Buy My Book! (Or Download It for Free if You’re Quick)

The Cover of my eBook: Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line?
The Cover of my eBook: Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line?

As hinted in the previous post, I’ve been dipping my toe in the waters of ebook creation and my first offering is now available for download (free for a limited period until the end of Tuesday 7th April) on Amazon for Kindle readers (and Kindle reader apps).

The ebook features four short stories, all  of which were selected and performed by the Liars’ League.

Read about:

  • Naked photography in a hipster’s  Shoreditch loft kitchen in Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line?
  • An intern’s impromptu elevator pitch for the most calamitous disaster movie ever in Elevator Pitch
  • The petrol-headed rage of a spurned, blade-wielding opera singer in The Good Knife
  • Lovesick rapping from the dock by a guilt-ridden, Premier League hard-man in Well Sick for a White Guy.

All are 2,000 words or under so can be read in ten minutes or so.  10-15 minute stories that were memorably read by actors at Liars’ League’s award spoken-word evenings in London, Leicester and Hong Kong. Click on the cover image to download the book.

Links to three of the live performances can be found elsewhere on this blog. The exception is Well Sick For A White Guy, which was performed in September by Liars’ League Leicester. The video for this story hasn’t been made available online and the only place the text can be found is in this ebook (unlike the two Liars League London stories which can be read on the Liars League website).

Well Sick For a White Guy might actually be my favourite story of the four. The reading would certainly have been fun and I’m rather sad that I missed it, although Alex Woodhall and Sarah Feathers’ readings of the first two stories in London were excellent in person and Bhavini Ravel’s great reading of The Good Knife can be viewed below.

I’m not normally a fan of giving away intellectual property for free because of the way it eventually undermines the ability of creative people to get a decent reward for their work. However, it’s the fact that these stories are in the public domain already which has encouraged me to publish them together as an ebook — and people did pay to hear all of them read for each public performance. Therefore I’d have the book on free download indefinitely if it wasn’t for the rather strict promotional rules on Kindle Direct Publishing (only five days in any ninety day period).

When the promotional period is over, the book will revert to the current Amazon Kindle minimum price of £1.99 — which is less than the price of a cappuccino in Pret A Manger or half a pint of beer in most pubs in London (i.e. not much at all compared with the relative effort that goes into the creation of each).

You don’t need a Kindle to download to as Amazon will provide Kindle reading apps for iPhones, iPads, Android devices, PCs and so on.

As well as experimenting with the mechanics of self-publishing, my motivation for publishing it is purely give anyone who’s curious enough a concise taste of my writing and if anyone who downloads it feels kind enough to leave a review then that would be great.

I don’t make any great artistic claims for the cover image above (anyone spot where it is?) but it’s a fact of self-publishing that you need to have one — and not one that rips off anyone else’s image rights (that’s my own photo). The eventual image was voted for overwhelmingly (out of a not-very-inspiring selection) by my Facebook friends!

And my stories are rubbing literary shoulders in exalted company as Liars League is now on Radio 4! A series of three readings — from Hong Kong, New York and London — is currently running on Sunday evenings at 7.45pm. The first story was broadcast yesterday. While my stories have no connection with those broadcast, it’s a fantastic endorsement of overall quality threshold of the Liars’ League events and is a very positive reflection on my fellow LL writer alumni.

Liars' League Listing in the Radio Times, Easter Sunday 2015
Liars’ League Listing in the Radio Times, Easter Sunday 2015

My collection has been put together with the blessing of Liars’ League — Liar Katy Darby helped me pick the title and had a look at an early version of the ebook. I’ve actually been doing Katy’s  highly-recommended Writers’ Workshop short course at City University between January and March this year to help develop ideas for the next novel — keep reading this blog for more news on that over the next few months).

I’ll be looking at other means of distributing the ebook but it needs to be exclusive to Amazon for the next three months so, if you’re interested, download it as soon as possible. Watch the blog or follow me on Twitter for when it goes on free download again.

Incidentally, if you want to watch Alex Woodhall’s superb reading of Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line? one more time in person then he’ll be performing it at a special event — the Studio 189 Spring Ball organised by my friends Sabina and Fay on 25th April in north London. It also offers a private viewing of some erotic artworks and an opera singer — all for the bargain price of £30.

Studio 189 Spring Ball
Studio 189 Spring Ball


York Festival Of Writing

Apologies for the absence of recent updates: writing time has recently become increasingly hard to come by, although mostly in a good way, via holidays and other enjoyable events that I have hopes of getting around to writing blog posts about eventually – I’ve got a nice batch of photos to upload, if nothing else.

In addition to this summer activity, the MMU MA has crept up on me. The enigmatic Transmission Project needs to be submitted very soon (perhaps more of this in another blog post). As far as the MA course goes, once that project has been completed then it’s just a case of completing The Big One – handing in a 60,000 word minimum manuscript of a novel.  Regular followers of this blog will know that hitting that word limit isn’t likely to pose me any problems in itself as I already have a completed manuscript that comfortably exceeds that length (rather too comfortably as it currently stands).

Despite my best intentions, however, the novel still needs a degree honing and polishing before it’s ready to submit to anyone – a tutor for assessment for an MA or an agent or publisher. It’s frustrating but that’s where I am, even though back in March, I wrote a post with great expectation that the professional feedback I’d had on my manuscript had suggested that that it was only a couple of weeks or so’s hard work away from being a respectable manuscript.

The problem has been finding that’s two weeks’ worth of extra time in this Olympic summer when I’ve not only been doing the MA but finding all kinds of loosely novel-related but fascinating research in London (mainly art-related with plenty of visits to Shoreditch). I know from having taken an MSc with the Open University that took over six years that I’m much more productive in the darker months – I like getting out in the sun too much.

Nevertheless, with springtime optimism, I booked myself a place at the York Festival of Writing. Amongst its literary attractions, I anticipated the event would be a perfectly–timed opportunity to advance my path to publication. With my long-completed manuscript under my arm and more agents attending than you could shake a Kindle at, I’d be able to immediately hand my over my burnished tome or send it speeding within minutes into the lucky agent’s inbox.  After all the Festival was in September – six months in the future.

York University 090912
York University Campus — Where the Festival of Writing Was Held

Unfortunately, September sneaked up on me much more quickly than anticipated – immediately after my spontaneous sabbatical over the late summer – of London 2012, holidays and even a little bit of decent weather. As mentioned in a weary-sounding blog post in July as well as reaching ‘the end’ I’d also done a fair bit of work on a submissions package (a polishing the first three chapters, writing a synopsis and covering letter). It’s just that I’ve finished knocking the rest of the manuscript into similar shape – and I’d learned enough about agents to know that if they’re interested in a novel that they immediately want to read the manuscript in its entirety – not several months later. (That didn’t stop me hopefully printing off a few hard copies of my first three chapters to take to York, just in case.)

When I booked the festival I didn’t really think about York (it’s held at the attractive York University campus) being rather a long way away from here in the Chilterns. Having done nearly 2,000 miles of driving around Europe in late August, it was inevitable that my journey north would provide another horrendous example for my 2012 collection of summer traffic jams (after some nightmarish examples on Italian autostrade). I was held up for over an hour on the M62 — the kind of jam where the cars come to a total standstill and after a certain point their occupants emerge gingerly and start to colonise the alien carriageway, exchange a few words of exasperation with their normally faceless neighbours — and then suddenly run back from the hard shoulder or central reservation and jump back in when the traffic unexpectedly starts to move. Maybe there’s a germ of an idea for a novel in that? Maybe not!

M62 Traffic Jam 080912
I Should Have Been Listening to Jojo Moyes At This Point

So I arrived late at the conference, almost at lunchtime on the Saturday, not in  the most positive frame of mind: why have I driven 200 miles north to spend the my weekend with a bunch of people I’ve never met – and I haven’t even finished the novel? Shouldn’t I be spending the time more productively at home finishing the book? Or, more likely, enjoying the last throes of this meagre summer, enjoying the sunshine in a deck chair rather than sitting in windowless lecture theatres?

But I left the conference on Sunday afternoon feeling remarkably upbeat and happily kick–started out of my summer writing hiatus. I’d not been able to pitch a completed novel but I’d come away uplifted by all the other benefits of spending the best part of a weekend in a community of writers.

For anyone who’s curious about the York Festival of Writing, it’s organised by the Writers’ Workshop, a literary consultancy. The conference, held over a weekend, is structured around a programme of seminars, workshops and plenary ‘keynote’ sessions (similar to day–job related conferences I’ve been on). Sadly the traffic trouble meant I missed the Jojo Moyes keynote on Saturday morning).

But, as with most worthwhile conferences, it’s the intangible elements rather than the programme itself that were most inspiring. Writing is (usually) a solitary experience but a weekend that gathered hundreds of writers together in the same place – most with very similar shared ambitions, interests, questions and anxieties – seemed to prove an affirmatory experience for those involved.

Committing the time (and money) to attending a writing conference means all participants had made the psychological step of regarding themselves as ‘a writer’. You chat to and exchange experiences with others working towards the same goal and come away feeling validated – that your aspiration to become a published writer isn’t futile self-delusion because so many other people are working towards the same – and agents and editors have made efforts to come and meet us all.

There’s camaraderie in numbers but the number of people there (at least a couple of hundred I’d guess) makes a sobering point. After an agent discussion, one panellist, who is a full-time reader of unsolicited manuscripts for a leading agency, said informally that he’d estimate that perhaps only one or two of the delegates might end up being successfully traditionally published novelists.

Despite (or maybe because of) these odds, the event wasn’t in the slightest cut–throat and competitive – everyone was unfailingly open and keen to ask others about their writing. I suspect that most people felt, like me, a little daunted about walking into the dining room for a formal dinner without really knowing anyone else there, having not met anyone else in the room before that weekend but it was a very friendly and sociable event. Happily, there wasn’t the chest–beating atmosphere of a sales conference – with backs being knifed in pursuit of the deal (well, not on my table at least!). Perhaps writers, almost by definition, tend to congregate at the quieter end of the introvert–extrovert spectrum, preferring to commit our ideas to paper or on screen?

(A tutor on a short course I took at City University had a theory that all writers were ‘damaged’ in some way – creating a compulsion to write – a view which I think has more than a grain of truth but is no reflection on the nice people I met at York!)

The welcoming atmosphere may have been connected with the number of northerners among the delegates (I can happily suggest this as an exiled northerner myself). My ‘day job’ is currently bang in the centre of London and one of the consolations of toiling away there is a feeling that I’m not too far away from the literary London of agents and publishers (being able to see the London Eye, Gherkin, BT Tower and Buckingham Palace from the window, as well as being convenient for too many cultural distractions to complete a novel).  It’s not very logical but I’ve recently quite enjoyed walking past Random House’s HQ on Vauxhall Bridge Road on the way to work meetings. And I’ve idled away the odd lunchtime following literary walks past London’s numerous writer–inspired blue plaques.

Bronte Birthplace
How They Do It in Yorkshire — Birthplace of the Brontes

At the conference I met writers from places like Durham, Lincoln, Doncaster, Nottingham and quite a contingent few from York itself – all places where it doesn’t take an Olympic Games for people to be friendly to strangers. Obviously, writers can work virtually anywhere but being in central London most days means it’s easy to believe the outer limits of the publishing world coincide with the Zone Two and Three boundary. So credit to the Writers’ Workshop for travelling up to York, reinforcing that there are thriving writing communities all over the country.

As an aside, the inspiration provided by the British landscape to writers over the last thousand years is the subject of an engrossing exhibition at the British Library. I’m aiming to blog, eventually, about visiting Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderland but, in the meantime, I’d recommend anyone to visit in its final week and be as awestruck as I was in seeing original manuscripts by Hardy, George Eliot, James Joyce, Charlotte Brontë and countless others. And, speaking of the wily, windy moors, there’s a series of photographs of the Pennine area where I grew up, which gave inspiration Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

Back to the less gritty setting of the Vale of York and, having made the generalisation that writers might be quiet sorts, it certainly doesn’t mean they’re not sociable creatures. In my own case, one of the reasons why my novel prominently features the fortunes of a pub is because I like to spend so much time there – another reason why my manuscript still isn’t quite ready to set before an agent. The speed with which the (sadly limited) complimentary wine was downed and replacement bottles ordered at the dinner tables, the York festival showed many writers are similarly sociably minded.

Bronte Birthplace Plaque
Bronte Birthplace Plaque, Thornton, West Yorkshire

And, because writers are normally scattered working in solitude all over the country this sociability has found an enthusiastic, virtual outlet in blogging and Twitter. It was probably via Twitter that I learned about the conference in the first place. I’d certainly come across some of the agents attending and some very helpful blogging book doctors via Twitter – and one of my objectives was to hunt these down, in the nicest possible way, so I could say ‘hello’ in person rather than online.

My Big Two, in terms of tweeters I wanted to track down, were Debi Alper and Emma Darwin. I managed to buttonhole Debi after dinner and she introduced to me to Emma. They’re both successful authors and had a long day book–doctoring (as well as running workshops, about which other delegates were very complimentary) but they were both very friendly and approachable. Emma’s blog, This Itch of Writing (see sidebar) is an antidote to all the ‘Follow My Ten Rules and Write a Bestseller’ sites and,  now having met Emma in person, I can understand why it’s one of the most intelligent and practical resources on writing that I’ve found on the web.

The role of literary agents in the traditional publishing process is often described as that of gatekeepers – it’s said that finding representation by an agent is frequently the biggest obstacle a writer has to overcome on the road to publication. So when they emerge out of hiding behind website submission guidelines and laconic Writers and Artists’ Yearbook entries, one might imagine agents to seem as unyielding as doctors’ receptionists from hell.

York -- Old Star Inn 090912
A Lovely Pub in York I Didn’t Get to Visit This Time — The Old Starre Inn Sign — Stonegate

The great benefit of a conference like the Festival of Writing is to allow writers to discover that they’re not. At least the many that decamped out of their normal habitat to spend the weekend in York, make strenuous efforts to seek out new talent (seeing half–a–dozen writers back–to–back for the intensive ten minute one–to–one sessions must be exhausting work – like speed-dating with reams of A4). Beyond the scheduled one–to–one sessions most agents seemed perfectly approachable although the Festival Handbook reminds over–zealous delegates of protocol – don’t try to subject your selected agent/victim to your carefully honed three–hour elevator pitch over dinner or try and open (and close) a deal in the queue for the toilets.

Given the unagented, aspiring writer’s curiosity about agents and how best to make an approach, it doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to imagine a David Attenborough–style whispered commentary: ‘Here we see the literary agent species drawn out of its usual habitat of secluded offices in Camden, Bloomsbury and Notting Hill to gather around this alluring watering hole. And contrary to the species’ forbidding reputation, they can be observed to be a remarkably sociable group.’

If anything, the experience of meeting agents, listening to their views on panel discussions and the like, shows they are remarkably diverse bunch: talkative extroverts, intense bibliophiles (not a reference to the festival bar), laid–back ‘regular guy’ types and one who, oddly, reminded me of Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It.

Writers who desperately want to get ‘an agent’ are sometimes advised that it’s not ‘an agent’ they need but the right agent and, having seen more agents together in one place at the Festival than I ever have before, this would appear to be sound advice (see this guest blog post I found via Twitter from A.P.Watt agent Juliet Pickering). Accordingly, they’re all so different that not all are going to like your book – but you hope that, with so many different personalities, eventually one will. That is unless you happen to have self–published and have sold tens of thousands of e–books already, in which case, it’s likely most agents will want to shove a contract in your direction.

That last point was made in one of the panel discussions on the future of publishing – a topic no–one seems to be able to agree on. Attitudes do seem to have recently changed to suggest that it does an author no harm to self–publish, if it’s done properly. David Gaughran, a self–published writer who’s also written about the subject, stressed in response to a concern about the overall quality of self–published books, that he has access to the same freelance copy editors as used by large publishing houses.  Similarly, self–published authors can also pay for the services of other professionals in the publishing process, such as PR agents. While this breaks the maxim of ‘money flows to the writer’ it’s argued that the much higher royalty rate on self–published e–books can be more financially rewarding overall, even on lower net sales, for an author even when such expenditure is incurred upfront.

At its most basic, an author’s journey for publication is a search for people prepared to invest money and time (and a professional’s time means money) in editing, printing, distributing and publicising your work. Each link in the chain is like a pitch from Dragon’s Den to persuade someone to commit resources: author to agent; agent to commissioning editor; publisher to bookseller and so on.

York Minster
York Minster

That’s why I found one of the most informative workshops at the Festival was The Acquisitions Meeting with Gillian Green and Michael Rowley, both editors at Random House, who are currently building a fiction list for Ebury Press.

They gave an intriguing insight into the business side of publishing a novel. They explained how non–editorial staff, like the production director, who counts the cost of shiny covers and different grades of paper, have a vital say in whether a title will be acquired or not. It’s the antithesis of the literary agent’s unquantifiable ‘I just loved it’ reaction to a text – where calculations about break–even print runs in a spreadsheet determine the final publication decision.

Forecasts of sales are much more rigorous than finger–in–the–air. For debut authors, analysis will be made of the sales of comparable writers’ titles and existing authors will have their Nielsen Bookscan figures scrutinised. If an author’s sales have been on a declining trend then this can be a deal breaker, no matter how great their new book. A debut author’s lack of a track-record can paradoxically work in their favour.

I’ve dwelt on those elements of the conference that were particularly relevant to where I am now with my writing but, as well as content on the process of publishing, there were plenty of sessions and workshops on writing technique (voice, character, editing and so on). And probably having already written my longest post on the festival (ridiculously long for a blog) I guess I’ve proved I found plenty to interest me in York.

Oh, and how did I get on in my one-to-ones with literary agents, bearing in mind my initial frustration that with no finished manuscript to offer, I worried they’d be wasted opportunities? (You submit the first chapter and an ‘introduction’ in advance so the agent can arrive prepared.) Well, I got some very useful feedback on how to describe the novel in a covering letter and comments on extra angles I might consider in the first chapter.  (It’s always really valuable to get a reader’s initial reaction to the novel – bearing in mind that most people who are kind enough to give me feedback have seen it develop as a work-in-progress.)

The agents seemed to like the writing and thought it fitted the type of genre that I was aiming at (note that both asked me which writers’ novels I thought might be similar to my own). I was given positive comments on the structure of the novel, the dialogue and the writing about food (the first chapter is very culinary – it would be interesting to find out what they’d think about themes in later chapters).

I’m told that agents, while being polite people, don’t want to waste their own future time by giving false encouragement which would leading writers to inundate their inboxes with further material the agent knows from the initial reading that that they’d never represent anyway. So I guess it must be encouraging that both agents said they’d like to read more of my novel when it’s all ready.

The agents also, perhaps most importantly, seemed to have thought carefully about whether there was a market for the novel – and they both thought that there was, although admittedly from reading only that rather foodie first chapter.  I was also asked by one agent if I’d had direct experience of the dramatic predicament that opens the novel. Apparently she’d had approaches from a couple of people who’d been in that situation in real life and she found my description (which I’d largely imagined) very realistic and compelling, which can only be good.

So no being signed up on the strength of the opening 2,700 words but I think their collective reaction was quietly encouraging.

But, to underline the points about informality and networking, I stayed behind after an agent panel debate with the intention of saying hello to an agent who’d read some of my novel’s very early material at another conference a couple of years ago. I’d talked to her once since at an event at the start of the year (when I’d said the novel wasn’t too far off). I was pleasantly surprised that she recognised me at York and was the first to strike up a short conversation. She might have been being terribly polite but it’s still a good piece of motivation to have a literary agent say goodbye to you with the words ‘I’ll look forward to getting the book’.

Now that might go a long way to towards explaining my uplifted mood as I drove back down the motorway.

Agents and the Changing World of Publishing — An MA Perspective

In the MMU Creative Writing MA we don’t just work on our novels-in-progress. That’s the main body of work but we need to take a broader perspective so we understand the context of  modern literature and the publishing world.

One significant component is appreciation of established and innovative novelists’ work — in the Reading Novels module — see my post on the Rules of Creative Writing for more about work for that section of the course.

We also have to do something that I’m way behind on and still haven’t fully got my head around — called the Transmission Project. The objective of this is to work in a form that’s different to novel writing. I have a vague idea I might do a screenplay based on the novel.

But the joker in the pack has been a module called The Text, which is basically a piece of work on the publishing industry or something analytical about the way your work-in-progress makes its journey from your computer hard-drive potentially into the hands of paying readers (with the obvious caveats of being lucky and working hard).

Slowly, I’m reaching the point where I can no longer procrastinate and fiddle around perfecting my manuscript. The day is going to have to come soon when I settle on a file to attach to an e-mail to literary agents — steel myself to press ‘send’ and see what happens — if anything.

Therefore I decided to kill two birds with one stone and make literary agents the subject of my essay. In doing the work at least I’d get a better idea of what they do, should I get to start engaging with them. (Actually I’ve met a number of agents already and follow many on Twitter. While some of their number only seem to tweet about how wonderful their client’s latest books are, others provide an invaluable insight into the publishing process. Carole Blake’s tweets when ploughing though some of the weird and dire submissions she receives should be mandatory reading for any writer before they press the send button or post the envelope.)

But writing about ‘what a literary agent does’ wouldn’t really be stretching enough for a Masters degree so I tried to combine it with a quick survey of the current upheavals in the publishing marketplace, such as the growth of e-readers and the consequent explosion in self-publishing. Should anyone be interested in reading the essay itself, it can be found by clicking  on this link: Essay on Literary Agents in Changing Publishing Word — April 2012. Note that it’s quite and dry and academic, although I do put in some entertaining quotations and it got a decent mark despite my mentioning of Fifty Shades of Grey.

I’m sure any literary agent who might chance across this post will be extremely re-assured  that my considered deliberations (who am I kidding?) were generally positive for their profession. In spite of the new technology-driven opportunities for disintermediation between author and reader (i.e. the ability to go straight to Amazon with an e-book rather than via agent and publisher), the agent still provides value for the author. This is particularly true for their established clients, for whom, undoubtedly, the agent is a tremendous asset — especially for the business-side of things — such as all those translation deals and foreign rights. These are complexities that new writers — focused on their books — will barely consider.

Many of the ‘unexpectedly phenomenally best-selling’ self-published authors tend to be snapped up by agents for this reason, although this has led to suggestions that self-publishing is starting to serve as a ‘crowd-sourced slush pile’.

However, one under-appreciated aspect of traditional publishing is the time and effort spent on perfecting the finished book. Agents will ensure that work they represent is of publishable quality: some will spend considerable time working with the author on a promising manuscript, others will only take on work that’s virtually ready to be submitted to a commissioning editor.

Because of the commission-based model on which they draw their earnings, new writers are always risks for agents — they won’t earn any revenue from new clients until most of the hard work has been done (getting the book into shape to be offered to publishers, selling it, handling rights). Apart from advances (which are getting much smaller), the lead-times of the traditional publishing model mean it might be two years before book starts bringing in revenue (that’s if it does make any money).  So it’s not surprising that if a novel demonstrates it has a proven market in the e-book charts then an agent will see that as reducing many of these risks.

This development throws up an interesting point as to whether writers who are at the point of submitting novels to agents ought to also throw their work into the morass of self-published e-books. I’ve heard contradictory views from agents on whether they would be interested in representing a book that had already been published in some form.

At the London Writers’ Club, in response to a question, one agent told a writer she wasn’t interested in an already published book (though she would be interested in a follow-up). But I’ve also heard agents and publishers say they thought there was nothing to be lost by writers testing the market in that way.

Until very recently, many self-published e-books were likely to be those that had been rejected by traditional channels with the authors using this route as a last resort but this is no longer true. In fact the economics of publishing at very low cost favour authors who publish using very little outside assistance (maybe a cover designer and, if they’re sensible, copy editing and proof reading). If an e-book is sold at £1.99, a self-published author will get the majority of the revenue (depending on the sales channel). Whereas for a paperback discounted to £3.99 in Tesco or Amazon, an author isn’t likely to make more than 50p, probably a lot less. Combine this with the ability of writers to get more material out to market more quickly (the compromises in quality control this generates don’t appear to deter a sizeable portion of e-book buyers) and, from a business perspective, an author could make more income selling a smaller number of e-books (especially if they write more titles). Of course these books need to be marketed but some writers’  ferocious use of social media can be highly effective.

It’s potentially the role of the agents as gatekeepers of the traditional publishing industry that is most affected by current changes. I know from my experience on the City University Certificate in Novel Writing (now the Novel Studio), which has good links with agents, that ‘getting an agent’ is one of the two indisputable achievements (the other is having your novel published — after that everything is subjective).

The agent is positioned at the ‘this-is-where-the-bullshit-stops’ interface between subjective appreciation of one’s work and the objective, binary ‘yes/no’ judgement of ‘will this sell?’.

If writers believe that getting ‘an agent’ is an achievement in itself then they may feel impelled to approach the wrong type of agent. It’s often said by agents that it’s far more important to find the right agent for one’s work, rather than find one quickly, but the seal of affirmation of being signed up is something of a creative writing course alumni honour.

Such is the pressure to achieve that affirmation that writers are tempted to be impatient and contact agents before their work is ready — sometimes before much is written at all. At the London Writers’ Club, one writer said to an agent that he had five great concepts for a novel and that if he wrote to her then would she pick the best one out for him so he wouldn’t waste all that time writing a novel that no-one wanted to buy. It seems a reasonable question — and a very sensible one if publishing was an industry that financed its own R&D efforts (because new product development is effectively what new authors are  doing — unpaid). But, for fiction at least, the answer illustrated the toughness and resilience writers require to stand a chance of being published.

Her response was that he was the writer, he had to decide which of the concepts he believed in most and then he’d keep proving he had faith in his concept by completing the novel. And then he could send it in to agents. It wasn’t the answer that the questioner wanted to hear but that’s how it works — the unsigned author spends large amounts of time and money on the project (if using courses, consultancies, etc) and only at that point might he or she be told the whole premise of the novel is flawed.

It’s not surprising that people feel rejection painfully — and that there’s a lot of manuscripts that never make it to agents’ scrutiny for fear of failure. And this situation shows the imbalance of power to which, perhaps, the e-book explosion is a reaction. I met a writer recently who took eight years to produce his first published book. That effort can be dismissed within a few seconds by an agent who’s always got another manuscript to look at on the pile.

But, on the other hand, it would be more cruel for an agent to encourage a writer in a particular direction only to find that the completed work is unsellable. The truth is that no-one knows what will be popular in the future. Agents can spot good writing but predicting the types of work that will appeal a couple of years in the future is a huge gamble. That’s why one hears of writers being given rejections that are impossible to analyse, such as ‘we really loved the book but we just didn’t love it quite enough’.  Of course, what the writer then wants to know is how to change the book so it generates the requisite reservoir of love that will increase its chances of being published. But that’s the point — the busy agent doesn’t have the time to get into a dialogue about improving a book they’ve already decided they’re not going to take a punt on. Most of the agents I’ve met have been very pleasant people — but they’re professionals. Such is the potential deluge of requests for feedback and advice, it seems that they collectively cultivate a somewhat forbidding front, when one reads submission guidelines on websites and in the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook and similar directories.

Perhaps it’s because of its brevity and broadcast nature but agents can be quite approachable on Twitter (but never try to pitch a book to them there). I have a reference to Oliver Munson from Blake Friedmann in my essay and he was kind enough to verify the information for me while I was writing the assignment. He’s also taken the trouble to give the OK for me to put the reference on this blog.

Yet we also had a different London agent participate in a really useful on-line chat session during the teaching element of the MMU MA course. I quoted several of his answers in the essay as they were succint and very relevant. I tried e-mailing him to ask if it was OK to have his name in the essay if I put it on this blog but I’ve had no reply. So, not wishing to attribute his comments without permission I’ve made him anonymous. Perhaps the e-mail didn’t get through or, more likely, he had an incredibly busy day and couldn’t get round to reply to a query like mine but it’s still a shame. Google searches for agents by name account for a fair proportion of hits on this site: there’s a modest chance a potential client might have come across his sensible words on here. And if he’s too busy to reply to that sort of e-mail then perhaps he might not be so responsive when I’m thinking of submitting my manuscript.

Mind you, agents are often in the same position themselves .There was a flurry of Twitter activity when an anonymous agent recently posted a blog complaining about  sending out books on submission to publishers and hearing nothing. This drew a sharp retort from the very pleasant Francesca Main (who visited our City university class) who concluded her blog post with a paragraph that started with the re-assuring sentence for those of us writers toiling away in the margins around our day jobs: ‘Authors are at the heart of everything we do, and the reason we all chose to work in publishing.’