Friday, May 18, 2007

And Then...

As if the weekend weren't bad enough -- and it's looking less bad as I've billed out three or four months' rent in work -- I had a real shock on Monday.

As many of you know, I've been trying to sell a book based on my adventures as an expat. By the end of last year, it had been through three agents who were awful: first there was the agent who turned out not to be one, then another who held onto it for six months without reading it and only responded when I went to New York to talk to him (a trip which, in most respects, was a total disaster), then one who thought it was a novel (among other weird tics which disqualified her).

A friend suggested a guy who was a former student of his, and I sent it to him next. Twenty-four hours later, he wrote back that it wasn't the kind of book he could sell. Fair enough; no agent knows all the markets out there. He wrote me that he'd been idly thinking of relocating to Berlin because Manhattan had gotten so expensive, and I suggested he read the blog here for some snapshots of what he'd be getting into. He wrote back and said I'd thoroughly put the kibosh on that idea. He also said he'd just had lunch with a publisher who told him he'd be willing to pay [large amount of money] for a book on [subject], and that it would be perfect for a younger version of [noted scholar].

I wrote him back and said that although I wasn't young, and I certainly wasn't [noted scholar], this was a subject I knew a lot about, and I'd welcome the opportunity to take a crack at it. In return, he e-mailed me several proposals which had resulted in advances of over a million dollars for each one. That was more than we'd talked about, but hey, it was indicative of a certain level of quality. I studied them and again I thought, I can do this. So I did.

Not off the top of my head, of course. I bought several books, big ones, and read them. I pored over documents, and confidentially sought help from people I knew and trusted. They, in turn, made very helpful suggestions. I did more research, watching films and talking to others. And I started to write.

It took two and a half months, but at last I had something which, although I felt it needed work, I couldn't improve upon without some professional feedback. It was 35 pages long, detailed, filled with data, scrupulously researched. On February 15 of this year, I sent it off to him. He replied immediately: he had a pile of stuff to go through, and it would take him probably a week to get back to me. No problem, I said; I wanted his undivided attention.

Just before I went to SXSW, at the beginning of March, I was at a bookstore and there, prominently displayed, was a book on the same subject. I didn't have the money to buy it, but I did thumb through it to see what was in it. As I'd suspected, it was very much the predictable approach, dull and unremarkable. I jotted down the author's name and when I got home I fired off an e-mail to the agent, telling him the book existed, and how mine was different -- and, I believed, superior -- to this one. He asked how he could get hold of me in America, and that was that.

I didn't hear from him the entire time I was in the States. When I got back, I wrote him -- it was now the end of March -- asking him when I could expect to hear from him. He said he'd read the proposal and get back to me. At the beginning of April, I asked him again if he'd read it and he said "I PROMISE to read it this weekend."

A couple of weeks later, I got an e-mail from him asking if I'd heard of this other book. I reminded him I'd sent him an e-mail at the beginning of March. He replied that he was at the London Book Fair and his brain wasn't working. I figured I'd wait til he got back and then write him again.

The London Book Fair ended on April 18. I waited and waited, meanwhile doing other work to pay what bills I could and keep my own brain active. Finally, I decided it was time to move. On Monday of this week, I wrote and said look, it's time to get this thing going. I'm losing momentum, I'm getting new ideas all the time, and I want to get to work. He wrote back almost immediately, saying he'd decided the other book would do for the moment and he'd lost interest in the project and wasn't going to pursue it.

Without even so much as reading my proposal. The one he'd encouraged. The one I spent two and a half months on and waited another three months for him to read.

Almost six months of my life, in other words, down the drain.

There's nothing I can do about this. What he did was wrong, what he did was unethical, but I have no recourse whatever. And, in a profession based on trust, so much for his "PROMISE."

I spent the next couple of days feeling like I'd been kicked by a horse. I'd already given up on the expat book after yet another agent I'd sent it to said he didn't understand what it was -- but wasn't interested in my explaining it. I began rewriting the proposal based on what I'd learned from the other project and then just gave up. I'd spent over two years on it, and was sick of it.

But now I'm without a book project, and magazine work really isn't happening. As I've said before, none of the writers I know have any work. It's nothing personal except as it affects me personally.

Yes, I own the mammoth book proposal. Yes, I have the names of other agents. Before I send it out again, though, I'm going to have to get that other book, read it, and develop a counter-argument on why mine is better. I'm not even sure I really want to do it at this point; it's not a particularly pleasant subject, and it would entail my maintaining a presence in Berlin part-time.

Some week, huh?

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