The Role of the Literary Agent
The Literary Agent (Novel)
by David Smith
This piece appears in THE HANDBOOK OF CREATIVE WRITING, Ed. S L Earnshaw (Edinburgh University Press 2007)
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‘Agents make books expensive’.
So I was once told by a senior editor from one of the major London publishing houses. I was fortunate enough to be her guest for lunch at the time, so I suppose she felt that any protest I might make would be restrained by a sense of courtesy and obligation. On the whole this was the case – but I did point out to her that agents cannot force publishers to buy books they don’t want. The argument could have rumbled on for hours, so we agreed to differ.
But this exchange illustrates something significant about the world of book publishing in the UK: the commercial and competitive pressures on all parties are immense and everyone is convinced that those pressures are of someone else’s making. Publishers will complain about the unfair leverage applied by agents when negotiating new contracts for best-selling authors; or seek to explain to an author why the disappointing sales of that promising debut novel is the result of the book trade’s failure to support them. Agents will wring their hands over what they perceive as the publishers’ marketing-driven conservatism in rejecting the work of dazzling new authors and by extension the bookshops’ reductive view of what constitutes commercial potential. Booksellers will upbraid the publishers for flooding the market with far too many books and accuse them of failing to give the appropriate level of marketing support. Authors will minutely inspect the shelves of every bookshop they pass and discover appalling gaps in availability – some will tuck their disappointment away quietly, while others will fume and roar at their publisher or their agent.
The fact is that publishing is an imperfect business. But it is nevertheless a business, and if you are serious about getting into that business you ought to know what horrors, along with joys, you can expect to encounter. Like any business, it operates its own language, its own custom and practice, its own system of priorities; and like any business it is therefore a completely alien beast to anyone on the outside. This is the reason why agents exist and why you need one.
First I need to put the role of the agent in context. Book publishing in the UK is constantly evolving and adapting, in response to what is perceived as a perpetual crisis. The number of books published increases every year, but the number of debut novels is declining. Profitability too is falling – at least for publishers, authors and agents, all of whom share the burden of the inflated discounts demanded and won by the major book chains in return for access to in-store promotions and by the supermarkets simply for stocking the books in the first place. The majority of books published never make a profit at all. It’s a grim place to try to make a living from writing.
Publishing is dominated by large corporate publishing houses, many of them owned by even larger foreign corporations. Within those houses a diversity of imprints divides up the huge range of books into classifiable sub-sections: for example, Random House (RH) publishes mass market fiction under the Century imprint, or possibly Hutchinson – or if it’s more genre-based or humorous and going straight into paperback it might be Arrow. If it’s literary fiction it may come under Chatto & Windus or Heinemann or Vintage and if it’s foreign literary fiction it will probably bear the name of Harvill Press, an independent acquired by RH in 2001. RH also owns Transworld, which operates autonomously and has its own imprint structure.
This pattern is mirrored at all the major houses and they also share what is essentially the same approach to the acquisition of new books. As recently as the 1970s it was common for a commissioning editor to receive material from an agent, love it, acquire it, and then instruct the publicity department and the sales team to sell it. Today the process is very different.
If an editor loves a book she will first have to share it with colleagues in the editorial department. If it gets their support she will then circulate material to colleagues in all
the other departments: marketing, publicity, paperback, rights. If she can win over the support of everyone who has any influence on decision-making, then she can try to acquire the book. However, any of those senior colleagues, if their doubts are strong enough, whatevertheir department, has an effective veto. Every agent can tell stories of editors who fell in love with a novel but found themselves blocked at the acquisition meeting; every agent probably keeps a bitter store of emails and letters from editors almost apologising for the intransigence of their colleagues.
The truth is, no one knows what will sell. All we have in the industry is a collection of different people’s instincts, experiences and prejudices. No one can predict spectacular success or dismal failure. Everyone in the publishing houses is agreed on one thing: every book published is intended to make money. That relatively few of them do so may be evidence that the current system does not work, or it may simply illustrate that the market for fiction is too wide, too unpredictable, too varied and too fickle to be manipulated by marketing, demographics or any other means into buying what it is told to buy. You can’t even guarantee best-seller status by hurling money into advertising campaigns, or by securing short-listings for prestigious prizes. Television ‘book clubs’ may be a highly reliable method of promotion, but by their very nature these are available to only a miniscule fraction of the total number of novels published.
Into this chaos steps a gifted new author: perhaps you. And you need to find an agent. There’s no shortage of us, but how do you find one who is even taking on new authors and then convince them to represent you? It’s true that a lot of agencies will temporarily if not permanently draw down the shutters to new clients. This isn’t through complacency – although agencies with a couple of dozen top-selling international authors probably don’t need to expand their lists – but because they are being realistic about the amount of time and resources they can spare to launch new careers. It would be of no benefit to you if your agent simply didn’t have the time to look after your interests. But there are also many agencies which as a matter of business principle, will never describe their lists as closed. This is true of my own small agency as well as others of all sizes right up to the biggest corporate
animals. You simply have to find out: check the trade reference books, visit the agency websites, phone up and ask.
Whom should you approach? You can sometimes get a feeling from a website or even from a reference book entry whether your work would sit happily on an agency’s client list. Or you may find agents thanked in the acknowledgements section of a book you admire. It isn’t easy, but it can be done. It may be worth considering whether an agency is a member of the Association of Authors’ Agents, which follows a straightforward code of practice, but I have to admit that some of the most successful agents have never bothered to join. You need to be sure that the agents you approach have the means to exploit all the rights in your work – US, translation, film and television rights – through either their own departments or specialist associates. These rights can provide valuable additional income if retained and sold independently.
How do you approach them? Opinions differ, but what you want to strike is a balance between satisfying the agency’s stated preferences and displaying your work to its best advantage. I think it’s better not to send a preliminary letter on its own, or even with a synopsis, because we really need to see the writing itself and there’s a risk that an agent will respond poorly to an unsupported synopsis and you’ve missed your chance. My advice is, send your covering letter, your brief synopsis, and approximately the first 10,000 words. How long should the synopsis be? No more than 500 words and preferably less. What should it do? It should work in the manner of an extended book-jacket blurb, giving a strong sense of the novel’s premise, flavour, tone and direction, but stopping well short of mapping out every turn of the story, and certainly not divulging the ending. It is a tool to get the attention and whet the appetite of the agent. It’s the sample text that does the real work.
On the other hand, your covering letter is not something to agonise over. It simply needs to be business-like, giving a couple of sentences about your novel, explaining anything about yourself that may be pertinent (for example, an MA Creative Writing qualification, or a personal experience which qualifies you to write about some aspect of the story), stating whether the work is complete, and making clear whether you are submitting it to only one agent at a time or, if not, how many agents you have included.
Agents can be very swift in reading material and getting back to you – in days perhaps – but will often take weeks and sometimes months. The interests of existing clients simply have to take precedence, which means sometimes new material has to wait. But a polite enquiry after four weeks or so is a reasonable follow-up. I think most agents still prefer to receive material as hard copy, but if you enquire before sending you may find a willingness to accept email attachments, provided you can guarantee they will be virus-free.
If an agent is taken with your sample material she will ask to see the full script, and this may lead her to offer to represent you. If you have approached more than one agent at a time, be careful if you are stalling for time while waiting to hear from the others. An agent’s view is that since you can have only one agent, and one of the ones you chose to approach has offered her services, why prevaricate? Are you holding out for another agent, because you think they will be better? If that’s the truth then you shouldn’t have approached the others. You’re not auctioning your custom – you’re seeking professional services.
Now that you have appointed your agent, the first thing she will tell you is that there are no guarantees, that your work is wonderful but plenty of wonderful novels go unpublished, and that you cannot plan to give up your day job. But she should also tell you what an immense thrill it is to see the alchemy of publishing turn your script into a published
The chances are your novel is not quite ready for submission to publishers. You may think you have perfected it but it’s quite likely that your agent will suggest revisions. These are not so much aesthetic considerations as responses based on her experience of whatever consensus or prejudice is at large within publishing. Remember that your agent is talking to editors all the time – finding out what they’re buying, what they’re not buying, what they love and what they hate – and this enables her to build a fairly reliable picture of how any new novel might be received. So if your agent advises you to simplify a split narrative into a single voice, it’s probably because split narratives rarely find favour with publishers: those that do (a few) are written extremely well, those that do not (many) are uneven at best. Or if she suggests injecting more drama into the opening it’s because she knows you can’t keep publishers hanging around: a novel has to grab the reader from page one or it will soon be laid down and passed over.
This is the agent’s editorial role, one which has evolved over the years as the demands on publishers’ time has increased to such an extent that, whereas once they might have bought a book that was 75 per cent perfect with a kernel of brilliance but a lot of work to do, now and in the future they will be looking for something that is ninety per cent perfect or even more. An agent therefore plays a crucial part in preparing the script for submission by getting it as close as possible to perfection. This is not to say that agents see themselves as writers (although some are), but that we are able to share our knowledge of the commercial advisability of certain narrative techniques, plot developments and characterisation. At this problematic intersection between creativity and commerce we are trying to make the book ‘better’ not as a work of art but as a saleable commodity. Some agents are more willing and able to take on this role than others. Find someone who will.
What should you write? There are very few rules and some of those that do exist will often be broken – sometimes disastrously, sometimes triumphantly. But you need to start with the raw DNA of storytelling. What does every successful novel have in common, in some form, however mutant? The obvious elements are a gripping story; imaginative and distinctive writing; and enthralling characters. The story doesn’t need to be heavy with plot, but it does have to hook from the first paragraph and keep you turning the pages. The writing doesn’t have to emulate a literary giant, but it does need to have its own appropriate, attractive voice, avoiding verbal cliché at all costs. The characters need not be loveable or even likeable, but they must be people with whom you are very happy to spend time; strong, memorable and human.
Of course, an aspiring author really requires more than a desire to write and be published; she must need to write, whether she is published or not. And this obvious truth extends to the choice of material. An author must have a story to tell – not one that she has tried to construct for the sake of having something to write, and not one that is barely a story at all but simply a vehicle for ruminations on contemporary life or the human condition. These works are not novels. They are platforms for individuals to preach from. No one is interested – least of all publishers.
But if you have a story you are aching to tell – even if some parts of it are not clear in your mind until the writing is underway – then you have a sound start. What you need to do is to transport the reader to an unfamiliar place: that could be a foreign place, or a distant time, or in a more metaphysical sense it may be a setting or an experience that seems very close but which by your storytelling you make into something new and strange. Be surprising.
What about the narrative voice? In many ways the safest and most versatile voice is third person past tense. It allows you to shift viewpoints with omniscience and to choose what information to reveal and what to withhold, but all within the context of one narrative voice, which, if you’re doing it right, is utterly compelling. First person is popular with writers and has many historical precedents, but is much more limiting since the reader can only know as much or as little as the narrating character knows. Multiple narratives are very risky. If an author is immensely skilled, careful and lucky, these can succeed, sometimes brilliantly. But the danger is that if you split your novel into two or more voices, one of them is likely to develop into a more compelling voice than the others, and a reader will start to grow impatient and only really be interested in the one that works best. All of this might seem elementary, but it’s surprising how much material from promising new writers falls into one of the traps I’ve tried to warn about. Be circumspect and rigorously self-critical. Join a writing group. Don’t allow yourself to be lazy. If you know that something in your novel isn’t working it needs to be fixed, because an agent or a publisher will spot it in an instant.
Once the novel is deemed ready – that is, it’s as strong as the author and agent feel they can make it – the agent takes over and the author can really only wait. Your agent will have drawn up a list of commissioning editors that she judges will be the best fit for your novel. This judgement will be based on her knowledge of their tastes and of the profile and demands of their particular imprint. Some editors enjoy the freedom to publish across different imprints but it’s still vitally important to get the novel in front of the right person, because the very first hurdle to jump is to find an editor who will fall in love with your book. Submissions are made either exclusively or simultaneously. If an editor is given exclusive sight they understand that they are in a privileged position – the agent might have decided this is a book that has great potential but fears that only a few editors will really take to it with passion, and therefore singled out one person as a likely champion. But on the whole this approach has fallen out of favour and there’s no doubt that auctioning a book amongst a number of interested editors will generate a higher advance and a better deal. A simultaneous multiple submission is designed to elicit competing bids and lead to an auction. Your agent will contact the editors she has selected for her first round of submissions – it might be four, five, six or many more – to introduce the concept of the book, gauge interest and make sure they are primed for it when it lands on their desk or in their email inbox.
Your agent will write a ‘pitch’ letter to accompany the manuscript. This is designed to pique the curiosity of the editor and encourage in them the appropriate expectations towards what they are about to read, as well as pre-empting any doubts or prejudices that may colour their reading. No pitch letter however good can sell a sub-standard novel – but it can prepare the terrain for a positive response.
Your agent may set a deadline, either for initial responses, or for offers. If she asks for offers by a certain date she really needs to enforce that deadline in order to treat all parties fairly. She may decide to refuse early offers and only agree to receive them on the date set – this is to avoid what is known as a ‘pre-emptive bid’. A ‘pre-emptive’ is made when an editor has managed to gather enough support among colleagues quickly and wants to avoid competing in an auction – so she makes an offer which will be much higher than any opening bid, but the offer must remain confidential and must be accepted, usually within a certain time specified by the editor, or it will be withdrawn. Pre-emptives can be very attractive and if they are high enough are very likely to succeed: the agent will then accept the offer, tell the other editors what has happened, and then proceed to negotiate contractual terms with the pre-emptor. But if an agent feels the pre-emptive is not high enough, she may advise the author that it is worth gambling by rejecting the pre-emptive and waiting to see what an auction might throw up. This is obviously a dangerous game and requires utter conviction and strong nerves. What if a pre-emptive of £50,000 is rejected, the agent holds out for an auction and no one else offers? The £50,000 has been withdrawn and the editor who made the offer will have replaced it with an opening bid of, say, £10,000. In the absence of competition it’s very unlikely that the agent would be able to lever much improvement out of him. But what if the agent and author are so convinced that the novel can sell for a more substantial advance? Settling for £50,000 might always feel like under-selling. They will never know the truth. There are many anecdotes on this subject, but my favourite is the agent who turned down a pre-emptive offer of £100,000 for world rights (UK, US and translation), proceeded to auction and finally sold the book (UK rights only) for £150,000 to the very same editor who had made the pre-emptive bid. The instinct was right.
If there are no pre-emptives but several interested parties then bidding will begin, with the agent organising this in rounds – every editor who wants to acquire the book will make an opening bid, but the highest one will not automatically win. The agent will then ask for improved bids. As this process continues, some editors will drop out, but if two or more are still fighting it out and there’s no sign of a winner emerging the agent is likely at this point to ask for ‘best offers’. This is a blind bid which represents the very most the editor is prepared to offer for the book. If an agent moves the auction to this level then she and the author are obliged to take whichever is the best offer. There’s no law about it, but custom and practice in the industry expects it.
Of course, very often no one offers for the book. There are some wonderful unpublished novels on PCs or in drawers all over the world, which were evangelically supported by agents dedicated to their clients’ success. But a combination of commercial, aesthetic and imponderable factors meant that no one would quite commit to publishing them. Do not get discouraged. Start again. Believe in yourself. And don’t be bitter. It’s no one’s ‘fault’, it’s simply the vicissitudes of business.
Equally, in many cases there will be only one offer. This robs an agent of the leverage of competing bids, but a good agent should often be able to negotiate some improvement even without competition. And provided the publisher is a good one, who understands the book, has sound marketing plans and can command the co-operation of the bookshops, there is no reason to think that your book is going to be sidelined. No publisher publishes a book for any reason other than to make money. Life-changing advances are of course the stuff of dreams, but they are infinitesimally rare, and for all those that are ultimately justified by the success of the book there are probably as many others which blight the promising career of new writers when the advance has to be written off by the publisher in the face of dismal sales.
Once the offer is accepted the rather duller but no less important business of contractual negotiation begins. While some issues will have been settled at the offer stage, there will be other matters such as subsidiary rights, options, delivery deadlines, author discounts, and artwork consultation over which the agent and the editor will argue for a while, before the contract is agreed and signed. Soon after, the first tranche of your advance – payable on signature – will be received, and, if the novel is deemed to be in a finished form you may receive the delivery advance as well. Other amounts will – depending on the contract – become payable on hardback publication and possibly also on paperback publication. But you the author are now on a new road, towards the final realisation of the dream. Inevitably errors will occur during the approach to publication – publicity slots that disappear, promotions that do not materialise – but throughout you should be able to rely on your agent to police this process, right up to and beyond publication. The relationship is a continuing one, despite the new relationship you will have developed with your editor. Rememberthat your agent is always there to lend assistance – even if it means playing the bad cop andbanging the publisher’s table so that you don’t have to.