Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Writing advice part 4: Working with agents

I touched on agents in my last post; for this one, I'll go into more detail about how it works.

The start of it is potentially pretty simple. The writer finds one who might be a good fit for their book; they check if the agent is open to submissions and they check the agent’s guidelines because some like to receive the submission in different ways to others. Say they want you to send the first fifty pages, double spaced in the body of an email rather than an attachment, then that’s what you do. Hopefully they get back to you before too long and they ask to see the rest of the book so you send that. If they like it and think it can sell, they’ll offer to represent you which means your chances of being published by one of the larger companies have just risen hugely. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll be published, but it’s a good start. Your agent will also go through contracts for you, make sure you get paid, smooth out any problems between the publisher, the editors and the writer, advise if you’re unsure of anything and do everything that’s best for you and your book. If the book sells, the agent gets 15% of the money you get. That might sound high, but think of it this way. On the very small chance you get a book in with a big publisher and you don’t have an agent, they might offer you literally a couple of thousand pounds as an advance. That means you don’t get another penny until your book earns that advance. You don’t have to give it back if your book doesn’t sell, but you’ll find getting the publisher to look at a second book to be next to impossible. With an agent, they’ll get your book to the right people at the right time and they can negotiate you a better deal. So it’ll cost you 15% but it’ll definitely be better for you.

There’s a lot of work ahead of you if you want an agent, though. There’s no point in sending out the whole book to a hundred agents at a time in the hope one of them will like it. You need to make sure you’re targeting the right agent. For example, I write horror so there’s no point in me emailing an agent who doesn’t deal with horror. It’s a waste of time. Mine and theirs. If you’re looking for one and you read in the genre you write, I’d suggest you find out who represents your favourite authors and see if they’re open to new submissions. If they’re not, don’t email them and say ‘I know you’re closed but…’ Again, it’s a waste of time. If you really think they’re a good fit for you, keep hold of their details and check in a few months to see if they’re open.

Also bear in a mind a couple of important issues. Firstly, there a lot of people in our position. A lot of people hoping to get an agent and make a few quid. While there are some big agencies employing dozens and maybe hundred of people, there aren’t enough agents to deal with every single person sending them stuff. Secondly, most of an agent’s time will be spent working with the clients they already have. It has to be this way so they read the stuff we send them in their lunch breaks or on the train or at weekends. An agent I follow on Twitter gets at least seventy-five submissions a week. At least. So even if half of those aren’t right for her, that’s still almost forty book samples she has to read every week. Fifty pages per sample and it adds up.

Based on my experience of sending work to agents, there’s not really an average waiting time before you can expect a reply. My quickest was less than twenty-four hours. My longest was about two and a half years. If you really pushed me for an average, I’d base it on agent guidelines and say a couple of months. That’s a couple of months on your opening query and sample. Then you have the wait while they read the whole thing. So it’s a slow process. You can’t be impatient and you can’t email them a week after you sent your book. Some agents have a policy of no reply after six to eight weeks means they’re not interested, which I’m not a fan of. Even for busy people, it doesn’t take much to send an automated rejection, but that’s how they work. When sending your stuff out, it used to be the done thing to only send to one agent at a time, and some still do ask for an exclusive submission. It’s up to you if you send them anything, but for other agents who are ok with it , I’d suggest sending to five or six at a time. And while it might sound like I’m stating the obvious, don’t send to all of them in one email. I’ve seen emails sent to dozens of agents with all the names in the address bar. Big mistake. Choose, say, five. Make sure they’re open and right for your genre and try them. If they all say no, check your cover letter and sample, see if you can improve either and try another few. Be patient. Start another book while you wait. Like I said, it’s a long, boring process but it could definitely be worth your time. Just make sure you follow their guidelines, be to the point, friendly and professional and don’t take any rejections personally.

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