My lit agent and I have a booty-text style of relationship. If she wants something from me, I snap off my Minnesota Timberwolves breakaway pants, throw on an un-ripped T-shirt and do/go and/or call where/what and/or who she wants, even if I have to take the G train!
Conversely, if I want something from her, I get a response a good 20 percent of the time, and usually then it’s all, “My phone’s being weird so I didn’t see this until now…can we try for another night? ”
I’m hesitant even to call her “my” lit agent, because even that part of the story is nebulous. The brief version is that I essentially got grandfathered in with this particular agent, whom I will now call L’agent because that’ll make her seem mysterious and foreign/hipster. She works at a big company that closes big deals, and she’s interested in bigger fish than this here gefilte (the hot dog of the sea). But one of my friends is a comic, and we have a really great working rapport; so when L’agent wanted to bring my comic friend aboard, she was greeted with the distinct pleasure of my existence.
Perhaps she was just being nice, humoring me to get to my friend, like so many wingmen in all those Vince Vaughn movies. But she offered to hear any ideas I might have for books, and it was just the opportunity I’d been waiting for.
From what I can tell, lit agents are the gatekeepers to mainstream publishing. They know the ins and outs of how publishing houses work, have a Rolodex (or virtual Rolodex) of contacts and the tenacity to endlessly wheel-and-deal. At the very least, they have lots of books in their office from authors I’ve heard of, and some that I haven’t!
I sat down with L’agent and opened my notebook to a page labeled, “Best Ideas Ever”—my secret stash. One by one, I mapped out the books I wanted to write. There was one that involved traveling the country for a year, visiting people and doing a ton of interviews about pop culture. There was one that involved digging deep into the history of this one really dumb film I’m obsessed with, hoping to unearth secrets. There was one that involved playing a ton of video games. In retrospect, I don’t even think getting into the specifics would have made these ideas seem interesting to anyone, let alone a professional whose job it is to vet good and bad books. Let’s not even talk about a normal person who might actually consider spending money on them!
But L’agent, to her credit, listened to every single word I said before offering her feedback. “What’s the third braid to all these stories?” she asked, which is a series of words I didn’t know could be an actual thing until it was spoken.
All books, she explained, have three braids. Take my road trip idea: It’s the story of an actual road trip (braid one), the story of my pop culture thesis (braid two), and so far nothing else. As a writer, I should be as much a part of the story as any other element—I should be thinking more like an author, less like a journalist. Why did I want to write those books, and what made me uniquely suited for the task? “What kind of protagonist are you?” she asked, and I wasn’t quite sure how to answer.
Clearly, I had some thinking to do. I thanked her for her time, went home and did some major brainstorming, and if the story ended here it’d be pretty inspirational and heartwarming. But this is where it got really weird.
A few weeks later, after I sent over a couple ignored emails, I heard back from L’agent about a potential ghostwriting deal. It was a way to familiarize publishing houses with my writing, I was told, and they had a guy whose memoir would practically write itself; all he needed was someone like me to put in the work. I was cautiously optimistic, eager to learn all about this guy’s three braids, especially since it seemed like his book was essentially preapproved. Perhaps in distilling this man’s story I might decode something larger about the industry. The keys to mainstream publishing were within my grasp!
Here’s literally what I had to work with:
This guy thought fart machines sounded too unrealistic. So he made his own. Then, he brought it to public places and taped people’s reactions. He sells quite a few of these machines, and his videos get decent traffic.
That was the entire pitch.
Oh yeah, and he’s a devout Christian, so the book would have to have “Christian messages.” Just…in general.
The deal fell through, though I can’t say I’m disappointed. I’m more confused than anything. If that guy can get serious consideration for his “idea,” then what the hell am I doing wrong? (By the way, his manager started the call with, “Before we get going, I have to get this off my chest: [Redacted] is the nicest and smartest and best guy to work with ever. Okay, phew, I feel better now.”) I guess advice in mainstream publishing doesn’t apply to people with tons of Twitter followers, and lit agents are only as good as their ability to spin yarn out of a semi-interesting Tumblr account.
But then again, no relationship based on booty texting has ever made sense. You think there’s something more there—something deeper, pun intended—and you’re completely wrong. You’re just playing a part in someone else’s grand plan, only they don’t know what the hell they’re doing, either.