Ask the Secret Agent: short story collections, and more

The Secret AgentI have a big collection of fiction (350 pgs), some of which has appeared in mags/journals. It’s west-of-the-Mississippi stuff and includes novellas and short stories. The novellas are linked and the short stories are somewhat related to the novellas. Things happen in these stories, so they’re not simply brooding, epiphanic pieces. And my question is so what now? I’ve been told that people like short stories, but nobody buys them, therefore nobody wants to represent them. Assuming they are, in fact, readable, any specific suggestions?

It sounds like you have a decision to make. You can try to combine some or all of the stories and novellas into a novel, which it is true would probably be easier for an agent to sell, or you can take what you have (a lot, by the way, which is always better than not enough, since it’s far easier to cut than add material), put it in the order you think makes the best sense, and present it as it is, a collection.

Novels are easier to sell to publishers than story collections, this is true. It’s a bit mystifying since it does seem like almost everyone likes short stories and there always seems to be a collection out that everyone is talking about. The reality is that collections bring smaller advances. Publishers will always tell you that they’re just not able to sell collections in the numbers that they want, especially collections by previously unpublished (in the book sense) authors. Also, novels get far more review attention than collections do, which contributes to the problem of sales.

Agents do represent collections, but usually with some understandable trepidation. I personally love short story collections, and I don’t want to discourage you from taking that route because some of the best literature — and entertainment — I’ve ever read were story collections. But the truth is that in publishing it is the novel gets the nod over a collection most of the time.

How does an agent go about submitting their client’s manuscript to particular editors? What factors are involved in the choice of editor? I.e., prior contact, reputation, etc. It’s something that seems incredibly important but the actual mechanics aren’t often discussed.

Everyone has his or her own M.O. when it comes to submitting projects (see the previously mentioned “scattershot” technique), so I can’t speak definitively for all agents. But the following probably holds true for most.

While it would be ideal to maintain an up-to-the-minute database of every editor in publishing, there is so much turnover nowadays that even an up-to-the-month list is difficult to maintain, and many agencies just don’t have the clerical staff it would require to stay on top of every editor all the time. However, most agents do have some sort of database with editors and houses that might be sifted through in any number of ways (alphabetically, by genre, by previous submissions, etc.), and within that database may exist a shortlist of editors to whom they submit with some regularity and which covers a wide spectrum of subjects and genres. Friendships and collegiality develop between agents and editors as they do in any industry — through parties, events, trade shows, professional organizations, lunches, etc. — so an agent will understandably submit first to those whom he or she knows. And, ideally, to those who have some seniority so the editor will at least be heard if not, in the end, listened to (not to be overly cynical). Beyond that initial list, names can be culled from anywhere — articles, newsletters, mailers, referrals.

I can say that if an editor turns out to be difficult to reach, doesn’t return phone calls or doesn’t respond to projects in a timely manner then he or she won’t, or at least shouldn’t, be receiving any more submissions from that agent.

A hypothetical/true story: a writer friend landed a publisher while unagented and has published several books with said publisher. However, in order to advance his career and write a non-series novel, he very much needs an agent. Several weeks ago he made contact with two agents, one requesting the current manuscript, the other 50 pages of it. He told each one that the other was looking at the work as well, and now both refuse to evaluate the mss unless the other rejects it. What’s the proper protocol to resolve this situation?

Again, every agent works differently. Each is probably trying to protect herself from wasting her time (reading the manuscript only to find out the author has decided to go with the other agent). And it should be determined whether each was under the initial impression that the material she had was on an exclusive basis.

There are so many agents and the competition is so fierce for projects that I really think the one submission at a time notion is unrealistic and works against the author, and that such etiquette is no longer necessary when an author approaches agents. However, if an agent approaches the author and asks for an exclusive, that can make perfect sense. How to distribute his material will always be up to the author in the end, but it is best if the agents know how the author is submitting the material from the start to avoid any problems down the road.

The Secret Agent is an agent with a small, but well-regarded, literary agency in Manhattan, and is happy to answer your questions. Send them to thesecretagent [at]


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.