Yesterday’s post was a big hit – it seems there’s a lot of interest in anything that smacks of an insight into an agent’s mind (and I so totally understand!) – so today’s post will recap the rest of the advice we were lucky enough to receive at the Date with an Agent event at the weekend.
I think the first thing I’ll say is this: agents are people, too. Having been in a room with several of them and having actually exchanged actual words with a couple, I know that you don’t have to do a Bavmorda on it in order to get their attention.
Yeah. So, you know. No spells or bribes or potions or whatever. Just write a good book and send it to them, and don’t be pushy or weird about it. And also agents are a lot less scary in real life than you’d imagine.
Slushpiles, reassuringly, still seem to be the primary place from which most of our agents draw their clients; despite the fears of some of the participants, the agents assured us that they do read everything that comes across their desks and that – mishaps aside – they endeavour to get back to everyone within a reasonable time-frame. However, part of the whole ‘remember agents are people too’ thing is ‘remember agents are people too who have extremely busy full-time jobs and lives and commutes and significant others and children and bills and all the usual stuff.’ It was mentioned by a couple of them that people still do things like expect them to return calls or emails within days instead of months; if you submit to an agent, you’ve got to be prepared to wait for a response. You’ve also got to be absolutely sure you’ve made yourself as contactable as possible – put your details in the header or footer of every page of your submission, get an email signature with your email address(es), Twitter handle and contact numbers, be active on social media without stalking or harassing the agents concerned – and you’ll find that they’ll respond favourably to your efforts to make things as easy for them as possible.
When asked why they chose to become agents, Simon Trewin responded by saying that he loves the intellectual stimulation of the job, and that he has always had a love of books and words. Polly Nolan loves to work with authors and mentor them, and she takes particular joy in encouraging their stories out – and she’s certainly experienced at doing that, having been headhunted by the Greenhouse Literary Agency last year due to her skill at finding new talent. Sallyanne Sweeney relishes the close relationship between authors and agents – sometimes, publishers and editors change but the author/agent relationship can be a long-standing one. She also loves working with all aspects of book production, from the seed of an idea to a finished product. Madeleine Milburn loves talent-spotting and takes particular enjoyment in doing deals for her authors, and Faith O’Grady not only loves authors and books but also enjoys being part of the process of bringing a book to completion.
A very brave soul in the audience asked the agents about their ‘exit strategy’ – what happens when the relationship between author and agent goes awry? Simon Trewin stressed that he takes on authors, and not books. He, like all the agents, looks long-term at an author’s career but admitted that sometimes the spark between author and agent does fade and when that happens it’s best for everyone to sever the relationship and allow the author to go on to success with another agent. Sallyanne Sweeney described how her agency, Mulcahy Associates, loves to work with agents so long as the working relationship stays happy for everyone concerned, and Madeleine Milburn explained how sometimes it can take a long time to sell a book, and that authors should keep working, and keep writing, to keep their options open while their agent is working on their behalf. Faith O’Grady emphasised this by saying that authors and agents need to be persistent. Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, who organised the event and who is a literary scout (The Inkwell Group), described writing a book as being akin to reducing gravy – she advised the crowd not to let their words get in the way of the story, and to keep editing and working on their stories until the very best and richest content is all that remains.
A lengthy discussion took place about author profiles and social media, and all the agents agreed that social media matters, but so do traditional means of making connections between an author and an audience. Connections sell books. They advised things like writing for your local paper, writing book reviews, having shorter pieces published – all of these things build a profile, and it’s always good to think about ways to find the people who will read your book. Marketing budgets in most publishing houses have been cut back, and so authors who have platforms and who are able and willing to help promote themselves are a good thing from a publisher’s point of view. Twitter is incredibly useful, not just for contacts but for finding out about opportunities and openings and competitions, and so long as you remember social conventions – i.e. do not harass or stalk anyone on social media, for any reason – it can be a very wise move to open a Twitter account. Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin also recommended developing a blog or website, and stressed the importance of including contact information, telling us a horror story about losing the cover sheet from an excellent submission she received, and having to work very hard to find a way to contact the author. Build a rounded, interconnected social media profile, and always bear your target market in mind.
A very good tip we received from Vanessa was to write yourself a selection of author biographies – 50-word, 100-word, 500-word – to suit different purposes. Author bios are not your life story, however; you shouldn’t be waxing lyrical about your lovely dogs and grandchildren, for instance. Write in third person. Be succint. Show your publishing credits and your social media handles. Show a bit of originality and flair. If you have relevant expertise, mention it – if you’re a retired police sergeant who now writes crime novels, for instance. Practise getting out and talking to people, presenting your work, doing author events. It will all stand to your credit as your career progresses.
Vanessa also explained at some length what the process of selling a book entails, and how it affects authors. She described the reality of advances, which is a sum of money paid to an author in advance of sales, which needs to be earned back through sales before royalties – typically less than ten percent of a book’s gross value – can start to be earned. Self-publishing through KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) or CreateSpace means that the author earns a far higher royalty percentage, depending on the price they charge for their work, and it is possible for an author to move between ‘traditional’ publishing and self-publishing. She stressed the importance of having your work edited and proofread if you choose to self publish, and how vital it is to engage a professional designer to create a book cover for you. There are several companies which provide a complete package for self-publishing, including Kazoo and Emu Ink.
The day finished with a discussion about an agent’s role – which is to get an author the very best deal possible – and a sobering reminder that signing with an agent is not the be-all and end-all; in a lot of ways, the work begins once you have an agent. We were reminded that most authors don’t write full-time, and on average authors earn less than £10,000 per year from their work – but I’m pretty sure that didn’t put anyone off. We were also treated to a wonderful talk from author Jax Miller, who is a client of Simon Trewin – referred to him through Inkwell – who has had a huge amount of success, rather quickly; not only was listening to Jax speak huge fun, but it also reminded us that sometimes dreams do come true.
In sum: it’s important to remember to be professional in all your contact with agents, do your homework on them and their agencies, and make sure your work is as ready as you can get it before you approach them. They are real human beings whose livelihoods depend on finding new talent and nurturing their existing clients, and they want to find you as much as you want to find them. Judging by the ones I’ve met, they’re also exceedingly nice.
I hope that these posts, today’s and yesterday’s, have been helpful and encouraging, and – as usual – if you have any questions or need more information shoot me a comment, Tweet or email. Basically: keep writing, keep submitting, and never give up hope!