Funny You Should Ask: Why don't literary agents invest in long-term talent instead of manuscripts they love?

Funny You Should Ask is a humorous and handy column by literary agent Barbara Poelle. In this edition, she answers a reader's question about the struggle of finding an agent who falls head-over-heels for your manuscript, and why literary agents don't approach their profession more like Hollywood agents do.
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Funny You Should Ask is a humorous and handy column by literary agent Barbara Poelle. In this edition, she answers a reader's question about the struggle of finding an agent who falls head-over-heels for your manuscript, and why literary agents don't approach their profession more like Hollywood agents do.

Dear FYSA,

I am getting a lot of requests to see my full manuscript, but so far the rejections say, “While I love your writing, concept, plot, etc., I have to be 5 bajillion trillion percent in love with a project to take it on.”

My question then is: Why don’t literary agents act more like Hollywood agents, who may not see you as perfect for a certain role, but believe in your talent and send you on other auditions? Why don’t literary agents say, “This project may not be for me, but I see that you can write and are a professional”? Why not invest in the talent and potential for future earnings?

Landing upon an agent who happens to fall madly, passionately, absurdly, ludicrously in love with my project sometimes seems as likely as finding a unicorn. 

Underappreciated in Arizona

Dear Underappreciated,

This question is so delicious that I printed it out and ate it.

You managed to include my favorite percentage, a unicorn reference and a subtle underlying coyness laced with a soupçon of ennui. It’s like I Scott Bakula’d into your body and wrote this question to myself. The mention of Hollywood slyly clues the reader in as to the best way for me to frame the response: by performing a one-woman show titled Bajillion.



(Numerous novel covers are framed on the wall and there is a very large bar cart upstage left. Enter BARBARA, a 30-coughcoughcough-year-old agent.)

BARBARA (on cell phone)
“You are the best, you are my favorite, I kill for you, I die for you. Now go write! The world is waiting!” (Shehangs up, addresses audience.) “No idea who that was.”

(BARBARAunbuttons a $1,500 Burberry coat and throws it in the corner. She picks up a crystal decanter from the bar cart, sloshes some liquid into a glass and slugs it. Moving to her desk, she opens her laptop.)

“Pass, pass, pass, yawn, pass, boooring, pass, yuck, pass, pass twice, pass pa—wait a minute.” (Music swells as she picks up the laptop and holds it adoringly.) “I love you. I love you. I love you 5 bajillion trillion percent!” (She kisses laptop passionately. Lights down.)

[The End]

That, folks, is how you win a Tony.

Totally accurate depiction of how I work. I mean, not the liquor part—who even has time to use a glass anymore?—but the rest is spot on: I have to love it. And you want me to! Imagine this: You are choosing a nanny for your children and are down to the final two candidates. One nanny says, “Looking for a paycheck, daddy-o, and this will do just fine!” And the other nanny says, “Um, is it me, or are your children geniuses? I love them 5 bajillion trillion percent.”

I can speak only from my own experience, but if I see something spectacular in the writing but not the project, then I do call up the author and howl, “Yes! I mean, not this plot. Or these characters. Or … any of this. But do you wanna play with me?”

Take, for example, Sarah Nicole Lemon. She attended a WD WebinarI was instructing and submitted a women’s fiction partial. I told her, “You are wildly talented, but I think your style is better suited to young adult. If you’d like to write a YA novel, I’ll sign you now—because I believe in you that much. You in?” And she was! And I sold it! (Done Dirt Cheap, published March 2017.)

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I’ll have to ding you a little bit on that Hollywood agent comparison, too—because I have a secret past in Hollywood (really), and it’s not that different. They might look at skills first and roles second, but you do need to blow an agent away for them to sign you. If you take a pie in the face and fall over a potted plant, they don’t think, “Well that’s the guy for Season 3 of ‘True Detective.’” They ground their choices the same way we literary reps do: in a little bit of industry knowledge and a lot of gut instinct.

Believe it or not, our hearts rise and fall with every swell and break right alongside our clients’—so, like you, we have to have some love in the game in order to keep on rowing. Any artist’s advocate would be underserving his clients if he didn’t have the same passion to see his people succeed.

All of this is to say: I absolutely hear your frustration—because it is accurate, in a sense, but for all of the right reasons. And what I would also add is that if your main complaint is that your current work is not “lovable” enough, but that you have the kind of talent that can write something that is? Then write it! Pen something new, then get out there with another project.

I’ll be waiting, wrapped in Burberry—a couture unicorn.WD

ASK FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK! Submit your own questions on the writing life, publishing or anything in between to with “Funny You Should Ask” in the subject line. Select questions (which may be edited for space or clarity) will be answered in future columns, and may appear on and in Writer's Digest magazine.

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