The True Believer

Every writer needs a true believer on his team. I am a literary agent, and I am a true believer. I am a creative partner and a business partner to a group of talented, ambitious, and hardworking authors. I’m a good editor, I know a lot of people who can publish your book or buy your rights, and I can negotiate a sweet contract with them. But my real job is just to believe.

Publishing is a creative business. Everyone who works in this industry is semi-crazy with the belief that we are working on something that is going to make a mark, become something special, maybe even invent an entire subgenre. I believe in the endless possibility of a good creative idea. That’s why I hate rejecting submissions. I sometimes sit on them when I should just say no, because I believe they can be fixed. I am sick with this belief; I can see the potential in almost everything. Yet in my heart I know they can’t all be saved.

But here’s how it goes when it’s good: One day a writer tells me about an idea. I tell her it rocks, because it does. A few months and a few drafts later, it is an 85,000-word novel under contract with a publisher. With an on-sale date at bookstores and a very pretty cover. Soon after that, it’s a signed first edition or downloading to your iPad in fifteen seconds and your friends are talking about it. The next year, it’s winning a big award and we’re all drunk with the celebration. Then I have cool-looking copies of the book in Polish and Chinese translations sitting on my office bookshelves, and the guy I first pitched the film rights to is on the telephone with me seriously talking about Nicolas Cage playing the lead in the film adaptation. This kind of stuff happens because we all believe.

My belief disrupts my family life. Last week, Duane Swierczynski delivered the first draft of his new novel Fun and Games. It seems like we just pitched this as a story idea not fifteen minutes ago. It is so damned good that I blew off the Friday night movie my wife and I rented to watch together just so I could finish reading it. Sadly, my wife understands. She wants to read it, too.

My daughter told me that she is worried that I am addicted to my Kindle. I told her, No sweetie. Greg Rucka is working on a new book (Alpha, which will be published by Mulholland Books). He’s sending me pages that I need to read like Bubbles needs his heroin. I get to live inside these books with the writers while they’re in progress. I helped Greg decide how to trap Tara Chace in Iran.  And when the hell did he go to Tehran to research The Last Run, anyway?

When I talk to normal people, those who are not in this business, I find they hardly ever ask how many drafts a great book went through, or how the movie adaptation came about. But that’s okay. It’s how it ought to be, really. That’s the beauty of a good magic trick. You don’t notice the bluff. You don’t see all the practice, the real setup, the blown attempts and do-overs. You just see the final flourish. The audience is there for the fun. Just like I am. But I get to see all the practice runs, too. It’s an honor and a blast to be in the backstage crew.

Mercy! Books Burning.So, what I am looking for in a potential client?  Here’s what to do: First, write something that absolutely smokes. I want to read something that totally hooks my attention, kicks me in the gut, and makes my heart hammer like I’m running a flat-out sprint. If you can do that one very difficult thing, everything else is easy. When you have it ready, write me an e-mail. It should do two things: artfully hint at the essence of what you’ve created and demonstrate that you are not a total psycho (a little is okay—remember, we’re all semi-crazy here). If I like the sound of your pitch, I’ll ask you to send me the project.

There are talented and successful agents at agencies large and small. We are always talking up our new projects, exploring different formats, thinking about new and exciting ways to help you achieve your creative vision and, God willing, maybe make some money along the way. You have to decide how much it matters where your agent lives or what agency he or she works for. Send your pitch letter along to a few of the other agents you have identified who work with the kind of stuff you write. Let us all know what’s going on so we don’t waste time reading something that you have committed elsewhere.

You are probably not going to hear anything back right away. Most days, I am busy working with my clients. Some days, I am on a long bike ride or I need to drink whiskey with a friend to preserve my sanity, and I will not be reading what you sent in. Be politely persistent. Because if you send me something that’s right in my wheelhouse, I can promise you’ll find yourself a true believer.

David Hale Smith is the owner of DHS Literary, Inc., an agency he started in Dallas, Texas, in 1994. He loves reading crime fiction, the more nasty, brutish, and short the better. He represents a lot of really, really good writers. Find out who they are here: Follow him on Twitter (@davidhalesmith)