Sweet and Sour Literary Agents (and Rumi)

This is a tale of two pairs of literary agents. Each pair includes a sweet one and a sour one.

Sounds like a fairy tale? It kind of is– with both a happy ending and a moral.

The first tale involves  literary agent Carol Susan Roth. I hate to call her the sour one, since we had a very pleasant lunch a while back. But for fairy tale purposes, she was.

Literary Agent Carol Susan Roth sold "The Infertility Cure" at auction

Literary Agent Carol Susan Roth sold "The Infertility Cure" at auction

Randine Lewis, author of The Infertility Cure, had two agents who were interested in her work. The first was ready to send out her book proposal as it was, right away. The second was Carol, who said that Lewis’s book proposal wasn’t ready for prime time yet. Lewis went with the first agent, who sent it out to three publishers, resulting in three rejections.

So Lewis went back to Roth: “ . . .She introduced me to a wonderful ghostwriter who totally revamped my proposal. Carol sent it out and after an auction with six of the major publishers, it was sold to Little, Brown & Co. for a very big advance!”

Pair number two involves a novel.  It has basically the same setup. The “sour” literary agent was interested in  the work based on the author’s query letter. But after she read the manuscript, she said to the author that their work had merit, but  just wasn’t ready yet. This literary agent suggested that the author  improve it, and that she would be happy to provide commentary on subsequent drafts until it was a salable book.

But there was a sweet literary agent who was willing to take the work on as is, right away. The sweet agent submitted the novel to dozens editors at a wide variety of publishing houses—and they all turned the manuscript down. They rejected this novel for the same reason that sour literary agent had declined to take it on in the first place.

So the author decided to go back to the sour literary agent—who agreed to work with her to improve the manuscript—even though it’s next to impossible to get an editor to re-consider a manuscript he’s already rejected.

The sour agent twisted some arms and sold the book. But that’s an unusual outcome. Rejected books are almost never resurrected. And because an agent sent this manuscript out before it was ready, it almost didn’t get published.

So both these tales had happy endings. The moral of the story reminds me of some lines from one of my favoirte Rumi poems, Borrow the Beloved’s Eyes. The translation, as you  might expect, is from Coleman Barks:

“Worry about the others, who give you

delicious comforts that keep you from prayer.

Friends are enemies sometimes,

and enemies Friends.”

So when you have a choice between a sweet literary agent who wants to represent you right away, and a sour one who wants  you to wait and improve your work, it’s usually wiser to choose the sour literary agent.

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One Response to “Sweet and Sour Literary Agents (and Rumi)”

  1. Orrin Michael Carpenter says:

    I agree with the logic behind this article, Mahesh. So called ‘Friends’ can sometimes turn out to be one’s enemies, and sometimes someone whom one sees as an enemy can later be viewed as a friend. Thank you for referring me to this article. ( I actually did exactly what this article recommends, on my own. I proofread and edited my manuscript 7 times in 7 months within the last year. It is now at least 3 times better written than it was at the time that a crituquer gave it a very good review. I do not believe in resting on laurels. It’s a very vain foundation to rely on. Orrin

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