Friday, February 29, 2008

About the Agents

A few people have emailed me privately to ask about how I got my agent. After answering a few times it occurred to me I could post about it here, and maybe answer the question for a few other folks that never got around the asking me about it. I am very happy with my agent, and happy to acknowledge the somewhat rocky road that led to that state of bliss...

I got my first agent (yes, this story features more than one) in the mid-90's, while I was a grad student. I attended a Washington Writer's Conference. There was a panel of agents, which I listened to with keen interest. After the panel, there was a session where you could meet the agents. I went up to two of them, presented myself, talked about my work, and - when they made polite noises of interest - I pulled out copies of my first novel manuscript. Both of them went home with it. One of them turned me down. One of the asked to sign me. So Marie Brown became my first agent.

Marie is a lovely person, with a long history as an agent. In particular, she specializes in work by African-Americans. That was appropriate for me because I am an African American and my first novel, Cicada, was a contemporary novel about an African-American family. Under Marie's wing I got a warm introduction to... well, to rejection letters. Yep. Rejection letters. Lots of them. Usually polite, but always rejections. I wrote a second novel, August Fury, that Marie also kinda represented. It was also contemporary and African-American, and likewise it never got anywhere. Didn't even make it as far as racking up rejection letters, really.

So... Time passes. I revise. I get rejected. I revise some more, get rejected some more. So it goes. By the way, I also lived and loved through all this. I paddled a lot of whitewater as a kayaker and raft guide, and I traveled in Latin America, the Caribbean, and in Europe. Met my wife in Scotland, got married, got pregnant... So life went on, as did the rejections.

Eventually, though, the leads Marie was working dried up. We went our separate ways. Time to give up? Nah, forget about it! I was a writer; the world just didn't know it yet! I began to work on an entirely new novel. What I ended up with was Gabriel's Story. I was still writing about black families, but this time I set it in the Old West, and shot it through with a good bit of drama, violence, movement. I was able to send it directly to a young editor at Doubleday, Debbie Cowell, who had liked my earlier novels. Actually, she had worked for Marie before moving to Doubleday, so she'd been an advocate for a few years already.

Anyway, I sent it straight to her. I knew she liked it, but she was going to have to convince the powers that be at Doubleday to agree - and they'd already turned down my earlier efforts more than once.

While they deliberated, Debbie suggested I look into getting a new agent. She put me in touch with one, actually, a guy that had placed a very, very (I mean very) successful book with Doubleday. (I'm not gonna say who, by the way, but believe me...) They had a great relationship, and they were making loads of money. I was thrilled. This is awesome, right? Here I'm getting an intro to a successful agent, and it's coming from a prospective publisher that has a great history with that agency. This guy calls me, chats, sounds great, and he says he'll read the book and get back to me.

Time passes. Deliberation continues. Agent-guy doesn't call. Eventually, I called him. What's up? Doubleday may make an offer any day now. Are you going to represent the novel if/when they do? Agent-guy says... "Ah, well... No. I'm got going to. I've thought about, and I see some problems with the novel that aren't easily fixable. I'm not confident Doubleday is going to buy it, and if they don't I'm not sure who would. So, sorry, but no."

Talk about ways to make a guy miserable. In the front of mind I thought his explanation of what wasn't working in the book was vague and silly and kind of a load of crap, but still, what if he was right? What if he knew stuff I didn't? What if Doubleday was going to say no yet again, and what if even my third finished novel wasn't going to see the light of day? What if I was actually going to have to keep my job selling Brit-pop at the Virgin Megastore? I did have a month old baby to support...

Okay, I won't wallow. Fast forward to the next week. Debbie calls me, Doubleday has finally had that big acquisitions meeting. They want to buy my book! (One week it's all misery; next week it's all joy - just like that.) Actually, they want to buy it and my next book. They lay down an offer, the terms, the money involved, and I - giddy, of course - agree to everything. (Not, by the way, a strategy I suggest.) Once that's done, then Doubleday suggests that I really might want to get an agent now.

They had a think on it, and connected me with Sloan Harris at International Creative Management. I couldn't have known it at the time, but Sloan was (and is) a guy on his way up. He's co-head of publications for ICM now, as described in this Variety Article. (Not bad for a guy that started in their mail room.) All I knew was that he read my book fast and called me with all the right kind of enthusiasm. He talked about the many things yet to come, and talked about the things I should think about long term. I suppose I could have looked into others, but I was sold. I knew of ICM as the agency of Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison and many more. If ICM is good enough for them... I signed on the dotted line again, and I've never regretted it.

You might ask, "Why get an agent when you'd already sold the book?" Answer: every reason in the world. Just selling a book - although a huge step - is only the beginning. It's like qualifying for the race, making the team, entering the game, etc. But there's so much to do thereafter that I can't imagine trying to navigate it all without a professional advocate.

ICM has a website, but before you rush off to contact them you should know that there's not much there other than a few addresses and a few contact emails. Not much. Nothing saying "Submit Here" or "Give Us A Call"! ICM is not really that type of company. While I'm talking them up, I'm not suggesting you start packing up your manuscript and call FedEx. Could I have landed Mr. Harris with a query letter before getting the offer? Nope. Not a chance. Actually, about the most detailed bit of information they have on the website is their "Unsolicited Submissions Policy". That goes as follows:

ICM has a policy that neither it nor any of its agents or other employees shall accept or consider any unsolicited material, ideas or suggestions of any nature whatsoever ("Unsolicited Materials"). Accordingly, you may not use this website or information obtained there from to submit Unsolicited Materials to ICM via any means (including, without limitation, via mail, fax or e-mail). Should you nevertheless contravene this express prohibition by sending Unsolicited Materials to ICM, please be advised that the Unsolicited Materials will not be considered by anyone at ICM, and if possible they will be returned to you with no copies kept. Unsolicited Materials will not be forwarded to or discussed with any third parties.

Ouch. That's not very friendly. What's up with these people? Well, what's up, I'd say, is that ICM is a very, very established agency. They have such an incredible client list that they won't even tell you who is on it. Snobby? Maybe, but I prefer to think that they've reached a position in the industry where they can be very selective. They just got it like that. They can find the clients they need through recommendations from existing clients, other agents, editors, etc. I couldn't have written to Sloan on my own, but with the Editor and Chief of Doubleday there to connect us, Sloan jumped on board with all the professional enthusiasm I could have asked for. I'm very pleased to have this particular agent and this giant company to look out for me, but I also know many authors that love being with smaller agencies. Both can advocate for you wonderfully - if the fit is right.

That's about my only piece of agent hunting advice - know that the fit really needs to be right, and know that that doesn't always happen quickly. My first agent might have succeeded with those early books, but if she had you might not be reading my blog now. I might not be here in the capacity that I am, or she might not have been the right fit as my interests diversified. And if that other unnamed agent had signed me just because of Doubleday's recommendation (without really believing in the book), what would it mean to be with a guy that didn't personally feel the material was publishable? Naw, I like the way things worked out, and can see now that the ups and downs were all formative in the right ways.

Oh, one last thing... Gabriel's Story was a bit more than just a publishable novel. Right from the start the reviews for it were great (three stars before publication, for example). It ended up being a NY Times Notable Book, on other best of the year lists, and won several national awards. It's been in film development for several years now, and just might make it to the big screen one day. It was a success in many ways. And it was the introduction of a writer that's done pretty well since...

So why didn't that agent see the potential? He claimed later - as I understand it - that he hadn't actually read the book. One of his readers did. It was that person that wasn't impressed. Maybe that's true. If so it was a mistake. Does this agent know that? Sure, he does. I happen to know that somebody made sure he got sent a copy of every positive review I received for a while thereafter...

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Blogger Constance Brewer said...

Very interesting post, David. Thanks for sharing. :)

7:38 PM  
Blogger said...

Hi David this was a very interesting piece. Of course I feel as though I've been left hanging -- Why leave out the name of the agent that Debbie hooked you up with? Everyone one else was named. &

Take Care

9:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, that's the most depressing story I have ever heard. I'm NEVER getting an agent.

*goes off to cry into her cornflakes*

11:38 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said... (or can I call you Troy - or Thumper?),

Good to hear from you. Why leave out the name of that agent? Well, it's no big deal, but I'm inclined to mention by name the people that were positive forces in my career. That agent wasn't that, but also I don't think he matters so much as an individual. It's not like he's the only one that has turned down a good book. He's not the only one that has other people read submissions. That's pretty standard. So I end up thinking of him as a type - a reality - of the publishing world. That's more significant to me than who the guy actually was as an individual.

Who is he? Well, he could be anybody... (I mean that.)

An aside... Assuming you are Thumper I'd like to thank you for those wonderful reviews of Walk Through Darkness and Gabriel's Story. Just so you know, I read them when they came out and was very pleased. Thank you for kind words, the humor, the insight and the support.


Depressing? What do you mean? I kinda thought it was a success story...

1:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, hey thanks for clearing up all my nagging questions. And, yean, I'd call it a success story.

Too, what left me hanging are those two unpublished manuscripts. You should post their first chapters on your page, just for fun. Would you say your writing has improved since those two ms?

4:16 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hey Drew,

Nice of you to ask about those early novels. I suppose I could post a sample chapter from them, if folks are interested. I'm proud of that early stuff, even though I also understand why it would have been hard to publish. I'd compare it to the apprentice work of a craftsman. It's not a bad chair I made, but it's got its nicks and cuts. The glue is a bit heavy on that joint, and the one leg was just a little too long and even though I sanded it to equal height you can still tell - if you look - that it's not perfectly formed.

That's how I feel about those novels. But, at the same time, they are very, very much me. The writer I am now began in them. That will always be true.

6:13 PM  
Blogger Meghan said...

I've heard getting an agent is a great idea but only if you get a good one. It looks like you eventually had a happy ending but had to go through a lot to get there!

1:40 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Yep. And that's just the way it should be. Honestly, I think I'm better off and know more about publishing and had to push my writing further all because of the ways things didn't happen easily. That said, I only had to write three novels to get one published. Some have to work harder and longer than that!

2:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Any idea how Robert Gatewood, first time author, got his ms in the hands of Sloan?

7:32 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


No, I don't know how Robert got hooked up with Sloan. I would mention, though, that The Sound of the Trees came out in 2002. Sloan's list has matured a lot since then, and his responsibilities have broadened. Of course it's great when a new author gets interest from very established agents, but I think there's a lot of good in signing with an agent that is on the way up with you.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Fernando Moraes said...

Good evening sr. Durham.
Some Brazilian publisher will release his books Acacia? Can you tell me some information?
Thank you for your attention.

8:04 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hello Nando,

Thank you for asking. Yes, the series will be published in Brazil. We are negotiating with a publisher right now. I will announce it here once the agreement is final.

All the best,


8:56 AM  

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