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!