For a conference I’m going to next year, I was asked to answer a series of questions about myself and agenting—what the most exciting part of the job is, how I landed in publishing, and what my first sale was. Those were easy. Then I hit the question about who the first client I ever signed on was. That was less easy. Not that I didn’t know the answer. It just required me to publicly admit that the first project I signed on never sold. You know what? Eight years later, it still stings.
I thought about lying, but that’s really not my style, so I answered instead that I had signed on a wonderfully fun novel in a Valley of the Dolls vein that I still think deserved to be published. It was really good! And then in a slightly defensive moment, I jotted down that I almost immediately thereafter signed on Victoria Laurie who has sold 24 books with me since then. Well, it’s TRUE.
The thing is, every time something doesn’t sell, it hurts a little. The happy fact of the matter is that the number of projects that don’t sell becomes smaller and smaller as you carry on as an agent—you learn what you’re better with, understand markets better, and come to know the perfect editors for certain projects. But sometimes things don’t work. And it suuuuucks. Especially when you’re head over heels for a project.
I was at a release party for Lee Houck’s Yield a few weeks back, and in his incredibly kind remarks, he mentioned the moment I called him to offer him representation. Apparently I told him something like, “I don’t know if I can sell this. But I can try.” Apparently I remembered to put on my honesty shoes that day! I didn’t remember that I had said it, but I remember that I had thought it! It was a literary novel about gay characters and themes that was at best going to be challenging to place. It was also amazingly heartfelt and beautifully written, so I gave it a shot knowing it would pain me if I didn’t place it. Happily, that one worked out.
The novel about a juvenile prostitute in Newark that was written in dialect? That one didn’t sell. It was just as brilliant as Lee’s novel but even more challenging. I still hate that it didn’t work. I also hate that an editor called me to ask if the author had been a hooker in Newark, adding that the novel would be more marketable if so. That led to the single most awkward phone calls of my entire career. “I was just wondering if maybe you ever happened to, ummm…”
In the end, no agent can guarantee a sale. The most they can ever promise you is their best efforts. But if it’s any consolation, they’ll still be kicking themselves years down the road if they aren’t able to usher you to success.