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.
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.
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.
Sounds like some kind of Skyfall clone doesn’t it, but Agent Hunter is a new source of information that might be almost as valuable to aspiring authors as state secrets to 007. It’s a new website that has collated a huge amount of information on literary agents, agencies and publishers together in an online database. It also comes with a search facility that’s ingeniously configurable.
Agent Hunter is from the Writers’ Workshop — the people behind the very enjoyable York Festival of Writing that I attended last September. (I posted about the Festival here –and an edited version of the post has been included by Debi Alper in the book of the festival along with many entertaining accounts by other delegates — available for purchase for Kindle on Amazon.)
I ought to declare an interest in Agent Hunter before going on to review it. Harry Bingham, of the Writers’ Workshop, has given me (and other bloggers) a free year’s subscription to the site, in return for a review on the blog but there are no conditions attached on what I write — the comments below are entirely my honest opinion.
Now I’ve mentioned that it’s a subscription site, I’d better mention the cost upfront — £12 per year. You can get on the site to have a look around for free (accessing the database is what you need the subscription for) and also get a try-before-you-buy 7 day period before you get charged.
So, is it worth it?
To answer this question, you need to consider both the quality and organisation of information on the site compared to that available elsewhere on the web — and the value you place on being able to easily access it.
The traditional (pre-internet) method of finding agents’ and publishers’ details was to use a directory like The Writers and Artists’ Yearbook. Harry Bingham hasn’t set up Agent Hunter in competition to the W&A YB as he’s the author of two branded companion volumes — The W&A YB Guide to Getting Published and theirHow to Writeguide. Also, the W&A YB takes a broader and shallower sweep across many creative industries (including journalism, photography and artists’ markets – as the name suggests).
Most crucially, the book is an annual publication (coming out in the summer before the year in its title) and, for prospective authors, only deals with agencies rather than individual agents. As hard-copy submissions (including that infamous SAE requirement) appear to be almost universally being replaced by online alternatives of some form, most writers now probably use the yearbook as a starting point to research agencies’ websites.
Largely being small enterprises (with a few big exceptions), agencies don’t tend to operate whizzy interactive websites full of bells and whistles (and some do have pretty basic sites) but most will at least list their submission guidelines — occasionally with automated ‘click here to attach’ links to make it easy for authors to submit to a central submission clearing system.
As well as lists of their clients, most agencies will also usually provide details of individual agents, maybe with a bit of a bio, along with the genres they’re interested in representing. When speaking to writers at events like conferences or talks to students, agents tend to stress how doing a bit of research on individual agents’ preferences is usually time well spent.
Often agencies are staffed by a mixture of senior agents with relatively full client lists and more junior associate agents who are much keener to trawl through the slush pile to find the Next Big Thing. If the agency’s guidelines allow it, these hungry agents appreciate being treated as individuals and contacted directly.
Conversely, a staggering proportion of agents’ rejections are for material sent to the wrong place — short stories, scripts, poetry, memoirs, sci-fi and fantasy (to a large extent) and so on tend to be handled by specialists and won’t be read by an agent who’s advertised a preference for, say, general fiction or romance.
So with all this information available on agency websites, what’s the advantage of using Agent Hunter? It largely depends on how much you value what else you could be doing with your time. Would you rather be writing your book than compiling a list of agencies and then trawling through the uneven content on agency websites? In monetary terms, the annual subscription, comes to just under two hours work at national minimum wage rates (sadly that’s quite a lot higher than the return on their time many writers achieve).
Agent Hunter also has an advantage that its information is potentially much more up-to-date than traditionally published sources. The database can also be more extensive and personal than the brief corporate CVs that often appear on agency websites. For example, extra biographical information can be added, Twitter names may be included, preferences such as whether agents appear at conferences and so on — see screenshots accompanying this post. (I think this line has convinced me that this particular agent might like my novel: ‘She likes the store Liberty, taxidermy and skulls’!)
Some advice on what an agent would like to see submitted (or not submitted) is also included on some entries, although it can be rather terrifyingly blunt. ‘Whilst we welcome genre fiction…we aren’t fond of writers who do nothing new with the established tropes of their chosen [genre]…We certainly don’t want to see books that we could have, essentially, read already.’
Or ‘Enjoys…stories with an emphasis on plot instead of endless pages of metaphor’. Damn, there I was, ready to submit my manuscript with its endless pages of metaphor until I read that!
There’s also some useful practical tips: ‘Slush Tip: Don’t send fresh produce with your submission. Currently reading a teen fiction manuscript splattered with exploded passion fruit.’
Another bonus is the uniformity of the data — making information from different agents much more easily comparable than with an online search. The database search is handy, for example, if you want to filter out agents who aren’t currently building their list or aren’t interested in your genre. There are many different ways the search can be configured — it’s almost like online dating for writers!
And, perhaps like online dating, the amount of material fluctuates wildly that’s supplied by agents into the public domain to interest possible suitors . Some may as well have written ‘bugger off’ and be done with it, while others have offered information that’s actually quite helpful.
On the other hand, social media may lead to knowing rather too much about an individual. In the few years since large parts of the writing community became some of the most enthusiastic Twitter users, it’s been possible to find out more than it’s probably advisable to know about some agents’ personal likes and dislikes. While it’s often very entertaining, and certainly diverting, to read about what meal an agent is eating, how their football team is doing, what outfit they’re wearing that day or to follow a Twitter gallery of photos of sleeping kittens, this information is likely to be filtered out in the Agent Hunter database.
Agents hate being pitched to on Twitter and some no doubt enjoy a bit of online interaction with potential clients. However, others are probably rightly cynical about the intentions of those who try to build up relationships via Twitter in the hope it might sway representation. At a talk I was at last month, one agent baldly stated that trying to cultivate any sort of relationship with a prospective agent was a waste of time — all they’d be interested in was the quality of a client’s writing, not the quality of their Twitter banter.
Interrogating the database to find an agent who’s right for you (at least theoretically) as an individual writer is a little empowering in a modest way — a welcome change from the ‘I absolutely, really, really must get an agent but how on earth will even one agent possibly read let alone like my writing out of the millions of others on the slush pile’ anxiety of the un-agented author.
As discussed in my MMU Text assignment, agents are now regarded, albeit at times unfairly, as gatekeepers to the traditional publishing word and, while I’ve met plenty of writers with agents who’ve yet to be published, for most types of book, having the representation of an agent is normally a prerequisite to getting a publication deal.
As part of an MBA several years ago, I studied corporate strategy for much less interesting industries than publishing. But publishing isn’t a normal industry. I sometimes try to reconcile the way publishing works with classic models of business theory — like Porter’s Value Chain where the raw material gets shoved in at the start and then everyone involved adds a bit of value and gets a cut of the profit. But at least the acquisition part of publishing (the research and development bit) works so counter to this that I risk getting bewildered into a brain meltdown — and need to remind myself (in the words of Mel and Kim ‘that’s the way it is, that’s just the way it is’).
But it’s interesting theoretically to compare different industry sectors’ attitude to research and development. A pharmaceutical company or IT software company might spend 15-20% of its turnover on research and development (R&D) — on the intellectual property to keep new and innovative products appearing in the future.
The publishing industry arguably has a negative spend on R&D if one includes the market for ‘how-to’ books, literary events, self-publishing fees, courses run by publishers and agencies (and more in the educational institutions that also run courses and the like). The industry (in a broad sense) makes money from people wanting to do its R&D for it, as well as inundating agents and publishers with so much unsolicited material that it’s referred to by terms like ‘the slush pile’.
Publishers and agents may well counter argue that the majority of published books, as well as investment in new authors, should be regarded as R&D or speculative marketing costs because so few sell enough to make a decent return — with the industry kept solvent by bankable blockbuster authors and the rare unknown titles that suddenly take off (either out of the blue or with the support of a prize or similar publicity).
This is probably the case for most of the creative industries — there are legions of musicians, actors, artists, dancers (even chefs, bakers and the like these days) who, like writers, are toiling away for the love of it but also hoping that their talent is validated and recognised (and necessarily risking the investment of that very fragile part of their ego in the judgement of others which is bound up in the endeavour of publicly exposing a creative project).
Even so, those lucky enough to get a lucky break also realistically know that even landing a good part or a recording deal won’t, on the balance of probability, lead to fame and fortune and giving up the day job. As with writers and literary agents, most equivalent creative types are represented by managers or agents who take a percentage of their income as payment.
However, it’s arguably unusual that in publishing the intermediaries that are funded by a cut of the artists’ income also perform the function as gatekeepers for those who risk capital in the enterprise (i.e. the publishers). In other aspects of their job, agents will have a potentially adversarial relationship with a publisher (negotiating a good deal) but, in sifting new talent, they perform a function on the publisher’s behalf.
Actors will audition for directors, musicians will be send in demos to A&R departments or be spotted at concerts or online by record companies — the representation by the agent or manager tends (at least to my incomplete knowledge) to come at the point where the artist has already been offered a commercial deal. Maybe there’s something particularly time consuming about the assessment of a manuscript compared with walking into a bar and hearing next year’s headliners at Glastonbury. (However, agents and publishers often say they can make a decision on the vast majority of submissions by the end of the first paragraph.)
Are actors turned down for audition because they don’t have agents or bands not signed because they don’t have managers (real bands, not ones put together by the likes of Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh)?
Bearing this model in mind, and knowing how most agents, even those who work closely editing their clients’ work, thrive on the deal-making side of their business, it’s perhaps not surprising that some agents are a little ambivalent about the talent-spotting role that publishers seem to have thrust upon them. This may be why agents are now quite enthusiastic about taking on authors who have a decent self-publishing track record — they’ve proved there’s a demand for their work and the agent can maximise the commercials. There’s a growing body of opinion that argues that a track record of self-publishing may replace the slush pile as a means of identifying new authors.
Certainly online communities that feature new writing (such as Novelicious) are attracting a lot of agent attention. I met a writer recently who was signed up by an agent on the basis of a serialised novel that she’d published for free on her blog (Emily Benet Spray Painted Bananas). And agents also keep a close an eye on other, more traditional, avenues, such as short story competitions.
But will I use Agent Hunter? Certainly. Although I have a good idea of the first few I’ll approach alreadyIt will be one of the resources I’ll use to draw up a list of likely targets once I’m finally there with a decent draft of the novel — and I’m not too far off — today I got some encouraging feedback from my MA supervisor on one of the last sections I decided to completely rewrite. Watch this space for details.
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 â€“ Iâ€™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 enigmaticÂ 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 itâ€™s just a case of completing The Big OneÂ â€“ handing in a 60,000 word minimum manuscript of a novel. Â Regular followers of this blog will know that hitting that word limit isnâ€™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 itâ€™s ready to submit to anyone â€“ a tutor for assessment for an MA or an agent or publisher. Itâ€™s frustrating but thatâ€™s where I am, even though back in March, I wrote a post with great expectation that the professional feedback Iâ€™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 thatâ€™s two weeksâ€™ worth of extra time in this Olympic summer when Iâ€™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 Iâ€™m much more productive in the darker months â€“ 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 perfectlyâ€“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, Iâ€™d be able to immediately hand my over my burnished tome or send it speeding within minutes into the lucky agent’s inbox.Â After all the Festival was in September â€“ six months in the future.
Unfortunately, September sneaked up on me much more quickly than anticipated â€“ immediately after my spontaneous sabbatical over the late summer â€“ 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 â€˜the endâ€™ Iâ€™d also done a fair bit of work on a submissions package (a polishing the first three chapters, writing a synopsis and covering letter). Itâ€™s just that Iâ€™ve finished knocking the rest of the manuscript into similar shape â€“ and Iâ€™d learned enough about agents to know that if theyâ€™re interested in a novel that they immediately want to read the manuscript in its entirety â€“ not several months later. (That didnâ€™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 didnâ€™t really think about York (itâ€™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 thereâ€™s a germ of an idea for a novel in that? Maybe not!
So I arrived late at the conference, almost at lunchtime on the Saturday, not in Â the most positive frame of mind: why have I driven 200 miles north to spend the my weekend with a bunch of people Iâ€™ve never met â€“ and I haven’t even finished the novel? Shouldnâ€™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 kickâ€“started out of my summer writing hiatus. Iâ€™d not been able to pitch a completed novel but Iâ€™d come away uplifted by all the other benefits of spending the best part of a weekend in a community of writers.
For anyone whoâ€™s curious about the York Festival of Writing, itâ€™s organised by theÂ 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 dayâ€“job related conferences Iâ€™ve been on). Sadly the traffic trouble meant I missed the Jojo Moyes keynote on Saturday morning).
But, as with most worthwhile conferences, itâ€™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 â€“ most with very similar shared ambitions, interests, questions and anxieties â€“ 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 â€“ that your aspiration to become a published writer isnâ€™t futile self-delusion because so many other people are working towards the same â€“ and agents and editors have made efforts to come and meet us all.
Thereâ€™s camaraderie in numbers but the number of people there (at least a couple of hundred Iâ€™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 heâ€™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 wasnâ€™t in the slightest cutâ€“throat and competitive â€“ 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 wasnâ€™t the chestâ€“beating atmosphere of a sales conference â€“ 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 introvertâ€“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 â€˜damagedâ€™ in some way â€“ creating a compulsion to write â€“ 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 â€˜day jobâ€™ is currently bang in the centre of London and one of the consolations of toiling away there is a feeling that Iâ€™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,Â as well as being convenient for too many cultural distractions to complete a novel).Â Itâ€™s not very logical but Iâ€™ve recently quite enjoyed walking past Random House’s HQ onÂ Vauxhall Bridge Road on the way to work meetings. And Iâ€™ve idled away the odd lunchtime following literary walks past Londonâ€™s numerous writerâ€“inspired blue plaques.
At the conference I met writers from places like Durham, Lincoln, Doncaster, Nottingham and quite a contingent few from York itself â€“ all places where it doesnâ€™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 itâ€™s easy to believe the outer limits of the publishing world coincide with the Zone Two and Three boundary. So credit to the Writersâ€™ 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. Iâ€™m aiming to blog, eventually, about visitingÂ Writing Britain: Wastelands to WonderlandÂ but, in the meantime, Iâ€™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 BrontÃ« and countless others. And, speaking of the wily, windy moors, thereâ€™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 doesnâ€™t mean theyâ€™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 â€“ another reason why my manuscript still isnâ€™t quiteÂ ready to set before an agent.Â 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.
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. Iâ€™d certainly come across some of the agents attending and some very helpful blogging book doctors via Twitter â€“ and one of my objectives was to hunt these down, in the nicest possible way, so I could say â€˜helloâ€™ 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. Theyâ€™re both successful authors and had a long day bookâ€“doctoring (as well as running workshops, about which other delegates were very complimentary) but they were both very friendly and approachable. Emmaâ€™s blog,Â This Itch of WritingÂ (see sidebar) is an antidote to all the â€˜Follow My Ten Rules and Write a Bestsellerâ€™ sites and, Â now having met Emma in person, I can understand why it’s one of the most intelligent and practical resources on writing that Iâ€™ve found on the web.
The role of literary agents in the traditional publishing process is often described as that of gatekeepers â€“ itâ€™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 Artistsâ€™ Yearbook entries, one might imagine agents to seem as unyielding as doctorsâ€™ receptionists from hell.
The great benefit of a conference like the Festival of Writing is to allow writers to discover that theyâ€™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 halfâ€“aâ€“dozen writers backâ€“toâ€“back for the intensive ten minute oneâ€“toâ€“one sessions must be exhausting work â€“ like speed-dating with reams of A4). Beyond the scheduled oneâ€“toâ€“one sessions most agents seemed perfectly approachable although the Festival Handbook reminds overâ€“zealous delegates of protocol â€“ donâ€™t try to subject your selected agent/victim to your carefully honed threeâ€“hour elevator pitch over dinner or try and open (and close) a deal in the queue for the toilets.
Given the unagented, aspiring writerâ€™s curiosity about agents and how best to make an approach, it doesnâ€™t take much of a leap of imagination to imagine a David Attenboroughâ€“style whispered commentary: â€˜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.â€™
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), laidâ€“back â€˜regular guyâ€™ types and one who, oddly, reminded me of Malcolm Tucker fromÂ The Thick of It.
Writers who desperately want to get â€˜an agentâ€™ are sometimes advised that itâ€™s not â€˜an agentâ€™ 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, theyâ€™re all so different that not all are going to like your book â€“ but you hope that, with so many different personalities, eventually one will. That is unless you happen to have selfâ€“published and have sold tens of thousands of eâ€“books already, in which case, itâ€™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 â€“ a topic noâ€“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 selfâ€“publish, if itâ€™s done properly.Â David Gaughran, a selfâ€“published writer whoâ€™s also written about the subject, stressed in response to a concern about the overall quality of selfâ€“published books, that he has access to the same freelance copy editors as used by large publishing houses.Â Similarly, selfâ€“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 â€˜money flows to the writerâ€™ itâ€™s argued that the much higher royalty rate on selfâ€“published eâ€“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 authorâ€™s journey for publication is a search for people prepared to invest money and time (and a professionalâ€™s time means money) in editing, printing, distributing and publicising your work. Each link in the chain is like a pitch fromÂ Dragonâ€™s Den to persuade someone to commit resources: author to agent; agent to commissioning editor; publisher to bookseller and so on.
Thatâ€™s why I found one of the most informative workshops at the Festival was The Acquisitions MeetingÂ 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 nonâ€“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. Itâ€™s the antithesis of the literary agent’s unquantifiable ‘I just loved it’ reaction to a text â€“ where calculations about breakâ€“even print runs in a spreadsheet determine the final publication decision.
Forecasts of sales are much more rigorous than fingerâ€“inâ€“theâ€“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 authorâ€™s lack of a track-record can paradoxically work in their favour.
Iâ€™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 Iâ€™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 theyâ€™d be wasted opportunities? (You submit the first chapter and an â€˜introductionâ€™ 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. Â (Itâ€™s always really valuable to get a readerâ€™s initial reaction to the novel â€“ 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 writersâ€™ 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 â€“ it would be interesting to find out what theyâ€™d think about themes in later chapters).
Iâ€™m told that agents, while being polite people, donâ€™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 theyâ€™d never represent anyway. So I guess it must be encouraging that both agents said theyâ€™d like to read more of my novel when itâ€™s all ready.
The agents also, perhaps most importantly, seemed to have thought carefully about whether there was a market for the novel â€“ and they both thought that there was, although admittedly from reading only that rather foodie first chapter. Â I was also asked by one agent if Iâ€™d had direct experience of the dramatic predicament that opens the novel. Apparently sheâ€™d had approaches from a couple of people whoâ€™d been in that situation in real life and she found my description (which Iâ€™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 whoâ€™d read some of my novelâ€™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 Iâ€™d said the novel wasnâ€™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 itâ€™s still a good piece of motivation to have a literary agent say goodbye to you with the words ‘Iâ€™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.