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Not sure what to write, but that’s never stopped me before.

Have been feeling a little overwhelmed lately. I think it’s just a lot of feelings I wouldn’t allow myself to feel during my agent search. If you give in to negative self-talk when you’re down in the trenches that way, then you won’t move forward. I always tend to do more (and better) writing when I feel I’ve something to prove.

Now I have so much to do, but I feel a little lazy about it. I don’t…sometimes I really do just think…what’s the point of adding another book to the world? Ever since turning 35, I’ve been remembering what it was like to be young–in my teens and twenties–and I feel like, well, I didn’t have a strong understanding of what I wanted from the future, so I can’t say whether I met my past self’s expectations or not, but I think they’d be okay with where I ended up, in terms of my material circumstances. But what I couldn’t have understood back then was how dreary life can sometimes seem.

And I don’t even want excitement! The agent search was very exciting, and it was way too much for me! Boooooo to excitement! So what do I want then? I don’t know…I guess that’s where the work comes in. You find something inside the stories themselves–some quality that compels you to keep going.

But it’s just not always fun. SIGH. I dunno. Don’t listen to me.

WTF is up with Thomas Hardy and his wife

I recently read the Selected Poems of Thomas Hardy. Highly worthwhile read. He’s an incredible poet, writing metered poetry in simple, emotional language, us. Now I’d been somewhat aware that a lot of his poetry was inspired by the death of his wife, Emma. But at some point I started to get a weird vibe from the poetry, so I looked her up. Err…apparently they had a terrible relationship! She lived in the attic, and they almost never spoke! And she bitterly regretted the marriage, and thought herself his social and artistic superior!

It’s an incredible story. Going back and rereading the poems with this backstory, you see all the hints of his regret, the way he and she had allowed a passionate youthful romance to fall apart. For example, here’s a lyric where he goes back to where he met her, in Cornwall”

Yes: I have re-entered your olden haunts at last;
Through the years, through the dead scenes I have tracked you;
What have you now found to say of our past—
Scanned across the dark space wherein I have lacked you?
Summer gave us sweets, but autumn wrought division?
Things were not lastly as firstly well
With us twain, you tell?
But all’s closed now, despite Time’s derision.

From “After The Journey”. Hardy, Thomas. Hardy: Selected Poems . Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Haunting! I don’t know. There might be something to this poetry thing. Shit, I never want to be in the position where I’m looking back and thinking, “How did I waste our love.”

There’s another poem, for instance, where he laments her end and wonders why they never sought to recapture the romance of early days

You were the swan-necked one who rode
Along the beetling Beeny Crest,
And, reining nigh me,
Would muse and eye me,
While Life unrolled us its very best. Why, then, latterly did we not speak,
Did we not think of those days long dead,
And ere your vanishing strive to seek
That time’s renewal? We might have said,
“In this bright spring weather
We’ll visit together
Those places that once we visited.”

From “The Going”. Hardy, Thomas. Hardy: Selected Poems . Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I dunno. I think it’s very easy to be cynical and think, “Oh, this guy didn’t really love this woman. He needed her to be dead so that he could idealize her and hold her memory dear.” Maybe there’s an element of truth there. I don’t know! I wasn’t friends with old Thomas Hardy! But that doesn’t change the fact that these lines give me chills.

What I’ve noticed about poetry is that oftentimes there’s a complex thought encoded in the poet–something that’s slightly too involved to be said in a sentence, but which is nonetheless not particularly mysterious or inexplicable. Like, yeah, we get it: “You’ll miss her when she’s gone” is something we’ve all heard. But it’s so true! You will miss her when she’s gone!

Editors don’t necessarily care about making money for the company

You know what’s really nice? Having an agent: I had a question about some publishing stuff, so I emailed him. That was very enjoyable. It was also fun not having an agent, don’t get me wrong. You know like in movies where the woman’s all like, “I need to learn how to be single”? That happened to me. I needed to learn who I was without an agent. Turns out, I’m totally fine. I can write short stories and poetry and essay and blog posts and cynical self-published self-help guides and never sell another novel again, and I would really be okay with that. So that was great to hear. But it’s still nice to have an agent again.

I haven’t been the world’s most productive human. I’ve been looking at the Cynical Guide for the past few days, trying to make sure that I stand behind every statement I make. I don’t think that, taken as a whole, it’s particularly incendiary, but I know that in the world of hot takes, someone could easily take a paragraph out of context and start a pile on. That’s something I’m willing to risk, but I want to make sure I’m being totally fair. I think with all the criticism We Are Totally Normal has taken, the single most helpful thing is that I stand by every decision I made, and you know why that is? Because I went through it and was like, “Is there any place where I’m trying to get away with something?” And in those places, I toned it done and changed it. I’m done trying to be provocative on purpose. I think my blog readers know that’s not my metier. What I’m about is saying the thing everybody knows but nobody says!

With regards to the cynical guide, probably even more important than the book itself is the promotional copy. That’s another thing I’ve got to do. Oh, but I do have a cover! It’s beautiful! Will have to show you sometime soon.

I’ve decided it’d be nice to spice up this blog with extracts of the cynical guide, just so people can get a taste of it. This is from a section early on when I discuss the incentive structure that underlies being an editor:

Although the book business has a reputation for being intensely bottom-line focused, the truth is that it’s not. As I mentioned, books take too long to come out, and people change jobs too quickly. As a result, a person’s job performance becomes largely a matter of perceptions. Within a corporate environment, the most successful workers are those who create narratives around themselves.

So for instance, let’s say you have two editors: Cynthia and Julie. Both spend half a million dollars acquiring ten books each. And at the end of four years, Cynthia’s ten books have collectively made $600,000 while Julie’s books have collectively made $400,000. In this example, Julie has lost money for the company, while Cynthia has made money.

But let’s say that Cynthia’s ten books all performed equally well: they all made $60,000 each. But out of Julie’s ten books, nine made $20,000 (totaling $180,000), while the tenth was a breakout success and made $220,000.

Now which of them will get a promotion? The answer seems obvious, but it could actually go either way. It’s all about how Cynthia and Julie frame their success. 

Cynthia could say, “My books made money. We can just keep buying books from these ten authors and hopefully keep making money.” 

But Julie can say, “We don’t need to buy second books from any of the nine duds, whereas my tenth person, the hit, is someone who’ll give us book after book. All else equal, it’s much better to make our money from one book than from ten books, because one book takes up less editor time, less time from the type-setters, costs less to print and to distribute. So really I’ve made the company more money in the long run.”

Now which of these two is correct? It’s impossible to know! Maybe Julie is right. Maybe that hit-maker is the next James Patterson, who has for the last twenty years almost single-handedly spelled the difference between profit and loss for Hachette, the world’s fourth-largest publisher.

Or maybe that tenth author had a lucky breakout, and their subsequent books won’t perform as well. Even more insidiously, maybe what looks like a breakout success wasn’t actually a breakout. Maybe Julie used all her marketing muscle on that one title and so generated immense sales for that one book—losing $100,000 on her overall list in the process—while Cynthia, by distributing her marketing muscle more equally, made small profits on each book, which added up to that $100,000 profit.

It’s an inherently ambiguous situation. But when it comes to the promotion sweepstakes, Julie has one advantage: people have heard of her book!

When a book is a hit, it attracts attention. People talk about it. They gossip. They say, “Julie had an author who hit the list” (the New York Times bestseller list). They say, “Julie’s author was featured on NPR.” They say, “The publisher is wondering when Julie’s author is going to deliver her next book!”

But Cynthia’s many small books do not generate buzz. They just toodle along in modest obscurity. As a result, Cynthia starts off at a disadvantage, because she has to explain to everybody that she is a success. She needs to walk around with charts and figures and be like, well, if you factor in such-and-such, then really I’ve made us some money.

Julie doesn’t need to do that. She doesn’t need to do anything. The aura of success is already clinging to her. She just needs to avoid dispelling it.

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Still feeling very, very happy about having an agent

Dear Internet, having an agent still feels good. Sometimes people come across my online journal without knowing who I am, and they leave comments that are a bit condescending, like, “Wait until you’re on submission! That’s the real tough part!”

I know about the tough parts. There are a lot of tough parts. In a way it was nice not having an agent: I felt very in control of my career—whatever I wrote I could submit—nobody could stop me—I could always push out more queries—I could be bold and do whatever I wanted, be very nimble, not have a filter. But it did get old feeling like there was a barrier between me and the publishing industry. I generally don’t ever expect to sell books—every book feels like a complete fluke—but it’s nice to at least have the chance! With the search for agents, you’re competing for the chance to have a chance.

Now that part is done. My agent is older than me (in comparison, my first agent was basically my age—I was 27 and he was 27 and a half), so I’ll definitely need to go out there again someday. Who knows what the publishing industry will look like then? Over the past few weeks I’ve talked to a number of older women who’ve left their agents or been left by their agents; it’s hard. Although most of the readers are older women, the world is still used to not taking you seriously. And someday that will be me! I’m 35 now—I’ll be fifty or sixty, searching for a new agent. Kind of exhausting to think about. But you manage.

One reason I’m publish8ing the Cynical Guide (which is coming) is just so I’ll always have something that’s mine, some sort of brand, some direct-to-market connection. The Cynical Guide has an extremely distinctive voice—something like my blog voice, but much more so—and I’m hoping to write many books in that voice.

This half-year-ish period of not having an agent has been great for me! I’ve written short stories, book reviews, my cynical guide—it’s confirmed for me that there will always be a place for me in the writing world. I’m not someone who can get excited about writing unless I see some way of publishing it. I think although I started off writing short stories, for the last seven years, I’ve really only thought of novels, but that’s not the only thing out there.

I don’t know. It feels incredible that it’s over. The search really took over my life for the first three months, and then it was sort of constantly in the background for the next three. It changed me, probably more than any other period of submission ever has.

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Nebula noms close on Feb 28th: I once read (on someone else’s shameless award self-promo post) that half the Nebula ballots come in on the last two days of voting. So, you know, get out there, vote. My story “Everquest” is eligible. It’s about a young man who likes to play as female characters in a computer game. Not saying if you like to play cross-gender chars in video games then you’re trans, but…every trans person did do this. I think it’s a good story. You only need circa ten votes to make the final ballot, so every vote counts.

There! That is my last post like this for a while!

Errr…thank you to everyone who’s congratulated me on finding an agent. I still feel pretty chuffed about it. This was a long journey! If people knew how difficult and arbitrary this business was, they probably wouldn’t enter it. But that just makes it more fun when something actually happens.

I’m back to my “not checking business email until 3 PM Pacific Time” schedule. Some days it is a real challenge. I also don’t log onto my writer Twitter (@rahkan) until then. Without Twitter and continually refreshing my email, there’s way less to do on the internet!

Now I just need to, like, actually finish rewriting my book. So we can, like, submit the stupid thing. It’s some pressure.

I’ve been reading a lot of poetry lately. Most recently made my way through the poems of Sara Teasdale: an early 20th century American poet. I thought her love poems were the best. One of my faves was “The Kiss”:

The Kiss

I hoped that he would love me,
And he has kissed my mouth,
But I am like a stricken bird
That cannot reach the south.

For though I know he loves me,
To-night my heart is sad;
His kiss was not so wonderful
As all the dreams I had.

A day of (Relative) rest

It’s like eighty degrees outside my door, so it’s safe to say that spring is finally here. Whenever spring begins in the Bay Area I start to get nostalgic for my college days. It doesn’t happen during the winter–probably because the SF (and even East Bay) winters are significantly colder than the winter down in Palo Alto, where I went to school (at Stanford).

The first five years after college, I still had definite feelings of longing for the environment I’d experienced during my junior and senior years. I’d lived in a vegetarian co-op located on top of a hill in a huge, rambling mansion. I made lots of very close friends there, developed a lot as a person, and took pretty excessive amounts of hallucinogenic drugs. I’m still close with many of my fellow Synergy residents, to the point where, if my wife meets a college friend, she’s surprised if they didn’t live in Synergy.

I turned 35 in November, and I’ve been feeling my years. If I’m not middle-aged right now, I’m certainly approaching it. Almost certainly more than 2/5ths of the way to the grave. Even my literary novel, which is about twenty-five year olds, is about a time very far in the past (and my YA novels? Forget about it. I am twenty years older than the protagonist in the proposal I just turned in!)

Okay I don’t know where I was going with this. I am taking the day off from serious work. I continue to feel very pleased about having an agent. When I can finally reveal the story (which will hopefully be in a few months), you’re gonna be like wtf. It’s such a quintessentially publishing-industry story. What’s funny is that almost all authors have these crazy stories of how the sausage gets made, but we don’t share them, because in some way they reflect upon our own abilities and our own commercial viability.

I’m a good writer, but mostly the whole thing feels like luck. I don’t feel ashamed of my ups and downs, because both the successes and the failures aren’t really about my abilities. So much in life is good fortune.

People used to believe in fate. You were born with a destiny. You would face certain challenges, certain encounters, and success or victory was foreordained. I think that’s true. We all have a fate. We are all bullets being fired at a target we can’t see, speeding through the air thinking, “I’m doing it! I’m going so fast! I’m going really fast! I’m really making progress!” But the explosion that set us on our way is long behind us, and our ability to contribute to or alter our flight path is pretty limited.

I’m not going to google it, but I think there’s data showing that a strong belief in fate, and in the role of luck when it comes to success, actually has benefits. For one thing, people who believe in the role of luck tend to be less prejudiced against women, for some reason, than people who believe in the meritocracy. If you believe in the role of luck, you’re more resilient when it comes to failure. Like, oh okay, I had bad luck, let me try again. Or not try again! But I don’t need to internalize this. This was all luck.

New Representation

My agent search is over! I’m now represented by Christopher Schelling, agent to Rainbow Rowell, Augusten Burroughs, Kim Stanley Robinson, Stephen Baxter, Emma Bull, and a host of other literary, YA, and sci-fi writers (as well as a few celebrities). It’s been a long, long road. I’ve sent out 200+ queries in the last year, which have resulted in 75+ manuscript requests (most of which turned into rejections). Christopher originally rejected my literary novel for adults back in November, but he’d clearly come very close to taking it. I convinced him to reconsider it–I’ve been doing a rewrite for the past few months–and he decided to make me an offer.

There’s been lots of drama, lots of moving pieces, but honestly the mechanisms by which already-published authors get new agents are not relevant or interesting to most of my readers. Suffice it to say, the process is not nearly so simple or clear as you’d think. In the end, I had a few different offers from agents, but Christopher’s clients, including all of the ex-clients that I could find, were very complimentary–they had nothing bad to say and much that was good. I was forced to eat my statement that all agents have downsides–it’s just a matter of knowing what your agent’s downsides are before you sign with them.

So we’ll see! But I am very, very, very happy to be done with this. It was exciting for the past few days to be the belle of the ball, to be courted and to be in the position of being the chooser, but ultimately it felt very foreign to the experience of being a writer, which is largely about quiet and silence. I’ve often wished that the writing life were more exciting. This past week I’ve gotten a glimpse of what that looks like, and I must say: excitement is pretty great, but not necessarily for me.

Thank you to the dozens of authors who took the time to speak to me by phone or email. Thanks to the agents who considered my manuscripts. And thanks especially to the many author friends who’ve held my hands through all this. There’s been so much excitement and genuine joy on my behalf (my closest friends have seen how long this process has lasted and the toll it’s taken on me!) At a certain point in this year, I was carrying a lot of anger because of the agent search, and in order to make a final decision I had to finally start letting go of some of that anger. That and the compassion and camaraderie shown by my friends has made me realize that there are serious benefits to being a more open-hearted author. I’ll probably continue to be miserable, envious, and hateful, but maybe I’ll sometimes be slightly better!

It’s been great to finish this up at a time when there’s so much Twitter discussion of agents and of the querying process. I’ve come away with more than a few insights into the whole process, which I hope to share in the next few months.

One nice side effect of having an agent now is that the path is finally clear to me releasing my Cynical Writer’s Guide To The Publishing Industry. It’s already got a cover and everything! So look out for that in the next few months,.

It’s been a crazy week

Today I told my wife “Naomi is gone; only Crayomi remains.” I am exhausted. When an author says they’re having crazy times that they can only talk about in vague terms, it usually means either a movie or a book deal is afoot. I refuse to confirm or deny either of these possibilities. But publishing is an insane industry.

Wrote a story based on JErome Bixby’s “It’s A Good Life”

Hello friends. Typing once again on my electric typewriter gadget. Haven’t used it in a minute, but it is actually good for blog posts. Am reading a lot of poetry these days. Have been making my way through the Penguin Book of Twentieth Century American Poetry. Lots of good stuff. Odd to read it in juxtaposition with the book of Renaissance poetry, since the latter is largely metered while the former generally isn’t. And yet as poets never tire of telling us, unmetered doesn’t mean that it has no rhythm. I’ve been using the book to see which poets I want to investigate further.

You know what I love? Books of Selected Works. God save me from Complete Works. Why would anyone, with the exception of a scholar, want a poet’s Complete Works? There must be so many bad poems in there! Anyway, it’s been perhaps a shopping spree, but I have many, many Selected Works waiting for me.

Writing is going well. I’ve turned our bedroom into an office (Rachel works out of what used to be our storage closet. It’s so claustrophobic in there, but she seems to like it). I have covered one wall with post-its, detailind random to-dos and notes to myself. It’s great. And I have a little bookshelf where I store my various devices. And there’s a yoga ball where I sit when my back isn’t doing too well.

Back pain remains the major problem with working from the bed. I keep thinking I’ll find a solution, but there simply isn’t one: I just need to shift positions regularly.

I got notes back from the editor for a story I have coming in a YA LGBT speculative fiction anthology. My story is called "Nick and Bodhi". It’s like if the cartoon show Rick and Morty had an episode based on Jerome Bixby’s short story "It’s A Good Life" (where a seven year old with magic powers takes over this town and enacts his will without scruple or limit, and the townspeople, to survive, need to pretend that they like it). In my vision, the surviving members of a school’s queer student organization do their best to survive until graduation in a school that’s been taken over by a teenage genius.

(Sidenote: The Bixby story was also the basis for an episode of the original Twilight Zone)

As I get back into writing science fiction stories, I find myself going back more and more to the classic SF stories I read when I was first getting into the field. I went through a period where I was constantly hunting down old anthologies and compilations. I think it’d be not unfair to say that I’ve read most of the influential stories that came out between 1926 and 2000, and it shows. My most recent story in F&SF, "The Leader Principle" was clearly based on Heinlein’s "The Man Who Sold The Moon" and I have a story in circulation that’s based on Robert Silverberg’s "Dying Inside".

I have no idea whether any of these stories hold up. I suspect they do, but I am not going to reread them to find out. Even twenty years ago, it wasn’t really in vogue to read Golden Age (or even New Wave) science fiction. Now it’s really not in vogue. I think that’s sad! There’s a lot of great stuff there. And I say this fully aware of the hit some of these authors have taken for their various stances. Heinlein supported the Vietnam War (in 1968, sheesh) and Robert Silverberg, who is to my knowledge the only major Golden Age figure who’s still alive, got into a very recent online controversy.

Speaking of which, you know who I’m gonna bring into vogue if I ever have the power to single-handedly bring artists into vogue? Cordwainer Smith! His massive shared-universe collection The Rediscovery of Man is so brillig. I reread it so many times in high school and college. Actually now that I think of it, a recent story I wrote (not yet out on submission) is directly based on his first published short story "Scanners Live In Vain"–about a guild of spacefarers who have to electrially suppress their emotions to do their job, and about their resistance to innovations that might make their sacrifices moot. I think about that phrase all the time "Do scanners live in vain?" Meaning, were all these sacrifices worthless? Did they give up everything, give up their humanity, for nothing?

Chills.

As a minor point of trivia, Cordwainer Smith was the pseudonym of Paul Linebarger, an expert in psychological warfare who trained CIA agents, and he is also rumored to be the subject of a classic psychological case study about a sci-fi writer who’s lost touch with reality. I once began so interested in Cordwainer Smith that I actually hunted down a copy of that case study, in a book called the Jet-Propelled Couch, but I no longer have much memory of what was in it.

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Trying not to go crazy

Got good news about my YA novel proposal. It could all fall apart though, so trying not to get too anxious. As I texted a friend ““I first went on sub 7 years ago. I’ve had two agents. I’ve gone to acquisitions upwards of seven times; I’ve had five separate books go on submission. I can be normal! I can not let this ruin my life!”

So yeah, this is me doing normal things like writing in my blog. SPEAKING OF NORMAL THINGS: you only have ten(ish) more days to nominate for the Nebulas. You don’t need many votes to get a Nebula nomination in the short story category (maybe ten). So if you’re a member of SFWA, read the story my story “Everquest” and consider it for a nomination. If you want to know more about it, the story notes are here.

Err, so anyway, I’ve been reading this book of early modern English poetry, curated by one of my favorite writers, John Williams. It’s extremely slow going. Lots of poetry, lots of archaic language. But I think I’m getting a better sense of rhyme and meter than I’ve had before. The problem with Shakespeare (insofar as there is a problem) is that his writing is extremely ornate. This anthology starts with poetry from the Naive tradition, and some of the writers who predate Shakespeare are much more accessible. I particularly liked Thomas Wyatt and John Skelliton. But of all the poems I’d say the one that affected me the most was this one by Robert Greene.

Now that I’m a parent I’m getting sentimental!

Aaaaaand, do I have anything else to say? No, probably not. No. No. No. I don’t think so. No. I am happy and not anxious at all.

Oh here’s something: the pandemic has been great for making friends with other writers! I have several who I text regularly. It turns out that when all social life is cancelled, the only people with whom there is anything to talk about are those who have the same work as me. It’s been unexpectedly fun and sustaining. So I retract everything I’ve said about how writers shouldn’t be friends.

There’s been a lot of gossip online about agents this week. Brooks Sherman getting called out was a massive bombshell. He is probably the biggest agent who’s been called out on Twitter. He is Angie Thomas’s agent and ran the immense auction that sold The Hate U Give. If you want the deets just look him up on Twitter. Anyway, it’s led to people opening up more about agent stuff.

I’ve had mixed experiences with agents, but I can’t complain too much. They’ve sold books for me. But agents can really, really, really harm an author’s career. The biggest issue is when they either refuse to take your book out on submission, or they refuse to do a second round after the first round fails (in Sherman’s case, he allegedly apparently lied about books even being on sub in the first place, which would be, like, sociopathic behavior). At the very least (and I mean this is the absolute least), when an agent signs you, they should be planning to take the book for which they signed you for multiple full submission rounds. It’s not right to simply lose interest partway through, because you feel like it’s a harder sell than you initially thought. And it’s definitely not right to do endless revision on a book and never send it out in the first place.

What authors don’t understand is that agent have certain incentives to not send books on submission. They’re limited in terms of their connections and their capacity. An agent only knows so many editors. And they can, at most, have one book with each editor at a time. If you’re an agent who specializes in kid-lit, as many do, and you know 60 editors, then you can at most have 60 submissions out. With rounds of fifteen, that means four books out at a time. If one of those books sells quickly, then it frees up those fifteen quickly. If it doesn’t sell, then it’s really taking up a lot of your submission capacity.

All an agent has to offer is their taste. Every submission is a job interview: do I understand this editor well enough? If you think a book isn’t going to sell, then it can only harm you.

If books didn’t have authors, it would be understandable to drop books after ten or fifteen rejections. But they do have authors, and you made a commitment to those authors. If you’d told an author up front that you were only going to do ten subs, they wouldn’t have gone with you.

As in most things, it’s a question of integrity. That’s not a popular thing to say. People want everything to just be business. But business requires integrity. You need to be able to trust the people you do business with.

But it’s very difficult to know who has real integrity. And the honest truth is that most people don’t. They won’t go to bat for their clients when it means potential risk to themselves. They don’t see the advantage in being known as someone with integrity. And they also just don’t–they’re too trapped in survival mode–they don’t see that there’s simply no point in doing this if you can’t do it with integrity.

I understand that. We spend so long being powerless that we don’t know what to do when we finally have power. We treat others the way we were treated ourselves.

It’s all understandable, but the net result is that authors lose years of their lives. And it’s not something you can protect against. Angie Thomas was smart to go with Brooks: he got her a massive deal and kicked off her career. Other people went with him, and he ruined their careers. You can talk to other authors and try to get the scoop, but authors lie: they’re so locked into this relationship that they simply do not tell the truth about their agent. You’re simply rolling the dice, hoping you get a good one (or, more likely) you simply never have to face a situation that tests your agent’s integrity.

And that’s all without going into the OTHER major danger of agenting, which is agents who simply shouldn’t be in the business, and who don’t have the connections to really sell books. But those agents are a bit easier to suss out, to be honest.

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