Literary Agents

Every author would probably like to have an agent.  After all, an agent can probably find the author a publisher.

I don’t have an agent.  I work directly with a co-operative publisher.  (More about this in a later blog.)  My experience with agents hasn’t been good.  When my first book was ready to publish, a friend referred me to the Writer’s Handbook, which lists the UK and US literary agents.  I wrote to all of the relevant US agents, and in that process, I was referred to my current publisher.  When my second book was ready for publication, I wrote to all of the relevant US and UK agencies.  I say ‘relevant’ because a particular agent may not be interested in specific genres (romance, science fiction, etc.).  When I say I ‘wrote’ to the agents, this can be quite a time-consuming task, because I double-checked the agent’s ‘submission requirements’ against what was posted on the agent’s website.  In my experience, most agents want:

  • a cover letter introducing the writer and the book; it should also say why the agent should be interested in the writer and his/her book.
  • a one page synopsis of the book
  • a brief biography of the author
  • the first three chapters of the book, double spaced, Times New Roman #12, on one side only

The vast majority of agents want the submission via post as a hard copy.  (This saves them the time and expense of having to print the material.)  A few will accept email submissions; several agents protest that they are concerned about becoming infected with viruses.  A tiny minority accept submissions via their website, so that the author is requested to paste the desired material into the windows on the website.  For many of the agents to whom I submitted, the bundle was over eighty pages, and, if one wanted the material returned (I didn’t), it was necessary to include a self-addressed envelope with return postage.

Most agents say that it will take about eight weeks before they are able to respond; some say that they receive over one thousand submissions per week.  At the time I submitted my first novel, quite a number of agents were saying that authors should advise them if the work was being submitted to more than one agent.  For me, this was a coded way of saying, “We are not going to compete for your work.”  Recently, an agent’s website made the point that “we don’t engage in beauty contests”.  I didn’t particularly like this attitude.  Do agents really expect authors to make one-at-a-time, serial submissions?  If so, based on the agent’s typical eight week response time, it would take a year to approach six agents.

With my first two novels, all the agents I contacted did send form letter responses, making the point that because of the number of submissions received, they could not elaborate on their reasons, other than to say “it’s not for us.  Good luck.”

With my third novel, I made submissions to thirty-one UK agents.  After about ten weeks, I sent follow-up letters (or emails) to those twelve from whom I had heard nothing.  Months later, there are still seven who have not responded at all (not counting those who say “if you don’t hear from us, assume we aren’t interested.)

This must be a difficult time for literary agents.  Independent book stores are going out of business; big book store chains are cutting back.  Amazon, with its purchasing and discounting policies, is putting great pressure on publishers’ margins.  Kindle and other eBook forms have very low margins.  And to top it off, Amazon has started to cut deals directly with big name authors.

But I continue to believe that literary agents have a place in the world.  They can be excellent coaches/critics for their authors (a role that publishers have largely abandoned and I doubt that Amazon will ever take up).  If one believes, as I do, that there will always be bookstores – in some form – the route into them will be via the ‘push publishers’ and literary agents.

It seems to me that there are some things that literary agents could do to make their life easier (and longer-lasting):

  • better define what it is that they are looking for (or what they’re not interested in).  This implies that some agents should consider specialising in limited genres.
  • shorten their decision-making process.  I believe that the first three chapters with every initial submission is a waste of time and money for everyone involved.  Reading the first ten pages of a book, one can tell whether the author can write.  If the submission passes the genre test (via the short cover letter and brief synopsis) and the author can write, the next step could be the first three chapters and – maybe – a face-to-face meeting.

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