Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Never having met one, I find it easy to picture the average literary agent as Jabba the Hutt. In my mind's eye, he (or she) downs a fine steak au poivre, wipes away a droplet of heavy cream stippled with cognac (or is that grease?), emits a refined burp and demands, "Bring me a Wookiee cookie."

If that picture is unflattering, consider how Jabba-agents treat query letters from unknown authors: If only moderately successful, they handle the query themselves, opening the envelope with a pair of bronzed tongs to avoid contamination from the masses, unfolding it with the same, enjoying a good laugh and then slipping a printed rejection notice into the previously enclosed, self-addressed, stamped envelope before sealing it and tossing it into the outgoing mail. A Jabba-agent who's been feeding at the fifteen-percent trough for a longer time might have a secretary to perform the same function.

The one-page query letter is a stupid idea. It requires an author to summarize a 100,000-word novel, for example, on a single, letter-size page. That's ONE PAGE. In other words, it has to be written in code, and if you aren't able to crack the code that will trigger some spark of interest in the agent's mind, or if you haven't just escaped from an Iranian prison or had an affair with an A-list Hollywood star who doesn't want to see that information get out, the letter is wasted, along with two envelopes and postage. Even if it's the best query in the world, it might be doomed if the agent has enough clients generating revenue from their books to support him in his fat-cat world.

Why does the situation exist?

Because over the decades agents have convinced all of the nation's major publishers not to allow unrepresented authors to submit manuscripts directly to them. If you doubt that, simply choose any number of major publishers, check their Websites and read their submission instructions.

Why am I venting like this? And why now, after self-publishing a very good, exceptionally literate novel ("The Leather Man") after failing to find an agent in the conventional way? Because of what happened at my alma mater last week: I drove south to Pocatello to set up a book signing and to see if the Idaho State University Bookstore would like to put my book on its shelves. It seemed like a reasonable question _ the book revolves around athletes and coaches at a fictional Idaho college that bears a strong resemblance to ISU during the Vietnam Era, when the action in "The Leather Man" takes place. Also, it was written by an Idaho native and ISU alumnus, and it has an attractive cover that features a shot of Shoshone Falls, one of the state's most amazing natural wonders _ eye-catching to the max.

I was told in no uncertain terms that the bookstore would not touch a self-published book. I asked why and was told that those were the orders from Follett, a corporation in Illinois. I wondered why there was no local control over the items sold in the bookstore, and what passed as ISU management told me Follett gave them no discretion to consider a local author's self-published book, no matter how appealing or meritorious.

Follett Corp. grew out of a family-owned bookstore provider that got started in 1873. It's still privately held, but with outside directors. It has grown nearly as many arms as an octopus and generates $2.7 billion in annual sales by managing more than 930 campus bookstores and providing course materials and other support services to 1,600 independently managed campus stores.

I had to admit the edict to avoid all vanity-published items seemed to make sense at first _ my personal observation is that many self-published authors don't have the talent to be commercially successful and should expend their creative energies in a different direction. But it still stuck in my craw that the one-size-fits-all approach denies local bookstore officials the freedom to use their judgment in weighing whether a work of fiction would be of interest to their students. And that was before I found out about the Follett-IMG partnership.

IMG came into being as International Management Group in 1960. It grew rapidly into the world's biggest collection of _ you guessed it! _ sports agents. I got to deal with many of them during my 14 years as The AP's sports editor for Arizona. Some were easy to work with, some were not, and the rest were in between. So far I haven't seen any sign that IMG has literary agents among its 3,000 employees and in its 130 offices, but the fact that Follett's Higher Education Group announced an affiliation with IMG five years ago has me wondering: Are the agents of IMG influencing the corporate giant's bias against unrepresented authors in the selection of books offered in campus bookstores? That would not be kosher.


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