|Rab - looking for an agent?|
Some years ago, when I was asked to speak to writers and aspiring writers about routes to publication, I would find myself saying that they would probably need to look for an agent.
What a difference a decade makes.
I still see threads on Facebook with recommendations about writing query letters, lists of requirements from literary agents, scathing blog posts about ‘what not to do’. These are variable enough to undermine the confidence of the most talented individual. There will also be the occasional delighted post from somebody who has ‘got an agent’ at last, immediately followed by a string of congratulations, as though the person in question had won some kind of literary lottery. I’m not in the business of raining on parades, so I sit on my hands and say nothing.
If you are reading this and you have a wonderful agent, one who has secured a string of excellent deals for you, who always acknowledges emails within a day or two, who speaks to you on the telephone with reasonable regularity, (i.e. not every week, but more than once a year) who has negotiated higher royalties or fees, who has sold foreign rights and clearly has a good working knowledge of IP law and has your best interests at heart, then stop reading now. This post is not for you. I know such agents do exist. I even know people who are lucky enough to have them. Your agent need not, I hasten to add, be your best friend, any more than your solicitor or your accountant should be your best friend. In fact best friendship in such circumstances may well be counter-productive. But if you have a collaborative, communicative and above all professional relationship, then you can ask for no more.
I don’t have an agent now but I have had agents in the past, both for plays and for books. I have had good agents and less than good agents. But this is not a whinging post about ‘agents I have known’. Rather, it’s a general warning to think before you devote precious time to querying. Ask yourself if you really want or need to go down this route right now. Because times have changed, and writers must think about changing with them.
To understand this, we have to look briefly at how publishing has evolved. When I was a young writer, you often got an agent by means of some kind of success and that generally meant that you had a certain amount of work under your belt. I won an award for a radio play - by no means my first radio play - which in turn meant that a couple of agents showed an interest in me. Other colleagues sent out query letters, but only when they had something to sell. It might be a successful stage play, it might be a completed and revised novel but there would be another one well under way and ideas for more in the pipeline.
It was never advisable to send the first three chapters of your incomplete magnum opus to a long list of agencies, many of them wildly unsuitable, hoping to be taken on. If you did, your chances of finding an agent and then a publisher were somewhere on a par with winning the lottery. Occasionally people would manage it. They usually made the popular press, thus reinforcing the idea that it was possible. But these kind of deals were the exception rather than the rule. Mostly, people knew that they needed to do quite a lot of writing before even thinking about needing an agent.
In return, however, your agent would not expect to edit your work. That was not her job. She would hope to be able to place it with a publisher. For money. Your agent’s job was to negotiate a fair contract, to secure a reasonable but seldom astronomical advance or commissioning fee - although again such things did sometimes happen, and they made the news - to handle other rights and to make sure that the money came in on time. It was the editor within the publishing company who worked with a writer to develop a long term career. I’d rather like to ban the weasel word ‘nurturing’, which seems to me to infantilise the writer. This should always be a business relationship. If, a few books down the line, there was a breakthrough novel, everyone involved made money.
That was the way it was when I started out.
But publishing itself was changing. Smaller publishers were being swallowed by big corporations. This was sold to us as being a Good Thing. But the bigger the company, the more they seemed to be in pursuit of the instant success. The whole meaning of the term ‘breakthrough’ novel had changed. They may as well have prefixed it with ‘instant’.‘Publishers nowadays,’ said one agent to me,’Are looking for an oven ready product. It’s my job to work with you to give them that.’
It’s impossible to overestimate how huge this change was, but it was especially significant for writers and their agents. From being the business partner who handled the tough stuff, often with a legal team behind them, in too many cases your agent became an anxious editor, suggesting revisions, hunting for the instant success, wary of submitting too soon, wary of submitting anything that wouldn’t be a big hit with ‘sales and marketing’ – and quite prepared to file your book away in a drawer while waiting to see if you could do it all over again with a better bet. We put up with this because at the time there were few other options open to us.
This is how it still works for many people. You write your first novel, with or without the help of a creative writing course. If you’ve been doing a course, then the novel will have been subject to an intensive analysis, with revisions and rewrites along the way. There might be an agency ready to pick what they judge to be the cream of the crop and you might secure the ‘prize’ of representation by the time you graduate. If not, you do your homework and start querying agents. You’ll spend a long time sending out letters, with a synopsis of your book and the first three chapters. Many agencies still get inexplicably cross if you send out more than one query at a time, but you can wait several months to hear from them, so most people go for the compromise of two or three at a time.
Sometimes an agent will get back to you and ask for a three month option. Deliriously happy, you agree, only to find two more agents from a previous batch of queries asking to see your book. Now you’re stuck. The first agent takes three months to tell you that the answer is no, by which time, the other two have gone off the boil.
Eventually somebody may express a firm interest in the full manuscript and offer to represent you. You are so grateful and relieved that you say ‘yes, please’ without pausing to assess whether this is the right agent and the right agency for you. You wait for several months while your new agent suggests changes. This is the novel you’ve revised to within an inch of its life, but you dutifully set to and rewrite it. Your agent likes this version, but just to be on the safe side, she lets another colleague read it. The colleague suggests more changes. When you have calmed down, you agree. You make the changes in record time. You wait. Your agent approves the changes and agrees to send the manuscript out, but warns you that times are hard. All this happens before a publisher has so much as laid eyes on your book.
You wait a very long time. You convince yourself that ‘no news is good news’ and envisage the agent beavering away on your behalf. You don’t want to seem pushy. Months pass. Your agent forwards you the occasional email from some acquisitions editor who says that she ‘loved your novel' but couldn’t carry sales and marketing with her and in the current climate she can’t make these kind of decisions alone. Or she liked the novel but ‘didn’t love it.’ Or loved the novel but ‘not 110%’. Or loved the novel but ‘the last one like this we published didn’t do as well as expected.’
You would like to suggest self publishing, but you're too scared to mention it at this early stage in your relationship. At last, you ask your agent if she might not send the novel out to some smaller independent publishers. You can even name a few suitable names because you read as well as write and you see that these smaller names are doing well by their authors. Your agent seems curiously reluctant and suggests that this might be something you could do yourself.
So much time has passed that you have written another novel. You repeat this whole process of submission and extensive revision with the new book. But now, your agent has a terrible warning for you. ‘If I submit this one to the same editors,’ she says, ‘And they turn it down, they won’t even look at another submission with your name on it.’ Nobody told you about the 'two strikes and you're out' rule. Several years have passed and you now have two or even three substantial pieces of finished work, (as well as all those bottom drawer manuscripts and a great many plans for new work) none of which is the way it started out, all of which have become stale in your mind and in your imagination. You feel like a failure. You feel guilty about not earning enough money for your agent, forgetting that she has several starry clients of whose earnings her 15% more than makes up for any time spent with you.
The truth is that for many of us, our relationships with our agents were and possibly still are skewed. If we were to sit back and analyse exactly what’s going on here, it might seem closer to an unequal marriage rather than to a good business relationship between equals. There will almost certainly be faults on both sides. But at the root of it, there may well be an imbalance of power. When it starts to affect your work, your writing, your very creativity, perhaps you need to pause, rewind and start over. You don't need to give up writing. But maybe you need to think long and hard about what to do with that writing. Think long and hard before you query any agents at all. You may eventually decide that you want to go down that route, but it shouldn't be the first thing in your mind. Not any more.
This is already much too long for a blog post, so you’ll have to wait until next month’s thrilling installment for some suggestions as to what you might do instead. It's part of a longer piece of writing called Reclaiming Creativity that sooner or later I'll be collating and publishing in eBook form. But maybe not this year!