On Finding an Agent

Cover of my first book, My Queer Life. Design and photo by Callen Harty.

Cover of my first book, My Queer Life. Design and photo by Callen Harty.

Writing a book may prove to be much easier than getting one published. Part of the reason for this is that with a book a man might create a deep philosophical treatise or aim to create a great piece of art, yet still remain unpublished. It could even be a great book, but that may not matter, because publishers are not interested in art as much as money. Publishing is a business and whether a book can sell is of far more import than what it has to say.

I don’t know that what I’ve written is a great book or a great work of art. I do know I’ve written a book that is important to me and I believe important to get out into the world. I know that I’ve written it with all the honesty and ability I have. I also know that it could languish for a long time before ever finding a publisher. Or, it might find the right place tomorrow.

To get noticed by publishers these days one pretty much has to have a literary agent to even get a foot in the door. Some of the smaller publishing houses still deal directly with authors but most of the larger ones do not have the time to wade through thousands of submissions and they count on agents to winnow the field for them. Twenty or thirty years ago authors would query publishers and get rejected. Now authors must query agents who then query publishers and the authors face rejections on both fronts. One has to be a bit tough to handle the rejection.

I’ve received six rejections from agents so far and have quite a few more queries out there just waiting to hear one way or the other. Some agents do not bother even writing a form letter to say no if they are not interested. They just leave the author hanging and wondering if they are ever going to hear back. I’ve been doing a lot of research on agents and querying and am okay with the process because I’ve learned enough to know that it is just the way it is. They may get dozens or hundreds of queries in a single week and simply cannot respond to all of them.

I understand that a book about surviving childhood sex abuse is not going to appeal to everyone and that there may be a limited market for it. I knew that even as I was writing it, but I knew I had to tell my story and I knew I had to try to find a traditional publisher for it once it was done. I understand that publishers and agents who want to make money also want to pursue books that have a built-in market. While one in four girls and one in six boys are survivors of sex abuse that doesn’t mean that one out of every four, five, or six people would buy a book about it. In fact many of them may want to read anything but someone else’s experience of their own worst nightmares.

Still, I believe there is an audience for it. I believe that many other survivors would appreciate hearing from a fellow survivor. I think there is also a potential market for professionals in the field, family and friends of survivors, and others. I also know there are scant few books out there from men who have survived that kind of abuse. All I need is an agent who is passionate about the subject and the importance of getting it out there. They also have to love the book. I am confident I will find the right person. The early rejections are simply eliminating the wrong people to represent my work.

Most rejections from agents or publishers are a variation of “This isn’t right for us.” I have seen writers on message boards and websites complain about that “excuse”. I don’t see it as an excuse or a bad thing. If it is not right for them, for whatever reason, then they are not going to do their best to represent you. It doesn’t matter whether it’s because they don’t think it will make money, they don’t deal with the subject, they don’t like your writing, or something else. If it is not right for them they will not be able to convince a publisher it needs to be published.

The last rejection I got came with a nice personal note from the agent who said she applauded me for my “human resilience and the urge to help others.” She then told me that she deals primarily with larger commercial publishers and she believes they are less inclined to do such a book because they don’t believe there is a market for it. She added that she felt that publishers of religious or inspirational books might be the route to go, but that she was not familiar with that part of the book market and would have to pass. To me it was a great rejection. It was personal and gave me encouragement when she didn’t need to do so, it offered suggestions, and it ended with a regret about declining. It wasn’t right for her. Why would I want to sign with her if she didn’t have the tools or connections to approach the publishers who would be best for the book? Why would I want an agent who wasn’t 100% behind the book? She made a decision that was best for both her and me.

I want an agent who is as passionate as me about the project. I want one whose enthusiasm for my work will make a publisher listen and make them want to take a chance on a book that may not sell millions but that is important enough that they want to be a part of it. I know that the publishing universe is unfolding as it should and that things are moving in the right direction. I am passionate, determined, and confident. I know that things will fall into place when and as they should and I know that at some point in the near future my book will be in the hands of those who need it.

Note: I never ended up finding an agent. The book was published through CreateSpace and is available on Amazon, Kindle, and through local bookstores. http://www.amazon.com/Empty-Playground-Survivors-Callen-Harty/dp/1518802575/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1454446613&sr=8-1&keywords=empty+playground


About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on Amazon.com (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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3 Responses to On Finding an Agent

  1. Joseph Lutz says:

    Please do try to get some of your plays published, too. Especially Debs In Prison, A Wake and Leprechaun.
    Part of this request is purely selfish. I want to see my name in the book as part of the first cast. Still the work is beautiful and bears being re-mounted.

  2. keve2109 says:

    Callen, I have had my first book manuscript — about jazz, creative writing and democracy — rejected by about 18 publishers. The Last one, U-Cal Press never bothered to even respond. I have only tried a small handful of agents, including one recommended to me by Lorrie Moore, without any luck. I’m now thinking about self-publishing but I don’t want to get ripped off, which I have heard can happen in that realm.
    I hope I can learn from this experience when I finish my second book, a novel, which I do hope to get published with a conventional publisher.
    But it seems is tougher than ever out there. You appear to have a very worthy manuscript and I know you are an excellent writer. Keep plugging away and keep your passion burning, as a great communicator.
    Best, Kevin

    • Callen Harty says:


      From what I’ve read most books that end up getting published get sent to somewhere between 20-30 publishers before one takes them on. There are many stories about great books that got sent to 50, 75, 100, or more before connecting with the right people. Keep at it and good luck.

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