So Lit Rep

This blog has been banging on like a misfiring Energizer Bunny since July 2004. At that point, I had written the first draft of my novel Déjà Vu, and it was – I think – in the hands my erstwhile editor, the top notch Aliya WhiteleyCurrently riding high on the success of her current novel, Light Reading.

My first entry, entitled Reading the classics, began:

Today sees the start of my new blog, which is designed to express views and opinions about writing and publishing.

Because my novel had already found a home with a traditional (albeit small) publisher, I did not chronicle my experiences of rejection, re-submission and the generally breakdown-inducing jiggery pokery that constitutes getting published. I did, however, go on to talk about my struggles to find an agent.

When I found him, and his name was John Jarrold.

Is an agent worth it?

I want to take a few moments to write down my current thinking about literary representation.

An agent is not necessary

There are many writers who make a good living without representation. I seem to recall that Iain Banks – who, coincidentally, will be in conversation with my agent Lincoln Literary Festival this Monday – has never been represented by an agent. He has dealt directly with editors since the beginning of his career. But it is my impression that the majority of writers are represented. That alone should indicate that having an agent is, for the majority, a good idea.

An agent will take a cut of your earnings but will probably increase your earnings above this cut

Your publisher will, at length, pass on your royalty cheque to your agent. He or she will then, at length, pass it on to you – with a deduction. I’ve often read that an agent is a bad thing for a writer because they reduce earnings, but the likelihood is that, sans agent, your earnings will be lower that your agented earning minus the ten per cent. There is a very real chance they will be zero.

An agent can act like an editor

Editors are not the ravenous, bugblatter beasts of publishing they once were. They cannot commission a book immediately they read a draft; they must take it to one or more committees and pitch it as though it were the next Harry Potter. They must love the book. They will not love the book if its complection is spotty with typos, or wonky with underdeveloped elements that the writer is hoping to fix later. The days when this was acceptable – according to my agent, and to other people I’ve met in the industry – are gone. You need to present an editor with a product that is nigh perfect. This means that the editor is more likely to fall head over heels, and it means that the publisher doesn’t have to invest in further editorial resources. The agent, of course, has a financial stake in the success of your book, and should have experience of what a given editor, or the industry at large, will and will not accept; they’ll help put the manuscript on a diet, check it into a gym, whatever it needs.

An agent can tell you to chill the fuck out

Until you have an agent, you’re essentially on your own. Sure, your girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse/Wilson can give you sympathetic looks when you’re into the sixth month of a manuscript that’s going nowhere. They can send you a supportive SMS when everyone else is in the pub but you’re at home, writing. But, with an agent, you can call them up and check progress on your various projects. Your agent will be used to dealing with panicky writers, and will be happy to say, ‘Yeah, well I showed it to Xavier at Yankie Doodle the other day and he asked to look at the manuscript; there’s some film interest’ und so weiter. It really helps. It cuts through the maddening wall of silence that bricks you out when you send unsolicited manuscripts. Most publishers don’t bother to get back to you; when they do, it’s often a little postcard citing a rejection that has nothing, of course, to do with the quality of the manuscript but the size of their lists.

I’ve configured my email client to bounce its icon when something arrives from my agent.

An agent is well connected

You might think you are. You might even know lots of writers, illustrators and commissioning editors. But it’s difficult to use these professional contacts because they won’t see you as a good source about the quality of your own work. It costs you less to be rejected. For the agent, who swims in these waters, the cost is a little higher, because each ‘rejection’ is a reflection on his or her judgement. So, all things being equal (i.e. you aren’t the godson of the publisher’s major investor), when an agent offers a manuscript, it gets more attention – and more professional attention. An agent can attend trade fairs and talk to many publishers, film makers and other creative professionals. A writer at the same trade show will get funny looks.

An agent can kick ass and take names

It might be difficult for you to maintain a business relationship with your publisher. After all, they like your work and this makes you grateful. So when the royalty cheques don’t arrive or the review copies get lost in the post or your publisher puts pressure on you to shoulder 90% of the marketing, you may not find it easy to complain. An agent will have no such compunction. His or her relationship with the publisher is businesslike and will not blush on matters of nitty gritty.

How do you get one?

This can be summed up in a sentence: You need to convince an agent that they can make money from you.

Cash

This is not to say that the whole thing is about money. Agents are in the publishing business because they like books. They will need to like, and even love, the work that you produce. But they will not spend time advocating work that cannot be sold.

Track record

So, you need to indicate that reasonably independent, third-party (i.e. not you or your mum) publishers have accepted your work for publication. That means short stories, novels, articles, whatever. Do you have reviews of your work? Has anyone with their own track record commented favourably on your fiction?

Professionalism

An agent will probably not be willing to work with someone who is stark staring bonkers. You might be a writer, but you will need to do many things that involve meeting people, being reliable, and so on. You should come across as a normal person. Agents don’t want calls at 2 a.m. comprising vituperative tirades about the people who just don’t get you. So I’d suggest approaching agents as though you’re a professional who has been doing this writing lark for years, and intends to do it for several more years. Be polite, not quirky. Be brief. Don’t place time demands on the agent.

Agency size

Some are huge, international behemoths capable of buying a small country. Others are Jerry Maguire-style one-person outfits who work from a broom cupboard. The advantages of a large agency: clout with editors; ability to leverage large advances; in-house editorial support. The primary disadvantage: as a new writer, you are quite unlikely to make any money whatsoever. This means that, if the agent is efficient (which they will be; they’re successful), they will pay much more attention to the fewer writers who contribute most to their income. Your own manuscript might take longer to edit; it might be difficult to get hold of your agent when you have a query; you might find yourself speaking to his or her secretary more than you’d like.

The disadvantage of a small agency: editorial support might be limited; your agent may have less clout. The advantages: a more personal approach, and more sense of a team; you’re more likely to get hold of them for that 2 a.m. tirade about the people who just don’t get you.

My advice – and please let’s bear in mind that I’ve only had one novel published, and I’m no grizzled veteran (though I intend to be) – is that the smaller agencies will serve you better.

Agencies really don’t have to be large. Remember that the UK publishing industry is the same size as the bagged salad industry. Repeat after me: Bagged. Salad.

Approaching an agency

You can cut down your workload by excluding the agents who (i) are not taking on new clients and (ii) would not like your work. The first part is reasonably straightforward. You can find a list of agents in the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook (enjoy that look of withering pity from the girl on the till as you purchase this tone). Or you can check out this list by Gerard Jones, author of Ginny Good.

Finding an agent receptive to your fiction is more difficult. If you’ve attended genre-specific conferences (I’m thinking of sciffy), you may well have chatted to agents over a pint. Perhaps your favourite author was there; if so, go back in time and ask who their agent is. Who is your favourite author, by the way? If you write like them – admit it, you do – and they’re not pushing up the daisies, type their name into Google and find out the name of their agent. Then email the agent. If the agent turns you down, tell them that you value their opinion as an important person in the industry and ask them to recommend another agent. Then you can approach another agent, citing that recommendation.

On that subject, it is very helpful if you have an ‘in’. It creates the impression that you’re not just some bloke or blokette off the street. So, if you read an interview with a given agent in a magazine, start your email with ‘I was interested to read your views on….and thought I would email you about the possibility of representation’. Or ask someone in the industry if there is an agent they would recommend. Then you can start your email with ‘I spoke to Joe ‘M’ Bloggs last week and he recommended that I speak to you about representation’.

Email, by the way, seems to be the most successful method. I’ve left countless answer machine messages that have not been returned; I guess it’s just too effortful. A phone call is an interruption; an email is not.

My experience

There are many ways of being successful in this industry. It’s a relative term, anyway. Here is how I landed my agent, the excellent John Jarrold.

I wrote my novel Déjà Vu and submitted to all the supermarkets interested in bagged salad. Sorry; I mean: I submitted it to lots of publishers (not agents). Probably about fifty. One or two asked for the full manuscript and I never heard from them again. Next, I sank into a fit of depression and re-worked the manuscript. I sent it to a small publisher called The UKA Press and had it accepted.

Nine months or so later, the book was published. More accurately, the initial proof of the book was published – typos and all – because there wasn’t enough money to get around to publishing a final proof. My publisher sent out a handful of review copies. I bought about sixty and sent out copies to every man and his dog. I also appeared on local radio, local TV (that was great! I miss you, YorkTVOne of the presenters spoke to me afterwards about her sex book. I wonder what happened to it?), and did interview after interview. I was very lucky with the review coverage I received, and most of the critics didn’t mention the typos (snippets of the reviews appear randomly in the title bar). I still remember opening up The Guardian and reading Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s lovely review.

I wrote a blog post about the ridiculously difficult job I had of getting copies of the book into Waterstone’s, in which, I seem to recall, I was very rough on a svengali character called Scott Pack, who was the Chief Buyer for Waterstones and generally recognised as the most powerful/evil man in publishing. He emailed me shortly thereafter saying ‘If it’s so good, send me a copy and we’ll see about stocking it’. Scott emailed me back with a positive review, but reiterated that Waterstone’s would never publish it because of its POD publishing model and its awful cover. He did, however, tell me to get in touch with an agent called Ivan Mulcahy. Ivan read then read the book, but that’s as far as we got. He didn’t ‘love’ the book and thought he wouldn’t be the best person to represent me, which was entirely fair enough.

The book went out of print. I tried to keep it alive by producing a podcast. I sent about writing a sequel and an unrelated comedy novel. En passant, I completed my PhD.

A New York film agency contacted me early last year enquiring about the film rights. Simultaneously, another small publisher became interested in Déjà Vu. The technicalities with my previous contract for Déjà Vu, together with the US agent asking if I had a UK agent, nudged me into thinking that it was time for representation.

I found John Jarrold by googling ‘science fiction agent’ (I couldn’t face another pitying look from the cashier at Waterstone’s when I purchased the new Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook) partly because so many agents don’t seem to have any experience with sciffy. It turned out that John had already heard of my book from its review in The Guardian. He was impressed by this and other reviews, pleased to hear about the American interest and the interest from the small publisher, and asked to read the book. He did, and snapped me up and here we are.

Conclusions

Well, that turned into a rather long post. I hope it’s useful to somebody. My advice would be: try to get as much work published as possible, in order that you establish yourself; find an agent who is available, who suits you, and with whom you get on. Best of luck!

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

3 thoughts on “So Lit Rep”

  1. What a great post! Apart from the fact that you’re so nice to me, it’s great because it’s so interesting to see the career so far laid out like that – these small snowballs you throw out randomly that gather speed and become bigger snowballs and so on.

    I might write one myself like this. I love being able to chart ‘how it happened’.

  2. How can I not be nice to you? I feel like we spent a few nights in the same hellish foxhole that was Deja Vu’s early draft…I shudder.

    I’d be really interested to read a blog post detailing your own meteoric rise. How about it?

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