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Comes with the Territory- Author entitlement, Agent safety

September 14, 2012

I always joke that I have the least dangerous job in the world. I am literally paid to read, all day every day. Sometimes I answer email. Sometimes I get taken to lunch! Most of the time, though, it’s reading, and using my judgment as a reader and agent to select things out of a slush pile for further reading or for representation.

I tend to believe that there is very little peril in this. And if I sometimes get horrible emails in response to rejections, so what? It comes with the territory.

My view of my quiet, danger-free job was challenged this morning upon hearing about literary agent Pam Van Hylckama(@BookaliciousPam)’s experiences last night—she was in her car with her dog, on her way to pick up her daughter, when a man came up to her car and knocked off her side view mirror. When she rolled her window down to confront him he slammed her head into her steering wheel. Her dog bit him on the arm and he ran away.

Her attacker? A writer, disgruntled that his work had been rejected. She had checked in somewhere on FourSquare—truly a murderer’s best friend, that app—and he followed her. He had helpfully included his home address and phone number in his angry emails telling her to die for rejecting him, so the police found him pretty easily.

I’ve gotten many of these emails—“Fuck you,” “Go fuck yourself.” Other agents in my office have, too. Once we received a hand-written reply from someone who told us that we wouldn’t know a good story if it bit us in the ass. This low-level anger—this sense of outrage and entitlement, how dare you reject me and my masterpiece­­—I usually dismiss it out of hand. It comes with the territory, after all. But I’ve also felt a sense of entitlement creep, which is to say, in addition to exhortations to go fuck off, I also have noticed an uptick in people telling me (or my boss) that we’ve “missed out,” that we’ll be eating our words when their book inevitably becomes the next big thing.

Authors who send these replies to rejections feel that their work isn’t being given it’s due consideration, isn’t valued correctly. We, the agents, the evil gatekeepers of the publishing industry, obviously are too ignorant, we just can’t see their talent, or we are blind, or we have poor taste, or we’re stupid bitches who don’t want this person to succeed, or (bizarrely) we don’t want to sell books and make lots of money. (LOL) And over and over again these writers emphasize how hard they’ve worked, how they deserve a fair shot.

And this culture of entitlement—the idea that I’ve worked hard for something I deserve it and you are an asshole for not giving it to me—is what creates people like the man who attacked Pam Van Hylckama. Let me be perfectly clear: all a writer who queries an agent deserves and is entitled to is a fair shot. We’ll read your work. We’ll read your query letter, We’ll read your synopsis, and that is all you are entitled to. If we don’t like it, that means we don’t want to represent it, and threatening will not change our minds.

And I realize this post sounds a little antagonistic towards writers—after all, I am actively in the business of courting writers whose work I want to represent. And the vast majority of people who contact us are perfectly nice and professional- these types of responses are the minority. But it’s hard not to feel defensive, to protect myself and the people I work with, when I receive emails telling me to fuck off and die. When I hear about someone who does the same job as I do, the same safe, book-centered, boring job, having her face slammed into her steering wheel because an author was mad his work was rejected—it makes me defensive. I think of all the rejection emails I’ve ever sent. Which one of those people will be angry enough to do something about it? Our agency’s address is freely available, and we’re not hard to find. If I stay late at the office, will the knock on the door be the UPS guy or that person whose work I rejected, ready to beat me the hell up?

What I wish authors would understand—and this phenomenon is not confined to writers, as that guy who was a dick to Demi Lovato on the X-Factor auditions the other day can prove—is that we want all the work we get to be good, but sometimes, hard work doesn’t pay off. That doesn’t give anyone an excuse to be violent or hateful. I wish it didn’t come with the territory. 


7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2012 5:10 pm

    Well said, Jen. It was a shock to hear what happened to Pam this morning. Rejection is a part of this business, and to be frank, if you cannot handle it, then you aren’t right for it. And to take it to a level of actually hurting and attacking an individual goes beyond a state of mind anyone would ever want to work with.

  2. September 14, 2012 5:12 pm

    Thanks for commenting, Katie! A complete shock- I know we always joke about these responses to queries but man, this is scary. 😦

  3. September 15, 2012 3:13 am

    Oh my god. That’s horrible! I mean, obviously physically attacking an agent is horrible, and I’m glad the police took care of it handily, and I hope she’s okay, but I’m horrified about the email responses as well. I understand being disappointed, but I can’t fathom writing profanities to an agent like that. Do you ever get follow up apologies for those?

  4. Ella Jane permalink
    September 18, 2012 3:15 pm

    I’d like to get a count on the number of antagonistic replies you get that are coming from white men. Is it a writerly thing? Or is it a patriarchal thing? Should it come as any surprise that it was a female agent attacked by a male writer? Do men receive the same level of vitriol in response to their rejections?

  5. Leona permalink
    October 2, 2012 2:55 pm

    Um, I don’t know you or anything about you, but a series of pipes led me to this post, and I felt a real need to comment. I wanted to say (despite the not knowing, and the weeks-after time stamp), I am so sorry about all of this. For your colleague, and for your own fear. I’m lucky that a good deal of my work has kept me in anonymity, but anytime I received any sort of vicious anger in response (and most of that work was in telephone customer service, so … um … often), it terrified me.

    I can’t imagine the real and reasonable fear that you will take from this. I hope very much that you stay safe, and that your friend gets better. ❤

  6. December 27, 2012 7:04 pm

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  1. Violence is not okay | M.H. Lee

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