Friday, 27 July 2007

Do Writers Need Agents?

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!


Sarah said...

Hi Paul. Just popped over to say hello. Good luck with the novel, sounds promising. Yes, put it in, take it out... that sounds familiar!

Mary Witzl said...

In the States it is almost unheard of for authors to work directly with publishers nowdays; virtually everyone has an agent. I have finally reached the encouraging rejection letter stage myself, and am occasionally frustrated when I read conflicting opinions about my writing from various agents. But I keep plugging away, because that is what one does. If I had the right agent, I would happily make modifications in my work, within reason. I don't think it's selling out; I think it is pragmatic. They understand the publishing business far better than I do, and that is the reason I would part with 20% of whatever profits I made. It is in an agent's best interests to earn me more money: the more I get, the more they get.
Of course until I get an agent, no one's getting anything, but I can dream, oh, I can dream...

Paul said...

Sarah - thanks for dropping by. I trust you are enjoying life at Sussex - and that you'll have fun next week at Clun. A week without contact with the outside world - marvellous!

Mary - you're right,of course. I'd gladly give up 20% to have a decent agent who knows their way around. I sometimes think I'm just feeling my way along in the dark, and probably going in the wrong direction completely!

Kanani said...

I think an agent can do so much for your career. After all, you not only want to publish this one but others, correct?

Let me give you an example of someone having a tough time, but for other reasons ...age.

Chester Aaron,, at 85, is still writing well. He can't get an agent. He sent out 50 letters to agents a few years ago. Only one wrote back. She sent him back his letter, crossed it out with a big "X" and wrote "Thanks but no Thanks." He called her. She said, oh, so cooly and New Yawkishly... "Mr Aaron... you're 81? How can I possibly make any money off of you."

So he works with Zumaya Press and Ten Speed Press. He still writes and publishes, but he misses having an agent like he used to, when he published his other 16 books. They just do so much in terms of the total picture.

Mary Witzl said...

Kanani, that just kills me. Someone really wrote that?

Writers might need agents, but they certainly don't need agents like her!

Paul said...

Hmm . . . sad but not surprising, unfortunately.


Kanani said...

Yes, it was a very well known NY agent. I know her name, but can't blab it out. But let's just say that if I ever hear that any of my friends are going to bother with her, I'll let you know!

Can you imagine this:

"Mrs. Doerr? How old are you? Now how much money do you expect me to make off of you?"