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.





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…..


‘Historical background is convincing, and an excellent ending’ 


‘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.

Self-publishing: getting it right

WARNING People write books about this: one blog post can cover only the bare bones

We can split the process of going from story in your head to books available to readers (in whatever form) into three parts. As a self-published writer, you’re on your own: whatever help you need will need to be found, by you, and paid for if necessary. You can do it all yourself if you wish, and save the money, but the finished product could be an embarrassment, and most of us would want to avoid that, unless – like the current US President – you think you’re a genius and therefore infallible.

Part 1 is about getting the story out in first draft form, and will apply whether you have a publishing deal or not. woman-writing-laptop_476082-57ab432d3df78cf459975331You will need an idea, a setting – time and place – some characters who interest you and a story that hopefully will engage potential readers. Whether you plan in detail or not is your choice, and you also decide when you will write, where, for how long, alone or in collaboration with others. Personally, I do plan – although the plan changes all the time. I write at home, out in the shed if the weather’s good, upstairs if it’s not too cold, and downstairs if I need more warmth. I research and plan for several months before starting the first draft and then I try to write chapters in the order in which they’ll be read. Once I’m writing, the first draft emerges pretty quickly.

Part 2 is about everything that has to happen between the completion of a first draft and the final manuscript being ‘published’ in either paperback or ebook format.

a) story edit. You may feel you don’t need this if you’ve had feedback about the story as you go along. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is where the details of the story are checked to see if they hang together. Does the chronology work? Are there inconsistencies of any kind? Does every chapter/scene add to the story? Does the plot develop in a way that keeps the reader going? I like to get feedback from someone who’s not encountered the story before, beyond the initial outline. The person needs to understand how stories work, to be clear in their judgement and able to provide a critique which is helpful without being bossy – it’s your story, after all.

b) next draft, use the notes from a) to improve the quality. Any manuscript will improve with careful editing, but beware of ‘over-writing’ which makes the text feel too elaborate and heavy.

c) back to the editor for ‘line-editing’, with a focus now on the grammatical and other details, to clear up any infelicitous phrasing, poor punctuation etc. Lots of errors will be picked up. Don’t assume that corrections can be made at the proof-reading stage, where you will have very little room for correction. The final edited manuscript must be as good as you can get it.

d) the text has to be laid out in the form that will appear on the page. With or without expert help, you have to decide – depending on whether it’s on the page or the screen -on the font, the page size and layout, chapter headings, placing of page numbers, all sorts of visual details. I never know what to call this stage – probably ‘design’ is the best word to use. A professional book designer can make a book look beautiful – but it’s one more person to be paid.

e) cover design. Here again it depends how much you want to spend, and how visible the cover will actually be. On the Kindle store the dimensions will be small with not much room for detail. The cover of a paperback can be more dense. Either way, the cover is the first indication to the reader (and the bookseller/browser too) of what the book might be about. Different genres have different styles. If you want to get ideas, go to a bookshop or library and look for covers that seem to work, analyse why they do, and use those insights in either designing your own cover or briefing someone else to do it.

f) preparing and checking proofs. This is the very final check before your book is published. Once it’s out there, it’s too late to change anything. commasOne of my books slipped through this stage with insufficient attention and I have regretted it ever since – far too many tiny errors that a fast reader wouldn’t even notice but a slow/picky reader did and will. There’s always a kind person out there who will send you the unbearable list of mistakes. The best way to get the proofs properly checked is to have them read by someone with a professional and very picky approach and who has never encountered your story before, at all, ever. Some of the best proof-readers read from back page to front to avoid getting so involved with the story that their reading speed picks up and mistakes are missed. We need proof-readers, even if we might not want to spend the evening with them.

I know this is all pretty basic, but I’m constantly surprised by questions from people who don’t know what self-publishing entails but think it might be right for them.

You’ll recall I said there are three stages. If you think that Stage Three is about sitting back and watching the money roll in you are gravely mistaken. Stage Three is about getting people to pay their money to read your book, and that doesn’t happen unless you do something to make it happen. More on that later.


First audiobook!

At last, it’s done!

Audiobook covers

I started on this project months ago, thought about it, blogged about it, struggled with the abridging, rehearsed, found a recording studio, got help and did it. Then the master discs sat and looked at me for a while: what was the point of all that work if I didn’t know what to do next?

Thanks God for a competent and supportive partner with experience of packaging. ‘I can do that’, he said, and he did. He researched the best deal for duplication and packaging, worked on the design, and the first batch was delivered last week. You can buy it with Paypal for £10 – you can’t get much for £10 these days – and this would make a great gift. Just go to and it’s the first item in the Bookshop.

It looks really good, but I still daren’t listen to it. I know it’s OK, and my commitment to the book and the characters comes out in the reading, but it’s almost too personal. At one critical moment I was close to tears reading it and had to stop. There’s something about the voice that brings the words alive.

Beware of publishing rip-offs

4038219-1867078991-1ca07A year or so ago I ran a self-publishing workshop at a northern book festival, explaining the various choices and challenges we authors encounter when trying to get our books first into print and then into readers’ hands. One of the the twenty or so people there told us a horror story about her failed attempt to get her book published: she had found a company online who promised to help and appeared to be ‘kosher’. They explained that she would have to send the money upfront to cover the expense of printing and that after that they would use their global resources to professionally handle her book, print, and find buyers. She duly sent off an amount that represented a sizeable chunk of her savings, and waited. And waited. And waited. The company disappeared, taking with them her money and her manuscript.

Recently I came across another example of someone who’d been asked for a four figure amount to get their book printed. A contract was provided but was either inadequate, or misleading, or not carefully enough scrutinised. Whatever the reason, the writer received the original money back, but nothing more, despite the 1000 print run selling out almost immediately. The author was not involved in the decisions about the book, including the curious choice of unnecessary heavy glossy paper for a book with no illustrations, a price double that of a ‘normal’ paperback, and a fairly amateur cover design. Some profit must have been made, given the basic calculations of printing costs, price and sales, including the retailers’ discounts – but the author saw none of it. When the publisher then asked for even more money to reprint and meet the obvious demand, it was declined.

What was going on there? As a self-publishing author I expect to invest my own money in the publishing project, but I also enjoy exercising choice over the paper quality, font, page layout and chapter headings, cover design and price. When the book is sold all the profits come back to me. It takes time and promotional effort to make a small profit, but at least the profit ends up in my account, not someone else’s.

SOA_col_rgbSo, fellow-writers, please think twice before paying out your own money to someone that to publish your book, however much they may reassure you and promise great things. If you’re in the Society of Authors, use their excellent contractual advice service and act accordingly. ALLi_Complete_300x150_WEBJoin the Alliance of Independent Authors, another really helpful organisation, or look for free self-publishing advice on the internet. What you do with your money is your business, but beware of being ripped off by the many unscrupulous people out there who make their money by stealing yours.

Unbinding from ‘Unbound’, without regret

If you’ve read last week’s post you might not be surprised by my decision to ‘unbind’ from ‘Unbound’. This is not a criticism of them: all the people encountered there were friendly, supportive and helpful. But it does raise a question about the suitability of the ‘crowd-funding’ notion for some writing projects.crowdfunidng-piggie-bank

It was a new notion for me, first encountered at a Society of Authors conference last year and put aside as interesting but too ‘trendy’ for someone as internet-wary as I still am. I didn’t pursue it, but then Unbound came to me with an offer and I was flattered enough to think it was worth a try. So I got involved, made the promo video, went to the crowd-funding workshop, read it up, made a plan and followed it through, although it all felt rather surreal. I couldn’t understand why anyone who didn’t already know my writing would feel sufficiently enthralled by my earnest talking head video and sketchy outline to commit to pre-ordering a hefty hardback book over a year ahead of its appearance.

I wasn’t hopeful about attracting ‘cold’ sponsors, but thought I would get support from people who know my work and were already looking forward to the next book. Three months later, reflecting on the decision to withdraw from the project, I’m beginning to get the process in perspective. What went wrong?

Well, I was right to be sceptical about attracting ‘new’ sponsors, of whom there were very few forthcoming. What surprised me more was the deafening silence from most of my existing readers, very few of whom made those necessary ‘pledges’. I asked some of them about their reluctance. They said, variously, that they don’t like buying via the internet; that hardback books are too heavy big-book-featureand cost double what they would normally pay; that they’d rather wait until the book is out and buy ‘the usual way’. I couldn’t say to them, ‘If you don’t pay upfront the new book won’t happen’ because we both knew that wasn’t true. The new book will happen, in the same way as all the previous ones, without the fanfares, trade edition, big launch and other bells and whistles. It might find a small and more local ‘commercial’ publisher, or I’ll commission a team to help me and publish myself, as I’ve done before.

What else have I asked myself? Does non-fiction draw a larger ‘crowd’ than my relatively ‘quaint’ and page-turning Cumbrian fiction? Does it help if your potential supporters are younger and more internet-savvy? Is the day of the ‘special edition hardback’ dead and gone? Would Penguin Random House – the publishers of the Unbound paperback version six months after the hardback – expect high volume sales and ‘remainder’ the book too quickly? My books sell slowly and keep on selling, year after year, as new people discover them and follow the series through. This business model, such as it is, goes against the grain for contemporary publishing. We were always going to be uneasy bedfellows, and for the time being at least we’ve agreed on an amicable separation.


The ‘Unbound’ contract is signed, so what now?

How did this happen, and now that it has, am I up to it?

I started to write relatively late in life: going on a course on ‘How to Write a Novel’ was my 60th birthday present to myself. Four years later I published my first novel ‘A Good Liar’ and four more have followed since then, one each year since 2012. I tried half-heartedly to find an agent or an independent publisher, failed and gave up. Being self-employed for 25 years provided a degree of self-reliance that was useful in the decision to self-publish, and to do so I well as I could, investing my own hard-earned savings where necessary. I did, and it worked, My books have sold thousands of copies, but most of the sales have been within fifty miles of where I live. They’re all set in Cumbria, and this is obviously very attractive both to locals and visitors, but the stories themselves transcend the setting: it’s the people who matter, what they do, how they feel, how they relate to each other and the lives they lead.

Knowing that the stories are wider than the setting, the promotion and distribution problems that all self-published writers face have been frustrating. With few exceptions, the prejudice against self-published books has been obvious: no reviews, no access to mainstream competitions, insufficient ‘celebrity/literary profile’ for acceptance as a speaker at the book festivals, scant regard from buyers for the major booksellers. Fortunately, I enjoy and am good at talking about my work, and do so regularly at libraries, local writers’ groups, and for Women’s Institutes and other organisations. As a result direct sales of my books are a large part of the overall total. The writer in me gets great satisfaction from readers’ appreciation of what I do, but the entrepreneur in me has been frustrated by the book world’s assumption that self-published novels are ‘ipso facto’ second-rate.

In the end, after all my planning, the invitation to move into a wider publishing world came by accident. At the end of one of my library talks a man introduced himself and told me about his daughter who works for a London-based publisher called Unbound. I listened, but people often tell me that they have contacts in the publishing world and almost invariably it comes to nothing. A week later, however, an email arrived from the daughter, a Commissioning Editor with Unbound, who’d been regaled by her parents about my books – which they love – and my talk. We met, we talked, we negotiated, and less than two months later the deal is done: I will publish my next book in 2018 through ‘Unbound’. With a working title of ‘Burning Secret’, it will be a family/police/crime story set in Cumbria in 2001 at the height of the Foot and Mouth outbreak. Next time I’ll explain in detail the stages of writing and publication over the next year or two. For the time being, check on Unbound, and look at ‘How it Works’. In a couple of weeks my project will go live on the Unbound website, video, pitch, pledges, the works. I’ll post regularly about the process here and through the Unbound website. If you want to share the journey, I’d be delighted.