Agents berated because they don’t like Kurt Vonnegut? Pah!

I don’t know if you’ve heard the story of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions being submitted to 100 agents and ignored by 99 of them; but if you haven’t, it goes something like this:

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 10.37.03Frustrated at the lack of attention that his manuscript for Swap got from mainstream literary agents and publishing houses, Sam Moffie disguised one of his favorite novels first chapter – Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – into a manuscript that Moffie called The Perfect Martini, and sent it to the top 100 literary agents in America. Ninety-nine out of 100 passed on the work – a feat that Moffie has used to highlight how difficult it is to get literary fiction featuring satire, humor and conventional culture getting kicked in the tush published. (wikipedia)

Amazing, eh?

Naturally, my initial reaction was one of shock. I mean if an author like Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse 5, Cat’s Cradle) can’t even get past the query stage, then what hope is there for me and others like me?

A number of bloggers have commented on this, arguing that it exposes how agents are solely looking for what will sell; what the trends are; which genres are currently marketable; &c., as opposed to simply signing new authors based on talent.

And so, after digesting all of this fallout, I was close to tearing up my painstakingly crafted, frustration-soaked query letter and reaching for a copy of the Self-publisher’s Handbook.

But then I stopped and thought for a second…

Surely the first thing that catches an agent’s eye is the query letter? A great many insights can be garnered about an author by this one-page pitch: Are they talented writers? Are they succinct? How competently do they sell their novel? Does their novel have promise? Do they have style? Do they understand basic spelling and grammar?

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 10.38.14In respect to this, I think we must remember that even though the novel in question was written by this well-known literary big-hitter; the query wasn’t written by him. Therefore, it’s highly unlikely that many of the agents even made it onto reading the chapter. It’s also quite likely that many didn’t respond because they saw straight through the ploy; or perhaps they weren’t after a book that addresses themes written over forty years ago.

Personally, I don’t think it does ‘highlight how difficult it is to get literary fiction featuring satire, humour and conventional culture… published’. I think it highlights that when querying agents, your novel is only as good as your query. I reckon the majority of great books out there would also be ignored if it wasn’t the actual author who was pitching them.

Additionally, I just have to say (and excuse me if I sound a little bitchy), but I went to Amazon to check out Sam Moffie’s stuff, in particular this book Swap he had trouble selling to an agent. I read the synopsis (meh) and I read the prologue. And the prologue had a bloody typo in it! Now some of you may be aware that I have a real issue with poorly finished books, but the point I’m trying to make is this: if you can’t even write an engaging synopsis and the prologue of your (supposedly edited, polished and published book) has a GLARING typo in the third paragraph, then how can you expect to compose a query that does a writer like Kurt Vonnegut proud?

And if I’m going to be really bitchy, I may just add that perhaps many aspiring authors out there (yes, like myself) are using this as justification for their own manuscripts being given the brush-off.

Anyway, the reason I’m posting about this is because, while I think it’s a pretty good tale and the experiment was a bold one, it’s not the damning indictment of the publishing industry that many are saying it is. Hence, I’ve replaced the Self-publisher’s Handbook back on its dusty shelf, and I’m going back to plan A.

Wish me luck.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. Yes I’m fully aware that it’s bad-form to bad-mouth other writers on a blog, but sometimes people bring it upon themselves. Hell, if I released a book that was littered with mistakes or drew attention to myself with a some kind of publicity stunt, then I would fully expect to be chastised for it.

P.P.S. Why is it bad-form to bad-mouth other writers anyway? Are the members of our community who actively pour their soul out onto a page exempt from the inevitable analysis that follows such an act?

P.P.P.S. In these digital days of ‘cut’, ‘copy’ and ‘paste’, why do we still use ‘P.S.’ when we can simply go back and insert whatever we have forgotten to say back into the text?

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3 comments on “Agents berated because they don’t like Kurt Vonnegut? Pah!

  1. […] following my post the other day concerning Kurt Vonnegut, I thought I’d share a quick passage with you from his book, […]

  2. Sam Moffie says:

    I actually got this idea from Vonnegut himself who did the exact same thing with his friend Jerzy Kosinski — whose follow up novels were being rejected AFTER his initial success. Kurt’s son Mark found out what I did, and I had a great conversation with him about his dad. I have typos, probably have more in the works. But it wasn’t about the query, because I actually received 99 rejection letters that commented on the sample I sent. I made it past the query. But as Kurt would probably add “Hi Ho.”

    P.S. Excellent blog!

    • gpeynon says:

      Wow, it feels like I have a demi-celebrity in my comments box. Cool.

      Thanks for you comments, Sam. I can’t believe I’ve been found out. Usually when I have a rant, I manage to stay anonymous; so sorry about that, but please try not to take it personally. My blogging persona is a lot more irritable than I am in real life.

      I think it’s very interesting what you say about making it past the query stage, and that little tidbit doesn’t seem to show up anywhere, but it changes the whole complexion of the story. (And it also has me re-reaching for that Self-publishing Handbook, dagnammit – or as Kurt would say, ‘so it goes.’)

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