Monday, 8 September 2008

Literary Agents: Make Sure You Know Where They’ve Been

Literary agents are very specialised animals.

They care passionately about books, writers, and writing, and yet must be ruthless when it comes to rejecting sub-standard work.

They are sharp business people with an eye for a deal, and yet are usually personable and approachable.

They can read lyrical fiction and dense publishing contracts with equal concentration.

They can sell their clients’ books and negotiate their contracts without alienating the editors on the other side of the deal.

They have a vast knowledge of publishing law, contractual law, publishing trends, literature and culture.

To have all this knowledge and skill they must have a solid background in publishing. A few months spent writing gift books or a couple of articles is not a good enough preparation for the agenting life: several years working in a publisher’s foreign rights department is.

I’d advise anyone who is considering signing up with an agent who is new to the business to ask them what they’ve done before, and how that has prepared them for agenting. Because usually it hasn’t.

If you want a good account of a literary agent’s work read Carol Blake’s detailed account, From Pitch To Publication, and learn how good literary agents earn every penny of their fees.


Paul Maurice Martin said...

I found they can also be ruthless re. manuscripts - which I see as simply reflecting the reality of today's publishing industry.

As LMP states, at least in the edition I was using a few years ago in my conscientious attempt to do all my homework and get my manuscript trade-published: "If you are submitting a nonfiction book proposal without a marketing platform, you are wasting your time."

I didn’t want to believe it. My credentials for writing in my area are excellent both on paper and experientially. But they were right. Publishers wouldn't so much as look at the proposal.

Two agents did respond, both with very favorable comments, but also with basically, "Good luck trying to sell this to publishers."

Given that the overriding concern of publishers today is, "Does this author have a name or is he/she in a position to move product," I don't see how agents have much more chance of selling an unknown author's work to a publisher than the author does. I can see why they wouldn’t want to take on such work, regardless of quality.

In my own case, I've had to resort to very small scale publishing (not self published but not trade published). Twenty-five years of work against immense adversity (I'm housebound, severely disabled and now mostly bedridden from a rare progressive disease) has produced a book that's received solid endorsements but that's terribly unlikely to make any contribution to discourse in its field because pretty much nobody knows it exists.

I think the obvious thing is for authors to be aware of the necessity of a platform. If it weren't for my physical inability, I absolutely would have made it my business to get one, probably by going on for my PhD and a position in higher ed. Not at all needed to write the book I've written, which is non academic, but this likely would have been the most direct route to a platform in my particular case.

Fortunately my experience with all this alerted me to the truth of what you say here: an agent's background is everything. Late in the game I was approached by an "agent" - anyone can call themselves that, there's no license or examination - and I was suspicious after seeing zero evidence for this person's involvement in the publishing industry on Google. (The individual has an unusual name that was readily searchable.)

When I passed on the contractual offer to some knowledgeable writing world people I'd met along the way, it was a universal thumbs down.

Jane Smith said...

Paul, how is what you've done with your book "not self published but not trade published"? I've had a look at your site and I can't find any explanation. I am intrigued.

Anonymous said...

Check out the publisher. It's his company.