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Working With An Agent:
One Writer's Perspective

By Bridget Bufford


Why I Have an Agent
Visibility promotes tolerance, and lesbians have lives outside of our relationships. Ideally, I want to publish literary fiction that features lesbian and/or gay characters whose preference is incidental to the story line. My current manuscript has a lesbian protagonist as well as a gay male character, but it's not "lesbian fiction" as I understand the genre: i.e., there's no lesbian romance or sex as part of the story line. The main character is a psychologist, and though she has a girlfriend, the book is about the relationships that develop within a therapy group facilitated by the psychologist.

For literary fiction, an agent is crucial. Editors at the large commercial presses rely on agents to present manuscripts that are polished and marketable and that match their interests. Agents offer editorial guidance, establish contacts with editors and publishers, negotiate contracts, protect the rights to your work, etc. (paraphrased from the "Poets & Writers" website)

When working with a smaller press (including most lesbian presses), however, an agent may not be much help. I submitted my novel Minus One: A Twelve-Step Journey (Haworth Press/Alice Street Editions) directly to Judith Stelboum, the acquisitions editor for Alice Street Editions, and then got the contract from Haworth Press.

How I Got My Agent

When I got word that Minus One had been accepted, I asked my writing network (which, at that time, consisted of other Amherst Writers & Artists workshop leaders) for advice on how to handle the contract. Pat Schneider, AWA founder, suggested I immediately contact her own agent at Witherspoon & Associates, Inc. (now a part of InkWell Management).

I gave the agent a call. She read the Minus One manuscript and got back to me within a couple of weeks. She loved the book, as well as my style, but said that because of the twelve-step content she didn't expect it to be a very big book. She suggested that I go with Haworth and said she would be more than happy to look over the contract for me, but didn't think this book was right for her agency.

I hoped to prove her wrong. After all, there are something like 20 million Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) members in the U.S. alone. At least 1 million of those must be lesbian, right? If even 1 percent of the lesbians in AA bought the book, the sales would be amazing!

Minus One     A word of advice: never, ever try to market a book to an anonymous organization. It really can't be done. Two years later, despite extensive promotional efforts on my part (self-funded bookstore tours of the East Coast, West Coast, and Southwest, plus direct mailings to 120+ LGBT centers and queer AA clubhouses), Minus One has yet to sell 1000 copies.

I haven't given up on it; with sufficient word-of-mouth, sales might
eventually improve. But at this point the only thing that's apt to help is to publish more books.

So anyway, I went with Haworth. The agent did take a look at the contract; she made several recommendations, all of which Haworth accepted.

How I Work With My Agent
When the InkWell agent asked to see more of my stuff, the only other finished manuscript I had was the prequel to Minus One. Given her response to the latter, that didn't seem the way to start. But I had been doing some writing loosely based on personal experience: my stint as a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service, the work I've done in the field of autism. I started putting those together into a narrative, which became my third manuscript, titled Cemetery Bird.

My blurb -- Some families are like a car wreck: two die, one's paralyzed, another walks away. As a child, Jennifer "Jay" Aubuchon was abandoned by her drug-addict mother; now her brother is dead and Jay herself has sustained a crippling injury on the job. Unable to fight fires any longer, she returns to help her father and sister-in-law care for her nephew Brandon, who has autism. Will Jay remain paralyzed by these family tragedies, or will she be the survivor?

I wrote four full drafts of Cemetery Bird, crafting and polishing it to the best of my ability, and then sent it to the agent. We had been in touch on and off; I sent her some of the reviews for Minus One, and notified her when it became a Lambda finalist and won a Catalyst Award (University of Missouri).

She took a few months to read Cemetery Bird, then arranged a phone call. Though she liked the manuscript, she felt the structure was weak. We talked for about an hour, during which she made several cogent suggestions.

That was about a year ago. Since then, the book has been through two full rewrites. It's a better book than I ever would have been able to produce on my own. She accepted the final draft of it this January, and in February, after 4 years of working together, I finally signed a contract with Inkwell Management.

The poor woman still has not received a dime from me, so I trust her when she tells me how much she believes in my work.

The advantages of working with an agent have been 1) her knowledge of the literary market; 2) her editing skills, and 3) her connections with the major New York-based publishers. My book has been under consideration at imprints of Simon & Schuster, Random House, Harper Collins, Warner, etc., and she actually knows the editors who are reading it.

The down side of working with an agent is 1) I haven't always been clear on her expectations; 2) I have somewhat less control over the process; and 3) as in all branches of publishing, it takes a long time for anything to happen. I gave her the manuscript of Learning to Duck (the prequel to Minus One) last December, and she just recently read it.

Lesbian Fiction and My Agent In terms of lesbian fiction, she has always encouraged me to continue writing it, though she said it's not likely to make much money. She loved both Minus One and Learning to Duck, and she plans to represent the latter. However, she feels it would be smarter to lead with Cemetery Bird, a book that will potentially have broader appeal.

Writing can be tough; publishing, even tougher. Other writers have told me that representation with a bad agent is worse than none at all; fortunately, I haven't experienced that. Having an industry professional on my side—particularly one who admires my writing, helps me shape my work, and has a vested interest in selling that work—gives me hope.
Bridget Bufford lives in mid-Missouri, where she leads Amherst Writers & Artists writing groups, works for a landscape company, and provides respite for children with autism. Minus One: A Twelve Step Journey, her first novel, was a 2005 Lambda Literary Award finalist. Her short stories and essays appear in Romance for LIFE (Intaglio), Pillow Talk II (Alyson), Body Check (Alyson); and The Use of Personal Narratives in the Helping Professions (Haworth).

Bridget may be contacted at:
Bridget's website:

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