OK. So you’re putting yourself out there, meeting new people and showing off your writing skills at every opportunity. But, if agents and publishers aren’t beating a path to your doorstep, you may want to approach them yourself. How do you do it? Who do you approach?
The first question is whether to send it to an agent or directly to a publisher (or, of course, to self-publish but I’ll discuss that in the next article). For me, an agent is definitely the best option. Admittedly it introduces another person that your book has to get past to be published – and it does mean surrendering 15% of your earnings plus VAT – but there are three definite advantages to having an agent and they make a huge difference.
1. Your agent can open doors that you may not be able to
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, rightly or wrongly, many publishers see agents as a quality control barrier and are often reluctant to accept submissions from anyone who hasn’t got an agent first – even those that claim they do accept unsolicited submissions might simply place them on the ‘slush pile’ where junior staff and interns read ten or so pages and discard if it if they’ve not already been hooked by the writing. An agent acts as an endorsement of a writer and thus means publishers may take you much more seriously.
Secondly, it’s the agent’s job to build relationships with commissioning editors and know their personal and professional tastes, their personalities and how best to approach them. Whilst you might spend several hours leafing through the Writer’s Handbook or googling for addresses of people you might be able to send your book to – and still not really know if they’re the right people or anything about their personality or preferences – your agent will often know exactly who to place it with, and how best to sell it to them. This hugely increases your chances of success.
2. Your agent is a businessperson
You might be a businessperson too of course. But I know for sure I’m definitely not. I know nothing of contracts, very little about how book negotiations work, have limited ideas about what the ‘right’ rate of pay is for my writing. What’s more I’m terrible at selling myself and feel really self-conscious about asking for money. If you’re anything like me then it’s damned useful having someone who can take care of all of those things for you, get you the best deal possible and let you focus on your writing.
3. Your agent can give you feedback to improve your work
You’re probably only get one shot at submitting a particular project to a publisher so you want to sell yourself at your best. You also want to look like a professional by sending things in the right format, giving the appropriate amount of information and making the right pitch. An agent deals with pitches all the time and will know exactly what publishers want. Nowadays agents also act as editors and will take time with you to improve your work and make it as good as possible before the publisher sees it. This does not only improve your chances of acceptance – it also potentially drives up how much you earn! A writer I know spent a year being told by his agent to do draft after draft after draft of his novel. Doubtless it was time-consuming and frustrating but it certainly paid off when a bidding war saw him receive an advance that allowed him to buy his first home!
In my own case, my agent was really helpful in helping me hone the proposal, streamline what I was writing about and really identify what was appealing about the book. What was originally going to be a more general history of Santa Claus became more focussed on the darker aspects of Santa mythology and the strange characters Santa has been associated with through the years. Suddenly I had a book with a clear hook and selling point and, in all probability, that’s what got it sold.
And, as the economics of the book trade go tighter, publishers are less and less likely to take a risk on a writer or project that needs substantial improvement. A good agent can really, really make a difference.