How to Get (and keep) a Literary Agent

        I’ve been involved in a lot of tough gigs in my time.  Medicine is full of twists and turns, and bluegrass music is even more unpredictable.  There are fellows who wash dishes in Nashville and can play circles around me on the mandolin, so as far as music, I know I’d best hold onto my day job.

        But of all the ventures I’ve ever been involved in, the writer journey is the least predictable of all.

        Take finding a literary agent.  I tell ya, these guys are hard to come by.  Last year, in the whole state of N.C. there were only three lit agents in my chosen sub-genre of Modern Medical Bluegrass Grit Lit, and now we are down to two.  The other one left for Arkansas, and did not leave a forwarding address.

        In a way, you can’t blame him.  The song says there are thirteen hundred and fifty two guitar pickers in Nashville, and with writers there’s even more folks than that with a dream and a prayer. 

        At least in the music thing, most parents try to convince their kid to come home and get a job.  In the lit biz the situation is even worse ’cause every one of the writer’s mamas (just like mine) love them, so the agents are inundated with upwards of tens of thousands of applicants, and have to deal with a whole bunch of mad friends and relatives when they turn someone away.  

        If you’ll notice, nowadays every one of these secret agent folks will only take on new clients who are already published.  Now, how are you gonna do that when no one will publish you unless you have an agent?

        The way I saw it, I had two choices.  I could lie, but I didn’t want to do that ’cause I figured that would be bad for my rep as a doc, so I chose the less onerous route of paying someone to put a few of my articles in things like the Southern Ladies Azalea Quarterly (my wife got me that gig- I didn’t know a thing about it, but she was a good coach) and then moved up to coverage of the local music beat, which I was somewhat of an authority on.  I caught a break at a bluegrass festival when I heard the rumor a touring band had fired their publicist.  I went backstage right away, handed them a card, told them I was a writer, and got the job for their ad copy and CD liner notes.  All of a sudden I was in- an official author.  (Definition:  Writer whose work is published three different places.)

        My first agent fired me when I could not develop a more romantic voice.  (My Miss Marfar laughed and said that was impossible.)  I persevered on, though, and then managed to get published in the local paper and a couple small music mags, patched together a resume, and voila, after a couple more fits and starts, found me an agent.

        As it turns out though, acquisition of an agent is only the start of this business.  To keep one, you better turn out some good original stuff, and commit “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” and “The Elements of Style” to memory.  And brother, if you take to using a bunch of ing-lys as you are thinking and wondering, you are toast.

        All in all, it is imperative that your  correspondence with your agent be of the utmost of accuracy, and your grammar and sentence construction must meet the highest professional standards.  Your re-writes of your re-writes should exude enthusiasm and originality, and even more important I think……

        Oops, gotta go.  My wife called.  My agent was supposed to be gone, but she heard he was down at the Piggly-Wiggly buying groceries, and I better go help him unload his car.   The more I think about it, I don’t reckon I ought to tell all the secrets, ’cause my agent might fire me and get a better client.  So far, his proceeds from my work are neck and neck with my songwriting royalties, and I think he has a young-un in college.

        I’d better not give up my day job just yet.  But, a man has to have his dreams, and I figure I’m only a story away from pay-dirt for me and my agent- at least that’s what I’ve told him.  Should ya’ll run into him, I hope you’ll tell him if you like my stuff.  I’m gonna need all the help I can get.

Dr. B


Explore posts in the same categories: Advice- Five Cents, writer's corner

16 Comments on “How to Get (and keep) a Literary Agent”

  1. The Agent Says:

    No, it was not me at the Piggly Wiggly, but we did have to return home from Scotland prematurely as mother was hospitalized on a urgent matter. Please check on her progress and report to me at 12:00 noon sharp.
    Also, if you would stop at Antonio’s Pizza Sub and Dry Cleaning and pick up my suit and some lunch. I’ll have a medium liver mush pizza.
    In addition, I need revision number twelve on the ukulele article by Saturday.

    The Agent

    The Center For Excellence in Medical Grit Lit

  2. drtombibey Says:

    Yes Sir! Dang it, I can’t get nothing by that man.

    -Dr. B

  3. A minister, a doctor, and a literary agent are
    all playing golf. As they approach the third tee,
    they notice that the foursome in front of them is
    playing very slowly. These guys are helping each
    other line up their putts, they all stand around
    while each other hits, and they’re generally
    taking far too long to play golf.

    By the time the minister, doctor, and agent make
    the turn, they’ve had enough, and complain to the
    ranger about the slow play. Patiently, the ranger
    reveals that the foursome is a team of blind
    firemen who lost their vision while entering a
    burning house to save an entire family, and their
    eyes were singed. “We let them play for free,” he
    explains, and asks the group to be understanding.

    The minister feels terrible, and insists, “I’ll
    offer a prayer for each of them and their

    The doctor says, “I’m going to give them free
    medical treatment for their bravery.”

    The agent screams, “CAN’T THEY PLAY AT NIGHT?”

    There’s more where that came from – T.E.P.

  4. drtombibey Says:

    Lord Have Mercy (L.H.M.) Brother T.E.P., you are a daily inspiration. Truly, though, the Agent is a good man, too. Couldn’t do without either one of you in this writing gig.

    -Dr. B

  5. mrschili Says:

    Stuff like this makes me glad I don’t have a burning desire to publish beyond my little blogs. Putting that much pressure on myself sucks the joy out of the work that I do, and if it’s not bringing me joy, it’s not going to be good, anyway.

    Love the joke, though!

  6. drtombibey Says:

    As we say in bluegrass, you are a good’un. Maybe I’m still trying to make amends with my mama (who was an English teacher) and my High School English teacher (see the post on “Publication Schedule”- unfortunately based on a true story) for all my wayward ways in high school days.
    For some reason, I thrive on the pressure cooker- always enjoyed medicine- even depositons! (though I have stayed out of trouble after high school) and was so driven to be the best I could be not only in it, but music, writing and everything else that it borders on pathological. Teach your students to do well, but they don’t have to take it to the Dr. B extreme!
    In reality, my agent is a very good guy, but it is true that the darn thing entails so much competition he has to either be rough on me (and all his clients) or perish.
    Anyway, I am working on a book, but it is a couple of years off. When it is finally done, if I ever get there, I owe a lot of people thanks, starting with Mom, my poor wife, The Agent, the English Professor, and many many more, (and probably Ms. Chili, too before is all done.)
    Thanks for reading my work. Any time an English teacher does, it gets my attention- I guess it all goes back to dear old Mom.
    Hope you have a fine holiday.

    -Dr. B

  7. Sandra Says:

    😉 It is fun to read your comments here. Well, for all people who love to be free in their writing and enthusiastic about it without Pizza and Laundry duties – there are some Agent free self-publishing zones, too
    (sorry, Agent 😉

    Have a great and peaceful Christmas and a healthy, literally (!) wonder-ful 2008


  8. drtombibey Says:

    I guess for now I gotta stick with my agent. He knows the doorman, and some security folks at a big N.Y. house, and thinks in a few years he can find his way inside- at least that’s what he tells me.

    -Dr. B

  9. writeasrain Says:

    Dr. B:
    I hear tell, that you can trade 1 agent, 1 doorman and a couple of security folks for one good “inside” mailroom worker inside the big NY house and get the same results. If you can only find out the secret skinny info on that said worker…you just might be able to make all other literary submissions disappear. Then you are truly “in”!

    Ah….never mind….1 trusted and true agent, 1 faithful doorman and a couple of security folks just might be the secret formula. Who knows? Surely those of us, other, unpublished, computer, two -fingered plunkers haven’t figured out the “inside” secrets to getting published.

    Keep up the investigative underbelly reports on the publishing world. The rest of us will keep on coming back to Dr. B for consultations!

    Ps. Thanks for the comment on my blog. LW-

  10. drtombibey Says:

    Dangnation girl, you’re deeper on the inside of this thing than I am. Whichever one of us breaks the code first needs to let the other know.

    -Dr. B

  11. annaliserussell Says:

    Congrats! Keep us all posted on the further developments. And being in the romance writing business, it’s a tougher gig than you’d think. ~Annalise

  12. RubyShooZ Says:

    Glad to see it looks as though you’re getting a following even here in blogland Dr.B. Yay! This is good my friend.

    I’ve not been well and not been able to comment or even read much as my body is not coopertating with me so I’ve been laying back. I do miss you though and I’m very happy to see you’ve found yourself some good company to hang with though.

    Peace, love and understanding all.

    ~ RS ~

  13. drtombibey Says:

    Miss Anna,
    Hey, you don’t have to tell me, I got fired in that genre!
    Reminds me of the year big bad Dr. B played in a golf exhibition with some lady pros. Played hard, shot 81, and got beat by all ’em – the grandma clipped me two shots. Better keep my day job there, too.

    -Dr. B

  14. drtombibey Says:

    Miss Ruby, I knew you had been under the weather, so tis good to see back. Hope you and yours have a fine holiday.

    -Dr. B

  15. Joe Says:

    The joke is a good one. You really have to watch that you don’t get hoodwinked into a scam as far as agents go. Almost did until I check them out. I think your idea to start small and work your way up is the best I have heard. I’m goinf to try a little of your route and see what happens,

  16. drtombibey Says:

    I recommend a lawyer to check on your lawyer for anything you sign.

    -Dr. B

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