Writers, agents and publishers: are all of us flogging a dead horse?

Let’s make some assumptions: first, that not every writer aspires only to the ebook publishing route; second, that agents and publishers have a genuine interest in finding good writers; third, that the publishing business is as much driven by fashion and trends as is the clothing industry. Now let’s look at the current writer’s route to publication, which has evolved Topsy-like to its current chaotic inefficiency.

Here I am, a writer new to the publishing process, with no recogniseable ‘name’. I seek and follow advice about how to approach the behemoth of traditional publishing, and invest in the ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’, which, ironically, is available from Amazon at a much reduced rate. I understand the mantra that new writers must first find an agent as publishers are too ‘overwhelmed’ to accept ‘unagented’ manuscripts. Two things are immediately striking about the agents listed in the big red book. The first is that they all have completely different requirements for would-be supplicants. Some demand email plus attachments, others refuse it. Some want five chapters, some 50 pages, and they expect them to be double-spaced, presumably for easier reading by whoever will read them, (or not), which doubles the amount of paper and postage costs. Having followed this process a number of times, I seriously question whether many of these great bricks of text are in fact read at all, but of this more later.

The other striking thing about the agents’ list when one looks closely is that almost every one is based in London, or at least the agency is: I imagine each agency has a network of ‘readers’ who can ill-afford to live in the most expensive city in the UK. There are no doubt very sound reasons for this London-centrism, especially if the book business is a big club, where people know one another, and from which someone like me is excluded in almost every respect.

Meeting representatives of this ‘club’ in person usually compounds this impression, by the way. If one is from the outer darkness of Cumbria and over 60, the sense of exclusion deepens further. I may have been unfortunate in my personal contact with agents, and what follows may be a caricature, but if I meet another impeccably dressed and accented young woman called Matilda or Clarissa,  whose only apparent criterion is that she ‘falls in love with’ the manuscript, I shall groan audibly.

Meeting the varying and capricious demands of the agents that one picks carefully from the daunting red book takes up a lot of time. Printing and posting off heavy parcels that one will never see again takes money too. Then one waits, for weeks, until the self-addressed envelopes land on the mat, containing the necessary and non-specific formulas of rejection. The suspicion that one’s precious offering has not been read is inescapable. It would be really helpful if someone were honest about what they look at first, or at all. Covering letter? Synopsis? Are you seriously telling me that the ‘overwhelmed’ agent reads all five chapters or fifty pages before reaching for the pre-printed letter? One of the agents I encountered – looking for sympathy perhaps – told her audience that life at her office was so hectic and packed with meetings that she had to read writers’ submissions at home in the evenings, or at the weekend. Poor dear. It must be hell.

Surely there must be a better way than this. If we asked students looking for a university place to go through such a process, there would be uproar, and rightly so. Instead there is one application mechanism and a clearing house system. Of course, every venerable place of higher learning may find it all rather infra-dig, and the Oxbridge colleges insist on their own procedures, but for the most part it works, without the anachronistic inefficiency facing writers and publishers trying to find each other.

And now there are the online dating agencies to ease the path for ‘relationship-seekers’, a very fitting model if ‘falling in love’ with a manuscript is what the agents insist upon. Finding my wonderful partner online was a far more humane and navigable process than trying to find someone interested in my books. In writing terms I’m not a complete no-hoper, by the way. I’ve invested in my own work and reach thousands of readers, in print as well as online, but unless things change in the ‘traditional’ publishing business I’ll not bother again. ‘Keep trying’ is the only advice, but life is too short for so much time, expense and frustration. I shall be a humble supplicant no longer.

For publishers too, surely there must be a better way than this, if someone had the wit to think it through. Look at the current financial health and efficiency of the fiction publishing industry and draw the necessary conclusion: if the horse is dead, stop flogging it and find another horse.

 

 

 

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