CONFESSIONS FROM A SECRET AGENT 1
AN AGENT ISN’T JUST FOR CHRISTMAS
At this time of year – in the pre-Christmas rush – bookshops are loading their front tables with books suitable for giving – whether they be the must-have humour titles of the year the heavyweight biographies or the newest fiction – they all have one thing in common. It isn’t the price promotion or the format or even the ever-increasing level of quality of production (although these are all important) it is the fact that they all started life with an author standing in front of a Literary Agent wanting their idea to be loved ((in a scene reminiscent of that wonderful Julia Roberts/Hugh Grant scene in Notting Hill). The right agent at the right time can make an idea a reality and conversely the wrong agent can kill something dead. All agents are guilty of the later and proud parents of the former. Often at the same time. It is easy to overplay an agent’s important especially when one realizes that the Literary Agent as a part of the publishing industry has been around for only just over a hundred years and as the potential markets for an author’s work has increased (whether geographically or multimedia wise) we have become a much more essential component. But as to what we actually do and how we fit it I suspect most of you reading this haven’t got a clue. I didn’t before I became one and still, almost a decade down the line, my job description expands almost daily to include more and more elements.
On a simple level we are the gatekeepers between the writer and the marketplace and we are there as the authors friend. We are there to cajole, manipulate and exploit publishers to maximize the potential of passionate prose our clients create. We are there to inspire our author’s creativity, get them past that roadblock in the way, give them an honest appreciation of their work and just be there when they need to chat. I think at times we are the 5th Emergency service. To do this we have to use the cunning of a fox, the esp of a medium, the patience of a lamb and the negotiating skills of Joey Maguire. On a good day when the adrenalin is flowing and things are going to plan I feel I can do all of this and more but on a bad day you feel you are powerless. On the bad days I find myself in fire-fighting plate-spinning mode trying to keep as much things in the air at once as possible whilst trying to avoid oncoming crises of varying proportions. The crises can sound small – whether it be an author’s local bookshop not having their book in the window or a dodgy cover design being delivered – but if not resolved swiftly and to the author’s satisfaction they can have the cataclysmic effect of derailing the creative process. Creativity is such a tenuous gift and we need to block out the world and let our authors make it happen. When that spark of ignites and the creativity flows then magic can truly happen. Passion is much easier to market than contrived books written by numbers. When passion hits your desk you know about it…. Last Christmas I was in very festive mode and winding down after a busy year –. I was approached by an advertising creative team with a ‘dummy’ for a book entitled THIS DIARY WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE 2003 by Benrik’. Of the 50 unsoliciteds I received that week (yes indeed – read that figure again) this was the one that caught my eye. It was way off-field for me being a desk diary with a difference. It had me laughing on page 1 and immediately sharing it with my perceptive assistant Claire after about page 3. The diary injected a totally anarchic attitude into daily life – instead of telling your diary your schedule IT told YOU how to change your life! Kill Something Day, Do A Runner Day and Make Do Without One Of Your Senses Day were skillfully intertwined with Give £5 To A Charity, Write The First Line Of A Poem and Send Flowers to your Mother to produce a brilliant really thought-provoking and laugh-out-loud effect. The fully-designed dummy was awesome and I was hooked. BUT – I sat there thinking ‘What do I know about selling a diary?’. I pondered – took it home and showed it Helen (wife) and Jack (son). Jack loved every morsel of it and wanted to see more immediately and Helen said she would buy about ten copies if I could get it puiblished. That uxorious enthusiasm clinched it for me and I got Ben and Henrik in. They were, of course, deluged with interest and I had to sell myself to them. I was totally honest and said this was a real departure for me but that I felt it should be sold like a book and published like a book and that I felt passionately about what they were trying to achieve. 45 minutes after I biked the sample pages to Leo Hollis at Penguin they made a substantial offer, an auction followed and THIS DIARY went from being on the slush pile to having the full resources of Penguin backing it. An American deal followed orchestrated by my inspired agent/friend
It doesn’t always go to plan though and for every Christmas present there is at least one portion of cold turkey to eat; there is one particular novel that I have been trying to sell for five years and I absolutely know it would win major prizes if it were published but can I convince a publisher of that? Er…no! This frustration has only increased my tenacity and the day it all comes good will be far more satisfying than selling a first-novel overnight for hundreds of thousands of pounds. It is the Benrik-fuelled adrenalin that enables an agent mentally and, it has to be said, financially to support the unsold novels that you really believe in. A true agent isn’t just for Christmas – they are for life.
CONFESSIONS FROM A SECRET AGENT 2
APPROACH WITH CARE
Spending last night as a guest speaker at The Arvon Foundation’s Totleigh Barton centre I talked to the assembled company about that thorny subject of ‘getting an agent’. I found the experience of being in a room with 16 unagented but eager writers amazingly useful and a real reality check. I spent a long time allaying their fears that no one takes their work seriously on the so-called ‘slush-pile’ and reassuring them that publishing isn’t an impenetrable clique. The book world really is open to all comers and any agent worth their salt wants to discover next year’s big new debut so I truly believe that you can judge an agent’s soul by the care they take over work sent to them. Reading the slush-pile is an exciting process - everytime I open the post I do so feeling that there may a brave new voice waiting for me. No different to you when you browse in a bookshop. If you have written something you are proud of then getting me to read it is not rocket science. Honestly… I am in
When you take on only 6 new writers a year and get about 2,500 submissions I know the odds don’t sound good but it is amazing how many writers slave away crafting a novel and then lessen their chances by throwing together a shoddy submission package. You would never go to a job interview in an old jeans and t-shirt and the same applies here. Don’t undersell yourself. If you follow a few rules you will find it much easier to be taken seriously by the agents you select. It’s like learning a new language or riding a bicycle – once your master it you will never look back…. DON’T SEND ME YOUR WORK until you are happy to be judged by it. There is no rush – get it right. Send the opening 10,000 words, a covering letter, a S.A.E for return and a postcard if you want receipt of your work acknowledged. DO YOUR RESEARCH Even though I clearly state my preferences on www.pfd.co.uk I still get letters saying things like, ‘Dear Simon – I know you don’t like science fiction but I thought you might make an exception in my case…’ or ‘Dear Mr Terwin (sic) – I am sending you my whole 180,000 word manuscript instead of a sample as I want you to read the whole book now’. This isn’t helpful! Check out The Writers And Artists Yearbook for which agents represent your kind of writing and seek them out. Find out who represents authors you admire and approach them – www.google.com should give you the information you need or The BookTrust’s information line also have a fantastic database/ CHECK CONTACT DETAILS Make sure your letter is sent to the correct address Spell names right – I am plagued with Terwins, Trewits, Truins and Treewins or even sometimes Strewin!– these may seem like small points but they are all about presenting yourself professionally.
LIFE IS SHORT – Less is more. No letter should be more than one-side of A4 and in a good-sized (12pt) clear typeface. BE PATIENT – Today I had an author call me three times to see if I had read his work. It arrived yesterday! There is keen (which is great) and there is downright pushy! Leave it alone for four weeks – on many occasions you will hear back much faster but sometimes there is too much going on to give you a speedy read. SELL YOURSELF – The covering letter is one of the most important pages you will ever write.. I will be honest here and say I find selling myself very difficult so I can see how tricky this is – there is a thin line between appearing interesting/switched-on/professional and arrogant/unreasonable. The letters that include phrases like ‘I am a genius and the world doesn’t understand me’ or ‘My Mum thinks this book is the best thing she has ever read’ (of course she does – that is her job!) don’t exactly fill my heart with longing! In your pitch letter you are trying to achieve some simple things – you want me to feel that you take your work seriously. Wear your writing history with pride – tell me about that short-story you had published or that writing course you attended and the fact that you are writing alongside a demanding job or in the evenings and weekends when the kids are asleep. Tell me why you write – I love hearing about the different paths that have led people to the moment when they think ‘I want to write’. Tell me who your influences are and tell me about the book you are sending me. A few lines will do the job here – I just want to get a sense of the territory I am going to enter. Tell me what you want to write next – hopefully you won’t be following your commercial romantic comedy with a three-volume science fantasy epic or vice-versa! At the end of your letter I want to feel in good company and ready to turn the page. I am not interested in seeing what you look like or how old you are – we are not running a model agency here! Publishing isn’t as obsessed with age and beauty as you might think – it is obsessed with finding distinctive new voices. As a final point – get a friend to read the letter and give you some honest feedback. Put it to one side for a day or two and come back to it – distance is a great editor. THE KILLER SYNOPSIS – this should be no more than one side of A4 and should tell me the narrative arc of the whole book so that I know what happens after the first 10,000 words. Simple as that. BE HONEST – If you are sending your work to more than one agency at a time then let me know that in the letter – if I was looking for an agent I would most certainly write to more than one person at a time. All I ask is that you let me know this is what you doing. It is soul-destroying to spend a weekend reading a full manuscript that I have called in only to discover on Monday morning that I have missed the boat because another agent signed them up on the Sunday. If it is a race then let me know! MANAGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS – rejection can be very difficult to take in the creative field. I take rejection on behalf of my clients every day – it is the nature of the beast. I used to get wound up by it – not any more though! I believe in every manuscript I am representing with passion and if you can retain that belief in your own work then you will be able to brush-off the turn-downs you receive. There are as many opinions out there as there are agents prepared to read your work – keep going until you make a connection. THE FLIP-SIDE - I spent last week selling myself to an exciting new author – so far we have had three meetings and as many conversations – not to mention countless email exchanges. The author is now auditioning three agents and I have my fingers crossed she comes my way. If one agent wants you the chances are you are going to be in a happy position of being able to choose. Appointing the right agent is the most important decision you will make – they can make and break careers. Remember – If an agent wants to take you on suddenly the power is with you – next month we shall look at that crucial first meeting and what happens next…
In the meantime I look forward to reading your beautifully crafted submissions…..
CONFESSIONS FROM A SECRET AGENT 3
IN THE LION’S DEN
I have just survived the Groundhog Day experience of 72 meetings in
The clue to all of this is passion. Without passion as an agent life is an empty experience and one might as well be selling double-glazing and if you are writing without passion then one might as well not bother picking up your pen. One book I have loved talking about in NYC is Sarah Quigley’s new novel 50 Days which Virago publish this Summer. It has a lyrical complexity and shining integrity to it which renews my faith in the power of prose and the power of creative passion. When I read something like this that inspires me thus I can’t wait to tell the world – it’s a little like being in love…actually. My job is at times a long search looking for ‘The One’. But, as in life, first you have to put up with a lots of dodgy dates…. It is terrifying how quickly you can cut through the manuscripts that don’t appeal and find yourself falling head over heels in love. It is an enormous decision to try to take on a new client but once I am hooked then the power shift is extraordinary. No one likes rejection – especially agents- and you, the author, can use that to your advantage… When an agent calls remember that YOU have the power. YOU are appointing an agent and although the best result is a partnership you will only ever have one agent and they will have many clients so proceed with caution. It is up to you to dictate the nature of the relationship you want with your agent – if you don’t feel on the same wavelength then don’t sign. Here are my golden rules…. Never agree to anything over the phone. Meet up. This crucial blind date is the most crucial hour you will ever spend on the journey to publication. Do as much research as possible Search the internet, talk to any authors or industry figures that you might know and see if they can shed any light on the agent or the agency. You don’t want to be represented by anyone with the wrong sort of reputation. Publishers judge books and authors by the company they keep. If you have any supporting material then send it in good time and take copies with you. Useful material may include any recent newspaper cuttings, rejection letters from publishers (if you have made any direct submissions – be honest !), short stories, letters of endorsement from other writers etc.
Arrive five minutes early for the meeting and get a sense of the agency from the reception area. Do you feel at home here? More importantly would your book sit comfortably on these shelves? Bring a list of prepared questions. You will never have a better opportunity to ask them! Areas of interest should include terms of business (notice period, levels of commission and whether there are any hidden costs), an explanation of what services are included (legal, editorial services, photocopying costs etc) and how the agent concerned likes to work. Get your prospective agent to demystify the process for you. It’s not rocket science- honestly!
Have a good look at the agent’s office – if you have written a sensitive piece of literary fiction and the agent’s shelves are full of action thrillers with men and guns then why are they interested in you and can they make the right connections on your behalf? Be brave and ask them why they feel a specific empathy with what you are trying to achieve and ask what sort of editorial changes they feel the work needs before it is submitted. These days agents take the burden of editorial work so make sure you see eye to eye. Ask an agent what their strategy will be for selling the book and tell them whether there are any publishers you wouldn’t wish to be published by to save any nasty suprises later!
Ultimately whether you are sitting in front of an agent from a huge mega-agency or a sole trader the final decision is yours and is a simple one – do you feel confident in appointing this agent to take you by the hand and lead you through the labyrinthine publishing world? If the answer is a resounding ‘no’ then don’t despair – changing agents down the line is of course possible but divorce is a messy business and it is far better to wait than to run up the aisle with the first person who proposes to you. If one agent wants you then others will too. The wrong agent can limit your chance of making it through to publication and the right agent can make it all happen so control all that adrenalin and take a long hard look at the situation. Some authors say they are scared of their agents or never get their calls returned – it strikes me that these are precisely characteristics that could have been picked up at a very early stage and avoided. The right agent can’t guarantee you publication but they can guarantee getting your manuscript into the right hands at the right time with energy and enthusiasm and passion. Every agent will tell you war stories about when it all went swimmingly well and, genuinely, every agent is excited by the thought of a new professional relationship and will only take you on if they really believe they can make a difference. We are all in the business because we love distinctive writing.
When I was sitting in my meetings in New York describing my passion for Sarah Quigley I was clear in my mind as to why I enthusiastically offered to take her on – she is a writer who has an imagination which soars off the page and a talent I am proud to be associated with. We share a passion for her work and that is ultimately the foundation of a successful working relationship. You deserve an agent who is your number one fan, your fiercest critic and your strongest advocate. Nothing more, nothing less. Because you’re worth it.
CONFESSIONS FROM A SECRET AGENT 4
NOVELS AREN’T WRITTEN THEY’RE REWRITTEN
Once you have been signed up by your glamorous agent, shared fine wines and late nights celebrating your mutual good-fortune before returning home light-headed and already planning what to wear to your launch party you might reasonably expect that the next thing they will do is share your material with an editor, get a feeding frenzy going and book your seat at The Booker Prize. Not so – it can often be months if not a year or two before your precious manuscript sees the inside of a publisher’s office. Like comedy the secret of being a good agent is timing… Three years ago I had a highly enjoyable lunch with the journalist
Both of us could suddenly feel something exciting was happening here…. Andrew told me that his earliest memory was of being called in from playing in the garden in L.A as a little boy to see Neil Armstrong make those giant leaps for Mankind and it was clear that there was a book project in the offing. Andrew worked up a draft synopsis and proposal and, along with my colleague at PFD, the brilliant editrice Sarah Ballard, we started to work on getting our ‘selling document’ together. The trick of it was to get the right balance between the elements of the book – Andrew’s journey into his own memory, his journey through the minds of the moonwalkers (all of whom he was going to interview) and the spiritual journey into what the Moon symbolizes to all of us down here on earth. I lost count of the number of drafts we made Andrew go through of the proposal (possibly 9 DRAFTS) – each draft he produced was brilliant but we cut and shaped until we had something we all felt sold this exciting project on all levels. Happily, we submitted the proposal (by email) and sold it to Mike Jones at
CONFESSIONS FROM A SECRET AGENT 5
THE END OF THE WORLD IS NIGH
I remember being at lunch 9 years ago with the inspirational editor Neil Taylor and we got talking about an idea for a book. I had recently taken on the brilliant Daily Telegraph journalist Damian Thompson who was very keen to write about the global proliferation of religious cults all of whom believed that the world would end with the coming of the Millennium. Damian’s profile, even then, was high and THE END OF TIME felt like a dream project. Neil listened, got very excited, took the proposal away and set off back to his office like a man with a mission. My office was a good 45 minutes away from the restaurant and when I got back there was a message to call Neil. He made me an offer which Damian was delighted to accept and the book began its journey from idea to bestseller. Neil had read the proposal on the way back, pitched the idea to his boss immediately and they had run some figures and made an offer. Very straightforward and a good example of an editor acting on a heady mixture of gut instinct and passion. But that was then and this is now..Imagine me at a similar lunch today - I would le pitching an idea in a depressed marketplace to a cautious cynical publisher now part of a huge conglomerate looking to cut rather expand their list. Each book has to pay its way like never before – it is not enough to have something on the list because it looks good or sends out the right signals – the book has to be seen as a potential bestseller from the off. Anyway – I would then hand over the proposal as before but what happens when today’s editor leaves the table gives a fascinating insight into how publishing has changed…. The editor, let’s call her Helen, would return to her desk, read the proposal and then start to play the game called ‘Getting Support’. She will probably also want to get together with the author and give them the once over – author promotability is very much part of the package these days - and she will then need approximately six people to validate her passion for the book, her vision for how it is going to published and her estimation of the book’s value. It is no longer enough for an editor to have a hunch and go for it. Publishing is much more a business now and each book is costed and evaluated by a strict set of criteria. Although they will tell you that they are still working in an editorially-led environment that is simply erroneous.
The sales director will have to feel bullish about the books chances in the ‘Home’ market, the Export sales director likewise overseas in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and such like and the Publicity Director will have to feel the subject and the author have the potential to get valuable space not only on the Review pages but also in the feature sections and, on occasions, as a News story. The Head Of Rights will want to have evaluated the potential for a newspaper to buy extracts (known as ‘serial rights’) on publication and the editor will hope that Marketing Director will be faced by so much enthusiasm that they will then proffer a goodly sum for paid promotions and maybe even trade and consumer advertising. After all these boxes have been ticked the Publishing Director will ask everyone the killer question, ‘ Do we really need this book on the list?’ If there is a unanimous ‘yes’ then the editor will be given authorization to offer up to a certain level and will come back to the agent. No wonder I no longer have any hair and my fingernails have seen better days! I sometimes hark back to the good old days and then remember that there was a huge downside to all that 80’s drive and feeding frezy -– a number of my authors have suffered terminal damage to their careers when their editor has left for pastures new leaving them orphaned and stranded. None of their editorial colleagues ‘allocated’ to the project felt any sense of ownership or attachment because they hadn’t been involved in the original acquisition process so the career faltered and stuttered. Being allocated to an author is like an arranged marriage and never really works out. Nowadays acquisition by committee in major publishing groups most certainly slows the process down and probably keeps some potential bestsellers out in the cold but in the long term you do feel that the whole team is working on a shared agreed agenda to build a successful campaign and with the trade so tough at the moment you need as many people on side as possible. That is always a good thing.Of course I am secretly delighted that this years mega-seller – EATS SHOOTS and LEAVES came not form a large conglomerate but from the clever maverick Andrew Franklin at boutique publishing house Profile
Incidentally you may ask how Neil Taylor survived the transition from autonomy to committee acquisition? He did what all sane people do of course – he became an agent actually!
CONFESSIONS FROM A SECRET AGENT 7
PROMOTE OR DIE
It is clear that books are being devalued as an entity and although more are being sold the overall profitability of the industry is decreasing and I have some genuine concerns as to whether this is going to help nurture the future stars of tomorrow. I was recently involved in a debate with a senior book buyer from a major chain about a number of matters relating to how books are displayed and stocked. My view was that consumer choice had diminished and that the consumer was being pushed into buying frontlist titles from the 2 for £10/3-for-2/BoGoF promotions that dominate rather than being allowed to discover a wide-range of titles frontlist and backlist. The book buyer’s reply surprised me – he asked whether I really felt it was to anyone’s advantage that such a large % of a publisher’s resources went into acquiring, promoting and publishing celebrity-backed books which he was then ‘blackmailed’ into supporting thus freezing out the very titles I was complaining about not being stocked! I had obviously touched a raw nerve her which rather pleased me but did make me stop and think. Is there anything inherently wrong with publishers publishing celebrities? Of course not – in the same way there is nothing wrong with the existence of ratings-topping celebrity lifestyle and reality tvshows. Certainly in this celebrity-get-me-out-of-here culture we live in there is an almost indecent rush from publishers to acquire this year’s hot celebrity and this healthy mix cross-fertilizes the industry and balances the books (no pun intended). I think my bookseller is being totally blinkered – it is by publishing these big ticket projects that a publisher can generate the turnover to subsidise their literary publishing arms which, on the whole, just about break even. Without the glitz and glamour of this window dressing there would be little room for the heart and soul of publishing – the cutting edge literary there would be little room for the cutting edge fiction we all relyOf course there are disastrous celebrity books – Anthea Turner to name but one of them – but on the whole publishers get it right and it gets people into bookshops which is half the battle. This is none more evident than at this time of the year. It’s Book Fair time… I spent yesterday lunchtime attending the London Book Fair at
There is a story about the much-missed agent Giles Gordon (of which more later) concocting the idea that a major Hollywood celebrity was going to be visiting the Frankfurt Book Fair to conclude a deal for his autobiography. Such was the gossip mill that within a hour of arriving at the Fair Giles had received serious offers for this non-existant book and by the end of the week people were even reporting sighting of the Star in one of the big hotels. Needless to say the said Star was in
CONFESSIONS OF A SECRET AGENT
THE NAME’S TREWIN, SIMON TREWIN
There is no such thing as a typical agent – we are a curiously diverse breed made up of the mad, the bad, the dangerous to know and the total enthusiast. Each agent’s client list reflects their idiosyncrasies and this should be encouraging to any author in search of representation. If something is wonderful then it will find itself an agent – that does not guarantee that it will find a publisher but it does mean the chances have gone up tenfold – if not more. But I am often asked advice about what to do if after seemingly trying every potential avenue that golden manuscript is still languishing in the bottom drawer or, as is more likely these days, cluttering up your computer’s hard drive. There are many pieces of advice I could give you including ‘Put It Away For Six Months Then