An afternoon on the dark side

English: Dark chocolate. Español: Chocolate negro.
This is my idea of a visit to the dark side. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Question of the weekend: What was a self-published author doing at an “Ask the Agents Panel” where “Bay area literary agents share their thoughts and answer your questions”?


1) The panel was free.
2) It was part of a new slate of offerings at the revived Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park (an important independent venue for local authors to support).
3) I might look for an agent again. Someday. (Shhh…).

I did have an agent once. Many, many years ago, for one of the novels that never saw the light of day. The novel was shopped around for a year before the agency let me know they needed to move on.

Needless to say, I did not maintain a relationship with that agent, nor had she (or her agency) taken a keen interest in my career. By the time I finished Dance of Souls I had to search again. By then, the world had changed. No more poring over a fat book in the library. I could do a search right from my desk on

After a hefty number of rejections, I decided to go the self-publishing route, with modest goals:

  • Get the book out in a form that friends and family could easily read.
  • Experiment with self publishing.

Mission accomplished. But now, with another nearly completed manuscript on my hands, I’m again hearing the siren call of the agent. And last weekend’s panel reminded me of why having an agent might just be a good thing for an author’s career (not to mention her sanity).

Panel moderator Laurie McClean of San Francisco Writers University and an agent at Larsen Pomada described an agent as “an author’s business partner.” Something about that phrase really clicked. Often, the hardest part of marketing a book is the feeling of being out there all alone. Yes, agents take a cut. But being allied with someone who stands to make money if you make money might not be a bad thing. Remember: 100% of nothing is less than 85% of something.

Natanya Wheeler of the Nancy Yost Literary Agency and Andy Ross of the Andy Ross Agency rounded out the panel and added lots of practical advice, including, from Ms. Wheeler, “Don’t be intimidated by agents.” Which was fine for her to say, but did nothing to still the stutter of my heart as I did a two-minute pitch for Dance of Souls in a small group after the presentation.

Scrubbing Bubble
Scrubbing Bubble (Photo credit: sdettling)

Good agents know the publishing world is shifting as fast as a receding polar ice cap. The era of book deals being struck in a smoky steakhouse over a three-martini lunch is long over. Good agents don’t rest on their connections. They make themselves business savvy, tech savvy, and marketing savvy. Their job is to be out in the publishing world every day.

As that old Scrubbing Bubbles commercial says (why do I keep coming back to bathroom cleaning?): We work hard so you don’t have to. That’s exactly what an agent should do for an author, at least as regards working with the publishing side of the business.

What about you? Do you have an agent? Would you ever consider looking for one? Do you enjoy the dark side? And which exactly is the dark side? Tell me now!


How to Target Agents For Querying – Excellent blog post by Kourtney Heintz.

Where to Find Free Market Listings – From Jane Friedman. Includes publishers, agents, journals.

How to Find a Literary Agent – Advice from former literary agent Nathan Bransford (yes, he rejected my work but the advice is good).

Do You Need An Agent? – Durant Imboden’s suggestions.

“A Right Fit”: Navigating the World of Literary Agents – Essay by Michael Bourne takes an inside look at what agents do and your odds of landing one.

6 thoughts on “An afternoon on the dark side

Add yours

  1. What a great post! I’ve had agents interested in my books before, but they all said the same thing: finish! I shopped a novel prematurely, and totally got my cart before my horse. I finished a first draft, but then the agent couldn’t empathize with the main character. This stung because, first because the protagonist was a fictionalized version of me, and second because I had to accept that in hiding myself behind fiction I created a character who wasn’t very authentic. Another agent said, “great story but i call bullshit; this is a memoir.” Oi. Writing memoir now, and just starting to pitch agents. One letter sent and one rejection thus far. I wrote about it on my blog “Reduced” then “Realized.” Keep fighting the good fight! we can do this!


    1. Yes–that was the message from the panel: Don’t submit until you’re sure it’s done; agents are not editors. Good luck with finding your way and finding an agent. It’s hard when you have a story to tell but it has to fit in the genre box.


  2. Thanks for the shout out! I really admire you for going the self-pub route. I’ve been querying agents for over a year on each of my books. I really wanted to go the traditional publishing route, but it seems like these books won’t see the light of day that way. I have a third book that my friend promises is way more commercial and might get an agent. I’m starting to look into small presses and self publishing too. 🙂 I do think agents perform a valuable service, but some books can’t grab their attention. But it’s always good to try. 🙂


      1. Always good to try! I’m not a writer who sticks to genre so each of my books feels really different. The hope is one of them might be what trad publishers want. 😉 Everytime I look at my query spreadsheet, I need chocolate. 🙂


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