Wednesday, 11 April 2012

On Literary Agents

Let me take you on a journey. It's 2002 and I've just submitted my lovingly crafted manuscript to five literary agents. I don't really know what I'm doing, of course, so I've picked them out more or less at random. Less than two weeks later and my mobile trills. It's one of them, bubbling, champing at the bit, not just excited about my novel, but also the fact that, as a professional performer, I will be brilliant at promoting it across the UK and...wait for it...globally. Yes, this was what the lady told me during our first conversation. Oh, and we're not talking about some grubby, pay-us-for-reading-your-MS, back street, fly-by-nights; we're talking J K Rowling's agents.

Well that was bloody easy. Wasn't this agent business supposed to be a nightmare? Shouldn't you endure 82 rejections before you get even a tickle? I mean, even the saintly J K got rejections. There was a catch, of course, but a smallish one, I thought. They wanted me to work with one of their editors to get the MS into shape before formally signing me up and submitting it to the major publishers. Well why not? They're the pros, they know what sells. Undoubtedly, many of their comments were valid - my female protagonist was too male, too hard - and some of the structuring needed tweaking. I re-submitted the draft but was then asked to soften the protagonist further. Because they'd missed my point. She was meant to be strident, someone whose independence and fuck-you attitude masked her emotional instability and desperate craving to be loved. They wanted her to be a timid, emotionally together, run-of-the-mill office worker who somehow goes off the rails. Boring.

Well what would you have done? My guess is that you - and, indeed, any sane person - would have done whatever they told you to do. J K Fucking Rowling's agents!!! Come on! Key to the door. Well not me, thank you very much. No, I stood by my artistic principles, told them they didn't understand the book, and walked away. What. A. Fucking. Wanker.

A couple of the other agents expressed an interest but it went no further and, two years later in a fit of narcissistic pique, I published it myself through Matador. Turned out I was pretty good at selling the book - I shifted 400 on the back of some local radio interviews, personal appearances and good reviews, but it was all after the event and half-hearted. Chance missed.

That book was a psychological thriller. But I'm a comedian and thought my next attempt at novel writing should be something within my natural genre. So Song In The Wrong Key was born, the story of a middle-aged man whose idyllic family life falls apart when he's made redundant. Redemption is achieved via his serendipitous selection as the UK's Eurovision Song Contest entrant. It's probably best described as an edgy romcom, with the emphasis on com.

And so on to another ridiculous dance with the agents. I submitted it to 6 of them, and three responded asking for the full MS. A good hit rate, apparently. A fourth didn't bother with all that. He wanted to sign me. I'd only applied to him because he accepted MSs via email, which saves a lot of bother, as well as photocopying and postage costs. And I was flattered - or, to put it another way, still being a fucking wanker. He was an established agent, but one with a conspicuously thin roster of fiction writers. To cut a long story short, it didn't work out. My feeling is that his contact list amongst the fiction publishers numbered no more than two or three. When they didn't take the bait, there was nowhere else to go.

So I left him. Now I've published the book through my own company, Lane & Hart. I've had it professionally typeset and the cover professionally designed. I've engaged a top class PR agent and we're lining up radio and press interviews and personal appearances. I've run a giveaway on Goodreads (745 people applied) and will do another. I uploaded it to Kindle and have been receiving sparkling 5 star reviews (likewise on Goodreads). Would I rather have done all this through traditional channels - an agent championing my book, a top publisher with a serious marketing budget, top chains stocking it etc? Of bloody course. But that all takes patience and a thick hide, neither of which I possess. Yes, you can earn more money per unit by selling on Kindle, but that's not what this is about. Writers need validation and, as much as I value and appreciate the reviews of the handful of readers who've bought the book so far, a traditional deal would open my work up to a vast readership and set me along the path I really want to follow, that of an established author with an established readership who can't wait for my next book. It might come to that one day, but my guess is that it's more likely to happen if an agent and a traditional publisher pick up the reins from here. Well come on. What are you waiting for?

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