I’ve signed up with Justin Nash, managing director of the Kate Nash Literary Agency.
He’s the first literary agent I’ve had in years, following the death from cancer in 2017 of Toby Eady, who represented, among others, Ted Lewis (Jack’s Return, later made into a Michael Caine film, Get Carter ), Jung Chang and Bernard Cornwall.
You might wonder why I’ve agreed representation with Justin, and why I’m so chuffed.
After all, some small, independent publishers focusing primarily on digital editions will at certain times of the year accept submissions from un-agented authors, even if it does take three months to consider the work – and even then, they might not respond at all if they’re not keen.
‘If you haven’t heard from us after three months, please accept that we’re not planning on taking matters further,’ is not an uncommon stance. It’s not that they’re mean or thoughtless, only that they don’t have the time or people to reply to every proposal. They certainly don’t have the resources to provide feedback.
Publishers and agents face an avalanche of unsolicited submissions – often hundreds each week.
And when in doubt, it’s much easier to say no.
There are also authors who choose not to seek representation, and some do very well on their own, especially those effective at marketing themselves and their books. Self-published authors are able to take advantage of the very low-priced commercial fiction that dominates the ebook market. Small digital presses, such as Bookouture, have outperformed big, traditional publishers. It has been claimed that self-published indie authors capture one quarter to one third of all ebook sales in English-language markets.
Yet digital publishing has not changed the fact that authors struggle to make an income from their writing.
So is an agent worth it it financially, even if he or she can jump over the slush piles?
Agents take a 10-15 percent cut of the author’s gross writing income in the home market and around 10-20 percent if the author is lucky to have a book sold further afield. But look on the bright side: the better the deal the agent negotiates, the more money there is for both writer and agent.
Agents will have contacts in the book industry. They usually know where a particular book is likely to find a good home. They also know what particular publishers are looking for, and if the publishers themselves don’t always have a clear idea, agents will have a pitch ready to persuade the publisher why this or that book is just what their list needs.
Selling is a form of magic. It’s based on contacts, on building relationships over time, and on personal taste.
It’s not as if agents have only editors in their sights. It’s often marketing and sales directors who sit above the salt at publishers’ meetings and make budget decisions. There’s no point in trying to flog a masterpiece of a spy thriller to X if X has just taken on three novels of the same sub-genre for the next year’s publishing schedule.
Selling a book to a publisher is only the start. There are translation and foreign rights, possibly television and film options. It’s a medium to long term affair.
An agent disseminates news about a book across a global market – hence the importance of the contacts made at annual book fairs in Frankfurt and London.
Agent Jo Unwin describes her role in the 2019 Writers & Artists’ Yearbook: ‘My daily life consists of negotiating contracts, promoting my authors where I can, examining sales figures, dissecting marketing plans, meeting editors, chasing payments, editing manuscripts, submitting new work, reverting old rights, selling rights internationally, envisioning novels as film, brainstorming new directions for authors, tweeting their triumphs…’
And somehow finding time to read all the material submitted by authors as well as walking the dog, making dinner and taking the kids to school.
Another reason to seek representation is the agent’s role as go-between. Or maybe I should say shock absorber. Let’s say a writer has had a submission accepted by a publisher who tells him the contract is in the mail. The anxious author waits every day for the postman. After more than a month, the writer asks what happened. ‘Oh, I thought we’d sent it to you,’ is the publisher’s lackadaisical response. Quite separately, the writer discovers that said publisher is trying to cut corners by relying on the recipients of advanced review copies of the previous book to do the work of editing – free of charge.
Yes, it did happen to me.
An agent would have prevented this.
Trouble is, agents are hard to find – if anything, my impression is that it’s probably harder for an author to find an agent willing to represent him or her than it is to land a publisher.
Still, I ask myself: do I have a thorough knowledge of the market? No. Do I enjoy selling myself and my work? No. Am I confident that I can negotiate contracts? No. Am I financially numerate? Not really. Do I know who the best publishers are for my book and do I know their editors? No and no.
It follows that I need an agent.
Justin has an academic background as a historian and teacher of politics. He’s interested in foreign places and cultures. He keeps up with current affairs. He’s ideal for a writer of political thrillers. He’s already come up with great suggestions for improving the novel I’ve just written, and we’ve agreed on the changes. He’s not just an agent, but also an editor bursting with ideas.
Most important of all, we seem to get along well, and that’s crucial.