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!

Author: 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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