Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Agents, Writers and Editors: how does it work?

I’ve been working for and with writers almost all of my working life.

When I left university I worked in bookshops in Paris for a while, my happiest days spent in Shakespeare & Co on the left bank. I should say I spent more time reading the books in that shop than selling them.

While I was there, a number of writers came through the shop, some to stay a few days others just to browse or get out of the cold. I didn’t want to be a writer myself, somehow or other my literary imagination failed me, but I wanted to be around writers, and so I have been ever since.

I was an editor and publishing director in corporate publishing in London for 20 years. Now I’m a literary agent. The main difference in what I do now to what I did then is that as an editor my job was to promote the interests of the publishing house, now I promote the interests of the writer.

I’m still looking for the same qualities in the writers I take on as an agent as I was when I was an editor. I’m looking for a strong distinctive natural voice, the ability to conjure an image with a few words, I’m looking to be touched, moved, transported, to be made to cry, to think, perhaps even to laugh though that doesn’t often happen.

I’m not looking for perfection or a highly finished work, more an indication of that rare and, so it often seems to the searcher, elusive x factor – the alchemist’s gift of turning words into images in the reader’s head.

To be more prosaic, I’m looking for high quality fiction writers with a broad potential – writers who, one or two, or even ten books, down the line will be winning major prizes. I don’t care so much what they write as how they write.

I think most editors and agents will say that they are looking for integrity and seriousness, whatever the genre of the writer, whatever the specialism. A writer who takes his or her work seriously. Most of all, we’re just looking for talent, that’s what we respect and what we came into the business for.

I mentioned above that I think the main difference between the editor’s and the agent’s role in the publishing business is a simple one. The agent works for the writer, the editor for the publisher. Agents are often blamed by publishers for pushing up the cost of publishing by getting too much money for writers, increasing unearned advances and in a few cases even bankrupting publishing houses. In reality though, publishers prefer to work with agents than without them.

Agents act as a filter system, sifting through the acres of unsolicited manuscripts, finding the decent prospects and passing them on to publishers. That’s why publishers tell new writers that they only look at submissions that come from agents. Agents also help to keep the publishing ball rolling – they smooth over the cracks, put the writer’s case, put the publisher’s case too, help to keep the writer happy and their expectations reasonable.

In exchange agents should ensure that the writer is not, to be blunt, ripped off by the publisher. And yes, of course, without an agent a writer is very likely to be ripped off. Publishing is big business after all, and however romantic a notion they may have about writing when they start, all editors learn sooner or later about maximizing profit.

The agent is there to make sure profit isn’t maximized at the expense of the writer, letting the writer get on with doing what they do best: turning the base metal of our lives into art, or at least into entertainment.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Ten Tips for Approaching Publishers

I spent a wonderful evening in Hawick, down in the Scottish borders, talking to a group of writers on my favourite subject: how to get published. It was a beautiful drive through one of the best of the Scottish summer evenings, golden and scented. I wasn't terribly well, car sickness, so afraid I might have bolted through my talk and hoped that the writers got as much out of the evening as I did. Here's the gist of what I said to them - if you're writing you might find these tips useful. I've taken my own selling technique and adapted it a little for use by a writer - in your case you'd be approaching either a publisher or an agent.

1 Don’t send the work out until it’s absolutely ready. Don’t make excuses for it. If it’s not ready, go back and make it ready.

2 Write a KEYNOTE. Make it a good one! Practice. Look at some famous books and write some keynotes. You’re not going to give this to the publisher (though an agent can) but it’s going to discipline you into thinking like a publisher. A keynote is one reasonably short line, which says basically what the book is about. It must be

One line

3 MARKET ANALYSIS: what kind of book am I selling? What’s the genre? What’s selling at the moment? Realistically, is this book pressing the right buttons? If not, how can I spin it?

Literary fiction – avoid!
Women’s fiction
Science fantasy

4 BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE. Again, not to be used undigested. Practice. Keep it short, accurate, informative.

Who is the author
What’s their background
How old are they
What’s unique about them
Take their ‘bad’ points and turn them into good points

5 DESCRIPTION. Make it enticing, leave the reader wanting more. Don’t tell the whole plot… Hint like mad. Even if it’s a complete tragedy and irredeemably dark, try to think like a publisher – make it sound uplifting, life-enhancing, riveting, exciting. Try to give them a sense of what it feels like to read it. Include

What genre
Where it’s set
When it’s set

6 PROPOSAL – integrate the keynote, and use points 3, 4 and 5 to create an intelligent, honest pitch to bring the whole thing together. Obviously, no spelling mistakes. This is your chance to show how well you write.

A great letter, or email approach - succinct, accurate, alluring - should describe the book and the author in one paragraph maximum.
Include either a one page winning synopsis for fiction OR a detailed outline for non fiction.
A short sample of the work shows the author can write and whets the publisher’s appetite.

7 DON’T give the publisher reasons in the proposal to turn the book down. Let them do their job themselves. Turn your negatives into positives. Don’t be self-deprecating – publishers have no sense of humour. They’re wanting winners.

It’s my first book – great, no track record for the bookshops to check up on!
I’ve already written loads of books you’ve never heard of – but this is my breakthrough novel!
It’s old-fashioned – yes, readers are old-fashioned too!
It’s not 'experimental' - it’s amibitious and cutting edge!

8 DO give the publisher reasons to take the book on, this time by doing their job for them. Be positive and give them their pitch to take to the publishing meeting.

Marketable author – very young – very old - very famous - very talented – fascinating background.
Great story – page turner - moving - unforgettable - colourful.

9 CALL TO ACTION: invite the publisher to act – if they’ve asked to see something they are more likely to read it.

10 FOLLOW UP by doing exactly what the publisher asks you to do. Don’t send the whole book if they ask for 3 chapters.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Writers doing it for themselves

Up until very recently, nobody thought that writers could, or should, take control of their own destinies. The last ten years have changed that view. When I worked as an editor in a publishing house, way back when I was the editorial newbie in charge of reading my slow way through the slush pile, a not particularly affectionate term for the mountain of unsolicited manuscripts that slumped precariously on the editorial floor, it always struck me how deferential writers were to the publisher - as if they really did have the power to confer publishability upon a work.
By what authority did the publisher, or in this case his young representative, have to decide what should or should not be published? What qualification did the publisher hold?

The truth is, publishers do not hold a license to publish. They print and sell - publish, disseminate - books that they choose, for reasons which have little to do with literary merit and much to do with market forces - of course, publishers after all are in the business of making money. The fact is anyone can set up in business as a publisher, as long as they can continue to pay the bills. So why are writers so afraid of the publisher? Why do they believe that publishers have the right to decide on the 'merit' or otherwise of their work? That right is only conferred on the publisher by dint of the publisher taking financial (and to some extent legal) responsiblity for the production and dissemination of the work. If the writer took that responsibility into his own hands, does he not then confer on himself or herself the right to decide, to control his own destiny?

Which is exactly what many writers now chose to do. Times are changing, the old rules are being rewritten. Printing and producing books has become cheaper (printing to order has become routine), distributing books(through Amazon for instance) comes within the reach of the individual, or groups of individuals through self-publishing websites and companies. Writers can chose to publish their work, without waiting for the imprimatur, or recommendation of the junior editor, the inexperienced keeper of the sacred gate, half asleep on the editorial floor. Now at last, writers can authorize themselves, if they can foot the bill.

New service providers spring up to help the writer through this process - to make the bringing to book as smooth and efficient as possible. There are freelance editors, editorial consultancies (like my own, The Writing Room), staffed by professional editors who can provide the services previously only accessible through the traditional publishing house. There are designers, marketing and publicity experts. There is the internet and the cyberworld of readers and buyers. And with the perfect storm of recession and digitization frightening the life out of the conventional publisher, who is to say where it will all end? Will the writers of the world take control at last of their own copyrights, their own distribution, their own publication? Who will be the gatekeeper then?

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Hi - and welcome to my blog.

When I set up my online literary consultancy towards the end of 2009, I called it The Writing Room. There was a reason for that. I wanted to give writers, whatever their published status, a place where they could come to concentrate unashamedly on their writing - a room, if you like: a Writing Room. Do you remember what Virginia Woolf said about writers, women writers in her case, needing a space which was theirs and where they could be free of the ordinary trials of life to dedicate themselves to their work? I visualised something like that. Somewhere where anyone who aspired to create the written word could be released into creativity. Having three children myself, and having tried to combine a life in publishing with a life as a working writer, I know how pressured the process can be. I'd like you to think of a door, opening into a room, with a desk, big enough to hold the books you need, some paper, a pen, a laptop, a window beyond that opening on a quiet view, and by your side, if you need it, an unobtrusive friend to read your work - if you want them to, to offer advice - if you want it, receptive, helpful, constructive, absorbed. In other words, your perfect reader.
I would love to hear from you. Send me your questions, your anxieties. Do publishers respond to you? Do you long for an attentive, honest, intelligent reader? What do you hope for, aim for, long for? If I can answer you, I will.
Write on.