Throwing Darts in the Dark

On the road to traditional publishing, it is virtually compulsory that writers query agents in an attempt to obtain representation. At this point, the writer begins a metaphoric game of darts – played in the dark. The lights are turned off and the dart board begins to move around the room in a random, haphazard fashion.

Agents are insulted if a query is addressed, “Dear Agent,” and insist that a query be addressed to a specific agent. However, if the agent bothers to respond to the writer with a rejection, it is often addressed, “Dear writer” or “Dear author.”

Many agents state that, if the writer does not hear from the agent within a specified time period, the writer should assume rejection, citing the high volume of queries as reasons that they are too busy to return the writer’s respect. Further, agents expect a writer to submit a query, after dozens of hours spent polishing it, and if they respond to the writer at all, do so with an email comprised of perhaps ten words, tersely phrased. The message is simple and clear: Dear writer; I demand respect and my time is dear; however, you should not expect respect from me because your time is not as valuable as mine.

While reviewing 130 agency websites this past week, I discovered an agency who advises writers that they are too busy to respond to the writer unless they are interested; however, they ask that the writer advise them if another agency is interested in the work – the apex of agency arrogance. I am sure that there are more agencies with the same attitude.

If an agent’s requirements for submission of a query are amenable to the writer and respectful to both parties, that doesn’t mean that the dart board stops moving and the lights come on. If an agent is having a bad day, the chances of viewing a well-phrased, deserving query in a positive light can be dim, depending on the professionalism of the agent.

Many are fond of pointing out to novice writers that publishing is a business and should be treated as such. Others argue that the process is simply one that all writers must endure in order to earn their chops. Is writing a business or is it a sport … for example, darts?

For those relatively few writers who have courted and won an agent, I submit that the query was enticing, the work well written, respect flowed bilaterally, and the agent saw a market for the piece. However, much more than a well-fletched, trimmed, and sharpened dart was involved. I further submit that the agent was contacted on a good day and the winds were steady and at the agent’s back. In short, the writer threw a bull’s-eye in the dark.

Although there is a relatively small contingent of agents who respect deserving writers – and online comments confirm their efforts – the majority appear unable to return the respect and professionalism that is so important to the agent. It should come as no surprise that talented writers, many who have gone through hell to finally – and sometimes only through luck – have their work validated by friends, family, independent editors, and online contacts and critiquers, turn to self-publishing.

William Gibbons

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