Shadowing Dickens

How I almost got a movie deal (Not!)

This writing business is freaking hard!

Not the writing itself. I love that part. It’s what I live for, what I get out of bed for. I’m proud to call myself a writer. I like thinking of myself that way.

The hard part about writing is all the stuff that happens afterward. Or, actually, all the stuff that doesn’t happen afterward. That’s the publishing part. That’s the part I suck at.

As proof of how much I suck, I offer the following fact: You’ve never heard of me. I’ve been out here the world writing novels for years, and if I didn’t suck at this publishing part, you would have heard about me by now.

The reality of the publishing world is that it is shrinking and expanding at the same time. The big publishing houses are merging. Small ones are being swallowed up, or going out of business. At the same time, everyone and his uncle can be a publisher these days. Just check the online bookstores: iBooks, Kindle, Amazon, and so on. There are literally millions of self-published books out there just waiting to be downloaded and read. Millions. The trick as a reader is, how do you find the good ones? The trick as a writer is, how do you tell people that yours, no really, is one of the good ones?

Well, traditionally, that’s where book publishers come in. They are the gatekeepers. They are the ones who decide which books to publish, to sell, to market the shit out of. Think Fifty Shades of Grey. Not great literature. But I hear it sold a few copies.

To reach a publisher, though, the poor schmuck writer needs an agent.

There are hundreds and hundreds of agents. Mostly in New York. Some in Toronto. All of them are looking hard for the next great book. The next big seller. Agents are business people and they can’t afford to waste even a moment on a book or a writer that won’t make them any money. It’s a numbers game. Getting an agent is a bit like winning the lottery.

I’ve been writing books and sending proposals to agents for years. A few months ago, I finished a thriller and started sending queries and collecting another raft of rejection emails. One of the agencies I contacted was Folio Literary Management in New York. A few days after I sent them my latest query, I opened up an issue of Poets & Writers magazine and read an article titled “A Day in the Life of a Literary Agency.” Guess what? It was about Folio. And there, in black and white, I saw the numbers that are stacked against unknown writers like me.

Folio receives, the article said, more than 200 queries a week for each of the nine agents working there. You can check my math, but I think that’s more than 90,000 a year. One agent, and it happened to be the one I had contacted, takes on about four new clients a year. Which means, the article explained, like a punch in face, that the odds of someone like me finding representation with this particular agent are about one in 11,111.


All of this preamble is the set-up for the punchline of this story. I wanted you to understand that when you live in a world where the odds are one in 11,111 against you, things can seem pretty bleak and daunting. Impossible, even. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just reality.

Two years ago, I was sending out a batch of queries for another book I’d written and gathering another batch of rejections. It used to hurt when agents dismissed my work with a form email, saying “this isn’t right for us” or “not what we’re looking for” or “sorry, we’re not taking on new clients,” when I could tell they hadn’t read any of the pages I’d sent them. I’m used to it now. In perverse way, I even enjoy it. The only way I can push ahead is to try very hard to ignore the logical part of my brain, the part that could, if I let it, convince me to quit and use my time more productively. By building birdhouses or inventing time travel.

Anyway, there I was, sending off queries and getting rejections, when one Friday morning, an email popped up from a certain agent in New York, who said, in keeping with these things, “thanks, but no thanks.” I filed it in my rejection folder, finished the pages of whatever it was I was working on at the time, got up and went to work.

Monday comes. Up pops an email from this same agent. What? I’ve been around long enough to know that once an agent skims your query letter and sends you the dreaded “thanks, but no thanks” email, he never thinks of you again. It’s not that you’re dead to him, as they say. You were never alive in the first place. You were just one of thousands of queries his agent gets every year.

So, when this new email showed up, I was a bit taken aback. Why, I wondered, would this man contact me again, after he has already said “no.” I opened the email. And basically, I’m paraphrasing here, this is what it said:

Guess what, Rick. I was out in California on the weekend, and I met with an agent there and we were talking, and she mentioned that she had a client who was looking for material for a movie. I immediately thought of your book proposal. It might be exactly what they’re looking for. Could you please send me the entire book and I will read it as soon as possible and send it on to the agent in California. If they want to make a movie out of your book, they could handle the film rights and I could handle the publishing rights at this end.

And I’m reading this and I’m thinking: WTF! You’re kidding me, right? On Friday, you were just another agent among the dozens turning me down, yet again, on yet another book, and now you’re the same agent, just as busy as before, only this time you might be able to get me BOTH A BOOK AND A FREAKING MOVIE DEAL!

Not like that would change my life or anything.

Naturally, after I got up off the floor, I sent this nice man my entire book as an email attachment. Then I walked around bumping into furniture, dreaming … wondering … thinking weird thoughts about how, maybe I would get a chance to work on the movie script (that would be cool) or how maybe this book would finally be the one that gets my name out there, or that maybe I can finally stop thinking of myself as a loser and a fake and failure and … blah, blah.

Two weeks go by. Not a word. Two weeks of me thinking, holy crap, there are people in New York and Los Angeles who are reading my words right now, and if they like what they see my whole life could change. Just like that!

I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t think of anything else. Two weeks, edging into three, then finally, one day, a message from New York. My hand was shaking when I reached for the mouse on my laptop to open the email. And basically, I’m paraphrasing here, this is what it said:

Guess what, Rick. I read your book, and I think it SUCKS! 

Something along those lines.

And that’s how I almost had a movie deal, once. That’s why you’ve never heard of me.

This writing business is freaking hard!

 More to come …

  • 22 November 2012
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