Monday, July 5, 2021

Why I Won't Introduce You to My Non-Existent Agent


This is how too many strangers react when I tell them I have no agent (Lithograph by Edvard Munch)

            I received this email several years ago:

Hi, Derwin, you're an author, so you should have an agent. Mike is an author and needs an agent as well. Can you assist?

            Although I knew the email's sender, I did not know Mike. I count this as yet another total stranger asking me to help him get his book published. The email's sender also cc'd Mike on the email to put me on the spot.

            Note that the email's sender said I should have an agent, as if it were a legal requirement for all writers to have an agent.

            Imagine the shock and horror when I told the email's sender that I don't have an agent.

            Mike and his buddy aren't the only people who think I have an agent. Every year, I get several emails, messages, or in-person inquiries from strangers asking me to give their unpublished books, scripts, and even short stories to my agent (It's always strangers who ask. My actual friends don't bother asking me to give anything to my non-existent agent). Why do they always ask me? I'm hardly the most famous and successful writer in the world. Why don't they ask someone like Robert J. Sawyer, Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling?

            (Yes, I know J.K. Rowling is transphobic, but I bet these wannabe writers are willing to overlook such problems if they think she help them become rich celebrities like her.)

When I tell people that I have no agent, some of the reactions have been priceless, such as:

            But I thought you were a real writer!

          Are you a fake? You didn't actually get anything published, did you?

            That's not be true. How did you get your stuff published if you don't have an agent?

            You're keeping him all to yourself, aren't you? Afraid of the competition?

            These are actual reactions of strangers when they find out that I don't have an agent. And yes, I felt insulted by them. I don't care how disappointed they were that I couldn't introduce them to an agent who could magically turn them into famous celebrities overnight, like a fairy godmother did to Cinderella. Telling me that I'm not a "real" writer or accusing me of lying is insulting, and they knew that.

            Here's the unbelievable truth: you don't need an agent to get published. I sold all my short stories, my two novels, and my non-fiction articles without an agent.

            People have asked me how much of a percentage my agent takes for short story sales. You don't need an agent to submit a short story. You can submit your short story directly to the editor or the slush pile. Also, agents don't want to sell short stories; short stories make so little money that an agent's commission would be only a few dollars.

            The same goes for non-fiction articles. You can send those directly to the editor or the slush pile. Again, the money from a non-fiction article is so low that they're not worth any agent's time and effort.

            What about the novels? Believe it or not, there are publishers who will read manuscripts submitted without an agent. They aren't be the largest, most prestigious New York publishers, and some of them are small presses, but they are out there (If you're interested in finding them, you can find them on the internet).

            Many of these strangers who ask for my help have not actually completed their book. The book was usually only partly completed or still just an idea. They're under the impression that there's no reason to finish writing the story unless they get an agent. This is absurd; it is untrue that publishers buy every book submitted by an agent. Publishers can and do reject books represented by agents.

            Also, agents want to see that you are capable of completing your book. None of them want to represent someone who can't deliver a finished book.

            You might be wondering whether I would like an agent. That's a fair question, and the answer is yes. I've tried to get an agent before but couldn't interest one. That's possibly because agents weren't interested in my novels or I tend to write short stories. Nonetheless, I did get two novels and many short stories and articles published without an agent. Maybe if I write another novel, I'll shop it around to agents, but for now, I'm still writing short stories.

            Note that I didn't quit because I couldn't get an agent. I kept writing and sending my stories to slush piles. I asked editors what they wanted. I finished writing my stories and sent them away.

Many stories I wrote never got published, some got rejected many times before they sold, and the money did not make me a millionaire. It's not an easy business, and if you can't take the hard work and rejection, you should quit now and do something else.

Ah, I can hear some of you wondering whether all that hard work and rejection disappears when you get an agent. From what I've heard, no. As I've mentioned, there are no guarantees even with an agent. Agents are also not fairy godmothers who magically get every book published for their Cinderella.

Also remember that the agent-client relationship, like any business relationship, requires hard work and mutual respect. If you come into it with an entitled attitude, it might not work out. Some authors have fired their agents, and some agents have dropped their clients. 

Your end game as a writer should have two parts: first, finish writing your story, and second, get it published.

I'm not saying don't get an agent. If you can get an agent, great. What I am saying is that you should still keep writing and trying to get published even if you don't have an agent.

            Also, do not insult a writer when you find out that he or she doesn't have an agent. People talk in this business, and they have long memories.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Don't Play Mind Games With the Editor When Submitting a Story


Public domain image

I've edited two anthologies and a special science fiction and fantasy issue of a magazine. Maybe I'll get a chance to edit another anthology and put out an open call for writers to submit to my slush pile.

If that happens again, do yourself a favour and read the submission guidelines before you submit. I'm surprised by how many (usually unpublished) writers don't know standard manuscript format, use weird fonts, use weird formatting, or submit a story that is completely unrelated to the theme of the anthology. All these signal that working with the writer could be a problem. As an editor of one of the major science fiction magazines once told her audience at a convention, "I need to get through a big slush pile, so I'm looking for any reason to reject your story."

There is plenty of info online on how to submit your story. This article doesn't need to repeat that advice. Instead, this article will be about extra-stupid things that people have done when submitting a story to me. All involved what the military calls psyops or psychological operations, in other words, mind games.


I had put out an open call for short stories up to 6,000 words. One of the submissions came a cover letter (email) that read:

My story is 12,000 words, which I know is above your word limit. However, I hope you evaluate my story based on its storytelling merits instead of arbitrary word limits.

 Those two sentences made my job immensely easier; I simply didn't read the story at all and rejected it.

But wait – I can hear all the unpublished writers shouting at me to give that guy a chance. That story could've been gold. Certainly, I could've made room for a future Hugo Award-winning novelette?

No.  Anthologies are supposed to contain a selection of stories by different authors. The readers want variety. That's one of the reasons why story word limits exist.

Anthologies come with total word limits too. No publisher is going to give me an unlimited budget of advance on royalties to buy as many words, i.e., stories, as I want. If I buy a story that is twice as long as the individual story word limit, I have to reduce the number of stories in the anthology.

The writer was trying to manipulate me to buy his story; he wanted me to think that if I rejected his story for length, I am a bad editor who doesn't care about "storytelling merits." But I saw through the psyops and rejected his story. He played a game, and he lost.


I had an anthology call for the Speculative Fiction issue of a magazine. Speculative fiction is an umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy, horror, alternate history, and genres that do not take place in the "real world". The term has become an accepted and well-known term in the literary world. The Alberta Book Publishing Awards has a category for Speculative Fiction Book.

The submission guidelines clearly defined speculative fiction. Nonetheless, a writer submitted a story that didn't fall into any speculative fiction category. I rejected it on that basis. He replied:

I thought speculative fiction meant writing on spec, which is what I did. Your terminology is misleading and incorrect. You should read my story and consider it for publication.

I did not read his story a second time, but I had the pleasure of rejecting it twice, thanks to his reply. One story submission, two rejections from the same editor within 12 hours: now that's an achievement!

First, he obviously did not read the guidelines before submitting the story. Second, he should have just stayed quiet after I rejected the story. Instead, he had to go ballistic, thus ensuring that I always will remember him for all the wrong reasons.

Again, a writer played psychological warfare and lost. Using guilt and shame to force an editor to read a story does not work.

By the way, for a change, the writer was not a complete newbie. He self-published a series of detective novels and promotes himself as an exciting hot-shot author. That still didn't get his story into the magazine.


            One story was slightly overlong, by 300 words, but showed some promise. The plot was interesting, though it needed some work. I also wanted one scene rewritten so that the science as accurate (Hey, this was a science fiction anthology). I thought he could reduce the word count by 300 words if he tightened the plot, so I suggested some changes sent the story back to the writer with this email:

            "Your story shows some promise, but I'm going to ask you for some revisions before accepting it. Please look at the comments. Can you reduce it by 300 words? And in the scene where the main character launches fireworks in space, can you think of another way he can have a light show without fireworks? Fireworks depend on oxygen to light up their fires, and there is no oxygen in space."

His reply:

Your comments and requests are not what I expected, and I wish to withdraw my story from consideration.

Note that he did not explicitly withdraw his story from consideration. He "wished" to withdraw his story.

Reverse psychology in action! He knew I thought his story showed promise. And I knew he was trying to manipulate me to beg him to let me publish his story unrevised. However, instead of surrendering to him, I told him that I'm granting his wish and pulling his story out of consideration.

I'm not the only editor who will win this game. Every editor I know will not chase after a writer who says that he is withdrawing his story. There's always going to one other story that's better than yours and written by someone who cooperates with editors.

If he had shortened the story and rewritten that one scene, he would have made his very first professional fiction sale. Instead, got nothing published.

Most rejections come as a short email saying that the editor is going to pass on buying the story and rarely have any feedback or advice for the writer. If you get any reply that either gives specific feedback or asks for the story to be revised and resubmitted, do not treat it as an insult. Treat it as gold.


I saved the best for last. This incident did not happen on one of my anthology calls. It was something an acquaintance of mine did when submitting a story to a magazine.

After I made my first professional fiction sales, word spread amongst friends in sci-fi fandom. An acquaintance of mine, someone I knew but who wasn't close to me, phoned me and asked about my stories. She had been writing stories too but hadn't submitted them to magazines or anthologies.

This was back in the time when editors and publishers still received and sent paper through the mail, before most of them switched to using email and electronic submissions.

She subsequently submitted a story to a magazine, but she put her roommate's name on the byline. I asked her why she did that.

"So when the rejection letter comes, my roommate will get rejected, not me," she said.

"It's actually your story, not you, that's getting rejected," I said.

"But the rejection letter gets sent to the person who wrote it," she said. "If I say the story is by her, she'll receive the letter."

That was one way to avoid rejection; trick the editor into rejecting your roommate instead! The hilarious part of this plan is that it doesn't have any psyops to convince the editor to buy the story.

I didn't ask her what would happen if the story got sold. Whose name would the publisher put in the byline? Who would get the money? But those were hypothetical questions anyway. I knew she would never sell a story.


            I'm always amazed by how many writers think that they need to play mind games with the editor. All of these psychological operations fail. I've never heard of anyone selling a story by shaming the editor, making the editor feel guilty, or using reverse psychology. All these tactics will make people remember your name (assuming you didn't use your roommate's name), but they won't get your story published.