Last year I sent my crime novel to an agent and in return the agent sent me a very encouraging rejection letter. It more or less confirmed what I had suspected – that my novel was well written but it would be difficult to market. So instead of wasting time and postage costs on sending an unmarketable book to other agents, I rewrote the novel to try to make it more saleable. ‘Make it less gritty’ was the advice I was given.
So I did. Does that mean I sold out? I don't think so. It’s a crime novel, after all – what Graham Greene would have called ‘an entertainment’ – so artistic integrity doesn’t apply!
As I was rewriting, I heard about a publisher who had identified a gap in the UK market and was looking for ‘gritty crime fiction’. I sent my novel off to them, they sent it back asking me to put back in all the stuff I’d taken out, and they are now considering the result. Early feedback was positive: ‘We like it,’ they said. I’m still waiting to hear whether they like it enough to publish it.
Which brings me to my question: Do I need a literary agent? If this publisher likes my novel and offers me a deal, why should I give away 20% of whatever I get to an agent? I’ve heard plenty of stories about authors who don’t have agents, who deal with publishers direct and conduct their own contract negotiations. They seem to do well enough.
On the other hand, what do I do if my publisher eventually decides NOT to offer me a deal? A lot of publishing houses have stopped accepting unsolicited mss from the general public and will only look at submissions from established literary agents.
A fellow writer, himself a well-established novelist, thinks I was crazy not to have gone back to the agent with my rewritten novel, rather than sending it direct to a publisher. Finding the right agent is, he says, far more important than getting your book accepted by a publisher. He says the best thing about an agent is that he or she will know exactly the right editor at each relevant publishing house to approach.
As an example he cited a friend who had a somewhat chequered publishing career. Her first two novels were published by a major publisher who had bigger fish to fry in terms of spending money on marketing. Her agent then got her a better deal with another large publisher, but again her next two novels were undermarketed. Sales were very poor and interest in her waned. Her agent, however, kept faith in her work and last year signed her with a third major publisher. Since then her career has really taken off. Her latest novel is just outside the top 20 fiction list. Without her agent, he says, none of this would be happening.
I have to admit, that's a pretty compelling argument in favour. I guess that’s why it is so hard for a new writer to get accepted by an agent!