Posts Tagged literary agents
Sorry, but that’s the wrong way round.
Except in a very few cases, it doesn’t work.
You can build a platform with a non-fiction book. If you’re offering expertise, it’s easy to find the people who need it. If you write about a life experience, you can connect with readers who seek similar support. And there are far fewer of you – and more room to be heard.
Before you use your novel to launch your platform, go and look at Facebook. Goodreads. Twitter. Everyone is waving a novel.
The number of people you will reach by starting this way is negligible.
There are many examples, of course, of successful self-published fiction authors. Everyone has their favourites to brandish. I’m going to talk about Joanna Penn. She didn’t start with a novel. She started with a blog – The Creative Penn – and built a loyal following while she taught herself about the writing and publishing world. By the time she launched her first novel, Pentecost, she had a great relationship with a lot of people.
Relationships are what sell books, both fiction and non-fiction. That’s what a platform is.
So to build your platform, get out there and blog, tweet, Facebook or whatever. Be natural, be yourself and build relationships. It’s also much less of a strain if you’re not trying to sell something.
And since you’re not using your novel to build your platform, what are you going to do with it?
You might as well, um, query with it.
Stop grinding your teeth at the back there. We’re agreed that relationships sell books? Agents have relationships with publishers. Publishers have relationships with distributors, the press, the places you cannot get reviewed if you do it all yourself. Yes, agents and publishers take their cut, but that’s because they have a much bigger reach than one little writer on their own.
If you don’t like the way a deal adds up, you can always refuse it. Or negotiate. But if you never try, you don’t know what might have happened. If you want to have a publishing career (and why otherwise would you build a platform) it make sense to explore all the options.
‘But every agent has different taste…’
Good writing is good writing. All agents are able to spot it. If you target enough agents who are a good fit for you, you will find out whether you are ready to go into print (or pixels) – or whether you should develop more. It is worth knowing that, isn’t it?
‘But it takes time…’
You’re going to have to spend that time building your network anyway. And what’s the hurry? You can’t – or didn’t – learn to write overnight.
‘But everyone’s publishing…’
I understand you’re impatient to get out into the big publishing party. Really I do. When I first held a book that was filled with my words I felt the earth quiver.
But I’m now seeing a lot of people who have whizzed onto Kindle, are finding their novel doesn’t sell, and are getting dispirited. That’s a shame. That’s the sound of dreams shattering.
Please don’t mutter the name of Amanda, the lady my friend Porter Anderson dubbed Amanda Hocking [example of everything]. That’s exactly what she is – an example of anything you like, including holy amounts of luck (and I wish her plenty more luck, BTW). But will the law of probabilities allow that to happen to you?
Build the relationship first
Relationships sell books. Build the relationship first, in whatever way you like, partnering with whoever seems right. That may be conventional industry routes; it may be creative collectives. Then you will have a platform, and you will have readers.
Thanks for the pic, Scottnj
While we’re on the subject of being grown-up about platforms, I’m planning a newsletter! Add your name to the mailing list here.
So, agree? Disagree? Sending the lynch mob…? I’m sure you’ll have plenty to say in the comments
I tweeted this piece yesterday by agent Jenny Bent : ‘Why reader taste differs from publisher taste’. I urge you to read the whole article, but briefly, she’s talking about what’s wrong with the way the industry tries to second guess what readers should be offered – whether literature or popular fiction. A friend on Twitter came back to me and said ‘come come, surely it can’t be that bad?’
Jenny’s in the US, and I’m on the other side of the Atlantic. But here, it is indeed that bad.
I know a few agents, and they’re tearing their hair out. An agent recently told me ‘editors in big publishers are basically readers for marketing departments’. Another said in the past year she’d got more than 10 excellent books to editorial board, with all the editors staunchly behind them, but marketing vetoed them. An editor I know – very senior in terms of job title and the publisher she works for – laments that she is no longer allowed to accept the rich fiction she loves to read and has to publish shallow sure-fire supermarket titles.
Jenny says books are that too quirky or defy comparison don’t get a chance. Again, that’s the same here.
The interesting and popular authors I like wouldn’t, I’m told, get published if they were starting today. Especially not with their most ambitious work. David Mitchell would be told to take Cloud Atlas away and keep it on his hard drive. Kingsley Amis wouldn’t be allowed to hop between genres. Michael Morpurgo wouldn’t be allowed to write a non-genre novel about horses. Holes by Louis Sachar? Forget it. And David Almond’s Skellig. Readers seem to like them, though. They still buy them.
It’s the big monolithic publishers I’m talking about here. They were a good model five years ago but they’re breaking down because they can’t take the interesting books. But the smaller boutique publishers are a different matter. They can – and are being – much more adventurous. The economist Tim Harford has in fact written an entire book on this subject (Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure), about how you cannot prevail in today’s business environment without a willingness to experiment and take risks.
One of the things that’s so nice about Jenny Bent’s piece is that she pays tribute to the self-published writers who are getting out and finding their readers. That’s something we’re not hearing enough of. Some self-published authors I know who’ve been to conferences recently felt like they were about to be chased away with pitchforks.
Reviewers, who you’d think were less restricted, haven’t yet caught up with the fact that quality, competent, worthwhile authors are self-publishing. The theory goes that this is because journalism is funded by advertising and indies don’t buy expensive adverts. Whatever the reason, this industry needs to find a way to give good self-published writers a fair chance at creating a decent and widespread reputation.
But there’s no point in negativity, and ending on a whinge. The other thing I’d like to say is that the agents, editors, and publisher sales forces I’ve met are all book lovers too. It’s just their end of the business that’s broken. Thankfully, as Jenny points out, we’re all now building a new one.
(Thanks for the picture, Frankh)
Rant over. Do continue in the comments if you feel so inclined…
I am in the fortunate position of having got (after plenty of rejections, redrafts etc) an agent for the first novel I’ve written. Which is great. But while the idea of my book is strong, the manuscript needed shaping. With my agent’s help, I’ve been redrafting for the last 15 months, but I’m finding it hard to differentiate between what is solid advice from someone who knows and what are tastes/suggestions that might take my novel away from what I’m trying to do. The suggested changes all ring true in terms of what will make the novel work/sell, it’s a much better book, and I know that what’s being said is mostly good advice, but I want to keep a tight hold on the heart of why I wrote the novel.
I presume this is something all writers have to go through once they open the door to the world, but I’m hoping you have some tips for gaining clarity and creating the best possible version of a story while not losing anything that’s truly integral.
I do sympathise. You’ve edited the novel for so long you probably can’t see where it should go. When someone else is contributing suggestions, you can feel like everything is whirling out of your control. Especially if that person might have different aims from you.
There are two aspects to tackle here.
1. Do you know what you want your novel to be?
You mention you’re worried about losing the heart of the book. Yes, absolutely. But it sounds to me as though you may not be entirely sure what that is.
Often if we’re writing a novel that’s unusual we feel there’s nothing else like it. But there are probably a lot of books like it in certain aspects. If you know what those are, it is far easier to have a meaningful conversation with an editor or agent – and it might also help you get clarity yourself. You can think about the novels that may have given you crucial inspiration. Also, look up Amazon tags for the subjects your novel covers – you can find surprising parallels this way
As well as this, work out which of your agent’s suggestions are raising your artistic hackles. This is similar to the situation I posted about a few weeks ago, where a writer felt her critique group was derailing her novel. The principles are the same – identify what is working for you and what isn’t.
2. Art versus market
Do you fear you’re being steered to write something that is more saleable but less artistically fulfilling?
First of all, take a deep breath and ask yourself what you want. I know writers who welcome a lot of direction from their paymasters and are truly happy to fit in with what the market needs. Others decide they have different priorities.
For instance, my novel My Memories of a Future Life was wooed by the senior editor at one of the Big Six, who wanted it to be a murder mystery. Another publisher hinted they would take it if it was reshaped as a conventional thriller. Both urged me to rewrite because their marketing departments would back me after my success as a ghostwriter. But I felt the idea deserved more unusual treatment. My agent liked the novel my way too – and took it out just as it was. But although editors enjoyed reading it, their marketing departments found it too risky.
So agents are not always trying to shoehorn you into a commercial space. And no one can make you change your book or write what you don’t want to. (And if you do try to aim more at the market there are no guarantees your book will sell or be successful enough to lead to a career.)
What do you do?
You mention that your agent has been working with you for 15 months. That’s a long-haul commitment to helping you nurture the book and shape yourself as a writer. This is a good relationship so far, so make the best of it.
It may be that, as I said above, the agent is unsure what you want and is making stabs in the dark. Give them a chance by begin clear about your vision for the book. Then have a frank discussion about how they are guiding you and where they see you in the market.
Best of luck.
Agree? Disagree? How would you advise a writer in this situation? Share in the comments!
My Memories of a Future Life is available on Kindle (US and UK) and also in print (and Amazon.com have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). If you’re my side of the Atlantic you can now get the print version from Amazon UK and save on postage. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.
When I ghostwrite, it’s a collaboration. The editor, the ‘author’ and various other parties will be involved with it from birth. Together we hammer out the plot. I go to them first with my research questions. We chat about how it’s going. Of course the majority of the work is mine, but by the time I deliver the manuscript it’s as though it’s been written in public.
Writing my own novels is not like that at all.
The first time an agent talked to me about My Memories of a Future Life, it was a surreal experience. I met her in a cafe in Covent Garden, on a freezing cold February evening. We sat outside in the penumbra of a gas heater. As people scurried past on their ordinary way home, a person I had never met before was talking to me, in great detail, about regression to the future. The tangled dynamic between four people. Music and its ghostly role in the book’s world. It wasn’t like any other book I’d written, it was more like a long and elaborate secret I’d been keeping. It was so bizarre I was struck monosyllabic. I still haven’t quite got used to it.
I’m over at Women Writers today, talking about the curious and special relationship writers and readers have with novels. Do join me.
A crucial part of introducing your novel to agents or directly to readers is identifying your novel’s central theme. But that can be mighty hard to do. Here’s how I did it
Final tweaks are being twaught. Kindle hell beckons. Blurb hell too. But cover hell is over, at least the front.
And what theme is this pretty book scratching away at, you may ask? What questions are burning out of the red piano and the blue sky?
Answering that has caused me considerable grief. The journey in the book takes 100,000 words. How do I find one sentence – just one – that captures the heart of it?
It took me a while. Much pacing up and down.
My first thought was, it feels like it’s about the whole of life itself. Everything. The universe.
As a theme, ‘everything’ was a bit, well, vague. And it’s the very least you’d expect of a self-respecting well-rounded novel.
Then I made lists of common themes in fiction, as if I was doing an essay for A-level English. It was no help at all.
Everything seemed to fit. Love, loss, friendship, fate. Cheating, lying, haunting, being haunted. Nature, confinement, superstition, the weather. It was easier to find themes that weren’t in the book than themes that were.
I had to pull away from ‘subjects’, because every multi-layered novel will have plenty of them. So I asked myself: what are people doing in this book that gives it its distinctive flavour?
It had to come down to the MC. Her relationships. Her central problem. The patterns that repeat again and again with everyone she meets. The things she reacts to that show what she’s searching for. Her peculiar situation and what she needs to understand.
After quarrying down that seam, I had it. This is what My Memories of a Future Life is about.
How do you find where you belong?
Red piano: Bonnie Schupp Photography at iStockPhoto
Have you found your novel’s theme yet? If so, how did you do it? And if you have, share it in the comments