Thursday, 21 May 2009

What Happens When An Agent Gives Up?

It can seem, sometimes, that agents make too little effort on behalf of their clients—particularly their newer, unpublished ones.

There are relatively few major fiction publishers in the United Kingdom. If an agent can’t place a book after ten or fifteen submissions, they might not try further: chances are there won’t be any other good-enough, big enough publishers which they think would “fit” the book well. So it might seem that an agent has made only a handful of submissions before advising their disappointed clients that the book has failed to sell, and that they should move on and write a new, more commercial book. In this situation writers are often left feeling that there’s not been nearly enough effort made on behalf of their precious books—especially when they consider the pages and pages of publishers that are listed in the Writer’s Handbook. To make it worse, it’s almost impossible for a writer to then find another agent to take their book on, as the highest-earning routes for it have already been exhausted.

But all is not lost. There are some wonderful smaller presses which fall beneath most agents’ radars because of their lower (or non-existent) advances. These presses usually accept unagented submissions, so there's nothing to stop a writer from making submissions for themselves if their agent gives up on their books.

Some of these presses produce beautiful books, and achieve sales that the bigger presses envy: Sarah Bower's The Needle in the Blood, from the consistently good Snowbooks, and Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost (or try this edition, with a much-improved jacket design), from Tindal Street Press, are prime examples.

Writers have to be careful: there are plenty of vanity publishers out there masquerading as small presses. And I'd still always advise a writer to find an agent to check and negotiate any contract before they signed. But if an agent is unable to place a book, that doesn't mean it's unpublishable.

18 comments:

Fiona Robyn said...

As a case in point, my first agent couldn't place my novel Thaw, despite valiant effort. A few years later Snowbooks have saved the day, and small publishers don't always mean small sales, especially in the long run...

Nony Mouse said...

If an agent can’t place a book after ten or fifteen submissions, they might not try further:Ten or fifteen? Seriously?
I know of a situation where a very well connected, highly respected agent with many years of sales and experience told her client there was nothing more she could do after 3 submissions.

It's no wonder to me that Galleycat and others have reported this week that the number of self published titles in 2008 overtook industry published titles for the first time in the US.

Thanks for this article, Jane. I'm posting as a nony-mouse simply because I am now on the hunt for a new agent. I always thought that was the hard part - not even close anymore.

Nicola Morgan said...

You say: "And I'd still always advise a writer to find an agent to check and negotiate any contract before they signed."
I say: OR they can join the Soc of Authors (a contract offer with a proper publisher is sufficient at least for Associate membership) and then they get FREE advice on the contract from the expert staff at SoA. The joining fee would be worth it. Also, many authors even with contracts wouldn't get an agent, if the book wasn't likely to earn enough money (or other reasons). So, I vote SoA for anyone who doesn't have an agent (and in fact anyone who DOES)!

BuffySquirrel said...

Eh, I think it's a false correlation. Many books are self-published without the author even trying for commercial publication, because they don't understand how publishing works.

I am however noting an increase in the number of commercially-published books being republished via self-publishing, for a variety of reasons.

nmj said...

I vouch for the SoA being wonderfully supportive, I would not hesitate to recommend them. My own experience of 'an agent giving up once the mainstreams had rejected' seems so long ago now (early 2005), but approaching small publishers on my own was not very easy, they also wanted agents, a lot of them, though clearly things have changed four years later. I had explored every avenue and was completely exhausted physically and emotionally - I was rescued by putting extracts of novel on my blog.

Emma Darwin said...

I hopped in to say Society-of-Authors, only to find Nicola beating me to it.

Some agents do persevere longer than others, though that may be by way of re-writes. My own agent took two years to place The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime...

But when you hear of a book and (worse) an author being dropped after only three or four submissions, I 've always assumed that that's because of what the rejecting editors said - would I be wrong, Jane? If they turned it down on grounds which a) seem likely to be true with other editors, and b) seem incurable, then an agent who's fairly ruthless with their time and effort, and/or chary of their reputation and so doesn't want to be seen sending out apparent no-hopers, might give up.

One question to ask an agent who's talking about taking you on is, 'How soon would you give up?'

mags said...

One has to assume that if a reputable agent signs up a new, unpublished author, then that agent feels the manuscript is salable, which puts the author in the front part of the pack of would-be authors. And if the agent fails to sell the book and the author then tries on her own, she's coming from a far stronger position than, say, someone who never had an agent's validation in the first place.

Make sense?

Maddie V @Palgrave Macmillan said...

@mags - That seems sensible, but I'm not sure how well an editor would receive a manuscipt pitched on the basis of 'My agent couldn't sell it but does think it's sellable'. Similarly, do the 'big' names even consider authors without an agent these days? It's been a while since I waded through the slush pile as a lacky at a literary agency so this might have changed (which can only be a good thing for authors, but less so for the workload of editors!)

If anyone here is interested, we'll be discussing these sort of issues and self-publishing (the perils and positives!) at a writers event on June 2nd with agents, editors, booksellers and more - more info here: http://www.thewritershandbook.com/invite.asp

Thank you for the plug for The Writer's Handbook by the way Jane, even if it was only to illustrate how daunting a prospect those hundreds of pages of listings can be!

booksandbiscuits said...

I'm sure Jane may well pick up on this herself, Nony Mouse, but she responded down in the comments here - http://howpublishingreallyworks.blogspot.com/2009/05/two-excellent-posts-about-self.html (sorry, no good at doing links in comments) - to my asking her opinion on those reports about self-publishing overtaking industry published titles. Apparently the reports are misleadingly worded, and are actually refering to Print-on-demand technologies - which can be used by regular big publishers as well as vanity presses etc - being on the up, rather than the author-led self-publishing as we usually think of it.

Maggie Dana said...

Maddy V:

I'll be on a panel discussion with my editor, Will Atkins (Macmillan New Writing), at the Writers' Handbook Live event in London, which is listed as June 6th, not June 2nd. Assume it's the same one, yes?

Maggie Dana
Beachcombing, June 5th, 2009
www.maggiedana.com

Jean said...

My former agent gave up on a manuscript of mine after trying seven mainstream publishers. This took well over a year as she sent it out to two at a time, but each publisher took months to give a definite answer. I always thought publishers would respond quickly to agents.

Jane Smith said...

Nony Mouse wrote, "I know of a situation where a very well connected, highly respected agent with many years of sales and experience told her client there was nothing more she could do after 3 submissions."That makes me wonder. Was the agent not wholly committed to the book, do you think? Was it a very niche title which had only a very limited number of publishers which would consider it? Or was the author a nightmare to work with, and so the agent effectively gave up? The truth could hide in any, or all, of those possibilities--but what ever the reason, it can't have been nice for the writer.

Jane Smith said...

Nicola Morgan et al: Ah, yes, the Society of Authors. Its contract-checking service is extraordinarily thorough and useful (although there is a cautionary tale on Monday Books' website about the other side of following the advice that the SoA offers--I'll look for the link).

Jane Smith said...

Maddie, I wish I'd known about the event earlier: I'd have been in the front row heckling! I've had a look at the guest-list and it sounds like a fantastic day for anyone interested in writing and publishing: I do hope you get plenty of takers for it, as I bet it will be invaluable. And you're welcome for the plug: I use the Writer's Handbook a lot, and rely on it heavily. I'd like to see it cover a little more about the perils of vanity publishing, and the real challenges of self-publishing: but then I would, wouldn't I? Ha!

Jane Smith said...

Jean, your story isn't uncommon, but it's not the best approach. A former agent of mine failed to sell my first novel but did get several very near misses: he sent it out to about twelve publishers all at once, and asked for responses within a week. All but one of the editors complied with that deadline. I wonder: are you in the UK or the USA? There is often a difference.

catdownunder said...

How do you find an agent then? Many agents are not taking on new clients. Those who are may be as inexperienced as the author. In a country like Australia you are also expected to write "Australian" before an agent will consider you. (No, I do not write about what you know best but a demand for what is sometimes called 'the Australian voice'.)

Richie D said...

Another excellent blog pots and a very informative discussion. I'm going to check out the Society of Authors.

Richie D said...

Aargh! Dammit, meant to say excellent blog post. Though I'm sure you have nice pots, too.