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Reality Check Do Writers need Agents?

Paul Whybrow

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This Guardian article is worth a read, including the Comments at the bottom:

Why do writers need agents? To keep track of the rejections

Written by Chris Paling, I like his anecdote about sending his literary agent a multiple-choice questionnaire in an attempt to get an answer from her.

I gave up on querying literary agents two years ago, disillusioned by the process, I decided to concentrate on self-publishing. From 2014 – 2019 I made almost 800 submissions, of which 250 were totally ignored, undeserving of a form letter of rejection. When I say ‘ignored’ I include 150 not even being opened, as shown by the mailtrack app for Gmail.

If you’re new to querying, be aware that your carefully crafted submission package won’t necessarily be read by a literary agent. It could be browsed by an unpaid internee on work experience, someone with no experience in the publishing industry. Also, literary agents employ readers, who are paid on a piece-rate basis, so imagine how much attention they pay to your writing.

Thoughts please @AgentPete

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Hannah F

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Interesting article. I've taken note: when given an offer of representation, among other questions, I must ask, "are you good at DIY?"
 

AgentPete

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@Paul Whybrow, you should ocme along to the Huddle! We had an exhaustive (exhausting?) session on this only last Saturday.
It’s far easier for me to speak in Huddles rather than type responses… and you can ask anything you want, including clarification etc. I (too?) often speak for maybe an hour, I dread to think how many words that would amount to here.

Headline would be… some agents good, some not, learn to tell the difference. The business/profession of agenting will have to reinvent itself soon or risk obsolescence. There’s a lot we could/should be doing for self-published authors, but we haven’t woken up to that yet.
 

James Marinero

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If you’re new to querying, be aware that your carefully crafted submission package won’t necessarily be read by a literary agent. It could be browsed by an unpaid internee on work experience, someone with no experience in the publishing industry. Also, literary agents employ readers, who are paid on a piece-rate basis, so imagine how much attention they pay to your writing.
@AgentPete Just like it used to be applying for a job. Now job advertisers use AI to analyse job applications submitted via online forms. I guess it would be an advance if literary agents used AI to analyse the submissions but there's a whole debate to be had about that. e e cummings would have got nowhere.

Unfortunately I'm on 11 hours time diff to UK so Huddle doesn't work for me. It will be better when I eventually get to the Indian Ocean...

@Paul Whybrow I loved the close
Saul Bellow recognised that rejections are not necessarily a bad thing. It is within your power to choose whether they signal the beginning or the end of a career. As he wrote: “They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts: ‘To hell with you.’
 
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AgentPete

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@AgentPete I guess it would be an advance if literary agents used AI to analyse the submissions but there's a whole debate to be had about that. e e cummings would have got nowhere.
Heaven forbid!

The paradox is that publishing is very keen on / and actually needs new talent. It’s just that the “slushpile” is a highly ineffective way to discover it. Agents/publishers have found that the r.o.i. of maintaining good “slushpile” coverage is too expensive relative to the rewards. Hence its demotion to interns etc.

My aim for Litopians is not to go in via this route if you can help it. There are other, better ways.

Would be good to have you join us, James. :) p.
 

RK Capps

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Heaven forbid!

The paradox is that publishing is very keen on / and actually needs new talent. It’s just that the “slushpile” is a highly ineffective way to discover it. Agents/publishers have found that the r.o.i. of maintaining good “slushpile” coverage is too expensive relative to the rewards. Hence its demotion to interns etc.

My aim for Litopians is not to go in via this route if you can help it. There are other, better ways.

Would be good to have you join us, James. :) p.

Pop Ups would be a good way forward (we seem to attract more serious writers). I wish more publishers than Head of Zeus could see that.
 

James Marinero

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Pop Ups would be a good way forward (we seem to attract more serious writers). I wish more publishers than Head of Zeus could see that.
Pop-ups looks interesting but when I checked I was able to access it without being logged in to Litopia or other access control. That means that authors' book ideas and early texts (ok only 700 words) are public. Whatever the copyright issues that access makes me nervous.
 

RK Capps

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Pop-ups looks interesting but when I checked I was able to access it without being logged in to Litopia or other access control. That means that authors' book ideas and early texts (ok only 700 words) are public. Whatever the copyright issues that access makes me nervous.

No one has the talent to write a book the way that you would, not even Stephen King. Word choices, word order and use of punctuation (and much more) are way too personal. We all have common ideas, but you have to dig past those to find something an agent might even be interested in. Besides, ultimately, authors are only revealing 700 words of 70-100K words, which brings me back to my first/second sentence.
 

Steve C

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Agents/publishers have found that the r.o.i. of maintaining good “slushpile” coverage is too expensive relative to the rewards
This has clearly been the case for many years but agents have yet to find alternatives so will soon become redundant. Maybe if a professional reader acted as a buffer between agent and author more good work would get recognised. If Authors had enough faith in their work they were prepared to pay to have it screened by a trusted reader who had the connections to pass it on then the slush pile would be reduced to 10% of its current size almost overnight.
Even so, most trad published authors make little to no money so it seems there simply is not the demand especially when readers can get so much free on the internet. Now everyone wants free and only free.
 
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Jonny

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Great article, Paul. I really loved its tone and it did make me smile as it rather mirrors my own experience of when I had an agent.

In fairness, I have no axe to grind. He got me a really good advance for us both being in the right place at the right time, and then we moved on rather like ships in the night. I seem to remember his phone then went faulty :) too, but we parted on really good terms.
 

David Y

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Love to hear suggestions...?
Seriously considering abseiling in a window with my first 3 chapters clenched between my teeth.
If you're already a celebrity then go for it - a TV presenter, sports star, wife of a former royal etc. You're bankable. Whatever you write, enough people will buy it, and agents will be able to sell it to publishers. It's a commercial business, like everything else. If you're not someone with thousands of followers, then use your time more wisely. Yes, write because you love to. Self-publish to motivate yourself, but forget about making money via the traditional or self-publishing routes. It doesn't matter how good your writing is, how many months you agonise over covering letters and synopses, or how expert at marketing you are, you won't generate sales.

I think of writing as a hobby, like gardening. It takes hours, it's hard work, it costs money and gives you pleasure, maybe friends and family too. You might grow a few tomatoes or strawberries, but you don't get rich charging the public to visit.

As an example, I'm currently reading a Litopian's novel. It's not bad at all, no worse than some of the big-hitters who are always in the top ten. It's an interesting story and written well, but it's not commercial, because nobody knows the author. If Richard Osman had written the exact same words it would sell a million copies.
 

Hannah F

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Traditional or self-published, Every now and then some unknown person hits the sweet spot and becomes that overnight success. That depends on three things: the right book, the right time, the marketing. Unless your pockets are already lined with enough gold to pay out plenty for marketing, much as you still must market yourself, you're more likely, even these days, I believe, to hit that sweet spot through the traditional route.
 
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