In the July/August 2010 issue of Poets & Writers, editor Jofie Ferrari-Adler wrote a well-received article depicting the perilous duties of literary agents in "Necessary Agent." The article illuminated the "man behind the curtain" aspects of what literary agents face even after selling their authors to a publishing house.
The article can be accessed online at http://www.pw.org/content/necessary_agent.
The first literary agent Mr. Ferrari-Adler highlights is the well-renowned Molly Friedrich of Aaron Priest (whom has now started her own agency) who is able to drop some bombs about the lengths she will go to in selling an author, even if her client's writing career is doomed due to the nature of shady editors who will use the sale for their own selfish gains. Pretty disheartening, really, if the one person the author trusts - the agent - has "no choice" but to accept the offer even if it means literary deadsville.
Harrowing enough, but Mr. Ferrari-Adler even illuminates another example of the nasty business of publishing. This is the turbulent detail that even if an editor expresses interest in a novel, he often has very little power other than present it to the other members of the publishing house and wait - golly golly golly - for someone else (marketing, for example) to take up the reins and champion the work too.
This is precisely what happened to my first Artemus Dark novel, Dark Running, during the Fall/Winter of 2008. My then literary agent, Monique Raphel High, had landed the interest of an influential editor at Simon & Schuster. From what Monique told me in the days ahead, was that the editor was really pushing for the novel. Of course, we - author, agent, and editor - had a few obstacles to surmount before we could lay ink to a contract.
Needless to say, the deal fell through because "marketing decided it didn't want to go in that direction." I'd heard that this same department didn't feel that urban fantasies (of which Dark Running is categorized) were something the house wished to deal with to any great depth.
Yet, whether that is true or not, the publishing industry still pushes mega-zillions into speculative works and mediocre literary fare that present low returns. This, of course, has always been a challenge for publishing houses; whether to spend a high six-figured advance on a book about a homeless kitty-cat adopted by a nameless librarian (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/04/books/04cat.html?ref=arts), while JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone garners an initial whopping $3000 advance (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._K._Rowling).
Do I feel that somehow my own novels could garner a high six figures, or should? No author can say that. We may all attempt to write blockbusters like Michael Crichton, Dan Brown, or Stephanie Meyer, but winning any publishing contract in a over-saturated market of wannabes certainly is hard enough. However, with such perilous, blindfolded, dart-throwing by house acceptance parties, any author who is a diamond in the rough is indeed, lost in the rough.
I have discovered after having several agents champion me and my works, that even capable literary agents face insurmountable odds trying to push yet another manuscript on an insurmountable pile of others on a fledgling editor's desk - let alone have it rise to slap the sh** out of marketing and not only garner a lucrative book deal, but actually - if the publishing house has been strategic financially - have the published work bring itself into the black.
"Necessary Agent" is indeed an interesting article, and possesses enough stinging reality to keep the best of we writers humble.