I’m a literary agent not a writer and while I like to take time and care over my words, I do not have the skill to create beautifully crafted sentences or perfectly structured books. That is a writer’s job.
I’m a literary agent not a publisher, and although I spent a decade working in various roles in publishing houses, including as a commissioning editor, I do not have the complete set of skills or the knowledge or the sales networks or the PR and marketing teams to call myself a publisher.
So why is it that more and more writers believe they can do these highly skilled and time-consuming jobs themselves?
It is commonly accepted that the book industry is experiencing a period of nearly unprecedented change. As an agent it is incredibly exciting and, in many ways, there has never been a better time to be an author.
It is commonly accepted that the book industry is experiencing a period of nearly unprecedented change, flux and opportunity. As an agent it is incredibly exciting and, in many ways, there has never been a better time to be an author.
But can anyone be surprised that in an era when digital and self-publishing opportunities mean that writers are questioning the worth or very existence of publishers, they are also wondering whether they need an agent.
The debate about the future role of the large publishing houses is outside the scope of this piece (but, for the record, they are, in my view, absolutely essential to the long term well-being of the professional writer), but in these complex, shifting multi-platform and truly global times, a good agent has never been more necessary.
Can you answer the following questions?
Should you sell world rights in all languages to your UK publisher, or sell the rights directly to individual foreign publishers? What is the industry standard author share for sub-licensed audio rights? What royalty can you expect for special sales? Is 52.5% a reasonable starting point for high-discount royalties? How should you word an out of print clause when the usual threshold of 150 or so copies in the warehouse is meaningless in a digital era? Is it sensible or fair to sell e-books for 20p? Should my publisher control the merchandising rights to my books?
Even if you can answer some or all of the above questions, do you have the time to consider these issues when your publisher is putting you under pressure to deliver your next book, or promote your current work or to increase your following on Twitter?
Publishers have never demanded more of their writers.
Publishers have never demanded more of their writers. Successful authors are expected to publish a book a year (or at worst two every three years), while also perhaps writing a few shorter pieces to be published as ebooks to fill the gap between longer works and to keep a hungry readership happy. They are expected ceaselessly to promote their work, to be media-trained and to interact with their readers via social networks.
On the one hand this is great news, as publishers have never before put so much money or so many resources behind their successful or upcoming authors and brands. It’s boom time for those at the top and near the top of the pile.
This focus is a reflection of changing times in the book industry, with pressure on publishers from all angles, which in turn has led to the tightening of budgets: fewer staff are being employed to publish fewer books.
So while the opportunities have never been greater at one end, times have never been tougher at the other. Much has been written about the decline of the mid-list and of authors being cut after only one or two books. And it is a reality.
Editors move on. Publishers change direction and the sales expectations are very high – increasingly the large trade publishers are only commissioning books with a real chance of an “upside”, i.e. the possibility of achieving bestseller status. Authors can no longer expect to have a life-long relationship with their editor or publisher.
While agents are obviously best placed to find the right publisher for your work, to generate excitement about a new project, to conduct an auction, to negotiate contracts and to sell film rights, it is when things don’t go so well that we truly prove our worth. It is the day to day stuff that is so important.
I talk to some of my clients two or three times a week. I offer them advice, I solve specific issues, we brainstorm future plans, sometimes we just chat.
Agents are a constant presence in an author’s career. We are in it for the long haul.
Agents are a constant presence in an author’s career. We don’t tend to move on. We don’t shift our focus simply because the market changes. Yes, we can negotiate contracts but more importantly we can offer constant and continuing career advice. We try to help plan for the short, medium and long term. We are in it for the long haul.
Publishers understandably need to focus on the here and now and are primarily interested in the current project, not the next one. But agents are lucky enough not to have to worry about exact, live-time sales figures. They are part of the story, but we have the luxury of perspective. Our jobs do not depend on our last book. We can offer advice that will be valuable in years to come.
We act as a buffer. We can have the nasty conversation. We can shout and scream, if necessary, without affecting your own personal relationship with an editor. We can have that private off the record chat or sound out your editor about future projects. And importantly you can scream and shout at us, venting your frustrations, without harming your relationship with your publishers.
And, excitingly, just at the moment when your editor is all revved up about offering for your next book, we can, if necessary, softly whisper in their ear: “Ah, good, that’s great, but be quick, I have a bit of interest from elsewhere!”
10 top tips for securing a literary agent
Keep your pitch letter short and to the point (under a page), but don’t be afraid of letting your personality shine through.
Explain precisely what type of book you have written: i.e. is it commercial women’s fiction or historical narrative non-fiction, etc.
Do not make hyperbolic or outlandish claims about your book being comparable to Ulysses or War and Peace or To Kill a Mockingbird.
Especially for non-fiction, explain why there’s a need for the work, why you’re suited to write it, and why your approach differs from others.
Do not say that this is your seventh unpublished novel.
Check your spelling and grammar. Yes, I know, but, honestly, I can’t tell you how many of the pitch letters and manuscripts we receive are full of errors. It’s not fatal, but it doesn’t inspire much confidence.
Be persistent: agents make decisions about whom to represent for very different, personal and specific reasons. Your manuscript just needs to land on the right agent’s desk at the right time. It’s alchemy, really, magic but unpredictable.
Make absolutely sure that the first few pages of the manuscript or sample chapters are impeccable and brilliant. We read thousands of submissions and we make important judgements (and, yes, decisions) on the first few pages, so they need to be very, very good.
Be patient. We receive many thousands of manuscripts each year and it takes time to go through them.
Do not chase up your submission after only a couple of weeks and lose your temper on the phone. We’re in it for the long term and want to know that we can work together. Patience and good humour are vital attributes for the professional writer and, like everyone, we want to work with reasonable people.
Tim Bates is an agent at Pollinger Limited. He represents a broad range of authors, both fiction and non-fiction, and has a particular interest in crime thrillers, food-writing, pop culture and quirky and serious narrative non-fiction.
© Tim Bates