Tag Archives: J.K. Rowling

Putting the “gent” back in agent: The complete writers’ guide to Literary Agents

20 Oct

Andrew Wylie (born 1947), also known as The Jackal, is one of the world’s leading literary agents.

Perhaps no one  in the publishing industry is vilified and revered with equal vigor as much as the literary agent.

I just came back from the Frankfurt Bookfair where for the first time since starting to frequent this seminal book event in 1999, I attended as a writer. While I saw almost every aspect of the book world from a different prism, my perception of literary agents remains the same. I am a firm believer that unless you know what you are doing, writers should not go to book fairs chasing agents. Let alone publishers. It’s a recipe for disaster, disillusionment, and potential humiliation. The best way to engage an agent remains the good old fashioned submission process.

Yet I am still amazed how despite all the great advice out there that tries to demystify agents and to lay a clear and effective pathway on how to approach and work with them, most writers still don’t get it and keep erring repeatedly.

In this post, I would like to throw my own pebble into the pond of enlightenment for writers when it comes to the all mighty LitAgs.

It’s a business, like any other

Literary agents have the misfortune of being the gatekeepers that filter literary talent for mainstream publishers to pick and choose from. Writers not only perceive them as “middle” men and women, which in itself carries numerous negative connotations, but many aspiring scribes have a largely inaccurate perception of agents as being inherently nasty.  That there sole aim in life is to crush the hopes and dreams of ingenious writers, and instead choose to support lesser authors who they may have direct personal contacts with. Or some variation of these negative stereotypes and conspiracy theories. I’ve heard it all.

I would argue that nothing is further from the truth. Literary agency is a business like any other. No agent in their right mind would ever come across unquestionable literary talent that can translate into commercial gain and turn it down simply because they are on a power trip or because they would prefer to help their writer buddies.

The brutal reality is this: Writing is a hugely saturated and cut-throat business. Underline business. Literary agents behave in a way that reflects the needs of the market at any given time. These days, it’s not enough to be a great writer with a great story. There are thousands upon thousands who are just as good or better than you. Agents are not just looking for outstanding writers any more, that’s a given. If you haven’t perfected your craft yet, don’t even bother with agents. It’s a waste of your time and theirs. Agents are looking for the next great thing. Something unique and different they can take to their publisher clients with a convincing pitch.

The bottom line is this: If you want a mainstream publishing deal, your writing project has to be fresh, unique and it has to stand out on every level other than phenomenal writing skills. Agents and by extension publishers already have enough clients who write well and earn them handsome amounts to keep them in business for a very long time. They are not looking for more of the same. If your genre is horror, it’s not enough to be just as good as Stephen King. You have to bring something new, ground-breaking and exciting to the mix.

Now does that mean that literary agents are infallible angels who always play it straight like an arrow? Of course not. They are just as human as you and I. Will they make a few exceptions to push up their personal contacts a little faster up the ladder of submissions? Perhaps. But that doesn’t make them any worse than the doctor who gives priority appointments to friends and family, or the shop owner who offers slightly better discounts to their inner circle. Human beings are social animals and we get by through life by sticking to our groups and taking care of one another.

I would even go as far as postulating that knowing a literary agent would at best save you some time of getting the exact same answer you would have gotten if you didn’t know them. A “no” is still a “no”, even if you get it sooner. Agents have professional reputations to uphold and would never knowingly try to sell inferior material just to do their buddy a solid.

And as it happens, the vast majority of literary agents are down-to-earth, hard-working, decent folks who get all doe-eyed and excited about books and writing, just like you. They would love nothing more than to discover a diamond in the rough. To believe that you the writer could be the next Umberto Eco, Haruki Murakami, Khaled Hosseini, Alaa El Aswany, Frederick Forsyth,  J.K. Rowling, or Vince Flynn.

Be Upfront and Professional

Agents repeat themselves, over and over again. It’s always the same message. Consistently the same basic principles. Which are: The number of things a writer can do to improve their chances with an agent, other than having a solid pitch, is exactly zero. No amount of jokes or “quirky” style in your query letter will endear you to them any more than a basic, well-written, courteous communique would. There is veritably nothing you can bribe an agent with that would convince them to like your pitch any more than what it deserves. There is no amount of “creativity” in how you submit your package that could enhance your chances—don’t waste your money on expensive manuscript boxes or fancy paper. And meeting you in person when you show up at their offices uninvited, or if you ambush them during their lunch break will only get your ego bruised, your face slapped or yourself arrested depending on how “spirited” your attempt is.

The truth is, I have never come across an agent’s submission guideline that was in any way vague or left anything open to interpretation. In a nutshell, here’s what agents expect from writers trying to do business with them:

1. Do your research. Find the most suitable agents and only submit to them. Don’t try to engage with an agent who specializes in mysteries and thrillers, if you happen to write cookery books or military history. How difficult is that?

2. Stick to the submission guidelines. Stick to the submission guidelines. Stick to the submission guidelines. If an agent asks for a complete synopsis that describes all the main events, don’t hold-off the final twist or ending because “you don’t want to deprive them of the thrill factor.” If you can’t follow simple instructions, agents can make all sorts of deductions about your intelligence and therefore their desire to work with you long term.

3. Be respectful and only speak when you are spoken to. Unless an agent specifically encourages you touch base after a certain period of time after your submission to prod them, the first time you contact an agent should be the last time until they engage you in a discussion. Indignant follow up letters or calls that contain phrases like “perplexed” won’t win you any favors. Most important of all, if an agent does pass on you, under no circumstance should you write back to complain or to plead for them to reconsider. If you do feel the need to write back, the best you can do is a gracious thank you note. In some circumstances if an agent’s rejection is vague or you require clarification for your own education, it may be okay to inquire about that, but only in the politest terms.

4. Never, ever burn bridges. Acting in a publishing capacity, a writer I rejected recently for a small piece of fiction first tried to make me change my mind through a series of aggressive emails. When none of my polite emails reflected a change in my position, she wrote back saying ” You are extremely unprofessional. I wouldn’t work with you on any project in the future. And I would advise anyone I know to not work with you.” Many agents I know tell me they’ve received even worse feedback from disgruntled, rejected writers. Sometimes even outright threats.

When writers behave like that upon rejection, they disclose their true nature. Good manners go a long way in this business. An agent who rejects you may, without you knowing, pass your proposal on to another agency who may find you more up their alley. But they certainly won’t be doing anything other than trashing your submission if you decide to be anything other than cordial, sane, and civilized.

It’s a free market, like any other

Perhaps one of the biggest mistake most aspiring writers commit when hunting for an agent is getting myopic and obsessive about the agents they will submit to. A lot of writers tend to send out limited submissions to either the top agencies, or just a few ones on a trial basis. And when the rejections start rolling in, they see that as a blanket condemnation of their writing skills and withdraw into a shell of self-doubt.

The savvy writer recognizes that literary agency is a free market. There are enough agencies and independent agents out there to support you sending a submission a day for a few years. And big doesn’t always mean better. In many cases, finding new or smaller agencies may work to your advantage. They may have more time and be less jaded. They  could pay more attention or see unique selling points in you or your story which you may have failed to articulate, and which an A-List agent may not have the time or patience to infer on your behalf. The best approach to finding an agent is to see it as an ongoing agricultural project. Plant as many seeds as you can and keep planting, rather than sowing just a few seeds then waiting idly by their side hoping to see them sprout.  Or to use another farm-inspired expression, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Think outside your geographic box

Another common mistake many writers commit is to think within their narrow geographic zone. It would serve them tremendously if they looked laterally and broadened their geographic focus. Instead of submitting only to agents in your country, why not cast a wider net and research literary agencies in other geographic locales? And I don’t just mean other English-speaking countries like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Even further afield in other vibrant literary markets like Germany, Japan and Italy, or in emerging markets like Russia, Brazil, India, and China. If your genre is over-saturated in your home country, maybe there is a market for a writer like you and a story like yours in the most unexpected place. It is erroneous to  think that important publishing opportunities exist only within the confines of London or New York. The world is really your oyster.

Beware of the faux agent and the con artists

Much of the advice regarding agents focuses on what to do and not to do when dealing with legitimate literary agents. But with the advent of self-publishing, the industry is in the throes of a major overhaul. And like any industry in transformation, there are bound to be opportunistic leeches who try to profiteer in less than ethical ways.

I have noticed of late a growing species of faux agents and con artists whose business model is to prey on inexperienced first-time authors who are hungry for a break. In the spirit of vanity publishing houses which have thankfully now been fully exposed for what they are, fake agents recognize that while most writers have figured out they can produce a quality book on their own, the next step of getting it picked up by a mainstream publisher is still incredibly hard.

The most common type of fraudulent agent is the type who charge for their services. Reputable literary agents only get paid when you do. They get a commission from your earnings as a writer, through the deals they broker for you. Any one suggesting they can provide their services for a fee, are categorically taking you or a ride. Run a thousand miles in the opposite direction.

Slightly more refined, another genus of scamming literary agents will speak of co-sharing costs. They will spin you a yarn about how competitive the market has become, and that to gain an edge you need to invest in your writing career by teaming up with the agent in question (or even a publishing outfit they own or operate) to jump start your career. They will often use the editorial and production stages of self-publishing as an analogy and justification as to why you also need to invest in finding a publisher, or to “market” your self-published book. The key trigger words that should concern you are things like “partnership”, “joint venture”, “co-publishing”, “invest in your writing career”, and “the changing face of the publishing world.”

Between the thieving fake agents who want to charge you a fee for their services or those scoundrels who want you to “partner” with them, there is a whole ecosystem of agent impersonators who will want to con you out of your hard-earned cash through a myriad of ways. Like the microbial life forms of false agents who will indirectly solicit any number of favors (social, sexual, monetary) and lavish spending from you. I’ve heard of “agents” who expect to be taken out for expensive lunches to “discuss” your project. It is highly irregular for an agent assessing your work to want to dine with you. And in the rare occasion they do ask you out for a business meal, if it’s not their treat, at the very least split the bill. Even if you are a man and the conniving agent is a member of the opposite sex, resist the temptation to be a gentleman this one time because in all likelihood, you are the victim of a literary scam rather than a legitimate business relationship.

Be safe boys and girls, but open your hearts. There’s never been a better time to write and create.

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Hand to hand combat with J.K. Rowling on a transatlantic flight

16 Aug

On a flight from New York to London last night, I took my shoes off, spread my legs out, and surrendered to the humming jet engines which usually knock me out before take off.  Just as I was about to doze off, I noticed a gentleman one row in front pulling out a crisp, brand-new copy of  J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. It’s the rock star author’s first effort after her Harry Potter series, and from I what I remembered, critically acclaimed and a resounding commercial success.

Since becoming an author myself, I have obsessed about how people interact with books in public. I want to know what they are reading, and view their immediate reactions to it.  Of course often fantasizing what it would be like to have my debut novel, Terminal Rage, between their hands.

My co-passenger was in his early sixties, and seemed as accomplished as anyone else in the cabin. He read the front matter of the book diligently, then touched its pages, even caressing the cover as if to savor its high production values and relish the promise of enjoyment and entertainment the novel would offer. Clearly he was a book lover.

He started reading the first page. It took him a few minutes to go through it. But instead of delving into the book, he put it back in his bag and started fiddling with the remote control of his in-flight entertainment system. What?

At some point during the flight after my daughter broke out in a fully-animated version of incy wincy spider, and my son screamed his head off, Bill, my co-passenger and I struck up a conversation about kids. And how he raised seven of them. He was a fascinating man who at various points of his life had worked as a a travelling choir singer based in Rome, a general contractor, a restaurateur, a naval officer, and most recently a stock broker. Now semi-retired,  when he and his wife Vicky are not back home in Missouri with their children and grand children, they are busy exploring the world.

I told Bill I had just published a novel, and we started talking about books. My instinct was right about him. Bill was a voracious reader. Many years ago he had given away his collection of four thousand books, only to rebuild it again a few years later.

I admitted I had spied on him interacting with The Casual Vacancy, and asked why he was barely able to finish the first page. Any good writer knows that regardless of the genre, a story has to hook the reader from the first sentence. As Stephen King recently wrote,

“An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

King himself is rumored to spend months, even years perfecting the opening line of his novels. Surely J.K. Rowling could achieve that.  Bill confessed he was too tired to get into it, and was planning to read The Casual Vacancy on his seven-day cruise of the Mediterranean. We continued talking about kids, books, life and everything in between.

All along, I couldn’t help but wonder if his reaction to the opening page would have been different if he read my novel. In fact, I  had a spare copy somewhere in my bag and for a brief moment contemplated conducting that experiment there and then: To ask Bill to read my first page and let me know if it would have grabbed him to read more, despite being tired. But that proposition seemed instantly cheap, almost like a Coke vs. store band cola blindfold test. It felt belittling to the three years I spent writing it.

The debut novel of  a novice, unknown author stands no chance of competing with a well established mainstream writer. And in this case, a lady who happens to be the best-selling writer of all time. It has nothing to do with the quality of the writing either. But what independent, new or self-published writers are really competing with is the massive, crushing weight of a recognizable brand name.  Back again to that Coke vs. generic brand cola analogy. And there couldn’t be a more suitable illustration of that conundrum than Rowling herself who only a few weeks ago revealed she was the author of the mystery novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, published under the pen name of Robert Galbraith. That book had struggled to sell until this revelation when it shot to the top of the best seller lists. It’s not like the book somehow improved, but all of a sudden everybody wanted to buy into the brand name.

When the plane landed, Bill and I parted ways and I accepted I would never find out the result of the test.  I had lost an opportunity to confirm my theory that established writers no longer have to adhere to the basic rules, and can do whatever they want and get away with it, all the while selling more books. Just like a rock band that starts writing the music  that its members always wanted to do, rather than what they became famous for. Now I am certainly not disputing that Ms. Rowling is ridiculously talented. I love what she had done for books and reading. I am just intrigued by the notion that even for something as deeply personal as reading, many book consumers are  predominantly influenced by name recognition, more than any other consideration.

A few hours later on my connecting flight from London to Rome, I felt a hand tapping my shoulder and a voice telling me, “You better behave now young man, I am sitting right behind you.” It was Bill and his wife. They had missed their original flight to Rome and fate would have it that once again we were in the sky together. This time though, I decided to give Bill a copy of my book, but not ask him to read the first page and give me immediate feedback.

I just wanted to plant the virus. To have my book directly compete with J.K. Rowling’s novel for Bill’s attention. After all he was going to be on seven-day cruise, captive with only two books to choose from. And even if I never found out who won, at least Bill would. It would show him exciting things are happening in the writing world, and how a new generation of independent authors are out to challenge mainstream publishing. Who knows, maybe Bill would spur others to read my book and also explore the wonderful world of new writers. But I wasn’t left guessing. Half way through the flight, I heard Bill calling me.

“Your book beat out J.K. Rowling. I can’t stop reading it.  I am already on to chapter five.”

And I had a realization then. I stand no chance to compete with a brand-name author on a mass scale. But I have written a novel worth reading. Even if I have to battle it out with an established author like J.K. Rowling, one reader at a time.

The opening of The Casual Vacancy:

the-casual-vacancy-new-cover-paperback-fullBarry Fairbrother did not want to go out for dinner. He had endured a thumping headache for most of the weekend and was struggling to make a deadline for the local newspaper. However, his wife had been a little stiff and uncommunicative over lunch, and Barry deduced that his anniversary card had not mitigated the crime of shutting himself away in the study all morning. It did not help that he had been writing about Krystal, whom Mary disliked, although she pretended otherwise. ‘Mary, I want to take you out to dinner,’ he had lied, to break the frost. ‘Nineteen years, kids! Nineteen years, and you mother’s never looked lovelier.’

The opening of Terminal Rage:

Terminal RageAlex Blackwell had no doubt the helicopter droning above his catamaran was an ominous premonition. He wasn’t disputing it was a clear sign his old life had finally caught up with him. Because these would have been the wrong questions to ask.  Good men perished and great civilizations were vanquished under the weight of wrong questions. Like wasting time pondering whether your attacker’s gun was loaded, when you should be wondering how to kill him first. Smack dab in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, his mind had instead gone into overdrive to answer what he knew was the right set of questions. Who was it who had found him, after four years in hiding on the tiny island of Anguilla, and what the hell did they want with him?

Click here to buy The Casual Vacancy.

Click here to buy Terminal Rage.

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