Snare an agent using commercial success

There can’t be a single author or reader in the world who hasn’t noticed the changes. Publishing isn’t what it used to be! That’s a fact.

If you’ve written a fantastic story and you’re the dogmatic type, you might just be plugging away, sending copies of your manuscript to agents and publishers, thinking that the traditional industry is the only way to make real money. Well, I’m here to propose to you that you’re wasting your time and suggest a new way of thinking. I’m confident that I can persuade you that everything has changed and you need to think very differently now, and here’s how I’m going to do it. I’m going to start by having you imagine you’re an agent. Then I’m going to offer you two ways to choose books and make money (let’s be honest, that’s what you’re about). Then you’re going to decide which approach to take. Then I’ll allow you to return to your life, and I promise you you’ll never bother trying to contact an agent again (unless it’s to sack a useless one, many years from now). Ready?

OK. Imagine you’re an agent. You want to be a successful agent. This means you want to represent authors who are successful and only recommend books to publishers that are likely to succeed. You’re picky about what books you want to represent, maybe you have a genre in mind and you certainly won’t take anything on that’s poorly written. Does this sound plausible so far? Of course it does. Now, here are your options.

Option 1 : You sit in your office waiting for authors to stumble across your website or your entry in the Writers Handbook and send you their manuscripts. As with any random collection of submissions, 90 out of 100 are either truly dreadful or badly written or both. Of the remaining 10 that show promise, 3 are in areas that you aren’t interested in (in spite of the careful wording on your website), 3 have been snapped up by another agent by the time you get round to replying, 2 were discarded by an idiotic intern you took on for reasons you don’t want to think on any more. This leaves two manuscripts. When you get in touch with the authors, you find that one is intractable and four-fifths mad without a hope of making a good impression at a book launch. The other…well, the other looks promising, but you just can’t be sure. They have no readers yet except for you. No feedback. No commercial track record. No fans.

Option 2 : You pick a genre and have your dribbling intern scout out indie authors who are self-publishing, starting to attract a following and (here’s the important bit), starting to make money. It transpires your intern has a bafflingly inexhaustible capacity to browse the internet and follow social media feeds! You read a sample and decide how much polishing this author will need to hit the big time. Set some kind of quality bar if you want to put in an appearance at the Man-Booker awards, or maybe not. After all, the recent successes in soft porn have demonstrated the extraordinary capacity of readers to turn a blind eye to imperfectly told tales. You pounce, make an offer to the awestruck author and voila. Your commercial risk is next to nothing.

So as the agent, which option are you going to take? I think I know.

Back to you….the author. So you’ve got a great story, heartrending even and beautifully told. Well done. That’s what everybody says. Prove it. Stop wasting your time applying to agents and publishers whose eyes are turned elsewhere now. Stop waiting months for those endless rejection letters. Prove it. Get out there. Publish and get some reviews and then we’ll see, and so will the agents.

Disruptive innovation and the publishing industry

This Wikipedia article about author Sam Moffie tells how, frustrated at the lack of attention that his manuscript got from mainstream literary agents and publishing houses, he disguised the first chapter of one of his favourite novels, ‘Breakfast of Champions’ by Kurt Vonnegut, and sent it to the top 100 literary agents in America. Ninety-nine of them rejected it out-of-hand.

The problem of trying to get published has been around a long time. One of the reasons why it was so difficult for an author to get published was that the production of books and the sales and marketing to draw people’s attention demanded a huge financial outlay and the traditional publishing industry guarded itself against loss by picking books carefully. Agents were most useful to the publishing industry as gatekeepers, weeding out all but the most promising manuscripts. To the vast majority of writers though, agents just seemed like an obstacle. For a good rant on the traditional publishing establishment, look no further than this post.

In the last ten years there’s been a seismic shift in the industry, thanks to technology. Digital typesetting and print-on-demand means that it’s no longer necessary to print 100,000 books to make your book affordable. The internet and eBooks means that you can make your published work available to half the population of the world at the push of a button. These are classic examples of ‘disruptive innovation’.

So has the worm turned? Is the author now free to make a fortune, unfettered by casually dismissive agents? Can we all now churn out a novel by bedtime and wake up in the morning to watch the cash pouring in through online sales of instantly printed books and eBooks that can be downloaded at the speed of light? Is the reading population now in a state of bliss, able to choose from a hitherto unimaginable range of novels that would have been choked off by the prissy agents and editors of old?

For the writer, it certainly seems like there is more freedom. Kristen Lamb says “ authors gain more power…”. It might be more accurate to say that writers have more control of their own destiny. The interesting thing about having more control is that it usually means having to do more of one’s own work too!

For authors, getting published may be easier, but the sheer graft of writing is as hard as it ever was – George R. R. Martin (Game of Thrones) is quoted as saying that writing a novel is like cleaning St. Paul’s cathedral with a toothbrush – but now the job of publicising the book falls entirely to the author too. With no agent and no publishing company behind you, guess who’s going to have to do all the selling. Once you’ve exhausted your 250 Facebook friends and Tweeted until you’re blue in the face, who is going to find your novel? There are millions of books out there. The analogy I like to use is this: imagine placing one beautiful pebble on a beach of millions of pebbles and expecting the passing holiday-makers to happen across it and comment on its loveliness. Many authors out there will struggle to get an audience.

Are readers any better off? Did agents really have us in mind when they were turning down trash? Not if the phenomenal success of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is anything to go by. What if we’re not interested in the pulpy smut that’s easy to find because of the sensationalist headlines it raises? What if we want to read offbeat, quirky novels in obscure genres? How on earth will we go about trying to find them? In ten years time, the body of published works available online will be vast.
Increasingly, publishers like Penguin are taking this seriously. No doubt they will be using the commercial success of books published in their self-publish subsidiaries to decide whether to take their authors seriously.

Take a look at this blog for more thoughts on this deal…and tune into this blog for lots more on self-publishing.

An article in the Metro (24th Sept 2012), a free London daily paper, states that Richard Russo (‘Empire Falls’) vehemently opposes eBooks and banned his publisher from releasing to this format. Russo claims that eBooks will be bad for bookshops, which is probably true, and bad for authors, which is very far from proven.

The biggest threat to writers would arise if one eBook format became a monopoly and then chose to use its power to dictate what goes out to market. This is already a distinct possibility. Suppose you wish to publish something that contains views that are unpalatable to a large population of irrational, violence-prone people. It’s entirely likely that a ‘globally responsible’ organisation would refuse to publish. Where would Salman Rushdie have gone to get the ‘Satanic Verses’ published if independent publishers were put out of business? Would authors like Richard Dawkins find a route to market with the weight of the Christian Right threatening to boycott whichever eBook company holds the monopoly?
It’s fair to say that publishing is at a turning point and there will be a myriad of consequences too, some of which we haven’t thought of yet.

It’s going to be an interesting decade but there’s one thing you can be sure of: writers will continue to write and readers will carry on reading.