The Time I Tried to Be a Literary Agent

by Matthew J.X. Malady

People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, writer and TakePart Food Editor Willy Blackmore tells us more about what it’s like to sort of, but not really, work as a literary agent.

omg I tried to be a literary agent once and people maybe still query me?

— Willy Blackmore (@willyblackmore) February 12, 2015

Willy! So what happened here?

I was googling myself the other night, as one does (in my defense, I was searching for some old stories), and I came across this listing for Willy Blackmore, book agent, on a website called QueryTracker. It’s a sort of forum that writers use to keep tabs on agents, the queries they’ve sent out, etc., etc. Considering that I have a backlog of a couple hundred unread agenting emails sitting in a strange corner of my Gmail, it’s unsurprising that I have thoroughly shitty reviews on QueryTracker. Writers have determined that I do not find phone, email, or snail mail queries acceptable. Queries, apparently, are unacceptable.

My page on QueryTracker says that emails have repeatedly bounced, and the website of the agency that I so briefly worked for has now been taken over by pay-day loan spam bots. (“Opt for Wisely When Contemplating A Pay Day Loan.”) I haven’t been an agent for nearly six years — and arguably never really was one in the first place.

I moved from Iowa to California in 2008, and the indie publishing house Jennifer Banash — my then-girlfriend and now fiancé — and I ran out of our apartment in Iowa City moved along with us. It was a shitty time to move to a major city without any job prospects, to say the very least, and while there was plenty of work to do on the books Impetus Press was slated to launch the next spring, finding actual paying work was nearly impossible. I worked at an art gallery for a month or so before Lehman Brothers failed, after which the position just kind of disappeared. And while I found a few different food-service jobs after some hunting, they were part-time and low-paying and didn’t satisfy my artistic needs. So I started writing a series of resumes that (somewhat) exaggerated the work experience I had that could apply to fields other than art or publishing. Social media marketing “ninja” or young adult novel ghostwriter. Literary agent.

Somewhere in the midst of that terrible fall, after a couple years of making precisely zero dollars publishing a number of very talented writers — and a particularly brutal bunch of returns from Borders — we closed down Impetus. I’ve written about this before, so I’ll try not to recount the trauma again here, but basically it sucked. Having to own up to the fact that it was failing was a very depressing, emotional thing — and telling the people we had promised to publish was even worse. Part of what I did to ease that blow was to try and help some of our writers find other publishers who would take on what were in some cases nearly press-ready books. I rather naively — or optimistically? — thought, hey, this is kind of like agenting: I can tell people how rad books that I love are! I can advocate for writers I think are super talented and stand up to publishers who try and make them do bullshit with their work! If I can’t be an editor-publisher, why not be a book agent?

Except what literary agency is based in L.A.? There are people called “literary agents” at ICM and CAA and the other big Hollywood shops, but that apparently doesn’t mean what you would guess it to mean — they work on scripts and rights, I think? And everyone with experience working the entry-level grunt positions at the big agencies told me it was the most soul-deadening experience of their lives. One person who interned at CAA said he went from work to his car in the garage one night, slept in the backseat, and walked back upstairs to do it all again the next morning.

Which is why I ultimately found myself having bad Thai food on the edge of Venice in late 2008 with a woman who owned a small literary agency. It would be the only time I ever saw her in person, and really one of the few times I spoke with her in any manner. She “hired” me on the spot, which, while thrilling at the time, essentially meant that she would help me out with some contacts and sample materials and gladly take a cut of whatever commissions I made were I able to sell anything.

She drafted a press release noting that her agency was “pleased to announce that Willy Blackmore, great-grandson of Farrar, Straus and Giroux co-founder John Farrar, is joining [the company] as Associate Agent,” set up an email address for me, and we had a number of long-winded phone calls where we talked about books and contracts and contacts and the different opportunities she saw in the publishing world for me. It felt like, despite failing as a publisher and being thousands of miles away from Manhattan, I could still manage to eke out some sort of publishing career.

A few of my casual efforts to find homes for Impetus titles led to my first clients, and to my inbox filling up with submissions. I corresponded with an Oregon writer who said he had known Bukowski back when, describing him in his pre-fame years as just another drunk poet. He was full of stories about long-defunct zines and quartiles, and the weird people who ran them, painting a Los Angeles not unlike the one depicted in Inherent Vice. I don’t think I ever read his manuscript — about a writer in Los Angeles who knew drunk poets and the weird people who ran indie zines and quartiles — but it was one of those small exchanges that felt, well, very agent-y. Getting to know someone fascinating who had a story that maybe, possibly, could be great, and that I could help bring into print was a process I would have loved to call “work.” Alas, I never really got past things feeling agenty and into doing the actual work of being an agent.

When did you know it was time to call it quits? And if you had the chance to do it over again, how might you adjust your approach?

I’ve been looking back at my emails from late 2008 and early 2009, and there’s a distinct point where I went from trading emails back and forth with the agency lady to me sending note after note — about getting sample proposals, about getting to together for a meeting, about scheduling a phone call — that all went without response. There was a would-be Impetus book that was in very good shape — the novel Nine Months, by Paula Bomer, which SoHo House later published — that I wanted to send out to editors. But I had no clue of the official, formal package that I needed to put together, and the examples I needed to look at never showed up. I was working, at a point, two other part-time food service jobs and a paid internship, so I wasn’t exactly long on time. So it’s not so much that I called it quits but that the job, as it were, just kind of disappeared.

A few months later, a friend I had given notes on a draft of a novel got in touch to see if I would look at something else he was working on. I wrote back and told him, “The woman I was ‘working’ for was MASSIVELY hands off, and with the no pay/commission only aspect, I’ve had to find other work and now, with a full time job, I just don’t have the time. So its kind of an aborted career I guess, which is a bummer, really, but what are you going to do?”

I’m lucky enough to have a job as an editor, but I miss working on novels. There’s a unique feeling when you settle into writing notes on a book that I have rarely experienced editing journalism — more languid and imaginative. There’s the more rigid elements of the story to consider, like the structure, say — but what you really need to do is be subsumed by a world, and to explore its limits and logic and space. Still, I was using the job as a proxy for editing, really, and while there’s something about being an author’s champion involved in being an agent, as I saw it at least, I’m probably utterly ill-suited for the kind of deal-cutting, business-minded work that people like Andrew Wylie excel at. So I guess if I were to do it all over again, I would try to be on the publisher’s side of things instead, acquiring and editing the books instead of trying to sell them.

Lesson learned (if any)?

Now that my tendency to not answer work email is a matter of public record, I should probably start working toward Inbox Zero.

Just one more thing.

People should track down books by Nick Antosca, Gina Frangello, Paula Bomer, Jennifer Banash, Christian TeBordo, Kate Hunter, and Dave Housley. I was lucky to work with all of them as a publisher, and some of them in my different stages of almost-agenting. They’re great writers, and you should check them out.

Photo by Ryan Hyde

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