John Hodgman, Professional Literary Agent, Has Not Forsaken His Young Cousin, the Aspiring Writer Known Only as “Josh,” but Read Below for Important News of His Professional Status, and Learn With Him the Painful Lesson of The Lycanthrope’s Niece.
BY John Hodgman
A client once wrote me claiming that he was fed up. “I’m giving up on New York!” he wrote somewhere in the midst of nine pages of single-spaced, typewritten rage. “My publisher clearly has NO VISION for my work, NO DESIRE to break out an important new author, and NO INTEREST in taking my suggestions for publicizing The Lycanthrope’s Niece” I’m guessing now this was the title of the book I had sold for him, though I’m not entirely sure.
He went on: “Several of my writing group colleagues simply cannot believe that I have not yet been sent on a NATIONWIDE TOUR, as I requested. And they share my surprise that I have not yet appeared on CHARLIE ROSE who, I’m sure, would very much appreciate the kind of deep psychological questions my novel poses. Frankly, I’m doing for psychic werewolves what Anne Rice did for vampires, and if my New York publishers cannot see this, they are either villains or fools. Either way I am done with them.” At this point, naturally, I called this fellow’s editor, read her the letter, and we laughed and laughed.
But who could have predicted, on that long ago drunken afternoon, that I would be writing you now Josh, and saying very much the same thing?
Yes, Josh, I am done with them: publishers, clients, villains, fools—I am so far beyond them all now, on a far distant horizon, where the future of literature is being debated on soft, green lawns by talking animals with starshine in their eyes, and I am their werewolf king. Which is to say that you should not, after all, send me whatever it is that you’re working on, as I will as of this date no longer be a profesional literary agent.
You are a young man of a questioning nature, and you will want reasons. Such as they are—and I barely understand them myself—I list them for you.
1) Dismay: There once was a time when a man could make a good living off of a 15% commission. He could be blind drunk, half-dressed, and fat and still make a two-comma salary by working three months out of the year. This is the noble tradition that attracted me to the “publishing industry” in the first place. Of course, we never called it the “publishing industry” back then. Back then, it was called either “the Show” or “the Bigs,” and it was a wonderful place. For Christ’s sake, Josh, I was allowed to negotiate legally binding contracts with only a BA—in fucking literature, no less! That, needless to say, was a rush.
Now that’s all changed. Since the Germans are now running all American publishing, editors are being routinely sacked and sent out to become agents. That means more people selling more things to fewer buyers, and almost all of those people are thinner than me. It’s not that I can’t compete, Josh. It’s just that I can’t easily sell the same crap that I used to on a nod and a handshake, and frankly, it’s just not worth it anymore. I spent a good part of my life building this business, and I realized that if it all slipped away tomorrow, I wouldn’t really care. If you ever have an epiphany like that, Josh, I hope you listen to it.
2) Opportunity: The money has never been in authors, I realize now—it’s in writers. I’ve been all over the country speaking to amateur writers and aspiring novelists, and I’ve enjoyed their company, their unsullied creative spirit, and their willingness to buy me things. I once was asked if I ever charge by the hour for my literary advice, and of course I said no. No respectable, professional literary agent takes a reading fee, and I have personally wrestled to the ground some of the less scrupulous agents who do.
However, consulting fees are another matter. All you young writers do is ask and ask and ask. And all I do is give, Josh, and it’s not right. Now don’t be concerned: my advice will always be free to you. But I am currently seeking a venue for my new column “Ask A Former Professional Literary Agent” and reading many books on e-commerce, and soon will be making a mint off of my patent-pending brand of literary counsel (L-matter, I call it) and related merchandise. There may be an opportunity here for you, Josh, and I’ll keep you posted on this if you bring in a certain amount in initial capital.
3) Hope: The funny thing is, Josh, that my client was right. If New York publishing cannot recognize the value of a good psychic werewolf novel, than we have truly lost sight of our mission. This occured to me in a fevered dream as I passed out in the midst of writing this letter, and I want to thank that client for reminding me of this fact. I wish I remembered his name. For now, I will refer to him as “werewolf dude.”
Luckily, as you may have followed in the news, there are some exciting new developments in the realms of electronic publishing and in this internet of yours that will change everything. Traditional monopolies of distribution are eroding, traditional tyrannies of taste are toppling, and the entrepreneurial “werewolf dudes” of the writing world will soon find new and vibrant outlets for their work on-line. Books will also be much much larger: the size of backpacks. Remind me to send you a copy of an article I was writing on this subject for “Fiction Writer Magazine” before they folded.
And do me a favor: circulate this letter among your friends on-line. Perhaps “werewolf dude” is out there, and perhaps, if he reads this, he will know that even though I still consider him a world class freak, I no longer make fun of him in public.
And with good reason.
Until later, my dear young cousin,
That is all.
Former Professional Literary Agent
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