After writing my first novel for young people, I sought out a literary agent. I knew nothing about the field, and although in those days I could have submitted on my own, I would have been flying blind. So I found an agent and signed up with her.
She was well known, personable, responsive, someone who had been in the agenting business a long time. In fact, everyone I talked to who knew New York publishing said that they thought she had been there forever. After only one or two tries, she placed my first novel and before the contract had come through, my second with a publisher I remained with happily for many years. Nonetheless, eventually I decided to go on my own.
I decided to leave the agent behind for two reasons. First, my editor said to me one day, “Marion, your agent has never done anything for you.” Armed with that information, I checked with another author on the same list and discovered that she, without an agent, had an escalation clause that my agent had never asked for.
Second, and even more important to me, after a few novels for young people, I decided to write an adult novel. When I’d finished a solid draft, my agent sent it out. An editor at a major house declared interest and suggested revisions. I embarked upon the work with enthusiasm. But when I showed the editor the opening third of my new manuscript, she said several things, none of them positive. Her culminating statement was, “Frankly I liked the first version better.”
I was young and still very unsure of the value of my work. Besides, this was new territory. Who said I could write an adult novel anyway? I gave up. I told my agent I was setting the manuscript aside, and she accepted my decision without comment. Much later, though, she made a comment to a friend of mine that trickled back to me: “It’s a shame Marion abandoned that novel. It would have been an important book.”
I felt betrayed! Furious! If she had said that to me, I would have stayed with the novel. No question. But by the time her words reached me, I felt too removed from the work to resurrect it. That’s when I decided I didn’t need an agent.
Flash forward about twenty-five years. I was doing fine on my own. I’d published a whole lot of books with an array of publishers. I wasn’t getting big advances, but I’m not a fan of big advances. If you get a big advance and the book doesn’t earn out, you’re a loser. You have difficulty placing your next book. If your book does well, you’ll get the money anyway, nicely spread out which serves both living and tax purposes.
My first clue that I might not always be making the best choices for myself came after I wrote a novella I especially loved and gave it to the wrong publisher. I placed The Very Little Princess with the publisher I did for reasons that seemed reasonable at the time. I had a contract to fill there. I liked working with the editor. And it was the most convenient door for me to walk through. This story, however, while aimed at young readers wasn’t like my other novellas. It wasn’t like any other of the “chapter books” on the publisher’s list. It was a serious literary effort, its topic, mortality. And while this particular imprint does fine novels for early readers, it isn’t known for serious, literary work.
Maybe I wouldn’t have recognized the misfit on my own, but once the book was published people let me know. I got angry letters from librarians and teachers who were trying to fit The Very Little Princess into a group reading experience of fun princess stories. My story was anything but fun. The title, however, and the very pink cover promised otherwise. And all I could do was empathize with what must have seemed to my readers a bait and switch.
It was the first time I realized that the fact that a door is open to me doesn’t mean that’s the door I should walk through. I realized, too, that were other doors out there completely unknown to me. I needed someone who knew the range of publishing houses, someone who knew the tastes of different editors, someone who could find exactly the right home for each of my manuscripts.
And so I took a deep breath and, late in my career, returned to working with an agent.
How did I choose that agent? I’ll have more to say about that in my next blog.