I had this note from a new blog subscriber.
I’ve just finished my first novel. A most enjoyable experience only tainted by the reaction from the literary agents I have approached so far! Any and all advice and direction will be gratefully received and much appreciated.
Although we’re now used to writers who publish themselves, there is still a sizeable crowd who are set on finding an agent and a traditional publishing deal. Most of my critique clients, for instance. Why?
1 – Kudos and confidence
If you have an agent or a publisher, you have validation. You’re not just a spare-time scribbler, which you have probably been for countless years before. If you get an agent, your friends, family, total strangers – and you yourself – have proof that you made the grade.
This cannot be underestimated. Getting an agent took me years. By the time I did, I’d already got ghosted bestsellers and a track record coaching writers. But I felt I was sneaking under the wire, using the title ‘writer’ on false pretences until an agent signed me for My Memories of a Future Life.
2 – Developmental input
We all need developmental help. If you’re a good fit for an agent, they can give you perceptive, priceless notes on how your book works and guide your revisions.
3 – Long-term career-building
Obviously, an agent helps you find a publisher, usually with a better deal than you could get on your own.
But agents can’t always sell your first book, and often the only choice is to self-publish. Some agents are giving writers a leg-up with showcase imprints of their own – Jason Allen Ashlock at Movable Type Management set up The Rogue Reader to launch outsider suspense writers. As publishers increasingly opt for ‘safe’ books, we’ll see more agents devising ways to build audiences for their exciting new authors.
So I still think it’s worth looking for an agent. Markets change and new opportunities are opening for writers all the time. If you can, it makes sense to get the support of professionals with more legal and commercial clout than you can muster on your own.
But every silver lining has a cloud. Here are two.
1 Editorial input: the flipside
If an agent gives you editorial input, they might be steering you to fit a commercially viable genre. That might completely suit you. But it may not if your aim is to pursue a more individual and creative path. You still don’t have to abandon dreams of traditional publication; many small presses will take submissions directly from authors.
Almost every writer will probably now self-publish at some stage, but not all agents have adjusted to this. I know successful indie authors who have been offered agency deals that claim a percentage of all book earnings – which of course includes royalties from books they published themselves. This was appropriate when all the author’s work came through the agent, but now is plainly unfair. Happily, many agency agreements demand commission only on deals that they have made. If you’re offered a deal that takes a percentage of everything, query it. They might adjust the wording. If not, think hard about whether you want to work with them.
3 The disreputable
Not all agents are reputable. Some ask for money up front to read your manuscript. Even with all the boundaries shifting, an agent should never charge to read your work. Agents earn commission on the back end.
So what do we make of our correspondent here, whose quest for an agent is proving a challenge? Why might you have trouble finding an agent?
1 – Your book may not yet be strong enough. It’s so easy to send off our lovely novel too early. If you nearly made the cut, most agents will try to let you know. But if they dismiss you with the equivalent of a compliments slip, you may need to hone your craft.
2 – You might have pitched the wrong agents – either their lists are full, or they don’t take your genre. Check websites before you hit ‘send’ (although agents are often quite bad at updating their requirements).
3 – You might have a great book but a dull pitch. Pitching is an art and you need to know how to make an agent curious.
4 – Your book may not be commercially viable. You might get feedback about genre mixing, undesirable subjects or unfashionable style choices. Your book might still be a good read in spite of this – and if so, agents are usually genuine enough to let you know.
5 – You might need to kiss more frogs. There are thousands of agents, all very oversubscribed, all with different wishlists. With such pressures, rejection is far more likely than acceptance, even for awesome books. Don’t do anything different until you see a reliable pattern emerge.
Thanks for the cafe table pic Tony Hall and the inkpen manuscript pic Songwind
Anyway, I’m hoping this will kick off a discussion. What’s your feeling about agents? What would you advise our friend here?