Friday, 15 February 2008


So, there I was, still at my desk last night, preparing to leave for the SpearmintRhino, when I decided to phone J. McDoe, literary agent with Black, Hood & Scythe Ltd, where I’m known to the point of considerable notoriety.

McDoe’s tone of voice did not express unmitigated joy. Particularly when I told him who I was. But he reluctantly conceded that he remembered me. He said he also remembered that I had writing skills that would surely have been more profitably employed if I had adapted them to the composition of alchemical conundrums.

I forgave him, of course. He was boasting.
He then admitted to having read my latest.
Which was another boast he pulled off frequently.
“I am preparing a new one,” I said, and explained to him that I had begun accumulating material for a book to be called The Evolutionary Inevitability Trap.
“I won’t comprehend it,” he said.
I deftly added that the book was to be a ruthless exercise in intellectual detachment.
“Is it an anti-war book?”
“No,” I said, “it abominates peace.”
“Such a convoluted mind,” he said.
“You know what is ultimately going to kill the human species?” I asked.
He was unconcerned. He said he didn’t care.
“Indifference,” I said.
“I’m glad it’s that painless,” said McDoe. “But abominating peace isn’t much of a selling point when it comes to books.”
“That’s the appealing thing about my book,” I said, “virtually everyone has a stake in it.”
“Has what in it?” he said.
“Contrary to popular belief,” I explained, “constant culling keeps the species alive. It’s a fallacy,” I added, “that we are facing war as an avoidable alternative to peace. It repudiates all sense of logic.”
“I am at no loss to decide,” McDoe conceded expansively, “that that scenario is pure fantasy.”
“Of course,” I said. “It’s bound to be much more persuasive in print.”
“It could hardly be less so,” he said.
There was a pause while McDoe cracked open a can of peanuts, shoving a handful into his mouth.
“My dear Selena,” he then inveigled, “plainly you’re over-qualified.”
“Tell me about it,” I said.
“But don’t let anything discourage you. You’re immensely capable.”
“Rub it in,” I reiterated.
“No doubt, you have a brilliant career ahead of you...”
“Be adamant!” said I.
“...but not with me.” McDoe said with the mournful tone of a man who’s been caught out time and again by his own incurable compassion...



Richard Madeley said...

Did you write that book? You did, didn't you? I recognise your foot.

This is very apt blog post given that I've spent my day going though the Writer's Market 2008 edition. Nearly every damn agent has the same thing, which I've helpfully summarized over at my place: we're not accepting submissions from people we don't know...

Selena Dreamy said...

The sad truth, Richard, is that after hesitating between commerce, art and ethics, the literary agent has finally turned to the former with such venom that he has become arbiter and executioner at once. The gun fires and recoils. Your e-mail bounces back due to ‘content filters.’ The latest contraption in a shadowy, imponderable species of ‘keyword programs’ that are terminating your e-query which, in any case, is received with a notable lack of interest.

Let’s face it, e-queries are the literary equivalent of Spam.

Weighed and rejected at the speed of light. One cannot help thinking that the writer is dealing with hostile forces. On the other hand, of course, supply outweighs demand by a commercial factor of 100 to 1. Market analysts often point to a growing viability gap between the literary world and the real world. I look forward to someone adding it all up, but the inference is clear, you get 100 to 1 that your manuscript is subject to a scrub.

Richard Madeley said...

Hence my theory that we need only write 100 manuscripts before one is accepted. Perhaps we writers should form collectives, living as a single organism. It also makes me wonder what exactly is involved in being an agent. Can it be any more difficult that sitting down to write a novel? I'm tempted to give it a go. Or do agents need agents of their own to get work?

All of which reminds me to write about this new BBC reality TV show, Murder Most Famous in which some ubiquitous celebrities get a chance to write a book and win themselves a nice publishing deal. It is clearly the most sensible way for the industry to go. Cut out the slush piles and agents, go with people with proven track records as talented artists.

Jonathan said...

Is there a book in print which looks into the history and development of the factors that have influenced publishers in their decisions over the years, I wonder?

The relative influence of art, ethics and commerce, as you put it, has changed exactly how and when I wonder.

I went to look you up at the Spearmint but then reflected that opening the site in a Kuwaiti internet cafe might not be altogether wise. Im surprised it wasn't blocked altogether...

I also presume the book is your and seek to set my hands on it...

Selena Dreamy said...

To begin with Richard, the commercial factor is probably more like 1000 to 1 against, seeing that, in the estimation of one NY agent, one in ten Americans alone are presently attempting some sort of a written book. Though I have my doubts whether Murder most Famous is the most sensible way for the industry to go, since the celebrity principle itself is prohibitively selective. But if you are suggesting to become an agent, I should definitely wish to become your (silent) partner.

An inspired choice! Just think of it: Judy and Richard - Literary Agents.

What with your reputation as literary or TV-“kingmaker” - I wonder why you have not thought of this before. Once you’re listed, I will personally guarantee you an average flow of 300-400 submissions per week. So far as publishers are concerned, in my opinion, your endorsement matters on commercial grounds alone. Nor do I see any reason why you should not be in a position to glean best-selling material. Manuscripts are refused not so much because they are unsuitable - which most of them are - but quite simple because they are not being perused.

As far as the pressures are concerned, be warned, I’ve known of agents suffering total anaphylactic breakdowns!

Selena Dreamy said...

Jonathan, some writers are commercially successful because they are very zeitgeist-specific in terms of contents, style and syntax. Like Stephen King or John Grisham, for instance. But, that notwithstanding, it is accurate to say that the literary service industry in general is preoccupied with artistic control over the books they are commercially publishing. And that publishers traditionally possess a fatal attraction for the magnetism of genre fiction without necessarily promoting its deeper artistic claims. Neither agents or publishers are indifferent to economic matters.

With notable exceptions and subject to personal discretion, the selective principle is as simple as that.