(First published on my old blog, 4th October 2013)
From the title, I’m sure you can guess I’m continuing my York memoirs 😉 In this instance I want to talk about agents.
If you read my earlier York post, you’ll know that I was very nervous about going due to my ineptitude at talking about my writing. Since I’d booked two one-to-one sessions with agents to find out how marketable my book is, I was definitely jittery about the whole thing.
In my naivity, I booked both ten minute sessions back to back. A bit of description for anyone who hasn’t tried this; there are small tables with two chairs facing each other across them, set up slightly like a prison visiting area as seen on many TV shows. There are lots of these little capsules of literary intrigue within a single open room. There are also lots of one-to-ones taking place at the same time.
Timing is strict. You have ten minutes from the buzzer; a one minute warning at nine minutes; then you have to clear off when the buzzer sounds again. It is insane, manic speed dating with far more riding on it than the conventional kind. You’ve already picked who you’ll see and you want them to be invested in your work.
To backtrack a bit, six weeks in advance, you send 3000 words of your manuscript, a synopsis and a covering letter. The agent (or publisher or book doctor) will read this and make notes prior to the event.
Scary stuff, huh?
On how many other occasions are you asked to pitch straight in, talking about something really personal and close to your heart and make a connection?
Of course the aim isn’t necessarily to acquire an agent that day – though some do ask to see the full manuscript. The aim is to make a connection as a basis for future contact and to find out if what you write is marketable. If so, what do you need to improve.
So, first proper day at York, 10.30am Saturday morning, with my courage grasped tight in both sweat-slick hands and my heart, lungs and stomach clinging to each other in my throat, I went to meet the Kraken.
This is a very unfair description but that is what it feels like. Happily for me, both of my appointed agents were lovely. It was incredibly hard to pitch my book, despite all the preparation I had done. I had one horrible moment with the first agent, where I opened my mouth and nothing came out. She had asked me what my book was about. I sat there for thirty endless seconds thinking ‘I can’t remember!’ Then my brain clunked into gear and my ongoing love for the story took over. She even said my pitch was good!
Both agents said that they thought my idea was highly marketable and would appeal to a wide readership. They then preceded to explain what I needed to work on. All in all it wasn’t that bad at all. I’d caught a glimmer of interest.
It’s incredibly heartening as well as useful to have feedback from an agent. They do know what will sell after all. I would say that if you are not good with taking critique or feedback you won’t get so much out if it. These are professional book lovers who know the market. If they tell you that you’re over writing, you probably are! As with all criticism though, it should be divided in to ‘accept’, ‘adapt’ or ‘reject’ categories. Agents have preferences too and aren’t right about everything. ( though I have to say they were bang on the money about me and what I needed to do.)
Curiously light headed and seriously high on adrenaline I toddled off to a seminar and let it all sink in.
It was weird. All those agents and not a whiff of brimstone. Could it be that they were book lovers plus ten? I’m a rabid reader (I’d say avid but it just isn’t strong enough) but I’d never pushed myself into the arena of trying to make literature appear (unless you count writing.) for a moment I had a glimmer of what being an agent must be like. If you love books, it must seem like being Indiana Jones in a slush pile; the greatest treasure hunt ever. Exciting but I don’t believe I could ever do it. Just that mad speed dating once a year must take it out of you. All those hopeful authors, most of home you will have bad or indifferent news for…emotionally exhausting in the extreme. Add to that the fact that some writers can be so precious about their work that they only want to hear ‘Yes’. So it might be close to good but they don’t want to hear about improving it. That’s go to be maddening too.
I was to find out later in the day that some writers send unpleasant even abusive emails when their work is rejected. I read some of them in a seminar I went to that afternoon (personal details removed of course). My jaw hit the desk. Who in their right mind thought sending these was going to make an agent reconsider? I won’t repeat them but rude was an understatement.
And in case anyone wasn’t clear, nasty letters to an agent are a big no-no. And they do remember you. Also, all agents talk. It’s a small world, publishing. I’m just saying…
At the gala dinner that evening, fortified with half a glass of champagne, I screwed up my courage again and went to speak to another agent casually.
I did not do this to pitch my book. I had no intention of bringing it up at all. I wanted to have a chat as Id followed this person on twitter for a while and thought they were witty and clever. I’m not saying that I hadn’t considered submitting to them. I had. But my purpose was to scope them out in person. I was beginning to get an inkling of how important an agent you like and get on with is.
Which is what we talked about among other things. (For the record either I hid my nerves better than I thought or this person was just too lovely to comment on it. My hands were shaking.) It was a good chat. Even though the third thing U said was ” turns out agents don’t have horns!” Luckily this person had a sense of humour and got where I was coming from.
What I learned;
-Agents don’t have horns.
-They’re in it for the long haul. It’s not a case if them representing one book, they are looking to represent your developing career.
– An agent will turn down a perfectly sellable book if they don’t feel excited about it. This is not a reflection on the writing. It’s a case of them not feeling passionate enough about it to want to take it on. Isn’t that a good thing? If someone takes me on, I want to know they’re as excited about the journey as me.
– Agents are book lovers with market knowledge and contacts. It may seem like they have the power of life and death over an author’s career but actually that power never leaves a writer’s hands. We’re the ones who have to write good books after all.
– Agents are happy to see resubmissions of the same book if work has been done in it, especially if they left feedback when they rejected it the first time.
– Agents aren’t trying to be a barrier to your writing career. They need books to sell. In effect they need us as much as we need them.
– Agents do not care if you have previous writing credits or not. They want debut authors, they want careers they can help grow from the ground up. As one agent said, we’re always looking for the next JK Rowling or Dan Brown.
– an agent is usually being kind if they tell you something is unsellable. As horrible as that is to hear, it’s crueler to encourage false hope and have everyone waste time.
-Agents are human too. They don’t always get it right. If you believe in your book stick with it.
– Agents absolutely hate the idea of the one that got away. They do read your submissions. As professionals they may only need to read two paragraphs before they know that it’s not up to scratch or not for them. Take on the chin and move on.
All that from one 10min conversation. Worth screwing up my courage for methinks!
Perhaps I was lucky. I have heard other people say that they had a less positive or even negative experience with their one-to-ones. Since I wasn’t there I can’t comment. All I can say is that all the agents I met, were lovely, intelligent, discerning people who love books.
I’m feeling better about submitting my novel now. And I no longer expect to see horns 😉