Adventures in agent hunting

Full disclosure – Please read the following for what it is: an author who knows nothing about the publishing world and jumps eagerly into his research online. This is not a criticism of the industry. I’m far too new to publishing to presume an opinion. Rather, the following is my experience trying to decipher legitimate online advice from bunkum, which is difficult for a novice who can’t recognize credentials and gets thousands of results with a simple search engine question. I can only imagine what seasoned agents think of some of the stuff online. Please read to the end for my epilogue. That’s my preamble. Here’s my article:

My search for a literary agent is enlightening, to say the least. Cyberspace is bloated with heaps and mounds of “expert” advice on how to format a submission and how to find the right agent. I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that expert advice should, by definition, come from an expert. Apparently, that is an egregious assumption. Online “publishing expertise” is a big, faceless, foggy swamp of quicksand that swallows hopeful new authors whole, and drags them to a bottomless pit of blind contradiction and wrongy-wrongness.

People who know me think I’m a calm and happy person. I am. Normally. But something about my experience spelunking the depths of publishing has sprouted a Lewis Black persona with the outrage knob turned to 11. 

What I was hoping for when I started this journey was to find an industry standard that I could use as a template to fashion my own professional approach. After some dedicated research, I found the standard I was looking for. I was so relieved. Now I could speak the language of publishing and meet industry-seasoned agents as peers. I thought publishy thoughts, like drafting a “query”, and formatting a relevant author bio. Boy, was I happy.

Then I found another standard and it was really different. But that couldn’t be right, could it? Oh yeah, it was. This other standard had things under the “DON’T” header that were in the other expert’s “DO” list. One expert’s standard practice was another’s amateur misstep. And then I found more standards written by other experts.

I have a theory for all this contradiction. I think there are two enormous forces that publishing has spawned. Think of the forces as two raging storm fronts barreling through the sky towards each other at a frightening velocity. One storm front is made of a billion clouds of mediocre talent, each dressed in a clown suit and screaming bloody murder in the hopes of standing out from the crowd of other mediocre screaming clown clouds. The other storm is made of a billion hoops made by agents who use past success to find future success. Each hoop swirls in a frantic, unpredictable pattern and constantly changes shape and size and sometimes disappears. When the two storm fronts meet, the clowns try desperately to jump through the hoops, and the hoops are doing everything to avoid the clowns, and the noise and the hurricane winds whip the clowns and hoops into a thunderous tumult that cracks the earth and rains sadness and rejection on wounded egos. Then these wounded egos cry and write dumb advice online.

It’s a theory. At least the outrage is out of my system now.

I haven’t found an agent yet, but I’m not giving up. My new book must find a home.

Epilogue – While it’s hard for the novice author to verify the legitimacy of certain expert advice online, I have managed to find truly helpful instruction. All legitimate agent sites have specific and easy to understand instruction on unsolicited submissions. It’s a matter of spotting and discarding the other skewed information. While it sounds obvious, it seems the best approach is patient research with a critical mind. The comments and suggestions I have read from working agents have been the most helpful. They sometimes contradict each other, but it makes sense when you consider the fact that a gardening book specialist has requirements that are very different from an infant picture book specialist.

Page from Dan Holst Soelberg's upcoming book

Sample illustration from my new book. I hope to find an agent soon so this can be published!


Macabre humour is delicious

"Viv is not adept at verbal rebuttal. Her revenge is exacted in ways not so subtle." From the book Oddities of West Blankshire

“Viv is not adept at verbal rebuttal. Her revenge is exacted in ways not so subtle.” From the book Oddities of West Blankshire.

There are many reasons why death and despair are not funny. But reason has very little to do with why anything is funny. In fact, the house that funny built has shut the door on reason. When we laugh, we forget for a moment all the reasons why we shouldn’t. That’s what makes humour such a powerful force.

"Lou bathed for weeks hoping gills would evolve, but he became oversaturated and dissolved." from the book Oddities of West Blankshire.

“Lou bathed for weeks hoping gills would evolve, but he became oversaturated and dissolved.” from the book Oddities of West Blankshire.

Macabre humour is simply delectable. It is my passion. I am essentially laughing at death and despair, and there is something cathartic and exciting about that. I can’t get enough of it, which is why I keep putting more of it into the world. I find great joy in making books that both celebrate and poke fun at the darkest and most disturbing aspects of humanity.

I want to stress the importance of putting macabre humour in book form. Equal to my passion for macabre humour is my passion for books. Books are beautiful and sacred objects. Books are also personal and intimate. When you read, the book becomes your world and the words express an aspect of who you are. Maybe I’m sounding hokey or overly dramatic, but that’s what books do for me. I didn’t realize how personal and sentimental my books were for readers until I met a young man at Fan Expo in Toronto last year. He picked up a copy of Oddities of West Blankshire from my table and leafed through it carefully, page by page.

"Paloma is plummeting fast through the sky. She cannot recall when this started or why." From the book Oddities of West Blankshire

“Paloma is plummeting fast through the sky. She cannot recall when this started or why.” From the book Oddities of West Blankshire.

Then he reread a few choice pages and sheepishly looked up at me, waiting to catch my gaze. I connected with him immediately. He said that his childhood friend owned a copy of my book. He had fond memories of visiting his friend and reading the book over and over and over. He told me he was nervous and excited to meet me. Then he asked me to sign a copy for him and thanked me profusely before leaving. I was floored. Not just because the book was only five years old (yep, I’m already the old guy!) but because something I created went out into the world and gave personal meaning to a complete stranger.

If I could tell one story that explains why I continue to make books, it’s that one. Every book I sell connects me with one more person in the world who shares my passion for macabre humour. There is nothing more rewarding than that.

My books can be purchased at the “Shop” link above. Below is a speed drawing video of a page from my latest book “Dwellers of Lurching Swill”.


Meeting fans

Buttons featuring images from my books. Some people just can't get enough buttons!

My display includes various merchandise. Pictured here: buttons featuring images from my books.

I love exhibiting. It’s energizing and fun. It’s especially exciting to connect with fans since my creative process is such a solitary one. From original idea to finished product, I create each book alone in my studio. And it takes time. I toil over the writing, illustration, type rendering, design and layout of each book to satisfy the vision in my head. Months and months of solitude, and the only thing compelling me to finish the project is the thought, “the finished book is worth all this effort.” So, to meet a fan that connects with my vision, buys a book and is now anxiously awaiting my next book, it’s just the most satisfying feeling.

The Mixed Media Market that happened at the Gladstone this past Saturday was everything I could have imagined. Visitors were engaged with the vendors and the event was superbly organized.

I stood behind my display for six hours. I can’t think of a better way to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Just a note: I didn’t have the forethought to take photos with my fans, and I realize that an article about fans without a photo of one feels incomplete. On the other hand, you can use your imagination and I like that.

I met Sarah. Sarah was visiting Toronto to see her brother nearby and stopped in to kill time. She was intrigued by my display and we talked about my work. Sarah wound up buying all three softcovers. I signed them and dedicated one to her. Every show, I connect with at least one person who fully shares my passion for the work I do and makes sure to let me know. Sarah was the one who made this day worthwhile. I humbly thank you, Sarah.

I met Michael. He bought a book as well. Michael was in Toronto on business at his PR firm’s head office. He lives in Chicago. I’m a Frank Lloyd Wright fan and I know that Wright’s work is all over Chicago. I asked Michael about it. As he gave me his card, he told me to call him when I visit, we’ll meet for dinner and he’ll tell me all about Chicago. I can’t wait! I’m taking my family for a visit this summer and I know who I’m calling.

I met another proud new owner of my book who had a familiar accent. I didn’t catch his name (he was in a rush), but he said he was heading back to Copenhagen. We chatted a bit in Danish and he went off to give my book a new home in another part of the world.

I met Johanne. She bought a book and we chatted while I dedicated it to her. Johanne was curious about why I’d chosen to self-publish. I explained that I just wanted to make books and didn’t want to worry about getting approval from a publisher. For my next book however, I explained that want to get an agent and publish in the UK or USA. Johanne revealed that she has been working in Canadian publishing for years. Based on her experience, Johanne warned that agents can be heel-dragging and money-draining. She said that small Canadian publishers on the other hand, are passionate about the work they do and work tirelessly for their authors. In fact, she said that Canadian publishers are devoted to the point of personal sacrifice. It gave me pause to consider what I want to do with my next book. Maybe an agent is the wrong move? I really don’t know.

As the day drew to a close, I felt a sense of vindication for the long hours in the studio that make my work feel self-indulgent and reclusive. I am a social beast just like everyone else, and at the end of the day, my books only have meaning when people other than me read them. After a fun day like this, I am full of gusto and eager to get back to the studio!

The next Gladstone Hotel event that I’m taking part in happens May 25th. It’s the Small Press & Literary Festival taking place between 10:30am and 4:30pm. For details, click this link. I’ll keep you updated on my facebook page too.

Please come by on the 25th and bring a friend. I love meeting new people.


Your name on a bookmark

Signed Bookmark - Dan Holst SoelbergThe first time I faced the public with my published book was at the 2008 Mississauga Book Fair in Mississauga, Ontario. I had 100 books printed and they were not cheap. It was embarrassing, really. My little 6″ x 6″ soft cover cost $32. I didn’t know anything about printing books at the time so I just hired a local printer to do it and wound up paying through the nose. To make this expensive little book a little more enticing, I called it a limited first edition and hand numbered every copy. It worked. I sold out.

But I hated the fact that I had only one expensive product. I knew not everybody had an extra $32 burning a hole through their pockets and I wanted to offer some kind of personalized memento. This is way before I got into merchandising. The only other thing I had at my table was a stack of bookmarks. Lightbulb! If someone seemed genuinely interested in my work, I offered to write their name on a bookmark in my signature writing style. Voila, free memento! It really took off. In fact, people were so excited to see their name come out of my pen that I would often get the same person returning with the bookmark in hand, accompanied by others who were pointing excitedly at me and sheepishly getting up the nerve to ask for their own customized bookmarks. Needless to say, the stack of bookmarks didn’t last long.

I’ve done the same thing at every exhibition, convention and fair since. You could say that writing names on bookmarks has become my signature schtick, but it’s more than that. It connects me to my fans in a profound and personal way. People are genuinely honoured that I have taken the time to make something just for them. And it goes both ways. I believe everybody deserves to feel honoured. It humbles me to know that my work is appreciated and I find this moment we share opens up sincere conversation.

Any time I have the opportunity to customize an order I am happy to help. Here’s a short video showing how I personalized a recent order for Barbra.

I met Barbra at Toronto’s Bazaar of the Bizarre in December 2013. I was exhibiting my books and other products and she just happened to stroll by. Barbra was ecstatic about my work so it was an absolute pleasure to customize this for her.

If you see me at a future convention, don’t be shy to ask for your name on a bookmark. It’s what I do. It’s my way to say thank you for appreciating my work.


For the love of type

New Dan Holst Soelberg typefaceI just finished the prototype for a custom type style to be used in my new book project. This is a special joy for me. I have filled dozens of notebook pages with preliminary scribbles and scrawls to find a type style that is appropriate for my new book. I think I’ve finally nailed it, although I’m sure it will still evolve.

I am a typography fanatic. One of my most treasured books is called “The Univers by Adrian Frutiger”, written by professor of typography Friedrich Friedl. I picked it up years ago in The Danish Museum of Art & Design located in Copenhagen, Denmark. This book opened my eyes to the intense passion Frutiger has for clear and concise communication. He slaves over every curve and line in his type design to create a unified and harmonious typeface in all its weights. His typeface “Univers” was first published in 1957 (the same year Helvetica debuted) and remains a remarkable typeface still very much in use.

A sample of text from the book Eight Pound Fly. The baseline is purposely completely wonky.

A sample of text from the book Eight Pound Fly. The baseline is intentionally meandering.

Having said all that, I have never endeavoured to create my own typeface to rival the work of Mr. Frutiger. My text design is never truly original. I love mixing and matching ideas from dozens of existing fonts. My own “fonts” remain hand-drawn with all their variations and rough flaws left unpolished. It’s just a creative impulse that I’d rather not control too much.

Dwellers of Lurching Swill text sample

Sample of text from the book Dwellers of Lurching Swill.

As with previous projects, I’ve written out the roman alphabet in upper and lower case, but I tend to tackle the rest of the punctuation and glyphs as they pop up. I like spontaneity. It’s for this reason that I hand-render every letter in my books individually. So far, that’s the plan with this book as well.

So, while I love and respect the rules that govern formal typography, I also have a soft spot for erratic inconsistencies that show the hand of the human who created them. I’m sure Adrian Frutiger would not approve.