Proper Writers Have an Agent - Guest Post by Dennis Zaslona

"Proper writers have an agent."

So said a ‘Top Literary Agent’ (TLA) panel member during a Q&A at a recent international writer’s festival I attended. There followed an immediate low growl from most of the audience. So I guess according to the TLA that made them all, not proper writers. I was one of the growlers. So is TLA right? Am I not a proper writer?

If I don’t write, I become moody. Worse, I start to question the worth of my existence. So I suppose I must be proper in the sense that creating stories and characters is as essential to my well-being as breathing.

But perhaps my writing is too poor to be accepted by an agent. Perhaps this why is I am not proper. I can’t answer this question. I find it hard to judge the quality of my own writing and that is why I go to writer’s groups for genuine crits. What I do know is that I’ve had ‘near misses’, with several agents and the BBC and I’ve won and been short-listed in enough writing competitions to have confidence that my writing is not entirely crap.

Perhaps not being proper may have something to do with not providing the right material to the right agent at the right time. A more acceptable POV ? Not really.

So, I’ve had enough of agents. Nothing personal. They have to make a living and if they don’t see in my submissions the means to help them do that then okay, fair enough. But, how some agents present their rejections and make promises they fail to keep, well that’s another discussion for another time. Maybe under the heading ‘What Makes a Proper Literary Agent?’

So now I’m really going to put my writing to the test and go the indie route and see what actual readers think of my storytelling skills. I’ll give my potential readers the respect they deserve by:
  1. Having my book proof read and edited by a professional.
  2. Pay for a professional cover design.
And the scariest bit:
  1. Submit my novel to a target audience of middle grade readers to review and see what they think. I’ve been told the kids won’t hold back what they think. (gulp).
  2. Explore the mysteries of appropriate formatting and experience the daunting prospect of building a mailing list, platform etc. I’m not a natural salesman. I’d rather be writing than tweeting and blogging but if needs be then I will. I might even get to like it. Then there is who to publish with and asking for reviews. Aaaargh! One thing at a time.
Nos 1, 2 and 4 are in progress. No 3. I survived with scratches rather than scars. I even came out of the school walking taller and feeling good. In fact, feeling quite proper.

My novel ‘Secrets and Ghosts’ (working title) will be out in the autumn and I am currently working on the next novel in the series. Any tips from you guys who have already published would be really most welcome.


Chris Longmuir said…
Getting a TLA can be even more difficult than getting a publisher. Their aim is to make money and that is difficult for them to do with a first time author. Getting a publisher can also be difficult. I was told once by someone in the marketing side of publishing that a first book only sells about 350 copies, and that is not an incentive for a publisher or agent to take you on. I do wish, though, that they were not so dismissive of those of us who prefer to publish independently. I too, have never managed to acquire an agent despite winning one of the major writing awards for Dead Wood, and being traditionally published afterwards, and having friends in the business. However, it was on the advice of an agent friend that I went the indie route with my subsequent books and I have never regretted it, Plus, once I got my rights back to the traditionally published books, I made more money off them in 1 year than I had earned with publisher royalties over the previous 3 years. Of course, it's a lot more work to get them out there but it's worth it, and I am no longer looking for an agent or a publisher, top or otherwise. I'm doing OK by myself. The best thing you can do is get your name recognised. I personally don't think Twitter and Facebook marketing sell books, but they do help to get your name out there. Good luck with your venture and I hope your book sells zillions
Unknown said…
Interesting post, Dennis, I've always wondered if I should have an agent and how many indie authors have one? I self-published my debut earlier this year, so understanding what you're feeling at the moment. Good luck with it all.
Unknown said…
Just read your comment after posting my own, Chris. It's really interesting to hear what you've gone through and where you are now. I rely heavily on Facebook marketing, and thankfully it has helped me so far, but I realise I need to expand my marketing skills. Maybe there's a book on that....
I've had agents: two for drama, three for fiction. Two of them were pretty good although of those, the drama agent negotiated good contracts, with more cash and better terms for both of us, but didn't actually get me the work. I did that. With the good fiction agent, there were problems not of our making. I fell victim to one of the many publishing amalgamations of the eighties, and began to concentrate more on drama for radio, television and theatre, because that was where the work was at the time. I was headhunted by another drama agent with promises of all kinds of good things, but mainly that she would arrange introductions and get me more drama work. She did nothing nada, zilch, so like the country right now I was up a certain creek without a paddle. My second fiction agent was OK but lukewarm about smaller publishers, and by this time, options were limited. I still remember her saying that if she sent out two manuscripts on my behalf, and they were rejected, the big boys would not look at a third. So she was always suggesting I try something else to fit in with the current demands of the big corporates. And I could no longer be marketed as a 'stunning debut' which made it doubly difficult. In their eyes, I was 'damaged goods'. When that something else is a 90,000 word novel, that's a lot of time. We parted company for reasons too complicated to go into here. My last agent negotiated one small contract for me (again, a project I had found myself) and then quite literally disappeared without trace. The office unmanned, the letters piling up. After that, I decided that enough was enough. I'm agent free and have never looked back. One good thing was that I had a lot of prewritten work, so like Chris, I actually had something to publish and I did. I also formed a good relationship with a smaller independent publisher, and now I'm hybrid, published by several smaller publishers (plays, non fiction and fiction) as well as by myself. Back when I was still desperately searching for an agent under the misapprehension that I needed one, a crabby old agent told me that one of my novels was a 'library novel fit only for housewives.' It's been shortlisted for a prize, published, sold out. I reclaimed the rights and self published it. Now, I'm negotiating another deal for it. So yes, I think I'm a proper writer. (But I wonder how many agents are proper agents!) One piece of advice would be to join the Society of Authors as soon as possible. They have self publishing advice and will vet contracts for anyone wanting to go down the trad route as well.
Susan Price said…
All I have to say is - what excellent advice is being given here, and what experience shared!
Judd Quint said…

Your view is more than valid. There are many routes that people can take. Perhaps the most diplomatic thing to be said is that agents are not for everyone, and not all agents are as good as each other....
Debbie Bennett said…
I had a big London agent once. The kind that makes editors go "oooh". But I think being a tiny minnow in a huge ocean does you no favours. Unless an agent can get me into bookshops (and in the right place - not one copy spine out on the bottom shelf in s dusty corner...), or get me a film or tv deal, I'm not sure what they can do for me that I'm not doing myself?
Enid Richemont said…
During my long life, I've had three agents. The first was a treasure, and I was very young and somewhat in awe of her, but then the world changed, short stories for women's mags were off the menu, and hey! I was pregnant, so had other things to do.The second, many years later, was on the whole hopeless. I sold my first children's book myself, but having her gave me respectability and kudos, and we were good friends anyway. Following her death (no, Chris L, I didn't do it) and also following over ten years of being regularly published and reviewed, I got myself a third agent, and I still have this one. A supportive friend, absolutely, but workwise, we shall see... these days I do a lot of the pitching myself. I also have quite a number of ebooks out there.

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