This Genteel Racket

Can't sell your book? Maybe your agent hasn't even read it—and never will

But what if agents don't like it either?

Manuscripts Wanted, the Deering Literary Agency advertised in mid-1990s issues of Writer's Digest magazine. Accepting new clients—specializing in new authors. Serving all English speaking countries, with agents in book-starved Russia.

Nobody in America likes your writing? Listen, friend: There's always a place for you in book-starved Russia.

Dorothy Deering was, one employee claimed, "the third largest agent in the world. She sold 550 books to publishers and 130 screenplays to Hollywood." She was also, as criminologist Jim Fisher recounts in Ten Percent of Nothing: The Case of the Literary Agent From Hell (Southern Illinois University Press), a former Holiday Inn lounge singer and a convicted embezzler who met her husband and fellow agency proprietor in a San Diego mental ward.

Deering came from the Great Rejected Masses herself. After writing a sci-fi novel in 1987, she found that no agent would take her book. Deering turned to the dire subculture of fee-based agents, none of whom could sell her book, but all of whom could cash her checks. Such fee-based agents are, as one New York editor muses to Fisher, "a genteel racket." The sucker turned con artist when it dawned on Deering that anyone could claim to represent authors.

This, indeed, is what one magazine noted of literary agents in 1895: "His is a cheap and easy business, all the stock required being unbounded impudence, pen, ink, and paper, and a small office." Add 100 years and a fax machine, and you have the Deering Literary Agency, whose Kentucky office raked in ever escalating fees from hundreds of clients. She didn't even read their manuscripts: They piled up in a boiler-room operation that she ran with her husband—a former car salesman—and her ninth-grade-dropout stepson, neither of whom had the faintest interest in books. By 2000 Deering's clients found themselves $2 million poorer—and the federal prison at Lexington, Kentucky, had gained one more inmate. Dressed in her loose blue prison uniform, Deering informs Fisher with no apparent irony that she is "thinking about starting a correspondence school for aspiring writers" upon her release.

Now, that would be a good con. After all, nobody ever locks up writing teachers for not getting their students published. Indeed, if she had actually pitched her clients' paid manuscripts, Deering might have had a lucrative and legal agency. She probably wouldn't have sold any of the dregs being sent in by Florida retirees, high school teachers, and daydreaming businessmen, but the rejection rate is so high on new writers that, well, who'd have noticed?

As for me, my book was eventually published; others have followed. But others also preceded it. My first published book felt like crossing the border into a new country—one where permanent residency always feels a little tenuous, and where it's hard not to wonder about who didn't make it past customs.

Maybe the answer lies in a publisher's basement. A decades-old overlooked box of rejection-stuffed envelopes would make for curious reading. We know how literary history turned out, but what about who it turned away? The reject box would reveal an alternate if aesthetically uninhabitable universe, a stroll through a bookstore that exists only in the realm of spurned possibility. Perhaps the nearest equivalent to this bizarro Barnes & Noble, this antimatter Amazon, lies in the FBI evidence boxes for the Deering case. Or on the Web, I suppose. In reject boxes you'd find a core sample of American culture, representing not what Americans read, but what Americans write.

Bookstores sell what they believe readers will buy; publishers sell what they believe bookstores will buy; agents sell what they believe publishers will buy. Aspiring writers are separated by so many degrees from their readers that what they sell can disappear altogether into this hall of mirrors. Or, perhaps, into a 9x12 self-addressed stamped envelope.

Paul Collins edits the Collins Library for McSweeney's Books. His latest book is Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism (Bloomsbury).

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