Eileen R. Tabios


Inevitably, I had to fall into the Dark Side: I looked for a literary agent.

But, first, let me back up for some background to how I found a publisher for my first long-form novel DOVELION: A Fairy Tale for Our Times, which will be released in Spring 2021 by arts house publisher AC Books (New York).

During the year 2016, I finally succeeded in writing a successful first draft for what became DOVELION. While creating that first draft required nearly two decades, I realized at the time of its completion that much work still needed to be done before it would beat the odds to find a publisher. Thus, I wasn’t just gladdened when Otoliths created a book from my year-long and selfie-illustrated diary on writing it: # EileenWritesNovel. I was also relieved for I thought that in the event the novel remained unpublished, I least I got the amusing, meta benefit of a book about writing a book!

Nonetheless, I continued with the effort of inflicting gracing my novel upon the world. I waited two years to begin editing its first draft because I thought stepping away for a while would heighten objectivity for the editing effort. I began on January 1, 2019. While I continued editing the novel until it received its publishing acceptance in August 2020, I did reach a point in March 2019 when I felt the manuscript was at a stage where it could be shown to potential publishers. I won’t discuss the arduous editing process here, but will hint at its arduity through a word count comparison: while the first draft contained about 130,000 words, the published version will be about 88,000 words.

As I contemplated in March 2019 how to find a publisher, I realized that I knew nothing about novel publishing. As a writer, I’ve been mostly a poet and, specifically, a non-academic, experimental poet who, by the demands of my type of work, tended to traffic in the margins of mainstream publishing. For the novel, I decided to try for a larger publishing frame through a big, known publisher.

An avid reader, I identified my “dream publisher” from the books I’ve read, and it happens to be one of the world’s largest publishers. To make a long story short, through one of those friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend relationships, I received the chance to query the lead editor of that big publisher. I had imagined, actually, that such editors must be beset by friends and relatives sending over supposedly fabulous writers: their children, their plumber, their gym trainer, long-lost Cousin Eddie or Edwina coming out of some writerly hermit-ness, and so on. So I thought the approach was a long shot but at that time had no other clue on how to get my novel published.

To my huge surprise, we heard back that the editor was receptive to looking at my manuscript. Notwithstanding my surprise, I naturally leapt at the opportunity! A funny aside—because I was so self-conscious over how my manuscript came to the editor’s attention, I worked extremely hard at crafting a cover letter that would show my writerly credentials, albeit mostly as a poet, so that our mutual friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend would not look flakey from having encouraged a look at my novel. I was in my 50s when I sent the editor my manuscript but my cover letter earnestly detailed a resume that went as far back as when I edited my high school newspaper—a cringe-worthy detail at which I’m just now starting to laugh at with myself with compassion. But, who knows? Perhaps that’s how I got the editor to agree to look at a sample from my novel!

Anyway, we heard back in a month or so that the editor decided not to throw the weight of the big and powerful publishing company behind my novel. But, really, I expected this so I wasn’t surprised because, you know, what are the odds? But—let me ALL-CAP this as it’s a BIG BUT—BUT the editor ALSO said she thought the writing is “truly beautiful”! Not just “beautiful” but “truly beautiful”! I want to be sure you, dear Reader, don’t miss this so let me repeat: truly beautiful!

I did not yet know that “beautiful” is not synonymous with “publishable.”

However, the editor also said I needed to find a literary agent. I would learn later that many publishers don’t communicate directly with writers but only through literary agents. There are many reasons for this structure, including the growing number of writers looking for publishers who are, in turn, diminishing in number from industry consolidation and decreasing readership.

At the time of receiving the response of the editor-who-thought-my-writing-“truly beautiful,” I knew nothing about literary agents. BUT (do notice the ALL CAP), the editor further suggested I contact three agents she named in her response. AND (do notice the ALL CAP), the editor said I could use her name as recommendation!

I believe the phrase I kept repeating for the rest of that day was that I was ALL-CAP


—an expression Urban Dictionary defines as being from the 1950s and meaning “being in an excellent or ideal situation,” and which I’ve never forgotten as among those words I learned as a fresh immigrant to the United States trying to learn its American English. No doubt the phrase surfaced, too, for symbolizing how a successfully written and published novel would reveal how I’d come a long way from that 10-year-old struggling with how U.S.-Americans communicated. Anyway, with the editor’s response, I thought I was golden—I could feel that hardcover on my palms!—and thought myself vintagely

As befits the editor of one of the world’s leading publishers, the recommended agents were some of publishing’s leading agents. How I enjoyed learning about each of them, my eyes caressing the names of the big-name writers they represented. I envisioned—but of course!—seeing my name join the lists on their websites. Generously, I thought, I would be happy with any of them. I naturally thought I’d receive representation—after all, as I of course included in my cover letter—I was writing to them at the instigation of the editor at a big-shot publisher who—have I mentioned?—thought my writing is “truly beautiful”!

I sent the queries with manuscript samples to the three recommended agents. The result? Within 24 hours two replied: one said it wasn’t a “fit” based on reading my Synopsis (novel summary) and the other said she’s not taking on new clients as she’s overbooked. The third replied and, to date, continues to reply with silence—I’ve since learned that prolonged silence is usually a No. But what about the editor’s recommendation? What about my “truly beautiful” writing?

Zippo. Sadly, I was not, after all, “MADE IN THE SHADE!”

But what was fortunate about that process is that it got me started into researching/looking for agents. Despite the rejection and silence of the first three queried agents, the process gave me practice at writing a cover letter and Synopsis. I started looking for other agents. And I really feel I did a good job researching this area (research can be my forte and the stakes were high for me). To date, I’ve contacted 23 agents—all of which have been rejections if you count seven Silences as rejections. Only one indicated he’d read through the entire manuscript while three indicated reading through a sample (usually no more than 50 pages). Most who replied based their decisions on the Synopsis or whether they have room for one more client.

Interestingly, one agent is a poet and, as such, he said he really appreciated the work but didn’t feel he could do anything with it, i.e. it’s not commercial enough to apply his day-job efforts as an agent. Another interesting response was from a very successful agent who noted that she began her agent-job in her 40s and, as such, must be more sensitive to financing her life (e.g. retirement savings) than many younger agents; thus, she not only passes on “literary fiction” but actually has moved most of her efforts to graphic novels (so I guess we know what sells, haha).

I did ask three successfully-published novelists for their agents or agent suggestions—these writers are all friends or friendly acquaintances and presented a conundrum: I loathed asking them because I don’t want to put friends on the spot, but they were gracious as they sensitively acknowledged the difficulty of finding an agent. Of the agents they suggested, one felt he was not a good representative for the novel; one replied with silence though we know of each other; and the third also replied with silence, though I’ve heard they’re not taking on new clients.

I also learned something unexpected while investigating agents: I learned that the agent industry spawns activities that are not what I’d presumed to be their job. I had thought agents would find/read manuscripts; assess manuscripts; decide on representation; and if choosing to represent then embark on pitching them to publishers. Yes, they do these activities. But the agent industry also has created an arena of consulting/editing/workshop businesses, sometimes combined with sponsoring literary contests. These activities can be not just on how to write a novel but even how to write a submission cover letter. While it’s logical that the agent industry would spawn such activities, some seem open to queries specifically to garner possible clients for what I consider these “side businesses,” rather than clients to represent to publishers. I wonder, in fact, if these side businesses are financially critical for agents given the tough odds in successfully finding/creating publishing opportunities for most writers.

Another factor also may have arisen during my agent search, but it’s not something I can discuss beside mentioning its possibility as no agent naturally would be foolish enough to acknowledge or mention it: ageism. Was my age a factor? I was in my late 50s when I began looking for an agent and it seems naïve not to acknowledge this possibility. Moreover, because DOVELION can be considered “difficult” literary fiction that would be harder to market than, say, genre fiction, would the added element of my age have made it easier for agents to pass? A simple search for ageism in publishing reveals more information than I can share here, but here’s two links—the first by author Shannon A. Thompson and the second a New York Times article. I thought about (not) mentioning ageism but one successful novelist actually encouraged me to do so precisely because not enough attention is given to it; thus, I at least mention its possibility here.

As I continued looking for a publisher, and while my poetry background has inculcated a loathing for literary contests, I even entered a few novel-related contests. Some of these contests—no surprise!—are sponsored by agencies. I quickly ceased this activity which felt like a distraction, though I don’t mind sharing that an earlier version of the manuscript actually became a finalist in a global competition for best unpublished novel. For some time, I thought that that finalist position would be the best my unpublished novel would ever attain.

I should note that I’ve researched more agents than I actually queried—I probably looked at about 60 agent possibilities. This number does not come near to the efforts of other writers—I’ve heard of some who’ve contacted hundreds of agents and track their processes with spreadsheets. So perhaps the number I’ve researched and actually queried may not be sufficient. BUT.

But I also read a lot—including a lot of commercially-successful novels—and I feel I have a sense of what sells (do note that I articulate it as “what sells” rather than what’s mostly “deserving of publication”). I could be wrong but big-trade publishing is not for my novel. After all, DOVELION contains a poet and an artist as their primary characters, and the plot includes meditations on poetics and monochrome paintings. It’s also written “experimentally”—for instance, disrupting linear time with its premise of collapsing past, present, and future into one space. Finally, it breaks barriers between fiction and author autobiography to manifest an indigenous value explored in the novel (rather than the current “autofiction” trend even as it certainly can be marketed as part of it).

I think of my exposure to date to literary agents as “falling into the dark side” since, for me, it emphasized the non-commercial status of experimental, literary fiction in which DOVELION can be categorized—the writing might be “truly beautiful” but if it is not judged as commercial then many of these gate-keepers won’t show the manuscript to potential publishers. (There is much information about the role of agents as gate-keepers; no need for me to belabor it here as such information is easily Google-able.)

Sure, one can dispute my interpretation of my experience: I may have given up too soon on finding an agent—a process at which I’d spent about (or only) seven months. After all, innovative novels can be published—consider Haruki Murakami, an example I cite as my publisher raised his novels as evoked by their read of my novel. But I had reached the point of assessing the odds and analyzing how much effort I wanted to continue giving to the agent search. That search is not without its costs as it takes away from other activities I’d prefer to conduct—including that second novel which, in my opinion, is more commercial anyway than my first novel. In November 2019, I took a break from researching and querying agents to determine how better and whether I should continue searching for an agent or publisher.

My experience with agents, by the way, is just part of what I’ve done in an attempt to get DOVELION published. I also queried 13 publishers directly when I realized that small press or independent publishing may be more of a fit for my novel. One was receptive but ceased operating. Others have responded with the No of Silence—such a No should not be taken personally for being a small press inherently means limited sources and abilities to publish all that might interest them; indeed, one publisher explicitly said so in addition to inviting me to submit again in the future. One No of Silence also came from a college-affiliated publisher who utilizes student readers and I assume much of their activities was pre-empted by a Covid-19-related closure of their school campus.

So how, eventually, did I find AC Books, DOVELION’s publisher? Shortly after taking a break from my agent search, they solicited me to submit.

I know! A publisher solicited me for my novel!

Facebook: you done good! By which I mean that throughout my search, I also documented (okay, whined) about my search on Facebook. After reading an article—and whining justifiably complaining—about publishers failing to present multicultural work, I posted about how one of DOVELION’s characters is inspired by the “Babaylan,” an indigenous community leader and healer from the Philippines. In response to that post, AC Books asked to see my manuscript.

Of course, I researched AC Books before sending them my manuscript: I was not desperate, was I? Of course, that’s just a rhetorical question: I’m a novelist looking for a publisher, which is a position inherently incorporating (some level of) desperation. From their website, I learned AC Books’ Mission:

AC Books is a small nonprofit 501(c)(3) art space and publisher fostering experimentation and critical discussion through events, exhibitions, and publishing.

We design and publish unique, design-forward, books on a variety of dynamic subject matters, particularly concerning contemporary art history, criticism, and art practice. It’s clear that in the digital age our focus on producing engaging, tactile, object-like books and more important than ever. It is the drive of AC Books to provide the resources and collaborate with artists, writers, and creatives to publish and disseminate their work, amplifying necessary voices.

Perfect. Let me ALL-CAP emphasize: PERFECT! For while my Facebook post that caught their eye had to do with the indigenous Babaylan, much of the novel actually addresses poetry/poetics and art/aesthetics—the two primary protagonists are a poet and an artist. AC Books is an arts house publisher!

Before AC Books contacted me, and after I’d overcome my fixation on agented mainstream publishing, I had been imagining what DOVELION’s “ideal publisher” would look like. In my fantasies, I’d thought the perfect publisher would be some arts house press based in some Eastern European capital, possibly managed by a dour and facially well-bearded being. Well, AC Books is indeed an arts house press (whose expanse also included an art gallery that’s closed for now due to Covid-19) though it’s based in New York. I’m also pleased to say that I have found its director Holly Crawford to be more charming than dour though she lacks my imagined hirsuteness. I have further benefited from Holly’s in-house editing skills—with aplomb as she looked over DOVELION’s many layers, she noted where it could be tightened or improved. She also educated as great editors can—from her I learned about such elements as the Winnecott Attachment Theory and the nuanced difference between “flotsam” and “jetsam.” Such discoveries thrilled me since I want DOVELION to reflect as much of the world as possible—which is to say, that the novel includes many seemingly-random elements—a similar approach I take for my poetry. I have no doubt I’ve found the right publisher.

The first time Holly contacted me on behalf of AC Books, I was struck by finding her name familiar. We’ve not yet met in person but I had heard of her in various avant garde poetry spaces, e.g. in the important Last Vispo Anthology Visual Poetry 1998-2008 edited by Crag Hill and Nico Vassilakis (Fantagraphics, 2012). In addition to being a poet, she also is an artist and critic who considers AC Books not just a publisher but an off-shoot of her arts practice.

In other words, my novel—a poet’s novel—will be released because of another poet whose work happens to include publishing. This arrangement reminded me of a conversation with Minal Hajratwala, also a poet in addition to being a writer (she wrote the award-winning epic Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents). In the midst of my search for a publisher, I met her as she was in my area doing a residency. Inevitably, we discussed the difficulty of finding a publisher for my novel. After listening to my travails, she replied, “You know exactly how you will get a publisher.”

Taken aback, I asked her to elaborate. She said that I will find a publisher by doing what I’ve always done for the years that I’ve been a creative writer: by being a good literary citizen, for which I’d already done much work. This karmic effect is one with which I’d been familiar in poetry—in addition to writing poems, I have worked as a publisher and advocate for other poets, book reviewer, mentor, and editor. But I had not considered how that might relate to getting a novel published—I might have been a little dubious about Minal’s thoughts. I should have had more faith: Minal is proven to be right by how the publisher of my novel ends up being another poet, specifically another experimental poet!

On one level, I feel like my path to publishing DOVELION is akin to how one leaves home only to end up back at home. “Home” can be defined as the type of readers who are open to your type of writing. I will always feel deep gratitude to Holly Crawford and AC Books for giving my novel the appropriate home—here is a description from its marketing material:

DOVELION: A Fairy Tale for Our Times is a first novel by poet, writer, artist, and editor Eileen R. Tabios. In this multi-layered and inventive novel, poet Elena Theeland overcomes the trauma of her past to raise a family who overthrows the dictatorship in Pacifica. She is aided by artist Ernst Blazer whose father, a CIA spy, instigated the murder of Elena’s father, a rebel leader. As her family frees Pacifica from the dictator’s dynastic regime, Elena discovers herself a member of an indigenous tribe once thought to be erased through genocide. The discovery reveals her life to epitomize the birth of a modern-day “Baybay” modeled after the “Babaylan,” an indigenous spiritual and community leader of the Philippines.

Unfolding through lyrical and spare vignettes as well as the disruption of linear time, DOVELION presents the effects of colonialism and empire while incorporating meditations on poetry and poetics, art and aesthetics, history, orphanhood, and indigenous values and tribal citizenships. Glimpses are provided of spy warfare, internet-based rebellions, dominant-submissive psychology, and the insidious effects of beauty pageants. Relief is provided through Elena’s love of Wikipedia and the world’s most simple but delicious recipe for adobo. Ultimately, DOVELION bespeaks the unavoidable nature of humanity: a prevailing interconnection that can cancel past, present, and future into a singular Now.

DOVELION is currently scheduled for release in March 2021. It will be distributed through Small Press Distribution, John Rule (London), and through AC Books’ relationship with Saalt Press. Advance critical reception has been positive, of which I’m pleased to share the following samples:

Erotically charged and intellectual, entertaining, always surprising, this virtuoso novel seduces with its layers, its characters, and its wide-ranging reflections on art, poetry, history, politics, and desire. The story circles around Elena, orphaned as a child in (the fictional country of) Pacifica, and sent to live in the United States, where, as a young woman, she repeatedly seeks out a stranger for domination / submission encounters. What secrets about her country and herself is she trying to uncover, and how are they linked to Ernst, her nonbinary lover? How does her story — and that of her father, her mother, her daughter and grandsons — reflect and change the history of her homeland? The novel is structured like indigenous myth, where past, present and future do not exist, and where everything is present at once and connected to each other: fairy tales, the struggle against a dictator, poetics, colonialism, motherhood, gender identity, sexual passion, romantic love, and even a recipe for adobo. Eileen R. Tabios uses her pen like Elena uses her whip, provoking tenderness through intense sensation as well as illumination through sensuality and a passionate, hungry mind.
—Reine Arcache Melvin, recipient of two Philippine National Book Awards for her short story collection A Normal Life and Other Stories and her novel The Betrayed, which also received the Palanca Award for Best Novel

DOVELION: A Fairy Tale for Our Times is Eileen R. Tabios' mythic imagination enlivened! History marks bodies and cultures, making up stories deemed worthy and purposeful by the powerful until the Storyteller/Poet reveals the secrets and shadows lurking beneath power’s machinations. The figure of an indigenous community and spiritual leader known as "Baybay"—inspired by the Philippine Babaylan—emerges as the Medicine that calms the heart’s longings and reweaves the fragments of diasporic displacements. Eileen R. Tabios welcomes us into the world of “Kapwa-time” where the past, present, and future comingle and entangle with our own capacity to believe in the potency of myth-telling. Kapwa-time and mythic imagination form a descent into the underworld, or a psychic and archeological exploration into the subconscious; it’s notable that the indigenous Filipino concept of ‘Loob’ has internal and external dimensions. If this descent is done well and blessed by the deities, it becomes manifest in the Beauty of the novel’s form—such is Eileen R. Tabios’ accomplishment with DOVELION. As a reader going deep into Kapwa-time, I find my inner compass and this compass floods my life like the light of a thousand suns.
—Leny Mendoza Strobel, Founder of the Center for Babaylan Studies, Author of Coming Full Circle: The Process of Decolonization Among Post-1965 Filipino Americans and Editor of Babaylan: Filipinos and the Call of the Indigenous

Eileen R. Tabios has released over 60 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in ten countries and cyberspace. Her 2020 books include a short story collection, PAGPAG: The Dictator’s Aftermath in the Diaspora; a poetry collection, The In(ter)vention of the Hay(na)ku: Selected Tercets 1996-2019; and her third bilingual edition (English/Thai), INCULPATORY EVIDENCE: Covid-19 Poems. More information is available at https://eileenrtabios.com.
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