American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath
Finding The Right Agent For American Isis
—ASJA Monthly April 2011
I've considered writing a biography of Sylvia Plath for about six years. I wrote two pieces about her for The New York Sun in 2004 and 2007, and about three years ago showed them to an agent. She shook her head. Couldn't sell a Plath biography in such a crowded field no matter how fresh my approach. I took that agent's no to be representative of what her colleagues would tell me.
Even with plenty of projects and commissioned pieces to do, I could not put aside my Plath obsession. But to go ahead without an agent seemed folly, for I had been hearing from many seasoned writers that they could not even get editors to answer their email inquiries. Agents, as we all know, have become the gatekeepers.
Then I attended a writer's conference last May and was delighted to learn about a session called "Speed Dating with Agents." I would get an opportunity to sit with an agent for 10 minutes and deliver my pitch. I had no proposal to show, just the two articles. Because I've published more than 30 books—many of them for trade houses—I did not tout myself but just launched into my Plath patter. It was a high-energy performance. The agent had to believe in me as much as I wanted to believe in the agent if I was going to drop everything and do a Plath biography.
Agent #1, a male, said, "My guess is that publishers will want a woman to write such a book." I was stunned, since he knew I had already published several biographies of women. Although he unenthusiastically offered to read my proposal when it was ready, I had already crossed him off the list. Frankly, I wanted an over-the-top reaction: "Oh, yes, you're the one to do it!"
Agent #2, another male, listened rather stonily as I explained my angle, and then he asked, "Have you had a breakout book?" He wanted to know about my numbers. I've had respectable sales for some of my biographies, but certainly no best sellers. He was noncommittal and asked me to think about whether I really wanted to put in the time and energy required to sell the book to a trade house. I felt like I was a book salesman watching a bookstore buyer go to his computer to see how my last biography sold: "Rollyson's last one sold five copies, I'll take three copies this time."
Agent #3, a female, showed real curiosity as I came close to perfecting my argument that previous biographers had not served Plath well and that no one else in the world could possibly write a better Plath biography. But doubts arose when I said I had yet to write the proposal. She certainly wanted to see it, but we were already in the cooling off period.
Agent #4, another female and my last best hope on earth, seemed to glow throughout my pitch, which now what seemed pitch-perfect. When could she see the proposal? she asked. I told her I would get on it as soon as I returned home. She expressed no doubt she could sell the book. Some writers might have been wary of her optimism. How could an agent in today's grim market be so confident? But she was exactly what I needed—a voice that said, in effect, "What are you waiting for?"
Six weeks later I delivered the proposal. My new agent loved it and requested minor revisions. But I would also have to write a sample chapter, she insisted. I groaned, realizing now virtually the whole summer had been taken up with what might be a fruitless venture. But at this point I couldn't help myself. I was too heavily invested, and I had a backer.
In mid-September, the proposal went out and received, as expected, several rejections in the first round. Most editors praised my approach but said it was a crowded field. While we were waiting for what I feared would be the remaining rebuffs, my agent—still as bullish as ever—prepared for a second round of submissions. It did not prove necessary after an enthusiastic editor at St. Martin's Press contacted me, requested a few more bullet points, secured the requisite support from her colleagues, and bought the proposal for a decent advance.
It still seems like a fairy tale to me. And I don't know if my experience is of any value to others, except to emphasize that there is no formula for success. Pick a subject that no one has heard of, and you will be told, "We can't buy the book because no one has heard of her." Or, "We can't buy the book because everyone has heard of him and the market for X biographies is saturated." Or, "We can't buy the book because you don't have a track record." Or, "We can't buy the book because you have too much of a track record."
Even in a dire market that drives writers to put up with less than ideal representation, finding the right agent may require rejecting the wrong one.
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For those of you on twitter, I wanted to say that every morning I tweet passages from my biography of Sylvia Plath. There is quite a value in this for me, if not for anyone else! I am learning something about how I structured the book. What! you exclaim. Doesn't the guy know how he structured the book? Well, as Dr. Freud said long ago, there is such a thing as the unconscious. So welcome to twitter as a tool of self-analysis.--CR
The title and approach of my Plath biography has been controversial. Below is a review by Dixie Elder (real name), posted on amazon.com that also comments on my talk at the Boulder Book store. She answers some of my amazon critics while presenting her own point of view. I present her words verbatim and in toto:
I've read (& own) all the biographies about Sylvia Plath. I own all of her journals (presently available) & other works (biography of Hughes, "Birthday Leters," "Ariel," etc.)
This book excellent. The author read letters that were not open to the public until Hughes passed away.
The writer dispenses with romanticism. He does not assume that all readers Adore Plath. I admire & respect her but she was a real person, with flaws despite her brilliance.
I don't understand other reviewers' comments/complaints about the writer calling her by nick-names. Plath & her mother used the same nick-names in letters, journal entries & etc.
As for the comparisons with Marilyn Monroe--at the time Sylvia was in college, university & married, Marilyn Monroe was an icon. All over the news. Marquees everywhere had her name up--she starred with Lawrence Olivier. She married Arthur Miller the same month/year that Sylvia & Ted married. Sylvia dreamt of Marilyn & put such significance on the dream that she wrote in detail about it in her journal. Sylvia & Ted were avid readers of Jung--dream interpretations were crucial for their writing. So dreams were absorbed into their poems.
Marilyn Monroe was a shrewd business-woman who hid her intelligence behind a dazzling smile. Just like Sylvia. Sylvia dyed her hair platinum blonde to mimic Marilyn one summer, like thousands of women/girls. Sylvia wanted to dazzle boys/men. She was obssessed with finding the "black panther" or "a giant of a man."Just as Marilyn wanted a man to take care of her, for all her wanting to be in charge of her career.
Plath was gifted beyond words but she was a girl/woman of her time. Women then were expected to be great in the kitchen, great in bed & not seek careers. Sylvia died at the cusp of the women's liberation movement. Despite her conviction that she should be able to walk into a bar just like a man & order a drink,or run her own life, have sex with whomever she wanted-- she found herself stymied by morals of the day.
The author made this more than clear.
I am sorry that some readers found his tone condescending. I absolutely did not. I am a woman in my 60s. I went through the women's lib' movement & it was a confusing time. Girls my age wanted a husband & a career & it was not easy.So I fully understand why the author went into this conflict in Sylvia's life.
I found Sylvia late in life (in my 40s). My husband wrote a thesis on "Ariel" at Wm & Mary College in the 70s. He got me "into" Plath. I went full-force, devouring words "like air."
I attended a lecture by this author in Boulder, CO. He was an extremely likeable, approachable man. He talked about his interviews with people like A. Alvarez. Not boasting, just factual. He talked of how Olwyn continues to block anyone from doing full biographies of Plath & Hughes. A group of "Smithies" were at the talk. It was exciting to hear their descriptions life at Smith & Amherst in the 40s, 50s & 60s. One woman had taken the photo which is the book's cover. She said she was in awe of Plath as a freshman at Smith.
The Q & A time period was fascinating. The author answered various questions & was honest & real.
I would recommend this book to anyone--but yes, the writer does assume that most people have read thousands of words about Plath already. He says all biography is built upon other biographies & that in 2020 (I think that's the date), when a trunk full of Plath's items is slated to be opened, there will be another biography which will build upon his & previous ones.