Saturday, 3 January 2009

Who Needs an Agent? 14/4/08

This post is an old JS post. Those who have read these before can just beep over them. I'll denote in the title that it is old by attaching the old date.

I was at Byron Bay last year, having been asked speak to a group of apiring writers. The gig, about the role of the agent and the publihser, was organised by the Northern Rivers Writer's Centre.  The other speaker was Carol Davidson, Random House publisher of  Peter Carey, among many others. We did a bit of a good cop bad cop routine - I was the agent and we took an imaginary book through the process of arriving in the agent's slush pile to publication.

I wrote up some notes in preparation for the gig and thought that they might be useful to any aspiring writers out there in JSpace who are interested in what an agent does, and how to get one.  It would only gather dust on the hard drive otherwise. Oh, and it is about the Australian situation, though it holds pretty much the same in the rest of the world.


Nobody actually needs an agent, but it is a good thing for a literary creative artist to have. Why?

• Agents look after your interests and advocate on your behalf. A publishing contract is great if it all goes swimmingly and there are no problems that emerge between you and your publisher, but if it goes horribly wrong, and it can, the agent is the go-between who can smooth out disagreements, advise whether or not you have a leg to stand on, and if you do, will go in and fight for you. They know the market, and what is reasonable for a writer to receive in exchange for your copyright, and which rights to reserve.

• An agent can be a sounding-board for ideas, or a reader of new work who knows if it is commercial in the market place, a confidant or a business manager who can also represent you for spin off work - public speaking, screen-rights, archive sales to libraries, overseas rights and translation sales and is skilled in negotiating the deal for such things. The agent looks after all intellectual property rights and if you are not aware of them, can make suggestions if appropriate.

• Occasionally an agent may also have a background in publishing, with excellent editorial skills, and may be relied upon to give structural advice about your MS, or have marketing skills and be able to advise the best way to present yourself and your work to best advantage.

• An agent can hold an auction of your MS if they consider it to be highly commercial and in demand by publishers, whether because the MS is topical, potentially a best seller, or a work of heartbreaking literary genius that will add lustre, at least, to a publisher's list - like the potential of winning the Miles Franklin, or a premier's award - anything that will raise it's profile above the rest.

• But generally, the one thing an agent has that is to your advantage as a writer, is access to publishers. Agents are the first cabs off the rank in the minds of publishing directors. Agents who have a good track record and a list of previous success stories are, of course, going to be listened to, and that is simply the way of the world.


It is possible to be published for the first time without an agent , and indeed these days, it is unlikely that an agent will sign an unknown quantity without a track record of some sort that can be used to 'talk up' the work,

• like previous short stories in journals,

• a background in journalism and a known byline,

• fame of some other description - especially in the case of memoir or auto-biography, like sporting prowess etc.

• There are avenues for young writers like the Vogel and Varuna H/C program, and A&U has a slush pile Tuesday where you can pitch to an editor.

But the scope is limited, and very frustrating if you are a marginally elderly author (over thirty) with no other work under your belt.

It is also possible to get an agent interested in you and your work if you have no prior form - but it is difficult to achieve, and depends entirely on whether or not there is anything in the potential relationship for the agent - agents  don't do it for love and devotion to the arts; it is a financial decision which can be made on many different levels in many different ways, depending on the individual agent and the MS or author they are deciding to represent - or not.

Any number of how-to-get-published books will give you the step by step conventional path to (hopefully) getting published, so I won't go there because to the beginning author, they are about as useful as a wet paper-cup. You will inevitably land in the slush pile, and sink to the bottom of it under the weight of all those published authors who are hoping to sell their third or fourth book into a market that is, as Frank Moorhouse puts it, logjammed.

What you are after is the back stage pass, right? Bad news folks - there isn't one, but here are a couple of subtle ways to get yourself to the front of the line at the stage door:

• Sometimes, and this is true for most artist representatives, including art dealers, A&R people from record companies, it is a word of mouth reference that gets you an in. Another artist/writer will mention you and your work to their agent as an interesting new talent, and if the writer is respected by the agent , they'll give it a look. The same can happen with publishers. But if you are on the edges, that's going to be hard to get - not being IN the scene, or not part of an academic or journalistic institution who also have contacts in common with the publishing world.

• Try your best to find yourself a mentor, someone whose work you really admire. There are funded programs offering mentorships, and these are very valuable relationships. If you are offered one, take it with both hands and milk it for all it is worth. But if you can't get an 'official mentor' identify a bunch of authors whose work you really admire. Write them a fan letter, set up a correspondence and point of contact. You'd be surprised how few fan letters author's receive. And you know what? they write back! (I wrote a totally deadshit fan letter to Jeannette Winterson and she replied. I wrote as a reader, and did not mention that I was an agent . Just an ordinary reader. I was that chuffed.?

• DON'T do this if you intend to talk about you. Of course, eventually the subject of your own eneavour will come up and you'll admit that you are a writer, but wait for your correspndent to offer advice and help. If people gauge that your interest in them is sincere and genuine, they will help you. Let the relationship grow naturally. This can lead to friendship and moral support at least, especially if you are isolated. Remember, writing takes time, and so does reading - authors are busy writing their own work, and while pleased to discuss nuts and bolts of the process, are not eager to read other writer's work while in the head-space of writing their own.

• The best way to get foot hold is simply by working in the industry.  I was the 'table slave' for Rose Creswell before I even dreamed of becoming an agent .  I just wanted to work with books and authors, and didn't care how mundane the task, as long as I got to hang out with her and her clients. Get a job in a book shop, a library - anything to do with books. No matter what else happens, it will give you an understanding of the competition you'll be up against in the marketplace, and you'll gain a better idea of what kinds of stories are being read by your potential audience - readers. Go to book launches, introduce yourself, join a reading group, arrange for an author to visit and talk to your group. Figure out who people are and what they do.

• Read. I can't tell you how many wannabe authors don't read. They would get on the phone and I'd ask, 'What are you reading?', and the reply would be, 'Oh no, I'm a writer.' (I kid you not).  Read so that you can confidently state your literary influences if asked - especially if it is an agent or publisher who asks you. If it corresponds to the kind of writing that sells well, you may find the conversation grow into curiosity on their part, about your work.

• Get on the net and search out blog sites. Lots of authors are beginning to use the web as a hub for their fans. If you are a Sci-fi - speculative fiction author, check out Birmo's blog here in JSpace - he is generous to a fault with information about the writing process and spends a lot of time nurturing the efforts of the people who frequent his blogspot. Join a blogging community if you can find one that is related to your own work and see if there are contacts within those communities who can help your cause. Set up your own blog and publish samples of your work. You never know who's watching. And relax, noone will steal your material in the blogosphere, everyone is too busy bogging their own.

• Festivals have changed everything since I began as an agent . Whereas once the literary social scene was limited to a few bars and lunching spots frequented by a small 'in the know' group of people, now there is opportunity for writers to mix and mingle in the atmosphere of a festival - speak to authors, perhaps be introduced to their publicists and publishers and generally, where those people are, you'll find an agent hanging out as well. You've actually got more chance of meeting an agent or publisher at the Byron festival than you have if you move to the big smoke and try to enter the scene in Sydney. When agents and publishers are on their own turf, they tend to be working their arses off because they spend so much time at festivals!

• However, and this is a big DON'T, whatever you do, if you do manage to find yourself sitting on a bar stool next to Lynne Tranter, do not corner her, or anyone else for that matter, and tell her the entire plot of your new novel. This will guarantee that you will never be published, ever, probably into several reincarnations. You can do pretty much anything to impress yourself on the potential representative of your work - fall down drunk while singing all the words to the sound track of Sound of Music, (that worked for me), tell endlessly amusing stories about your pets or ex-husband - but you must never, under any circumstances, BORE people with a long, badly abridged version of your masterpiece. Agents have VERY long memories, and word can spread quickly. Rather, spend a year honing your pitch down to one paragraph before even mentioning that you have written a book. Sheesh, that's all a film maker gets to get a film pitch across - why should you get more?

But for me, it was the work itself, which arrived more often than not, in the slush pile. The slush pile is a fact of life for a new author, so  here are some secret-agent's-business tips:

• The slush pile is already full of known authors who are on their second or third book. You will not find yourself at the top if the runner up of the previous year's Vogel is in it.

• Contrary to popular opinion, the slush pile does eventually get read - it just takes time, which agents have precious little of. All my reading was done at home in my very own time off. Do not under any circumstances ring up and get huffy if you've not heard back in four weeks - that can be how long it takes to open the bloody envelope.

• The cover letter, synopsis and first three chapters are vital. I always forgave a bad first chapter - they are as hard as any thing to write and are often stilted and self conscious, it takes time to get a rhythm going,  but if it's not happening by chapter three, chances are the rest of the book isn't going to be up to it either. It will be politely rejected. You spend money on your brakes and tyres - if your MS is as precious to you as your life, spend time and money on getting that document as perfect as it can possibly be. Engage an editor. Put a year into it, make it seamlessly rivetingly interesting - leave your reader begging for more.

• An agent will not appreciate you calling up to demand a dissertation on why they did not have the intelligence to sign you up immediately. They will simply take your name and write it on the black list of mad authors they keep in their head, never to be read again. If you are rejected, put it in a drawer and resend some time later, re written, with a short note saying that you realise it has been around before, but that you've dramatically reworked it and would be grateful for another look. I never forgot a story synopsis, so don't try to pretend it is new - be honest, and you will be treated with corresponding respect.

And remember, agents are there to do business. If you are rejected, although it feels like it at the time, it is not personal. If there is no foreseeable return on the investment of time and energy that it takes to promote, defend and push an author's work, they just can't afford the luxury of taking you on, no matter how good your story, or even how much they love and adore you as a human being.

This is a business a this level, on a very lean margin. Lets do the sum.

Let's say your book took you three years to write, but you were working part time, so you had an income, or the support of a partner, so you didn't starve - now it is ready to send out there. It is a piece of brilliant literary fiction. You've had a couple of short stories published and you've written some pieces for Vogue Living, and a few interesting Op Ed pieces for the Herald. You've sent it through the slush pile, and because I'm such a sucker for gorgeous arty prose, I call you in to discuss your work, and am convinced over a couple of glasses of red down at the Bayswater Brasserie that from what you've said, there's more where that came from, and I sign you up to the agency because you seem like a proper person, you're not particularly nuts, you're gregarious and funny and personable and it seems to me that you'd be able to handle the hurley burley of being a performing monkey at a literary festival without hyperventilating and fleeing in a flurry of panic attack.

So, we agree on the standard - 12 and a half percent of any contract I negotiate for you, including spin offs like film rights, because I'm convinced that there is a film in the book and I've got a pretty good idea of which producer would go there. I spend a fortune photocopying up multiple copies because I think it is the next big thing, and set up an auction because I firmly believe that if the publishers don't snap up your brilliant career, they are insane. I send it out, wait, get impatient of lack of response, and find that only one publisher is interested. No competition. Now I'm fucked. I'm going to have to take what I can get, and in this case, because it's a first novel by a new author, and we already know that there are only 2000 readers, max, of this kind of new Australian fiction, the only way they can make the figures work is to offer an advance of $5000. I'm gob smacked, hop up and down and generally throw a fairly ugly tantrum, but there's nothing I can do except bend over and take it up the arse and wait till it wins the Premier's Award, smirk smugly, and wait for the next novel to arrive. This is a long term investment of time for which I may receive little more than a return for the photocopying costs.

The commission on the advance is $625 - I'd have to do ten of these deals a month just to turn over an extremely modest wage, after expenses and overheads, and hope like hell that the film rights deal will happen.

So people. once you do the sums, you realise it isn't you, or your failure - it's just the way things are, like high interest rates and inflation.

Hope this is helpful and good luck.


  1. Hilarious and useful advice, thank you. Depressing to find that I am an old hag with no chance at 41, although I suppose I knew that already. Now you've confirmed it in no uncertain terms.

    But on the plus side I have been published (this very weekend in The Sunday Telegraph's travel section, a short travel article about Nicargaua) and I have been successfully cultivating some lovely relatiosnhips with published authors so there's a glimmer of hope.

    I hope to share a bottle or red with you one day:)

  2. Ah, you have divined my penchant for vino reddo plonko!

    ANY published writing leads to more published writing. You just have to keep plugging away at it.

    There was a terrific bloke at the recent Reality Bites festival - Matthew Cashmore the blog meister for Lonely Planet. Check him out and start corresponding with him on his blog - he seems o me to be the best 'in' for a travel writer these days. Just google him.

  3. I was searching for this the other day - wish you had some way to put this on your front page.

  4. Over 30 is elderly?