Lit Agent Tells the Cold Hard Truth

A literary agent's "Mm, no" really means NO. Here's why.

Posted Dec 22, 2010

Surreal Bird Pens Forest Trees

Betsy Lerner, author of The Forest for the Trees, and I appeared together at a book festival panel about writing when the original edition of The Forest for the Trees came out. With the recent publication of the Revised Edition of this superb book, I'm happy to post my interview with Betsy. Her frankness is both amusing and edifying.

Q: As an agent, do you ever get manuscripts that need virtually no work? How about from first-timers? Do you sometimes take on a client even when the manuscript needs quite a bit of revision, but you love it anyway?

I don't think I've ever received a manuscript that needs no work, even from fifth-timers. I all too often take on a manuscript that needs quite a bit of work because I love it. If I fall for the writer's voice or style, I'm usually willing to address a host of other problems, which usually center around structure and organization.

Q: When would you recommend a book doctor or private editor to a novelist?

I'm not in the habit of recommending book doctors because as a former editor myself it's always very clear to me what the manuscript needs, and I feel I can address it. If I can't, then I'm not likely to take it on. That said, I think writers should hire editors before they approach agents if they feel they need help with their work -- this will increase their chances of landing an agent.

Q: What's your feeling about the place for literary fiction in today's marketplace? I'd be surprised if you weren't dismayed at how hard it is to place good non-genre books. Or is it no harder than it used to be?

Everyone says everything is more difficult than it used to be and they've been saying it for as long as I've been in publishing which is 25 years. The loss of so many independent bookstores hits literary novelists hardest, I think. They were the real champions.

Q: What differentiates debut novelists who succeed in building a successful writing career from those who never take off at all? Do the latter lack talent, smarts, the patience to revise a LOT, or the ability to take advice and learn?

Lord! That's a tough question. There's no one answer is the answer. I think it takes total commitment, dedication, and drive, maybe more than talent, smarts and patience.

Q: Along those lines, I believe writers have to be more resilient than the average worker to deal with so much rejection and still be able to lose themselves in their imagination and keep trying. Do you have any thoughts to share about resilience, confidence, knowing when to quit (altogether or a particular project)?

Well, resilience or insanity. The bottom line is how you feel when sitting down to write. Writers complain a great deal about writing and there are more frustrating days than not I suppose, but at some point it's where your world feels most real and alive which is why you go back.

Writing and publishing are two entirely separate entities that are connected by a whole lot of factors the writer can't control (namely rejection). It's being the master of your own sandbox, the writing itself, that has to provide you with something extraordinary or why do it?

Q: Your comments in the book about how agents try to phrase their rejections as kindly as possible made a lot of sense to me. What would be some genuinely encouraging things to get on a "no" letter?

Actually, a no is a no and one should not hang their hopes on any kindly phrases. The only encouragement that's real is if the agent invites you to send your work in again if you revise it. An actual invitation.

Q: I had forgotten how talented a writer you are until I read the new book and began reading your blog regularly. The latter is a hoot, very frank and adult. Thus my final question: Have you given up on your earlier urge to write poetry or fiction? Your style (in the book and blog) is such a nice balance of personal and vulnerable, and hard-hitting realistic advice (plus compassion).

Right now I'm putting my all eggs into an even more secure and rewarding basket: screenwriting. With no hope of succeeding, I'm totally free! And I love the form. I also blog and believe it or not those couple of paragraphs I knock out every night are very satisfying to me. And thank you.

Copyright 2010 by Susan K. Perry