Friday, 12 December 2008

A Closed Shop?

There’s a common misconception that it’s impossible for a new writer to find themselves an agent unless they’ve got friends in the business, or a publishing deal already on the table. It seems that publishing is considered a closed shop. And this just isn’t the case.

I got my agent by emailing her, and asking if she’d consider my work: I didn’t have any sort of deal in place. She asked for a sample of my novel, then she asked for the whole thing; then she bought me a very nice lunch and off we went. The whole process took less than a week. Honestly: if a writer’s work is good enough and is submitted to an appropriate agent, it will find representation sooner or later.

20 comments:

Sandra Patterson said...

Thanks Jane! That's what I keep hoping! :-)

Sally Zigmond said...

I've found that the more a novice writer blames 'an elite' and 'a closed shop' for his or her lack of success, the less likely they are to have written a novel that's publishable. Either that or they give up too soon.

Anonymous said...

So true! I'm a new writer, and I got an agent earlier this year - my dream agent, too! She was the only one I queried, and she took me on as a client four days after receiving my submission. I've never been published, and until I met my agent, I didn't know anyone in the publishing world - didn't even know anyone who knew anyone in publishing.

Love your blog, Jane - always so helpful and readable.

Leanne.

GutsyWriter said...

That sounds wonderful and easy, but let me ask you if there is more competition for US writers than UK ones? I hope this doesn't sound naive to you but so many writer friends have tried and tried at writer conferences to pitch to agents and editors, with no luck.

Jane Smith said...

Congratulations, Leanne, on getting your agent: make sure you let me know when your book is published.

Gutsy, I don't know the USA market as well as I know the UK one, but I believe that there's little difference between the two. I'm not sure that pitching at conferences is the best way to attract an agent or editor (although if you do it well, it's not going to hurt): as always, it's the submission that counts most. Without intending to upset your friends, it's more likely that their writing wasn't just up to scratch, and that increased competitiveness wasn't a factor at all. Sorry.

Daniel said...

I always say this to my students - "I didn't know anyone in publishing, or anything about it."

I was 24 when I first got published and I had my first two books out without an agent. I was very naive. I let the publishers get away with murder, without realising it. I fell for the old lie that "the advance is small so we can keep more back for publicity." Can you imagine?! I wouldn't stand for that now... Or at least my agent wouldn't.

People change publishers all the time, but stay with a good agent. I've been with the same agent since 1995, but have had/ am having books out with (to date) 6 different UK publishers (Virgin, Penguin/Hamish Hamilton, Allison & Busby, Capstone-Wiley, Icon and BBC Books).

emmadarwin said...

"I've found that the more a novice writer blames 'an elite' and 'a closed shop' for his or her lack of success, the less likely they are to have written a novel that's publishable. Either that or they give up too soon."

Yes, I've found this too: new writers pick it up and believe it, but it comes from long-rejected writers or those, as you suggest, Sally, who don't get past those early rejections (maybe because they don't mix with enough aspiring writers to discover that it's par for the course). It IS very hard to get over the bar into publication, and I don't blame anyone for have a bout of bitter-and-twisted-ness as the submissions come thudding back. But for some would-be writers it's easier and more comfortable to believe that rejections are anyone's fault but that of their work. It's part of a more general phenomenon that it's more comfortable to believe in conspiracy theories than to accept the frighteningly contingent, unfair, randomness of life...

Jane Smith said...

The answer to so many new writers' questions seems to be, "just keep writing". The more you do it, the more you improve and the better the odds get that you'll be published sooner or later: but people are still after that quick fix and when they don't find it, they'd often sooner fix the blame on some conspiracy theory than on their own ability.

The same sort of attitude can be seen in writers who rush towards the vanity presses: they're convinced that Big Publishers won't publish them and that vanity publishing is a viable alternative, but no matter how one explains it all, some people are determined not to listen.

Lynn Price said...

I don't know the USA market as well as I know the UK one, but I believe that there's little difference between the two. I'm not sure that pitching at conferences is the best way to attract an agent or editor...

Jane, I hope you don't mind if I stick my quill in here, but I'm a little confused. Are you saying that you asked an agent for representation without a query letter, or did you query her? I'm probably daft, but it was unclear.

Here in the US, I know of very few agents who will entertain a request for representation w/out a proper query - which is what I'm sure you did, so please feel free to consider me an idiot.

I attend many writer's conferences every year, and I have to say that the majority of the work submitted in the agent/editor pitch sessions is abysmal. So from a ratio standpoint, very few agents or editors come away from these sessions with an author in tow.

But that's not to say that it doesn't happen. I had an author I was seriously considering but was nervous because,as huge as the story was, it needed a TON of work. I wasn't sure I could take one of my best editors offline to literally rewrite the thing. While I was sitting around with my finger up my nose, Janet Reid signed her while at the BEA. We laughed about hysterically, but it does happen. If your work rocks.

Jane Smith said...

"Jane, I hope you don't mind if I stick my quill in here, but I'm a little confused. Are you saying that you asked an agent for representation without a query letter, or did you query her? I'm probably daft, but it was unclear."

Do always feel free to stick your quill in around here, Ms Price: when you're not helpful, you're entertaining and it's all good stuff.

You're right. I didn't quite query my agent. I contacted her to ask if she was considering new clients as I wasn't sure; I told her I why was looking for a new agent; and a bit about where I was in my writing career. I didn't mention anything about what I was planning to ask her to look at, other than it was a novel. She emailed me back and asked for a full, and phoned me less than 48 hours later to offer representation.

Either I'm bloody good, or she was drunk.

Do remember that things are done a little differently here in the UK: it's more common to start by submitting a partial and synopsis than just a query.

As for pitching sessions: I've always felt that they result in punch-drunk writers, editors and agents, and that little is discovered about the actual WRITING during them--more about the writers' sales ability and idea (and yes, I realise that's kind of the point and that it can work for genre fiction, but I'm old-fashioned enough to believe in the writing as the main thing no matter what the genre). It seems to me that writers do better from querying and submitting than they do from pitching.

emmadarwin said...

"little is discovered about the actual WRITING during them--more about the writers' sales ability and idea ... It seems to me that writers do better from querying and submitting than they do from pitching."

It seems to me true too, and I'm deeply grateful that here in the UK it's the usual practice to submit sample chapters and a covering letter and synopsis as the first contact, since I couldn't possibly have conveyed what I do in a query. So often stuff which pitches well is high concept but may be very low execution, whereas whether it actually works as a whole novel is all in the execution. It bends the market - and therefore the habits of the more commercially minded aspiring writer - towards the concept (which may or may not be something describably in an elevator pitch) and away from the fact that, as the immortal Miss Snark always said, good writing trumps all.

Jane Smith said...

"I couldn't possibly have conveyed what I do in a query. So often stuff which pitches well is high concept but may be very low execution, whereas whether it actually works as a whole novel is all in the execution."

That's a whole blog-post on its own, Emma. Thank you for that.

R.R.Jones said...

Well I must be crap then.
I suspected it all along but stubborn denial fuels our hopes and pumps our dreams.
So I'm packing it in.
Goodbye for ever.


...not really. :-)

I'm still feeling a bit left-outty but I'm sure I'll get over it with a nice, fat contract with a seriously cunning agent...
Now where's that typewriter, I feel lucky.

john white said...

Jane, I'm on this agent hunting path at the moment. I expect it to be hard (the realisation of most ambitions are) and if the rejections come rolling in then I know my story or writing isn't grabbing the right people. My first three books were learning curves (an apprenticeship if you will)and I'm hoping now my style and content will do the trick.
I think showing the potential to follow up a book with a sequel or a series helps the egent and the publisher to know that person has staying power and ideas.
Having honest and knowledgeable critique on work at the outset is invaluable, but only if the writer is prepared to listen to it - as unpalatable as it might be sometimes.
I let you know how it goes.

December/Stacia said...

Just dittoing this. I queried my agent on Monday; he signed me on Wednesday. He'd never heard of me before, we'd never met. He just liked my query, and liked my book, and that was it. :-)

Gonna be a writer said...

I've sent my book to three agents so far and all three of them have said that they like my writing but just aren't sure where they would place my book. Hopefully in 2009 I'll find an agent who does know where to place it. Or were they telly me that the book is rubbish but my writing is good and I should write something else.
Just come across this blog but I love it and will be adding it to those I follow.

Annieye said...

Hi - only just found your blog. I have absolutely no connections with the publishing industry and yet I secured an agent earlier this year. I sent out the required letters/synopsis/chapters to six agents. I signed with the first to respond after meeting her in London. Subsequently two other agents also expressed an interest in my work. So I think it must be perfectly possible to get an agent even though you have no connections. (Mind you, whether I eventually get published remains to be seen!)

Jane Smith said...

Annieye, congratulations on finding your agent: it sounds like you're well on your way. Do let me know how you get on, OK?

Penny Manning said...

Ms. Smith that was a brief but encouraging post. I have heard that it is difficult to find a good agent, and I admit, I'm a bit nervous about beginning the process because being an author is the only thing I really want to do. I love spending 10 or 15 hours typing away...What I find difficult is determining genre and I hear I have to know that before I should seek an agent--I think you would say before beginning to write a book, but I started this novel long before your words came along--and there are conflicting views on when a choice of genre is determined. At any rate...I'm confused and haven't found anything on the internet that has helped. When is Literary,literary, and what is this about Literary Subgenres?....Urgggggg!

Rachael King said...

So many people think this! I remember someone even saying to me that I wouldn't have any trouble getting an agent because I was "young and good-looking". The whole process, as it did for you, took about one week from query to partial to full to signing up - just teh traditional route, no contacts in the biz. And at no stage did my agent ask me for a photo or ask me my age!