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Saturday, December 26, 2009

On Writing and Agents

I write. I haven't got one. An agent, that is. I did have one, sort of, for a short time, a nice lady in Perth, who did try, but didn't get anywhere with selling anything for me and went out of business soon after. Well, she wanted to concentrate on her own writing. among other things. I got her through an introduction from a friend who had already signed up with her.

All I wanted was to have someone to concentrate on doing the business side of things and send my stuff around so I could get on with the writing. For this, I was happy to surrender a percentage of any money they got for me.

Also, publishers even then were announcing that they would not deal with anyone who didn't have an agent. This is a lot more the case now.

Strictly speaking, as I discovered, this wasn't quite true. If they knew of you, they would at least take a look at your MS. And by the time I tried getting an agent I had already sold a couple of books. I had a manuscript for a novel that I felt passionate about. It was a YA werewolf fantasy called Bisclavret, pinched from the story by Marie De France and I still think it's good, having come back to it after years. In fact, I nearly sold it a number of times. Nearly.

But when I tried all the big names - you know, the ones people dedicate their books to, "To my wonderful agent Jane Smith, who believed in this book", etc. - the various Jane Smiths were simply not interested. I guess they were running a business and a business works best with a sure thing and a sure thing is someone who has a much bigger track record than mine. But you'd think they would have had the courtesy to reply, at least, or even look at the MS. Those who did reply said that their books were full, so sorry. One even said, "I know of you, you're a good writer, I just don't have space on my books." At least she gave me a little egoboo.

Then there was the Big Name fantasy writer who, having offered to introduce me to a certain Big Name agent who represented him, never replied to any subsequent emails I sent him about it. So I set out to find her myself.

She was Selwa Anthony, praised by so many writers. I Googled her and tried all my librarian research skills, but she was elusive. I finally managed to contact someone who did know how to get in touch with her and was told that she might at least consider me if I got a couple of referees. I did. One was my friend Natalie Prior. The other was Lucy Sussex, who had been the commissioning editor at Hodder and thought highly of my novel, though Hodder had not taken it for their own reasons, unconnected with the quality. At least Ms Anthony did take a look at the MS, though she wasn't interested. She was the only local agent who did give me a go. From overseas, there was Cherry Weiner, who did read three chapters, but said it would have to be at least 100,000 words long and a trilogy for her to be able to get anywhere with it and from what I have seen in recent years, she is right.

There was the Big Name agent who took a year to reply to my simple query, when I persisted, and then with nothing relevant to my inquiry. This was one of the Jane Smiths whom her Big Name clients so raved about in their introductions. Well, whatever her fine qualities, courtesy wasn't one of them. She couldn't just say no?

I contacted a couple in Melbourne. One said, "We're full." The other said no because while I already had a book contract and just wanted her to negotiate for me, possibly followed by other representation, she explained that it was an education contract and she wouldn't touch one of those with a ten-foot pole. At least she gave me a little free advice on the phone.

After doing the rounds for a couple of years, I simply gave up and have been doing it myself since then. It's not as hard as it seems, as long as you have already got some track record. If you haven't, agents are unlikely to take you on anyway.

Mind you, I have come across some abysmal first novels whose authors have raved about their agents, who must be pretty good to have gotten them through and they obviously had no trouble with agenting first books - but not usually by Australian writers. Maybe I should check those out, if I want an overseas agent.

I'm writing this after having seen yet another request for opinions on agents on the Pass It On e-newsletter. The last time there was such a request, I wrote a reply on why you can manage without one and it turned out the lady didn't really want opinions on the necessity of agents, she wanted an introduction to one. So I'm not going there again in Pass It On.

For anyone starting out and trying to get published, there are still publishers out there who will at least look at your manuscript as long as you send it according to their guidelines and as long as you don't mind waiting a while to hear from them. And they're not all small presses. Allen and Unwin's children's section in Australia will read your MS. So will Penguin. There are others. You need to check out their web sites.

Once you're a Big Name, perhaps the Jane Smiths will even come to you. But for the most part, you can live without them.


Satima Flavell said...

Ah, the ongoing vicious circle - you can't get published without an agent and you can't get an agent unless you're published...

Once you've used up the handful of publishers in Oz who will look at unagented work, and been knocked back by the few agents whose books are not closed, there is little option but to look overseas or to self-publish. And given that Tor US, for example, has been known to take more than year to get back to unagented authors, I'm starting to think that self publishing might, in fact, be the only realistic option for a newcomer.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Self publishing or small press, yes (sometimes the same thing). In Australia, at least, it is certainly the only viable option for many - and not all of them new writers either. Some well-known writers have had to go to small press or even self-publish, because no one is buying the type of fiction they're writing. SF, for example, as opposed to boring but lucrative fat fantasy trilogies. (Ach, don't get me started on this!), Funny SF especially. Of course, ASIM is there for short fiction, but not for novels, alas. We do seem to have quite an honourable tradition of small press or even self-publishing (as opposed to vanity press) in this country. Some, such as Simon Haynes go on to be published by the trade. Hell, even Matthew Reilly self-published before becoming a one-man industry.

Satima Flavell said...

Sue, I am so sorry to hear your sad news. My condolences to you and your family. Sorry to post this here but I don't seem to have an email addy for you.