Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

It's a Small World: A Short Discussion on Agents and SF&F Publishers

By Wen Spencer

2002, Wen Spencer

When I set out to sell my first novel, Alien Taste, I blindly followed a road someone laid out for me. Chose an agent, I had been warned, close to New York City.  Be polite to everyone, I had been told. Like a blindfolded adventurer, I set off, determined to succeed.  Now, with five books under contract, I can see the hidden landscape and the reason for those two warnings.

The publishing world for SF&F is small, and for lack of a better word, incestuous. Yes, there are a growing number of small presses, print-on-demand, and ebook companies. Experts, however, say that if an author's first book is from one of these sources, while it counts as a hallmark of being able to finish a work, the quality is questioned. If the book was good, why didn't a 'real' publisher accept it? When I told a respected magazine editor the name of my publisher, he exclaimed. "Roc? Oh! A 'real' publisher." I have heard from numerous sources that short story collections from a single author, which the large publishers do not often print, and reprints are the only respected material for alternate publishing.

There are a little more than a dozen 'real' publishers, and all of them except Baen have offices in New York City. Because of the corporate mergers, many are owned by the same parent company and are housed in the same building. Ace and Roc are not only both imprints of Penguin Putnam, but share the same floor. DAW is one floor down, and has only four people employed. There is a joke that at lunchtime the SF&F books at a nearby bookstore are rotated several times in two hours. The staff of DAW will come through and face their books. Short time later, Ace employees will face their books. And so forth and so on.

A common practice is for anyone who wants to become an editor to head for New York, and take any job in a publisher's office: copy editor, typesetter, production manager, assistant to an editor, etc. They work a few years, and then jump up the job ladder either in the same company or with a publisher down the street. A company change is especially true as editors move to senior editors positions since the openings are rare.

I sat in on a panel recently with five editors from various publishers, chosen at random by the Boskone convention committee. Not only did they all know one another, they had also all worked for the same Senior Editor at one point or another. I could only marvel that my editor (Laura Anne Gilman of Roc Books) could describe the walls covered with manuscripts at TOR Books, and the individual style of Ace's art director.

There are a number of East Coast cons that are heavily attended by the publishers, including Boskone in February, Lunacon in March, and Philcon in November. At The World Fantasy Convention, the professionals seem to outnumber the non-professionals two to one. Senior Editors attend the world-class conventions, but if the event is on the East Coast, then additional employees also attend. At these conventions, editors sit on the same panels; hang out in the green room between panels, and party at night together.  More importantly to the new writer, so do many agents. 

When people ask me if you need an agent, I say yes, but I also delineate a certain breed of agent. The agent you want specializes in science fiction and fantasy, lives in or around New York City, has rubbed shoulders with these editors at conventions for years, and probably has sold other clients' work to them. My first agent was the late James Allen. When I was trying to land "Mr. James Allen" as an agent, an associate editor at Tor said, "Jim? Oh yeah, he has great taste. If he accepts you, let me know and I'll look at your manuscript." Recently I told my editor that I had met a big name agent at a tiny convention; she told me how the agent first came to conventions wearing a suit because in blue jeans he looked like a high school student. When he grew a beard, a rumor started that he dyed it gray in an attempt to look more respectable because he started to relax his dress code.

Where do you find agents this well known by the editors? The SFWA Membership Directory has a listing of agents who are associate members of SFWA and there is a cross listing of the members they represent. Any SFWA agent is a good bet, but study their client lists. If the agent represents someone who writes stories similar to your own, this might give you an edge at interesting them in your work. Another consideration is how well their clients are doing. Does the agent represent up and coming writers who are selling respected work? Or are all their clients dying on the mid-list, or falling into the work-for-hire trap?  The SFWA Directory is meant for members only, but librarians may obtain copies for sixty dollars through the SFWA web site at www.sfwa.org

Writer's Digest Books publishes The Guide to Literary Agents.  While not as good of a resource as the SFWA directory, it's much easier to get.  In the back is a listing of all agents who handle SF&F material. Cross off any agent who isn't within a train ride of New York City. Trust me.

Oh, yeah, and be polite to everyone.