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.





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?


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.




Self-publishing with pride and integrity

Last week someone whose name I’ve already forgotten wrote a piece about all the reasons why she couldn’t possibly self-publish her ‘literary’ fiction. I read it expecting to find the usual catalogue of poor information and ill-disguised intellectual snobbery, and there it all was, again. Not sure why anyone gave the piece an airing, except that they probably knew it would cause a stir, and here I am responding to it like a fish to bait.

Whenever I read or hear these well-worn points I wonder who the writer has been talking to. It’s obviously someone who doesn’t care much about the quality of their writing, can’t be bothered with a proper editor, goes straight to ebook and spends much energy manipulating the publication figures to make their stuff appear to be a best-seller. Granted, living as I do in beautiful West Cumbria, I don’t know many writers, but I don’t recognise this person at all.

Here’s an alternative view of self-publishing, from my own experience.

My naive expectation that any agent would be interested in the early draft of my first novel was quickly dispelled. I could have spent more time trying repeatedly to find an agent – far more time incidentally than I have ever spent on promoting my books – but preferred to write the novel rather than begging letters. I’ve never had much patience, and like to manage my own affairs, and both of those propelled me towards self-publishing, along with a little money to invest with which to ‘back myself’ as my accountant put it. ‘If you cover your costs,’ he said, ‘you’ve succeeded.’

From the very start I wanted to produce a book to the highest standard I could manage. It had to be the best writing I was capable of at the time, well-edited, well-designed and look good on the shelf. This would be my legacy and I had to feel happy about it. Self-respect matters in self-publishing.

Among my oldest friends are two people who edit and design books, mostly non-fiction, but I trust and respect them for their passion and their skills. We have worked closely together on each of the four novels I have written so far, with the fifth due out in November 2016. After the first one took three years to write, it’s been one book each year, and hard work. Most of that time is spent on research and planning, the writing and editing will take around five months, and I’ll fit any promotion activities around the core business. All the books are on Kindle, and in paperback. My sales come from local shops, a Cumbria-based distributor, the usual national distributors, Amazon and my website as well as ebooks, which tick along at about 30 each month with very little push from me. Last year I also made over £2000 selling direct to people I met while doing talks to groups around Cumbria, almost all of which were in the evenings when I wouldn’t be writing, and were also very enjoyable. I’m on Twitter and half-heartedly on FB, have my own website and write a weekly blog post. My limited social media activity is mainly about keeping up with family news and promoting my beloved Cumbria.

Each book costs about £5000 to produce and print, and various running costs include a small amount for storage and help with fulfilling orders and keeping track of the finances, neither of which I want to do myself. It’s hard to quantify precisely, but I just about break even. The first book ‘A Good Liar’ has already been reprinted, and the second is down to the last few dozen copies and will be re-printed shortly, with a new cover incidentally as I’m not convinced about my original choice. Reprinting is much cheaper than the first run, while the selling price remains the same. ‘You do the math’. Each new book stimulates sales of the previous ones and increases my ‘shelf-presence’ as an author. I make all my own decisions about the content and production of my novels: they may not be the best choices in commercial terms but they are consistent with my own values and notion of quality, and I’m happy about that.

Do I make much money? No. Do I feel proud of what I’m doing, after a life-time of longing to write fiction? Yes. Do I recognise the self-publishing writer portrayed in the post I read last week. No. That’s not me.

What’s wrong with ‘trends’ in publishing, or anything else?

Sometimes a thought arrives by a very circuitous route: this one started with reading ‘Lancashire Life’, one of those glossy mags that abound in England and mirror the lives of that tiny fraction of the population that can afford what lies within. As I am not one of that tiny fraction, I bought a copy last month because they were running a review of my first crime novel ‘Cruel Tide’ and I was chuffed and curious. The book page was at the back and what struck me as I leafed through to find it was the number of advertisements for wedding venues, bridal shops, ‘mother-of-the bride’ shops and so on. This in turn prompted memories of some recent family weddings where the purpose of the exercise seemed to have been lost in a morass of unnecessary and costly rituals, mostly imported from the US. That experience, reinforced by the countless wedding industry adverts made me wonder, yet again, about what drives people to want what others have, and to do what others do, rather than stick to what they feel comfortable with. Why do we ape others rather than represent our true selves?

The more I see of the publishing industry, the more of a ‘business’ and less of a creative enterprise it seems to be, at least currently. My impression is that the current obsession with ‘fads’ is relatively recent, probably since the acquisition of money to stay afloat in troubled times became the main imperative. Editors and publishers are no longer the gatekeepers of quality in this enterprise. Their role has been replaced by the agent, a mediator between the writer and her means of public expression, who lives by taking a percentage of the writer’s earnings. If your livelihood depends on the certainty of financial success, and the people you are selling to are also risk-averse, all of you are intensely concerned with finding books that will sell big and sell fast, creating and then riding a public wave which is powerful but transient, a wave to be surfed not a long-distance ocean swell.

This is the breeding ground of trends, fads, fashion, whatever term you choose. Everyone in the book business is now on the look out for sure things, and the only evidence they have to use is the last sure thing. If we analyse what made the last successful book popular and replicate it, then we might catch the wave before it fades and make some money. The problem for books is that they cannot, or should not, be written fast. If you want to catch the wave, you haven’t got time for a book to be written. Instead you go yet again through the pile of stuff you already have, looking for the desired combination of criteria. Speed is of the essence. No time to read more than a chapter or two, if that. Agents talk constantly about ‘falling in love’ with a book as their only criterion for choosing one book over another. This has to be a ‘coup de foudre’ not a long, measured appreciation. Quick flick: does it have the necessary genre features that the last best-seller had? Does it fit the bill? Is the author photogenic and have a good story? Can we sell this big and fast? If so, let’s go. If not, throw it back onto the ever-mounting slush pile.

I know it’s not as simple as this, but to someone on the outside of the conventional book business looking in, this is how it feels. Writing and publishing a book, like planning a wedding, can be an expression of your approach to life and your individual values. Or it can be a way of demonstrating how fashion conscious and competitive you are. The big fashionable wedding will get into the glossy magazines, where the wedding planners’ choices and expenses will be scrutinised by others. And the publishers’ choice of a handful of manuscripts, which are then lavished with expensive editorial and promotional support, will get noticed by the book business cogniscenti, which then adds to the hype and presumably increases sales. Fads and fashions create a barrier between the ‘in-crowd’ and the ‘out-crowd’: the in-crowd are necessarily and frenetically peer conscious and competitive, while self-publishing outsiders like myself are free to follow our own paths with some chance of staying true to ourselves.



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.




Do I need a specialist crime fiction editor?

Two things have prompted this question. The first was a response from a well-known crime writer I asked to read ‘Cruel Tide’ a few weeks ago. I was pleased that he said some positive things about it, but he ended his note with words to the effect that I needed a specialist editor. I thought about what that implied, but then put it out of my mind in the flurry of activity leading up to publication.

The second nudge to my thinking about this question has arrived today. This evening I do my first public outing of the new book,at the library in Ulverston, and I’ve thinking about what to say. Why did I turn to crime fiction after the character-driven trilogy that preceded it? What does crime fiction entail, and what have I learned from this experience? The remark about a specialist editor came back to mind and now I’m thinking harder about it.

The role and function of an editor is always tricky for someone like me who’s written a lot over the years and always alone. Many education writers do their work collaboratively, sharing ideas, reading each other’s stuff, getting feedback as they go. I never did. I wrote, read it over a few times, made some adjustments and that was it. Only with the final education book, about school progression for the Canadian market, did I write with others and then have an editor employed by the publishers. I didn’t expect the editor to change much, but she did and all of it for the better, not about the content but in terms of the clarity and economy of expression. I analysed the changes she suggested and learned a great deal about how to write more clearly.

The role of editor, it seems to me, is three-fold: first there is ‘content’ editing. For a novel, this is the story edit, that looks at structure and character and chronology, how the whole thing flows and fits together. Then there’s the way that meaning is communicated, the structure of a paragraph or a sentence. Finally there’s the proof read, checking spelling, punctuation, speech marks and so on. All three functions have been undertaken in my books so far by the same person, a friend who has worked in publishing for decades, but almost exclusively with non-fiction. As a reader and book group member she’s analysed my stories in their various iterations, suggested changes, and pointed out anomalies or others mistakes to be ironed out in the final drafts. She would not describe herself as an expert fiction editor and she has – as far as I know – no links with current fiction publishers.

I’m hesitating to go back to my crime writer colleague and asks him what a specialist editor could do that my current editor can’t. He’s a busy bloke, and I’ve probably imposed on his time enough already. I did follow up with a phone call to a specialist editor he knows, and during the conversation what became clear was not so much the editing function as the networking that lay behind it. The person I was speaking to was well-connected, to other crime writers, to agents and publishing houses. She lived at the other end of the country and was already very busy, so I took it no further, but I was left still wondering what this editor could do for me.

I was back yet again to the issue of genre and the specialised protocols that seem to apply to different genres, and even sub-genres. Obviously a crime writing specialist editor would be more familiar with these protocols than me. She/he would know the insider tricks of the trade that would distinguish my book, and make it more interesting to an agent who would probably also specialise in crime fiction. Editor and agent would have a shared language and recognise my attempts to join that club.

The idea of this shared understanding and its unwritten rules is not attractive for me. It plays to my innate and sometimes unhelpful aversion to following rules of any kind that I don’t understand or see the point of. I still ask myself, what do readers really want? Do they get a buzz from seeing how the crime fiction rules are followed in different contexts and with different protagonists. Do they smile in appreciation as they recognise the genre features that they expect as soon as something is described as ‘crime fiction’? Do they only ever look on the crime and mystery shelves of the library or the bookshop?

The front and back covers, and the offending hand.

‘Cruel Tide’ is not classic crime fiction, as far as I can judge. It doesn’t have the closed group of potential suspects, or a single dysfunctional detective with a drink problem, or even a genius problem solver. The story is propelled by the characters as much as by ‘events’. There is no final reveal that ties up loose ends and looks ahead to a certain future. The goodies do not necessarily triumph. What would a specialist editor have made of all this, I wonder? If the advice was to follow the rules of the genre more carefully, how would I react? It’s my story after all. If the editor told me that an agent or a potential publisher would expect me to do things differently, I’m not sure I would have warmed to that advice. I’m too old and too awkward, and I’ve chosen to self-publish with all its attendant risks rather than chase any commercial publishers’ approval. If it doesn’t work, so be it.

But still, the notion of a specialist story editor lurks in my head. If I could learn from that interaction, it’s probably something I should do, for myself, but it would have to be someone I respect, and I’d offer no guarantees about my response. Maybe I’ll wait and see the reaction to my first crime novel and go from there. I need feedback, people: specific, considered, detailed feedback and suggestions about alternatives before I embark on the next book in what will probably be a series, although I’m not sure how many more books I want to write. It’s hard work!

Trying -again – to find an agent; why bother?

Maybe it was thinking about my blog on the ‘fear of failure’ and how it applied to me. Maybe it was reading a post on Twitter from a literary agent, explaining her admiration for ‘commercial women’s fiction’, or CWF as she called it. Maybe it was thinking about the daunting amount of time and investment involved in producing a high-quality self-published novel once a year. Whatever it was, all of a sudden I asked myself whether it was time to try again to find an agent, something I hadn’t done since 2011.

It was so long ago, I can’t remember now which draft of my first novel ‘A Good Liar’ I decided four years ago to submit to various agents drawn from the pages of the ‘Writers and Artists’ Yearbook’. I didn’t enjoy the process, which varied from one agency to another, but I expected something to come of it. I wanted someone in the publishing world to take me seriously and write back, with comments perhaps, or encouragement or possibly an interest in what I was doing. None of that happened. After waiting the anticipated number of weeks I received brief standard responses that arrived with numbing regularity. None showed any indication that the submission had even been read. All had roughly the same wording, thanks but no thanks, not our kind of book, etc etc. I got the message loud and clear. No point in going down this route: a 60 year old woman writing family saga fiction in a place no-one in London has ever heard of has absolutely no chance of getting on the radar.

Life is short. It didn’t take me long to decide to self-publish and avoid further rejection, and I’ve done so for the past four years, with some success. Last week for the first time I considered trying the ‘conventional’ publishing route again. I followed the trail of the agent who wrote favourably about ‘CWF’, found the agency website, read and followed the submission process to the letter despite its inappropriateness for someone with books already on the market, and posted it all off. I could have used email but somehow a set of papers in an envelope felt better.

Trying again to find an agent may be a complete waste of time, for the same reasons as before. My work is not ‘fashionable’, if that’s what agents – and presumably publishers – are looking for. The novels in my trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ have characters and stories designed to draw the readers in and keep them there, turning pages of one book in the trilogy and on into the next: quarter of a million words that carry you along until the end when you feel bereft. Some of my readers tell me that’s what I’ve achieved. And now I’ve finished the first crime fiction story ‘Cruel Tide’, which looks promising, but who knows?

I’ve been on the courses where agents talk about the books they want. ‘What are you looking for?’ we writers ask. ‘I’ll know it when I see it,’ one agent responds. ‘I have to fall in love with the book,’ says another. We writers shake our heads. We are being told that the process is as mysterious as falling in love, all rationality suspended. Frustrated by all this, I gave up thinking about what agents might want and listened instead to the readers who talked to me, and to my own sense of what makes a good story, well-told.

And now, with three books out and another on the way I am weighing it up again. Writing is the most important thing for me: self-publishing is fun, and potentially more lucrative than earning tiny royalties, but only if you take the cheapest route or stick with ebooks, where the investment is minimal. That’s not really what I want. My books have to be high quality in both content and presentation or I won’t feel proud of them. Hence the daunting investment of money as well as time that I mentioned before. I could keep going down the self-publishing road, but just in case there’s another way I want to try again.

So far, just one agent submission. I know that’s not enough if I’m serious about finding a publisher to take my writing to the next level. I’ll do all the necessary research about which other agents to approach, but even so it feels like a lottery, and I’ve never bought a lottery ticket. Maybe I’ll wait and see with the first one, and then decide. Fear of failure is part of it, but only part. There’s something about putting myself in the hands of an intermediary that I’m not comfortable with. It’s the publishers I want to talk to, but they’re hiding behind the door. In front of the door, determining who is allowed to peek through, are the agents. No wonder many writers feel as ambivalent about them as I do myself.

Genre: what on earth is it?

I was half listening to Radio 4 the other morning and caught the end of a discussion with some literary worthies, about whether the prejudice (their word) against ‘genre fiction’ is relevant any longer, or has it become as superficial and snobbish as ‘designer labels’ in fashion? All agreed that ‘genre’ was a form of labelling for marketing purposes, and that some ‘genre fiction’ was actually pretty good even by (undefined) ‘literary’ standards, although yet again the example they cited was Patrick O’Brian with his wonderful naval saga set during the Napoleonic era. O’Brian tells great stories in an engaging style, and those characteristics seem to be define ‘genre fiction’. If that’s so, I wonder what are the defining characteristics of ‘literary fiction’? How different can they be?

Readers of this blog, a small but discerning group, have heard me bang on about this before, and other much more successful writers than me do the same. Why do I and other ‘story tellers’ feel that the ‘literary’ world seems bent on patronising and belittling us? What’s wrong with a classically good story, well told, which readers find accessible and compulsive reading? The analogy with the fashion industry is an obvious one. The high street stores sell some very good clothes, pitched at the average purse and taste. These clothes may not be unique to this season, or  easily dated, or made with exclusive materials, but they’re affordable, wearable, and occasionally really interesting and appealing too. Some high street clothes even appear on models in glossy magazines, alongside their more expensive and extraordinary counterparts from the big name designers. 

There’s no profit for producers in fashion that doesn’t date. The fashion industry relies for its survival on the view that last season’s version of clothing and accessories must be replaced, as a form of conspicuous consumption. Perhaps the book industry has the same aspiration. Publishers used to be content with ‘high class’ books that sold to only the most discerning buyers, but it couldn’t charge excessive prices – such as some would pay for a handbag – and when the profit margins shrank under competition from you know who and ebooks they found themselves in a pickle. They wanted to publish ‘quality’ but needed to make larger profits to survive, so they ended up publishing books by known names that would sell not because of their intrinsic quality but because of the name on the cover and sycophantic reviews commissioned from other big name authors from the same ‘stable’. Incidentally, the urge to ‘ghost write’ must be really strong: is it true that Jeffrey Archer’s best-sellers are actually written by other people? And the pressure on successful authors to publish more must also be acute: could their quality suffer as a result?

Obviously, one victim of this ambivalence within the book business is the novice author, apart from the infinitesimally small number in any year who fit the criteria to be hyped into success by massive marketing investment. The message from publisher to agent, and thence from agent to writer seems to be ‘Unless we can guarantee to sell millions of your book, thanks but no thanks.’ And what really are the criteria for this lottery-like selection? ‘I need to fall in love with your book,’ say the agents. And what exactly does that mean? Is it really as arbitrary as it sounds? We’re also told that agents and publishers are looking for ‘trends’ and would-be authors need to spot the rising wave and attach themselves to it. That’s not a very satisfying explanation either, and who determines which waves will burst into flood while others web quietly away?

So here we are again. It is slowly occurring to me that the best way to avoid the frenetic pressure of literary fashion, or the pursuit of quantity over quality, is to avoid traditional routes to publication and do your own thing. The only exception would be the handful of published writers whose talent is so extraordinary that they can make their own rules and stick to them. There may be other extraordinary writers out there, but unless the quirky and  unspecified needs of the agent and publisher can be fathomed out, these writers will remain beyond the ‘literary Pale’. There may come a time when this ‘Pale’, ie. a constructed boundary, will cease to be important to the majority of us who remain outside it and become a self-regarding cage for those within. Maybe that’s why the literati I heard the other morning on the radio were admitting that the concept of ‘genre’ is increasingly outdated and needs to be ‘refreshed’. I agree. Let’s do it.