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Hello Catherine.

I just happened upon a 1988 article by Edwin McDowell, on the life and death of literary agent Paul R. Reynolds (Jr.) who died in that year. Reynolds was, as you likely know, the son of the first American literary agent and of the same name. The article contains the comment, "He was an old-time literary agent - tough but fair. And unlike agents who never read the books they represent, he read them all."

I have to admit, that after all the books I've read on the publishing industry, the trial and tribulations, the foibles and expectations of the literary agent, the rather salient heretofore unheralded fact in the first half of McDowell's second sentence has taken me completely by surprise.

I know, lit agents routinely employ armies of college (*?) students to filter query letters. I even have one of my own letters on file--returned, as some agents do, with a short, polite refusal jotted in the margin. In this case, however, the note is in broken English AND--I kid you not--in the muppet-standard handwriting of a seven-year-old*. I admit, my query letter was not what it might have been and has since become. Still I found that agents behavior utterly incredible. (I thank him for that, btw. Certainly not the one for me.)

The whole has now caused me to wonder. Could McDowell's comment simply be the erroneous product of a jaded view--or is it in fact, in essence, true? That, moreover, was twenty years ago. What of today? Has the lit agent's dilemma and so the writer's burden as exists in the tidal wave of submissions, become THAT bad?

Dan O'Hanlon

Dear Dan,

This question has so many answers on several levels, at least from my lone perspective, but I'll try to address as many as possible.

I am not an agent now, nor have I ever worked as an agent -- the closest I have come to this type of position was as an assistant editor at a small, regional book publishing house, in which I can promise you that every single manuscript that arrived on our doorstep was read and evaluated carefully, then returned (if rejected) with a neatly typed letter of refusal, but encouragement.  

However, in the wide world of publishing, I certainly can't speak for everyone, nor, in this ever-changing industry, can anyone, really. So, to reiterate, I really have to approach this question from sheer objectivity and my scant experiences and observations in this area.

Agents are more like "shoppers" than "readers." From what I understand, agents are salespeople -- and many do not read every single page of every book they represent because their job is about selling: It's more about seeing the big picture; getting the outline and idea of the book they're shopping in their head; and promoting those books until they are either sold, or until they feel they've run out of mileage, so to speak.

I do believe that agents -- good agents -- work very hard and are nearly relentless in their efforts to find a home for a manuscript. Because they work solely on sales commissions, it's imperative that they work with great speed and have an "inside book flap's" knowledge of the manuscripts they're trying to sell.

I also believe that is tacitly "understood" among agents, editors, and most everyone who works in some professional capacity in book publishing that agents have not absorbed the essence of the book through reading it, necessarily (as outrageous as that sounds!) but through their contact with the author and understanding of the author's personality; their constant "sales pitch," which, again, is akin to a "spoken outline" or "synopsis" of the manuscript; and their overall knowledge of where/how the book will sell in the marketplace, therefore again requiring their keen persuasive skills.

It is not required of agents' certification or association groups, again, as far as I know, that agents agree to read every book they promote. It's just not in the rules and regulations, or terms and conditions, etc., of the few associations of this kind that agents can join and/or with which they can enlist, etc.

Also, today, because there are so few regulations in this particular segment of the industry, just about anyone who has a basic knowledge of books; has some contacts in the publishing arena at large; can design a pretty sharp website to promote their services; and has the sales skills necessary to make money can hang out their shingle as an agent, even from their homes. Perhaps the person who wrote on your returned query letter "was" someone's child. I realize this sounds almost horrific to earnest writers' ears, but I must say I certainly believe this is by far the exception, not the rule.

The other point to consider is simply the way media has changed, even since Reynolds' time, a mere 20 years ago. Of course I hope with all my heart that books will always be books as we know them, and that we will always have access to libraries, also as we know them, with books we can touch, hold, dog-ear, and proudly set upon our shelves, coffee-stains and all.

But I can't be sure of that, and because everything in our world has gone into high gear, at least in most for-profit businesses, the tendency -- and sometimes necessity -- to churn out, sell, or promote every possible asset within reach, and to do this faster and faster, and with the aid of new media, etc., it's just a different world. And, as they say, different times call for different measures, or approaches, and book publishing is not exempt.

I hope this helps -- to me, it's a just another small but sad commentary regarding how we conduct our lives as a whole these days, with emphasis on speed, instant access, and a sort of roboticism that has seemed to replace the much more leisurely, philosophical world of the agents smoking pipes with potential business partners at long, drawn-out luncheons, and diligent typesetters poring over every font and ink setting.

It's just a different world. But I am sure there are many anachronistic types who, like me, would much rather make less money in exchange for more time to truly read, write, distribute -- and enjoy -- the books we still hold so dear.

All Best,
Catherine Van Herrin  

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Catherine Van Herrin


I am an American-born, native English speaker with a BA in English and more than 26 years of professional editing, writing, and proofreading experience. I have edited several books and book-length manuscripts. References and titles available upon request.

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More than 26 years' U.S. publishing industry experience, editorial (print). I provide crystal-clear, clean grammar; strict attention to style, consistency, flow, logic, accuracy, and spelling, and I work quickly and efficiently.

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