Agents: Think Before You Query, Part One by Catherine Czerkawska

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!

Catherine Czerkawska 


Bill Kirton said…
Always refreshing to read your take on the industry, Catherine. Here, you capture both the exhilaration of actually getting an agent back then and the progressive disillusionment with the processes they (and you) had to go through. Maybe part of the revolution that's happening has resulted precisely from the persistence of the agent/publisher alliance. The main publishers will only accept submissions through agents, and the agents use unproven commercial 'truths' to suggest you morph your manuscript into a publisher-friendly 'product'. Both have their 'traditional' roles to maintain so continue to support one another. Meanwhile, writers are beginning to realise that they don't have to subscribe to such outmoded arrangements. I know I'm generalising and there still are exceptions but the myths need to be discarded and replaced with relationships more suited to the current state of writing (and reading).
Lesley Cookman said…
Excellent post. Should be read by publishers and agents - not just writers!
Dennis Hamley said…
Yes, Catherine, this is a frighteningly accurate account. I got by without an agent for twenty-five years but when I realised things had irreversibly changed I thought I'd better get one. She was really good, knew the field, was respected by publishers and her small list had some fairly stellar names on it. She never tried to alter a word I wrote. Her attitude, like mine, was that the publisher should judge what I'd written, not what she had. I assumed that was axiomatic. I'm appalled by what I see now happening to new writers I'm mentoring. One finished her novel, I advised her as she wrote and she accepted what I said. I believe she had - still has - a really publishable novel. She got an agent first go. Oh, how they loved it! But - then came the revisions, the suggestions, the changes, all of which she dutifully carried out. I disagreed with most, but, though I wanted to, I didn't think I could tell her not to. She thought her ship had come in. More encouraging noises - then nothing for months. She wrote several times and rang as well, always to be told that her contact was out of the office. Then a bleak letter to say her contact had left the agency and nobody there liked it enough to go forward with it. This is a big and well-known agency. Two other mentorees are suffering under the same process. I tell them about self-publishing but they have the right to go down the traditional route first and so one can only do what one can to help. But it leads to so much pain and disillusion for good, talented people.
Anonymous said…
This was so close to my own experience it was a little frightening.
I am glad I have been able to find another route, one where I have autonomy.
I still get people asking me why I don't try the traditional route again, saying they can't understand why I didn't get through. I think this explains it very well. Thank you.
Kathleen Jones said…
I'm on my fourth agent - my first terrified the wits out of me (had to swallow a valium before I could even ring her up!), my second still owes me money, my third left on maternity leave, and my fourth is publishing writer herself and down to earth about the state of publishing at the moment. I publish the stuff myself and she keeps an eye on it to see if she can sell any rights.
But the process of going through all these agents (not to mention the getting of them) left me somewhat traumatised - I almost gave up writing at one point.
Thanks for posting this Catherine - the destructive power of traditional publishing today needs to be exposed
This is so reassuring,Catherine. I thought I was the only one to have experienced this kind of thing, so it's great to hear that it's more or less the norm. How dreadful that is, though, and as Kathleen says, destructive. Thank heaven for small publishers and fresh options in self-publishing.
Susan Price said…
You've struck a chord, as usual, Catherine. My experience of agents has been, on the whole, more positive, but I think we're all - writers, agents, publishers - moving into uncharted territory now. Past experience isn't a very useful guide. - And to keep chivvying a writer to change and rewrite something which was perfectly good to start with - and what's more, as the writer intended - is very bad practice. Publisher and agent are chasing some 'Market' chimera. How do they know the writer, as representative of someone alive today, hasn't already hit on exactly what the market wants, but doesn't know itself yet?
Chris Longmuir said…
Yes, I can relate to that. My editorial experience was with a publisher though. Four editors in as many months completely destroyed my book which I had to eventually rewrite and is now on sale as The Death Game.
Lydia Bennet said…
ah yes been there, done that, several times, and have also seen others' books ruined by too much editorial advice chasing some mythical 'market' which can't be caught. timely piece, Catherine, as ever.
Thanks, everyone! I know there are some good agents out there, but I've also heard of far too many young writers with the same experience as Dennis's friend. Endless different suggestions for change are not helpful. The sad thing is that now, looking back, I can see exactly the kind of editorial help I needed but almost never got! I can count on the fingers of one hand the genuinely helpful editors and they were usually fellow writers. Or, in the case of my theatre work, actors prepared to ask challenging questions and one or two fine directors. I have to say that my recent experiences with a smaller traditional publisher have been absolutely excellent - and that was partly because they took some trouble to pair me with exactly the right editor for my novel. The changes were minor, and subtle, questions rather than detailed suggestions, and I was so glad that I had been able to work with her. Oddly enough, this (The Physic Garden) was a novel that nobody else had ever edited. So it was me, and one other excellent editor. I'm convinced that's the way it should be - as Dennis says, a mentor helping a young writer to achieve the best novel they can but always the novel they intended to write.
Debra Bertulis said…

Many thanks for this Catherine.
I'm not ready to query yet, so this has been very interesting and informative reading. I like the sound of a few agents, and keep track of them on Twitter! I dismissed one agent quite quickly when I joined Twitter last year, for posting more about football than writing and anything to do with books... One can tell a lot from a Twitter feed! Other agents get really excited about books, and talk a lot about their work and present clients which I take as a good sign.
My problem (if it is one?) is that I have never favoured the self publishing route. I need that endorsement from a professional agent/publisher that says I am a good writer. I know there are successful self publishers out there, and some excellent books by good writers who self publish but there is also an enormous amount of work to do in selling,and convincing people to buy (let alone read!)And the editing of some self published work leaves a lot to be desired. Who has your best interests at heart if YOU'RE paying THEM to publish your book? They will get their money anyway if you are told it's good enough. Just a personal preference; it's not me. And who am I to say I'm a good writer and have a readable story? But as I said it works very well for some and have read some excellent self published books. But that area has its risks too.
I have a mixture of writer friends who have experienced both sides, so it is scary out there!
I also have a few publishers in mind, (to send directly to) and keep track of those on Twitter! It's a conundrum, but will look forward to your suggestions next week!
It'll be next month, Debra - we only blog once a month, but I'll certainly be getting my thinking cap on with suggestions and will definitely remember this very thoughtful and thought-provoking comment when I write the post. Meanwhile, I suspect some of the other Authors Electric might have some thoughts to add too. Re self/ trad publishing, there is no rule that says you have to do one or the other. In fact many of us regularly blogging on here are so-called 'hybrids' - we self publish and are also happily published in the traditional way. It depends on the project. I also have friends who have no agent but several different publishers. Horses for courses. But I think the point I wanted to make (and perhaps because the post was getting just too long didn't make it as clearly as I might have!) was that getting an agent is no longer any kind of guarantee of getting a publisher even if you make the perfectly valid decision to go down the traditional route. And that's a problem, because you can waste an awful lot of good writing time rewriting one or two novels to a string of demands from other people. A couple of other points for now - even if you are traditionally published you will have to do a vast amount of selling and marketing yourself. A good publisher will be helpful, supportive, everything you wish for. But promotional budgets are small, and you will still have an awful lot of work to do yourself. I should also point out that as a self publisher you shouldn't be paying anyone to publish your book although you might pay a printer. Nobody on here is advocating the use of the old expensive 'vanity publishing' model.Indie publishing means that you are the publisher. You subcontract the help you need just like any other business, including professional editing and cover design. There's no single right way - I think you have to find out what's right for YOU - but also realise that it isn't an 'either/or' situation. You're free to try one route and then change your mind if you want to! Many thanks again for such a thought provoking comment!
Debra Bertulis said…

Many thanks Catherine,

I suppose as I've decided it's not for me, I haven't researched it thoroughly, so you've made things clearer.
Looking forward to your next blog, Catherine. Many thanks!
Sandra Horn said…
Oh, Catherine...this is my story to a T. It made me feel such a failure at the time. Thank you for letting us know it can also happen to the best writers.
Anonymous said…
Fantastic article. This was close to what happened to me. Finally, after years of submitting, the market started turning in favor of my manuscript. Agents started asking for the full. At the same time, a new independent digital publisher wanted my book. I debated what to do. Should I wait for the agents who seemed very interested? They might be able to place my book with a big publisher. Emphasis on might. Ultimately, I decided to go with the standing offer. I'm glad I did. I'm VERY happy with my publisher and hope to grow with them.
Anonymous said…
Fantastic article. This was close to what happened to me. Finally, after years of submitting, the market started turning in favor of my manuscript. Agents started asking for the full. At the same time, a new independent digital publisher wanted my book. I debated what to do. Should I wait for the agents who seemed very interested? They might be able to place my book with a big publisher. Emphasis on might. Ultimately, I decided to go with the standing offer. I'm glad I did. I'm VERY happy with my publisher and hope to grow with them.

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