The Golden Cold Shower of Literary Agents

No mythological puns intended here. No, let’s just say it like it is: I had the good fortune to attend a meeting with literary agents this weekend, an event organised by the indefatigable Geneva Writers’ Group. And while the agents’ advice is worth its weight in gold, they also injected a note of cold realism into our starstruck writerly eyes and egos.

It started off gently enough with sensible, if rather well-known statements such as:

1) Don’t try to second-guess trends or formulas which will help your book to sell.  Write the kind of novel you want to read, have a story you are dying to tell.  Yes, publishing does tend to be trend-driven, but there’s no point trying to write ‘100 Shades of Grey’. By the time you have written and published it, fashion will have moved on.

2) There is a false dichotomy between literary and commercial fiction.  It’s wrong to believe that if a book is well-written it will not sell, or that if it sells, it can’t possibly be well written.

3) Authors can no longer afford to be the talent sitting in their ivory towers in front of their keyboard: they need to be the best ambassadors for their own novels.  Writing is such a privilege: it’s not that much of a hardship or outrageous demand that authors should be responsible for their own careers and at least partly involved in promoting their book.

4) Yes, publishing is an industry in flux, but so are a lot of other industries (both creative and non-creative) at the moment. Some doors close, other doors open, new opportunities appear.

5) Agents are people too, with personal likes and dislikes.  What may be a no-go area for one might work for another.  So don’t get discouraged by rejection and try someone else.

But then surprises started popping up unruly heads:

  • Amazon is the Beast – but it’s a complex beast. It appears that agents and publishers hate the suffocating closeness of the relationship with Amazon, although they try hard to see its positives too.
  • Who wants to read the book you’re writing? If the answer is ‘no one’, then write a different kind of book.  Or make your peace with the not-being-read scenario.
  • It’s all about being in the right place at the right time. The very same book may be impossible to sell one year and then do very well the following year.  You cannot predict or follow fashion, but you may be subjected to its tyranny anyway.
  • Agents rarely take on more than 3 writers per year. You don’t want to know the number of queries they get every day.  They are looking for excuses to press the ‘delete’ button.  Literally. Because most queries are now sent via email and they will scan through the email, perhaps open the attachment, and if it doesn’t intrigue them within the first few sentences, they will delete that entire email.  No explanations, no apologies
  • I would rather take on one author I can sell in 35 countries than 35 authors I can sell in one country. Agents need to make money.  They don’t want their hearts broken by beautiful writing which they cannot place.
  • Yet, at the same time, agents live in fear of missing the next J.K. Rowling.  In spite of never running short of unsolicited manuscripts, they still look occasionally at self-published titles or go scouting for talent at creative writing courses or conferences. 
  • The best sign of a good writer: persistence.  That doesn’t mean becoming a stalker or being oblivious to constructive criticism. What it does mean is picking yourself up after you have been rejected, repeatedly, and starting on your next novel. Improve your craft all the time and never stop knocking on doors.

Finally, how did my own meeting with the agent go?  Ummm… next question please…!  I think he was disappointed by my first 15 pages and felt that it didn’t do justice to my story. ‘Get to the point’  and ‘clunky dialogue’ comes to mind here.  He also encouraged me to make some changes I was considering but wasn’t sure they would work.  Finally, he told me to start writing my next book (see last bulletin point above).

So I won’t be signing any contracts any time soon.  I feel flattened but grateful.  Back to the drawing board.  I’m going to show them all!


23 thoughts on “The Golden Cold Shower of Literary Agents”

  1. Marina Sofia – Thanks for sharing your experience. Getting all sorts of viewpoints and listening to what agents have to say is always worth it. It takes a lot of effort to sift through it all and find one’s own path, but that information is always worth having.

    1. Thank you for your faith in me, Anna! Have you heard back from any agents? I was shocked to hear that they don’t bother to give any feedback in most cases (unless they’ve requested more chapters).

    1. You should have seen the most scary exercise: the First Page Bell. Writers submitted the first page of their manuscripts and someone picked one at random and started reading it out loud. The agents (there were 3 of them) would ring a bell at the point where they would have stopped reading and pressed the delete button. Then they would explain why they lost interest. It sounds really harsh, but it was very educational. And only about 4-5 out of 40 made it to the end of the first page. [I wasn’t brave enough to submit anything.]

  2. Always good to hear and share an agents point of view, and then to get back to work. Have you read Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages? It’s a short book, but has some poignant advice for those first few pages, a little more constructive than that other old adage, which is to throw them away and start a few chapters in 🙂 The author is a literary agent who was once an editor and the advice is pragmatic.

    The most important thing is to not be discouraged, we should almost pity agents, having to give out the same dose of reality to so many people, it must make it difficult to be optimistic when that time comes! No wonder they sometimes miss a good thing when it lands in front of them. I don’t envy them their job at all.

    Bonne Continuation Marina! You will write another excellent novel too. All part of the great learning curve we ride. And keep writing those poems 🙂

    1. Awww, thank you, Claire! So touched you like my poems! It confirmed my own doubts – which just shows that deep down you know where you are going wrong, even if you find it hard to admit it to yourself.

  3. You very really brave facing this challenge head on, and you got several years’ worth of insight in one fell swoop. I used to think about this process like a project meeting at work. You get shot down, but you get up again, every time! Keep writing, I’d say, and good for you to take so much from this experience AND share it. You rock! XXX

    1. My thoughts exactly! I knew my novel wasn’t quite ready to be seen yet, but how could I miss the opportunity to get 20 minutes of face-to-face feedback with an agent? Especially when they quite clearly said that most of the time they don’t bother offering any feedback for unsolicited manuscripts.

  4. Great post, thank you! I think persistence is the key here, and to keep hold of the reasons of why we write. It’s so easy to forget about the sheer pleasure of writing while pursuing the ego’s natural desire to be recognised!

    Just write with no goal in mind other than self-expression. That’s all we can do.

    Chastity x

    1. First day: deflation. Second day: self-justification. Third day: elation as you start to plan rewrites. Of course, I may feel different after my tenth rejection. Or 20th.

  5. Priceless post dear friend! And, yes, there is grandeur in not being read! (smiling mischievously)… x

  6. Thanks for this very interesting post. I wish you will recover quickly. It’s always a blow but as you wrote above, every agent has another taste. What one likes another one hates.

  7. Interesting post Marina – be happy to share my experiences with you, and have some thoughts on the role of literary agents, and how they might adapt to change.
    feel free to DM via twitter timcooke@timscribe

Do share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.