Thursday, 2 January 2014

From Disaster to a Dream Come True - Part 1 Getting an Agent

 Getting an Agent – Never Give Up.

There is one absolute irrefutable fact that I can tell you about the process of trying to obtain literary representation. It is also the single best piece of advice I can give to anyone who is trying to land a literary agent. As some of you know, there’s a lot on the internet about the querying process and a lot of it is accurate, there’s a lot of good advice too, but there is one thing for sure that I’ve learned through my own experience that is 100% true and either I didn’t know it or didn’t appreciate it enough at the time.
This is it.
Are you ready?
Here we go – if an agent rejects your book that has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the book itself. A ‘no,’ even if it’s a ‘hey-your-book-stinks kind of ‘no’’ doesn’t actually mean that the book stinks. It’s just one opinion, from one agent, on one particular day.
And I can prove it.
However, before we go any further, I do feel that I have to add a small caveat here – if you’ve written a serious novel in a hard-boiled/experimental-literary-fiction style, and the story revolves around a ninety-six year old detective/itinerant farmer from the future named Fred Kneegobbler who is on the trail of a sadistic, one-legged serial-shoplifter and the identity of the villain is eventually revealed by the protagonist forcibly inserting a miniature ukulele into a parrot’s rectum whilst humming the theme tune from ‘Cagney and Lacey,’ you might legitimately struggle to find both an agent and publisher. 
 Call me an optimist, but I’m operating here on the basis that those of you who are reading this are…well…reasonably sane.
 I’ll always remember 2013 as a fantastic year for me. It was a year of incredible highs; being accepted as client of one of London’s top literary agencies, my debut novel achieving a plethora of international publishing deals either through auctions or pre-empts (from some of the top publishing houses across the world), flying to London to meet my agent and my publisher, meeting some of my favourite authors and enjoying a huge last minute surprise in December. A total dream of a year.
But 2013 didn’t get off to a good start. In fact, I began the year with the belief that my book would never be published.
Like most aspiring authors, I’d decided that getting an agent was the best way to go about landing a publishing deal. This at least I know to be true. Most if not all of the Big Five Publishers won’t even look at your novel unless it comes via an agent; it may be an incredible work, a novel that redefines the genre, a novel with a heady mix of beautiful prose, expert characterization and deft plotting, but unless there is a reputable agent pushing the book then the Publisher won’t care. That is the reality.
It took me around six months to get an agent and like all writers I had my fair share of rejection.
When I began my search I decided that I would try to focus on small and medium-size literary agencies with a decent track record. Looking back at that decision, I must’ve thought that none of the big agencies would be interested and that I would be incredibly lucky to be taken on by just about anyone.
So I began querying – I used querytracker (not religiously) and tried to keep a record of the agencies that I’d queried. At the time I didn’t know about Agent Hunter and I firmly believe that having more information on agents so that you are better able to accurately target your queries is essential.
I did lots of things wrong in the process, but here is what I got right.
(a)  I looked for agents that actively represented authors in my field (thrillers).
(b) I managed to keep to each agency’s specific guidelines.
(c)  As far as I know, if an agent was considering my submission, I didn’t harangue them for a decision. Patience pays off.
(d) If I got a rejection, I moved on, politely.   
There is a lot of waiting involved in this process. You send off a query letter, a synopsis and a sample of the work and hope for the best. And hope, and hope, and wait and worry. You worry that your email hasn’t been received, that you’ve somehow sent it to the wrong address or that your email got lost in spam (that did happen to me). I sent my submission to agencies in the UK and the US (my novel is set in New York) and I waited.
Some agencies responded within two weeks, some within three months, some have never responded to this day. I’ve read a good deal of articles about this process from successful and struggling writers and I believe that those response times are pretty much average for most queries. What were the responses? Well, very encouraging – more than half of the agencies I’d queried said they really enjoyed the sample and wanted to see the rest of the novel.
Now, as statistics go on queries, I was pretty pleased with that and it got me thinking; if most of the agents I’d queried liked the novel, maybe I should try some of the bigger agencies. As I’d no offers yet, I thought why not. It is common amongst struggling writers to feel that their work is substandard. I felt like this (actually, I still do) but at some stage you have to have a little faith in your own abilities. So, I sent the manuscript off to what I felt were the two oldest and most respected literary agencies in London. I did this not in any hope that they might be interested. In truth I did it on a whim, just to be able to say that I’d had a go.
Then a very encouraging email from a small, but well respected, boutique agency that wanted the full manuscript right away. Wow, from the tone of the email I felt assured that this was the one for me. This was a two-agent operation and I’d met one of the agents at an event and the agent had come across as passionate and knowledgeable. An email came straight back saying that this agent had received my full manuscript and would pass it on their partner who was the expert in crime/thriller fiction.
Within days of sending off the full manuscript to the boutique agency, BOTH of the big London based agencies got back to me requesting the full manuscript. I was over the moon but, at the same time, incredibly nervous as I’d been in this position before.
The anxiety that I felt was surprisingly fierce – I was so close now.
March arrived and with it came disaster. The boutique agency, that was so encouraging initially, came back with a big fat horrible rejection. The tone was – you have skill, you can write, but this book will never be published so write something else and we’ll gladly take a look at it.
To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. I had listened to these agents speak knowledgeably about the business and I felt that what they said was gospel and that it was only a matter of time before the rest of the rejections came flooding in. If I wanted to get published I would have to write another book. I’d failed.
I was wrong.
I got their rejection on the Monday. On the Wednesday I had an offer of representation from one of the best literary agencies in the UK. They loved the book, they knew editors who would go crazy for it (and they were proved right) and they wanted to sign me, now. I accepted on the spot.
And I could not have imagined the incredible response that the book received from the publishers, but more of that in Part 2.
What I learned from the process was that literary agents are just like you and me, they have different tastes, they fall in love with different novels for different reasons. For instance, there are some thrillers that I love, some I think are ok, some I think are pretty poor and some I wonder how they got published at all. Now, your list might be the exact opposite of mine. You might go crazy for book A and hate book B, I could think the reverse and that doesn’t mean that (a) either of the books are less than perfect or (b) that neither of us knows what we’re talking about.
It’s just an opinion given on the day. That’s all it is.
So don’t give up. Ever.
Never give up, unless on page 987 of your manuscript you’ve written a scene where your protagonist greases up a small stringed-instrument whilst a bird of paradise looks on nervously. In that case, put that baby away and try something new.
And then, never give up.