I found my way to PJ Clarke’s anyway, still massively hopped up on having a real literary agent’s signature on the agency agreement in my pocket. Besides, after a few martinis it no longer seemed to matter that I was picking up my own tab.
Writers have it in their collective heads that they need to have an agent. I suppose this was true in the past; agents were the gatekeepers to the publishing castle, and if you didn’t have one, then your chances of getting your book into print were almost nil. The agents had the contacts, they were marketing savvy, and they could get you the good table at “21.” Mostly, having an agent watching out for your interests made the inherently lonely writer’s life feel a bit less desolate.
I, for one, felt completely liberated after signing on with the agency. I began every sentence regarding my novel with, “Well, my agent says…” Having that agent in NYC finally gave me credibility, if for no other reason than somebody believed in me enough to take 20% of whatever I earned as a scribbler.
It also gave me back my evenings. Up until that point, 7pm to 9pm had been dedicated to combing through Writer’s Guides and Internet sites dedicated to agent listings and then putting together query letters. I’d started right from the “A” as in Andrew Wiley and worked my way all the way to “Z” as in Zachary Shuster Harmsworth. Name me an agent in NYC or LA who represents fiction, and I’ll bet you fifty 1st Class stamps that I queried them between 2002 and 2009. Just thinking about all those SASE’s in my mailboxes makes me want to head to the corner store for a pack of unfiltered Camels. I don’t even smoke.
But now that I had my agent, I could put all of that behind me and get started on my next novel, which was surely going to be part of a multi-book deal that my agent was diligently working to secure. I knew she was working on this because I emailed her once a month (trust me, I wanted to email every day) to find out which publisher was rising to the bait. I knew that at any moment my caller i.d. could light up with my agent’s Manhattan prefix, and my life would be changed forever.
The first year rolled into the second, and something started to happen. First of all, even though I was still only emailing once a month, my agent wasn’t replying as quickly. My requests to set up phone calls were met with increasingly packed schedules on her end. I won’t say that my agent was avoiding me, but I don’t think she wanted to talk to me just so I could remind myself that she existed. She told me I should just keep writing, so that’s what I did. This was sound advice because by the time I had a good draft of that second novel wrapped up, my agent and I had come to the grim realization that my first book wasn’t going to sell. First time fiction writer, down economy, all publishers want is teenage zombies, etc. Still, she was excited about my new book, so I got that off to NYC right away. I finally heard back a full season later, and even though I was miffed that she had taken so long to read it, she did have some really thoughtful ideas about changes. So I scurried back to my desk and started editing. Four months later, she began sending out submissions for the new book. For the second time, lightening did not strike right away.
More alarmingly, something had changed between my agent and me. This manifested itself in how carefully I started to treat her. It was as if she was the customer and I was the clerk. I realized that in the literary game, a respected agent with a recognizable client list is a much rarer commodity than a writer, and there was nothing to keep my agent from firing me if this second book didn’t get picked up. I reacted to this threat by becoming increasingly passive about the publication process. I stopped requesting updates for fear of pissing her off.
It was around this time that I started to think about self-publishing my first book, the one that never sold. What was the point of keeping that novel in the drawer when my agent—the professional who rejected 99% of what she saw—thought it was a damn good read? I told her about my idea, and even went so far as to propose that she agent it (with her 20% cut intact) through the process. My agent was non-committal. She fed me the statistic about how 99% of self-published books never recoup their investment. But we were going on three years as agent and writer, and the sparks were long gone from the relationship. I looked back and saw how quickly those three years had whipped by, and then I pictured just how quickly the next three could pass as well. I couldn’t see any harm in self-publishing the first book if for no other reason than to learn something about the sales and marketing side of the process. I sucked it up and set an ultimatum—a date a full month out so as not to rush her decision—for her to decide. The idea of losing her still terrified me; I was feeling like the high school kid trying desperately to hang onto a girlfriend who was becoming increasingly disinterested in wearing their letterman’s jacket.
The date hit and I sent a follow up email. Are you in or are you out?
She said she was out.
I drafted the termination agreement that night and sent it FedEx the next day. Two days later, my very confused agent actually called me, asking why I’d fired her. I told her that if she wasn’t going to get behind the first book, then I was taking the second off the table as well.
I’m not saying that this felt completely great, but for the first time in three years I’d actually put my hands back on the steering wheel and made a business decision, and that part was exhilarating. If I was going to fail, I was going to fail actively. The days of leaving my career the hands of someone else were over.
I self-published my first book two months later, and in four fiscal quarters I made back all my money. So what if I still had to pay my own bar tab at PJ Clarke’s?
Tony Perez-Giese was born in Texas and graduated from the University of California at San Diego. His diverse career has included stints as an award-winning newspaper reporter, estate manager, alfalfa farmer, and associate producer for National Geographic Television. He currently lives in San Francisco, California. His first novel, Pac Heights, won the 2013 Self-Published Novel Competition on Underground Books Reviews.