Agents – how did they get to be so powerful?

books-education-school-literature-51342.jpegI saw an advert today for a ‘writing conference’, but actually it was an event designed solely to give writers access to a group of agents, for whom the writers were expected to ‘perform’, aka ‘pitching’. For this experience the writers would travel to the venue and pay a considerable fee. Could this be entitled a ‘writing conference’? It was about seeking approval from an agent, nothing more. Who are these arbiters of quality, and where does their power come from?

I need to declare an interest: twice in my writing life over the past ten years I have tried to find a agent, and twice the attempt has been fruitless. The second time, as a moderately successful self-published author, I said as much in my ‘pitching’ letter, and in one of the few responses I received I was told that my success so far was really nothing special and that I should be more ‘humble’. Thanks for that. Most of the responses from agents I have gathered over the years have been generic, making no specific reference to my work, which I suspect had not been read.

Sour grapes? Bitterness? Yes, probably. I’ve had a long professional career and don’t relish being ‘judged’ by a group of people whose qualifications for their role are so hard to define or to check. Granted my experience is limited, but the ‘average’ agent appears to be young (ie. younger than my daughter), well-spoken, publicly anodyne, and based in London. All of the agents I have encountered at conferences have been female, but some of the ones I’ve written to have been male, so gender may be immaterial.

I suspect that age may matter in this lottery of who will be of interest to an agent. The agent’s living comes from a percentage of an author’s sales/earnings. If the author has thirty or so years of writing life ahead of them they are a more attractive investment than someone like me who started late. It must also help to be well-connected in writing circles, with a wide reach for promotion purposes. When agents are, as they claim to be, inundated by submissions, the fact that the writer knows someone who knows someone would probably help too. Selecting a very small number from a huge range of applicants must be a nightmare, and any easy selection criteria must be welcome.

A fundamental dilemma of current publishing lurks beneath all these more superficial choice mechanisms. No one in publishing seems to be clear about what they are looking pexels-photo-187333.jpegfor. ‘We need new voices’, they cry, but are drawn by the lure of sales to replicate the most recent best-seller. Best-sellers are regularly a surprise, as predictable as a winning lottery ticket. The agent must be risk-averse and a risk-taker simultaneously. No wonder their public statements are often so bland and unhelpful. A regular pronouncement from the agenting group is that they know a good book because they ‘fall in love’ with it, and we all know what an arbitrary process that is, impossible to define or to rationalise.

If the yearned-for book is impossible to describe, perhaps the agent is actually looking for a writer instead? Does he/she really want someone young, photogenic, articulate, ambitious, flexible/malleable? Find a book with some quality – not much better than thousands of others but with a ‘promotable’ author – pour a great deal of money into promotion and hope for the best. We are told that the great majority of published fiction fails to make any money at all: not a great affirmation of the agents’ or publishers’ judgement.

Without an agent, I continue to self-publish, and it’s hard work. I would love someone to take on the responsibility of getting my manuscript into production, although I would be less happy with the paltry royalties. But I’m done with agents. Going to a ‘pitching’ conference seems like buying a very expensive lottery ticket, with similar chances of success.

 

 

 

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What’s the story on ‘quotes’ for book covers?

With the ms of the new book with the copy editor, I’m thinking ahead to the upcoming stages of the book’s production. I’ll be using the same cover designer as on the previous five novels, and have a brilliant photo image already bought and paid for: now I’m wondering about the ‘back cover blurb’ so that the designer can get started.

All of which brings me to the business of finding a ‘quote’ ie. a brief endorsement of either the book, or me as the author, taken directly from a credible source who is willing and able to provide a phrase or two and put their name to them. Amazon readers’ reviews don’t cut it, I’m sorry to say. I’ve used ‘quotes’ on only two of my previous books: the first, on the reprint of ‘A Good Liar’, was hardly effusive, but its source was impeccable in Margaret Forster, an icon of the literary world and a famous Cumbrian. She told me when we started to correspond that she didn’t normally do any kind of endorsements, and I was both surprised and delighted when she agreed to this…..

GoodLiar_COVER.indd

‘Historical background is convincing, and an excellent ending’ 

CRUEL_TIDE COVER front

‘A thrilling tale of corruption and exploitation’

The second was from William Ryan, a very successful historical fiction writer, for my first crime novel ‘Cruel Tide’. I’d met him on a course and appealed to him directly, not through his editor or agent, and again was very pleased when he agreed. I’ve not managed – until now – to get a ‘quote’ on any of my other books, but that’s not through lack of effort.

There appears to be some unwritten protocols and other barriers that stand in the way. First, it’s very hard to find a way of approaching an author to ask if they would be willing. I’ve recently been reprimanded because the approach wasn’t made indirectly by my editor. If I had an agent, the approach could presumably have been made that way. Authors don’t widely share their email addresses, understandably, and it is not in the interests of an editor, agent or publisher to have their precious ‘client/commodity’ distracted by a gesture of support to another author, especially – horror! – a self-published one.

Secondly, authors who are successful enough that their name counts for something are obviously going to be very busy people. A recent approach to one was rebuffed by a litany of the pressures that the person was currently having to deal with, which meant that there couldn’t possibly be time to glance through a proffered manuscript and offer a few words. I had used the phrase ‘a quick read’, which was been batted back to me as if it denoted a lack of respect.

The third possible reason for my relative lack of success in my efforts has been the suspicion that authors are asked (or expected?) by their agents and/or publishers to offer quotes only to writers from the same ‘stable’ as themselves. Heaps of ‘quotes’ appear routinely in newly published books, inside as well as on covers: presumably the people who provide them have been able to find the time for the ‘quick read’ or whatever it takes to enable a few phrases to be offered for this purpose. There are ‘insiders’ who scratch each others’ backs in this aspect of publishing, and there are ‘outsiders’ like me, and possibly some of you. As a self-publishing author of what is still known as ‘genre fiction’, I’m accustomed to being treated as some kind of low life, but it still rankles occasionally.

In my darker moments I wonder if this reciprocal endorsement accounts for the stellar ‘quotes’ that sometimes appear on the covers of books that are really not that good, or not up to the usual standards of the author. In my even darker moments I wonder how some of the books on the shelves ever got published at all without apparently being subject to a properly critical edit. Could it be that once your name is known and will sell a book on its own, you can get away with mediocrity?

On a more positive note, my latest book will have a quote on the cover from a well-respected writer in the crime fiction business. It will be what’s known as a ‘generic’ quote, speaking to my books as a whole rather than the new one in particular, and the person providing it – for which I’m very grateful – is someone I happen to know a little from sharing a book festival panel. We’d met and talked, and I could approach him directly without offence. I did, asked politely, and he agreed. Hurray.

Zen and the art of writing

Arriving on a Caribbean island is an object lesson in slowing down. It didn’t help that four planes arrived at once, but the line for passport and customs checks took nearly two hours. Inline_979198_4.3Friday night traffic jammed the road from the airport, and by the time we had walked to a local restaurant, the meal on the plane – surprisingly good – was a distant memory.

We were a large party and the young man serving us struggled to keep track of orders. He came back twice to check drinks, and three times to check the food order before anything arrived. You could feel people getting more fretful as the time ticked by. When it finally came, the food disappeared fast, but dessert was abandoned as we trudged towards our beds, four hours on from local time and more interested in sheets than sweets.

Today while the rest of the group went sight-seeing I stayed behind to rest my injured leg, and practiced doing everything more slowly. I swam in the pool slowly, did some slow washing, lay languidly on a lounger and drank a bottle of beer one small sip at a time. Delicious. And I also did something I haven’t done for too long – read my copy of ‘The Author’ (quarterly magazine of the Society of Authors) from cover to cover. Normally I skim the headlines and read whatever looks most interesting, but in the spirit of a slow day I started at the beginning and read on to the end. All sorts of unexpectedly good things revealed themselves, most memorably a piece by a Turkish author currently imprisoned about the life of the mind which nourishes him in the bleakest of circumstances. That helped to put things in perspective

More prosaic, but still important, were references in various articles to the choices that minor novelists like myself face. Fundamentally, what are we really trying to do? It’s a question I put right up front when I do workshops on ‘Successful self-publishing’: what constitutes success? Every author will have their own answer, and these days whether you’re self-published or part of the mainstream commercial publishing world, writing just for profit is increasingly problematic. We know that most commercially published fiction actually makes a loss, and even if you keep outgoings to a minimum by self-editing and going for ebook only, the result may not financially justify the hours of time and effort invested in the project.

zenFrom my slow reading of various reports of events, the advice to fiction writers seems to be ‘Be true to yourself; enjoy the reactions of readers, regardless of how many there may be; find a community of writers (and agents, publishers etc for those who have them) to engage with and be supported by.’ Nothing new there then. No blinding flash of revelation, just a message of internal efficacy and relatively low expectations. Of course  close scrutiny and replication of commercially successful books, and assiduous courting of the ‘blogsphere’ might pay off financially. But who wants to spend their precious time doing that? Not me.

The zen of the art of writing seems, ultimately, to be about doing what pleases and satisfies you, and letting go of the urge to borrow other people’s definitions of ‘success’.

A writer’s dilemma: what’s the priority?

Social_media_fear writing-cycle

After my last novel ‘Fatal Reckoning’ came out in 2016, I promised myself a break. Five books published in five years, and I needed some time out. So six months later I’m looking back and reflecting on what the break has taught me, so far.

Firstly, it’s clear that I was right to step off the conveyor belt for a while. I needed time to get my head up and look around without worrying every day about the next target and the immediate tasks. Secondly, with less intensity to occupy my head, I began to dawdle more over social media and realised how much of it is trivial ‘noise’. Thirdly, and connected to the other two, I resented the pressure I felt under as a self-published author to spend more time marketing, promoting, blogging, tweeting, just to keep sales of my books ticking over. If I stopped for a while, no one else would help: it was down to me alone. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to have someone else to share that load, to care about my sales and push the books onto shelves on my behalf.

After the second search for an agent, and the same negative outcome as before, I’ve given up any expectation that my books are attractive to someone looking only for the next best seller. I’ve sold thousands, and they’re all still selling, but it’s a trickle, not a flood. London-based publishing seems distant and uninterested in what I’m doing out here in the sticks (or is it ‘Styx’?). So forget about an agent. If I need to, I could go straight for a small publisher, preferably not in London, who doesn’t rely on ‘agented submissions’ and is prepared to read my backlist to see what I can do. There aren’t many of those, but it only takes one to change my life.

 

The next stage in reflection on this unpromising scenario came recently while I was away in Canada and offline for a week or two in the far reaches of Vancouver Island and the Alaskan Inner Passage. What a relief it was not to have to check my KDP sales reports and the ‘pledges’ for the crowd-funding that was supposed to finance my next book – more of that next week. In my clearer head, the images of the new book were turning. I wasn’t writing anything, but I was thinking about the story for once, not the sales, and noticing how much more satisfying that felt.

Maybe I’ll change my mind, but right now the story is my priority. Yes I’ll need an editor at some point, and when the story is as good as I can make it I’ll have to think about how people will find and read it. But not now. For the next few months I want to be a writer, not a self-publicist.

Reading your own audiobook: is it a good idea?

I’ve been reading a piece in this quarter’s ‘The Author‘ from the splendid Society of Authors, about the frustrations of listening to a reader making a poor job of recording your book, and being powerless to intervene. And anheadphones-with-microphone-on-white-backgr-clip-artother piece from Alice Jolly about the merits of the partnership arrangement with a ‘crowd-funding’ publisher, as exemplified in her experience of ‘Unbound’. Both are mainly about the relationship between the author, the book and the publisher.unbound

One of the benefits of self-publishing is that the author is never pushed away from important decisions about her book and expected to leave to others the question of cover, design, print run, other formats, promotion – all the things that so radically affect the link between writer and reader.

Very early on I considered who should abridge and read my books for the audiobook version. There were cost implications of course: doing it myself would save a lot of money. But the decision to trust myself wasn’t just about money. Abridging is tricky and requires a feel for the overall story, and who knows these books as well as the person who wrote them? Successful reading too necessitates a feel for the text and the context, accents, nuances of the characters and the plot, and here again the author – if she knows her setting as well as she should – is best placed to do justice to the words. If you have a teaching background, as I do, you’ve spent many years using your voice to engage an audience, and the skills don’t fade, even if you’re talking only to the microphone.

So I found a local recording studio and am doing everything necessary to prepare and read my own books. It’s hard and time-consuming, but I’m learning a great deal about the flow of the text from reading it out loud. And it’s restoring my faith in my own capacity to tell a good tale, after the thankless task of trying yet again to interest an agent. Have a look at an earlier post to hear my agonising about that.I’m asking again – do I need an agent?

If you can afford it, and if like me you have the power to make your own decisions, consider doing your own audiobook. Very instructive!

I’m asking again – do I need an agent?

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I’m sure I’ve blogged about finding an agent before: I certainly think about it ‘ad nauseam’, but until this past week I’ve done nothing about it since about 2012. Aversion, avoidance – for whatever reason I’ve put it off, until a necessary change in my route to publication has forced me to take a next step.

The change is necessitated by the retirement of the publishing partners, editor and book designer, with whom I’ve worked since I decided to self-publish several years ago. If I want to continue writing, then I need to do something to fill that gap. There are three possible options:

  1. find an editor and a book designer, preferably closer than London, establish a relationship and work with them in the same way as before. I take their advice, and pay them for it, and keep overall control of the process and of the income generated by the books. The costs are upfront and considerable, but I’m used to that, and it works, so long as there’s a reasonable rate of sales;
  2. approach a publisher direct. It would have to be one of the few who will accept ‘unagented’ projects, and ideally they would take on my backlist too, reprints, storage, orders, distribution, and so on, leaving me more time to focus on the writing. You can find independent publishers like this, but keep an eye on the small print, and on the royalties – how much and how often. Ebook only publishers are more generous, as they should be given lower costs, but if you want to produce a paperback in larger numbers, not just Print on Demand, the number of potential publishers goes down. Some are focussed only on crime fiction, which might not suit my future writing plans;
  3. Find an agent. This is the default choice these days if you want to get ‘traditionally’ published. The majority of publishers will deal only with agents, who act as a ‘first filter’ and protect the publisher from being overwhelmed with stuff they don’t want and can’t sell. Fair enough, but it still feels like you’re dealing with the doctor’s receptionist, who may or may not have the skills to recognise symptons and do proper ‘triage’.

For the time being, I’m keeping my options open by pursuing all three of these routes simultaneously. Down comes the ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’ from the shelf and  I start combing through, doing everything I’ve advised my aspiring writers to do in my workshops and have been so reluctant to do myself.

The list I gathered of possible agents was quite long, and of course almost all of them were in London, which always pisses me off. (I had to explain to an agent in London once that ‘Cumbria’ was actually an English county, not somewhere in Italy where Islington goes on holiday.) Because I’m interested in getting my backlist re-published rather than touting a half-finished draft, it’s a different ‘submission’ process, more factual and less aspirational, but I still feel like the ‘supplicant’ rather than a prospective partner, and I still don’t like it. I’m a mature woman with a successful career, five popular novels and an enthusiastic (local) following. I fear I’m not the kind of client many agents would want to work with – too stroppy, too old, and too far from the literary action, and part of me knows that. But here I am, deserving of attention, but I fear I will get get very little. One good response in the few days since my first exploratory emails went out, one mildly curious, and three rejections so far, worded almost exactly the same way as the rejections I received last time around.

Early days yet. I understand applications to agents take a long time to process: they have to be weighed against each other, as only a small number of new clients can be handled at once. Waiting is always a drag: patience is not one of my strengths. But I am resigned to the delay. Maybe my current circumstances are different enough from five years ago to make the outcome different too.

One independent publisher has reacted fast and positively, but they want only crime books and I have yet to see what their contractual terms might be. If the potential sales are high enough then acceptance of a low royalty might work out. But what if they’re not? Publishers talk about the quality of their marketing, but how can you substantiate that? Amazon ebooks sales figures can be manipulated, and I want my books on shelves, not just in the cloud.

Reading this, I can see why I’m an unattractive proposition. I ask questions and have clear expectations, and five books self-published in five years gives me a bit of clout. Maybe I have the answer to my question, but I keep on asking it. Apart from the first step of getting published, I want some of the extras that could come through ‘traditional’ publishing – access to reviews, to the major book-chain shelves, to radio or TV, or audio book production expertise. I write good stories that people enjoy, and I want more people to be able to find them. So I wait for the responses to my search for professional help, but I’m not holding my breath.