Agents: Do you need one? Do you want one?

There’s a lot of talk about getting an agent these days–among the writers I know.  So much so that it’s often seen as the Holy Grail of writing.  Which maybe it is.  Or maybe it’s not.  Despite what the Writer’s Market says. 

(BTW, I have heard that Penguin is accepting unsolicited MSs until the end of October–so check it out…Also there’s new authors site with one of the major publishers in the States–I’ll look that out and post the details later…)

In terms of agents, all I can do is speak from experience.  My own. 

My first agent–well, that was a case of me being so amazed to be contacted by an agent and told that she wanted to represent me that I didn’t ask the questions I should have done.  Or perhaps I was just so chuffed that I over-rode my gut instinct. 

But it transpired that she knew nothing about history, nothing about historical fiction–she’d never read it–she didn’t know the market, didn’t know where the historical fiction market had been and therefore just didn’t have a clue.  But that didn’t stop her from having opinions, (and dissing my experience as a book critic…)

Which in terms of our working relationship meant she wasn’t able to help me with the things I already knew were problematic in the novel, May 1812, but could only see it in terms of her very limited frame of reference–the bodice rippers of the 1980s.

Yes, that’s right. 

So her advice was always bizarre at best.  She wanted lots more sex, she wanted a great deal more (for reasons I shall never understand) on the Continental Blockade and the economic situation in Britain in 1812, which, yes, didn’t sit well with the more sex.  And when I expressed doubts about either or any of her suggestions because I couldn’t see how they took the novel forward, she became….ah…shrill, shall we say.  

I’m not saying May 1812 didn’t need a good edit.  It did.  But she wasn’t the one to see what was strong and what was weak in the novel and get it into the best shape it could be in. 

Eventually, after months of her abuse and attempts to make me turn my work inside out to achieve some nebulous end-product, I terminated the contract for her failure to do any of the things she had promised to do.  And I needed several months to recover from the whole experience.

A later set of encounters with another literary agency brought forth more peculiarities.   One version of their vision saw me stripping out almost all of the history in May 1812 and turning it into historical romance.  (Again.)  A subsequent encounter had my second book being the beginning of a series of historical ‘Spooks’ novels, with a recurring main character and fresh totty in each novel.  And as I listened to that pitch, I kept hearing comparisons to those who sell well in Walmart’s book racks–which to be honest set off alarm bells, because I couldn’t see my work ever taking on that of Katie Price, if you see what I mean. 

That time, however, I signed nothing. 

Because although I was, still, keen to have representation, I kept feeling that their vision for my work and my vision for my work were poles apart.  And even though every fifth sentence began with “You’re the best writer I’ve seen in ten years…” there was always a but. 

So I guess what I’m saying is, know yourself.  Know what you want to achieve.  Know what means the most to you in this business.  Know what you won’t be able to live with.  Know what would really break you.  And then be prepared to live with your conclusions. 

And, when you do get an offer for representation, be prepared to ask those questions like, “Where do you see this fitting into the market?  What segment of the market would you be going for with this?  Paperback?  Trade paperback?  Ebook?  Hard-cover?”  Don’t be afraid of asking how they’ve placed other books in your genre.  How do they feel about the market?  How many books have they sold in the last two years?   

And if you’re dead keen on winning the Booker, then probably an agent who wants you to write vampires into your work isn’t the best agent for you.

Ask what kind of support do they give to their published authors in terms of book tours, book signings, etc.  

Because the bottom line is they are working for you.  Your advance or royalties will pay their salary. 

And so you have to be happy that they’re giving you the support you need and want and also that their idea of your best interests, your best novel, your best work is a vision you share–not one you have to talk yourself into every time you hear from them. 

In the end, I got an offer direct from a publisher, and that’s the offer I went with.  And yes, my publisher does share my vision, probably has a higher vision for me in fact than I have myself–which is quite something to live up to.  But it means I work hard and then harder to write the best I can and then to improve on that.  And that’s what you want.  Someone who believes keenly in you and your work. 

So, best of luck with it.  But remember, it’s you writing the books, so you have to be content with what you’re trying to achieve…and if you’re not…well, it’s just a nagging disaster, frankly.


9 comments on “Agents: Do you need one? Do you want one?

  1. They all seemed quite… make May 1812 a Historical Romance :/

  2. M M Bennetts says:

    So they did. Because for a period of several years, the whole concept of historical fiction was really out of favour with publishers. And anything that tried to bend the rules or do something different wasn’t considered at all possible–certainly not literary historical fiction. That situation has eased with the last year’s publication of such works as Wolf Hall, and the establishment of the Sir Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. So, it’s better now, though I fancy there’s still some way to go in finding an agent who knows what to do with straight historical fiction–I doubt they’d know what to do with a Doctor Zhivago today, for instance.

  3. If we ask you really nicely and ply you with champagne, will you do a single chapter that way and share? Pretty, pretty please?

  4. Piotr says:

    words of wisdom to take on, cheers

  5. cavalrytales says:

    Now come on, MM – you can’t diss KP, a seriously over-horsed (judging by her performance at HOYS) writer of…oh, at least zero novels.
    I heard her pony stories have encouraged hundreds of little girls to throw-up…sorry, I mean take-up, riding.
    So credit where it’s due. Actually, I think that should read ‘edit’…

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Not dissing her, just aware that our potential audiences are likely to be, er, different.

      • cavalrytales says:

        I’m ashamed to tell you I actually read a chapter of ‘Angel’ to see what all the fuss was about.
        If I were to be constructive about the (ghost)writing then I suppose the punctuation was sort-of okay…

      • M M Bennetts says:

        I believe the correct response is “Bless you, my child…”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s