Thursday, December 29, 2011

Birth of a Book, Part 7: Agents

This is the seventh part of a ten part series on the process of producing a novel.

In my last entry I mentioned that many commercial publishers nowadays will not accept manuscripts directly from authors. Instead they require manuscript submissions to come through literary agents. As a rule, there are more publishers of non-fiction books that do not require representation, while publishers of fiction almost always do.

Agents, like publishers, generally have specialties and preferences. Therefore, an author should very carefully research literary agents and approach only those with an interest in representing the kind of fiction they write. The best way to select potential agents is to consult one of the many reference books about the publishing industry such as the annual “Writer’s Market: Where and How to Sell What You Write” or Jeff Herman’s “Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agens” which is also updated regularly.

However, keep in mind that it is almost as difficult to get an agent as a publisher. Maybe harder. The most recent statistic I heard is that literary agents receive between 70 and 80 manuscripts per week. That makes for roughly 3,750 manuscripts a year. No agent reads all submissions. In fact, as a rule agents read parts of maybe one tenth of the manuscripts they receive. Most submitssion are rejected based on the letter of inquiry alone. "Thanks very much but we are not taking any new clients at this time...." Or "thank you for your submission but we see no market for a book of this kind...." etc. etc.

Even if you get past the first cut (which may be made by an intern or very junior employee), agents still rarely read an entire manuscript. They will read a couple of chapters at most and rapidly make a decision about whether they like the book enough to want to represent it or not. On average, a literary agent will sign on 1-2 new customers per year. Many refuse to take new customers at all, feeling they have enough work with the clients they already have. In short, you’re probably going to have to write to a lot of agents before you find representation. Once you have an agent, they – at least in theory – should be able to open doors to publishers, but they make no guarantees.

My own experience with agents is not very good. Let me explain. After I did my research in the above references and carefully selected only those agents who specifically stated an interest in the subject and genre of my book and indicated they were still accepting clients, I approached 18 different agents. I carefully followed the individual guidelines about whether I should submit electronically or in hard copy, whether to send a synopsis or first chapter etc. etc., and followed instructions about a short introductory letter meticulously. Yet all eighteen agents rejected the manuscript (unseen) because there was “no market” for the book. Since I’d already written book, however, and this was a piece of non-fiction, I decided to approach publishers directly. I found six publishers that specialized in the genre (aviation history) and wrote letters of inquiry to them. Three (50%!) showed interest, and I rapidly signed a contract with one of them. What is more, I have since sold the TV rights to this book.  In short, there was a comparably hot market for the very book that all 18 literary agents specializing in the genre claimed there was no market for. This suggested to me that not one of them knew the very market they purported to be experts about very well.

After this experience, I felt there was very little point wasting time, effort and emotion on intermediaries who appeared to be more a hindrance to success than agents of it. I have never written to a literary agent since, but that is a personal choice and many of you may find agents receptive and helpful. Certainly, as stated above, they are the “door keepers” to the larger, commercial publishers. As I outlined earlier, there are advantages to publishing with “the majors," so if they are your target an agent may be an necessary evil. However, the other option is self-publishing, a topic I will discuss in a later blog entry.

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