What do agents do? #getpublished

You have enjoyed your feedback stage, seen a feedbacker friend in a new light but never mind, got stuck in to your final re-write and now that it is ready, you are heartily sick of the whole thing in mind, body and spirit. Congratulations, all this is as it should be.

What next?

Some writers send their draft off too early, are appalled to receive a couple of prompt rejections and decide that self-publishing will form the right bridge between them and their adoring public. Other writers know from the outset, having researched the self-publishing world and the complexities involved, that it is the right route for them. The website of the Alliance of Independent Authors is here.

‘Traditional’ publishing was always a colossal mountain to climb, it still is, and has many advantages if you have the patience to climb it. While self-published writers have the advantage of control and royalties that arrive quickly, they cope with their own editing, formatting, cover design, promotion, distribution etc. or pay others for those skills. There is plenty of help out there but it’s a lot to take on. Traditional publishers demand more promotion than they used to, but generally they give you more time to write and sometimes engage in nurturing your writing career.

But nothing is ever simple in this life. Let’s look first at what agents, editors and publishers do.

AGENTS FIRST – what do they do?

A good agent is a many-splendored thing. A great one could be your friend for life. Scott Fitzgerald’s agent Harold Ober managed the Fitzgerald finances for them, supported the family in all sorts of ways through their troubles and even gave their daughter Scottie away at her wedding. This is probably more than you can expect from an agent these days but you never know.

Agents vary in what they offer but the basic menu is this:

  • Knowing the publishing market is their job. We writers study the book shop shelves to see what’s doing well and what shape it takes but agents are experts in what different publishers specialise in and what they are looking for now. Who is after a new Tudor novel with elves? Who wants a Goth crime writer who has travelled solo by sled to the North Pole? It’s the agent’s job to be in the middle of this maelstrom, right up to the minute.
  • Agents form links with particular publishers, usually because they like each other and are excited by the same sort of reading. You can find out which agents like your sort of novel by looking at your favourite recent novels in that genre and seeing who the author acknowledges as inspiration and help: you’ll usually find their agent’s name there.
  • With all this in mind, an agent can help you reshape your novel to fit. Sorry to break it to you but the rewriting is not over yet. The difference this time is that you’re among professionals and whatever I said before about picking and choosing your feedback, forget it. Professionals know best. Some agents decided some time ago they have no time for new writers or slush piles. I can see their point and respect it. (About twenty years ago I was shown a slush pile in a theatre. Piles of uninvited drafts for only the previous two or three months covered a whole wall up to the ceiling. The temptation to dump the lot must have been overwhelming.) Some agents recognise the need to bring on new talent but prefer to let university courses do the polishing for them. Other agents, and these are our fairy godmothers (usually female), do offer to coach us in improving our drafts before sale, sometimes at a price. (Below: Zaporozh’e Cossacks writing a letter to the Sultan, 1880, by IE Repin)IMG_2599At this stage, it can begin to feel as if everybody including the bus driver is writing your book instead of you. The final decision about changes will always be yours, yes. But you will learn an enormous amount from an experienced agent who is prepared to coach you, even if she does not in the end manage to sell your book.

THE THREE GOLDEN RULES 

It’s time for a refresher.

  1. If the writing is coming to you hot and fast, at all costs catch it. It may not be perfect – you can refine later.
  2. Come hell or high water, always finish your first draft.
  3. Golden Rule 3 – ta- dah! – is this. Successful professionals are a joy to be among and they know their job. Listen carefully to them. (I used to say publishers are always right – this is the redraft.)

The publishing world is always uncertain. No-one knows for sure what will be a success; they are all working on calculated guesses, with first books more than any other. What else do agents do for us?

  • Agents circulate your book. They do want to make money from it for you both, otherwise they don’t eat. So when the draft is right, they will send it out. That can either be a process of sending it to one to three publishers at a time or by auction, depending on the book. This is the agent’s call, not ours, though (s)he may discuss it with you. Finding a publisher may happen in a flash but it is more likely to take time. It does not always end in success either – it came as a great surprise to me that agents get rejections too. I will discuss the many reasons for rejections that are nothing to do with the quality of your draft in a later post. But many publishers will only take submissions from an agent, not from you direct, however charmingly you ask. Even if they do, a submission via your agent stands a much greater chance of being read. If an agent keeps peddling the same rejected draft without discussing modifications and tactics with you, find someone else. Your agent should field rejections for you and break them to you gently, spotting what is an invitation for further negotiations and what is not. The most wonderful thing is that with a good agent, you are not alone in this minefield. Your agent is your champion.
  • Agents help you make contacts. Each time your draft makes a targeted landing on a publisher’s desk, it leaves a calling card about you and your writing. Always be polite, hard-working, committed to a long writing career, easy to deal with. Staff in agents and publishers move from one job to another, and sometimes they live with each other and chat about their work. You want them to remember you positively for next time.
  • Agents negotiate and agree your publishing contract. It’s all gone well! You have met your agent, an interested publisher has been found and there is talk of a contract. Agents and publishers do like to meet writers face to face if possible. It’s like any job interview: they want to see if there’s enough in common for this important relationship. It’s about more than what’s on the page. An exception was my first novel (a ghost story for the 10 – 14 year age group published in Dublin, 2005) where I sent off the draft, heard nothing for a year and a half and then a contract arrived in the post out of the blue. I sat on the stairs in shock, convinced it was a mistake. Surely there was some poor darling in Galway opening my rejection. (I was well used to rejections by then: all my thoughts here are hard-earned.) So I rang them up and heard the good news that the contract was valid. There was no agent involved then but I learned later how wonderful it is to have someone on my side who can crack a deal. In the UK, you can also check things yourself with the excellent Society of Authors, through their website or on the phone.
  • A warning about contracts. An agent’s contract is likely to come by email pretty soon after you’re being taken on, and can consist of just one clear page. Publishers can take a lot longer to get on with the paperwork, if they get round to it at all. It’s not unusual to be scrabbling around with sub-clauses at the same time as you’re approving your book cover and planning a launch. The reason, as a publisher said to me once, is that a contract for an unknown author’s first book may ‘not be worth the paper it’s written on’. What if the author does not manage to finish the book as wanted? What if the publisher decides not to publish after all, or is taken over by a company with a different agenda? What is anyone going to do about it? The publisher can’t write the book and a first author cannot force publication. Neither party can prove any quantifiable loss as first books rarely make a profit of more than a thousand quid, sometimes less. There, I’ve said it. Your first book is very unlikely to make you rich. It’s the third book your publisher and agent are gambling on.
  • Agents know about foreign and translation rights and that is where the money is. Think way beyond where you live to how your book might work in India, China, Africa, Europe and the Americas.
  • Advances. I haven’t mentioned these yet because they’re not what they were and for a first-time author, they will probably be negligible. Do you go for the biggest advance anyway? However hungry you are, an independent publisher might serve your book better, give it a longer life and more attention.

These webpages are worth a look in The Writers & Artists Yearbook  and Writers’ Digest

Many agents’ websites offer helpful pages of advice too. They really do want to help you soar.

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Next week, what are publishers for? Happy writing and good luck

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