imagine my surprise with nine books under my belt and I couldn’t find another agent. What the hell??? So I’m self-publishing and very happy that I’m doing that.

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