- By Harry Bingham
- Published 04/10/2013
Writing books is hard. As a rough guide, literary agents accept about one in every thousand manuscripts that come their way. Many agents will be even more selective than that. And that’s simply the first step. Ten or fifteen years ago, it wouldn’t have been all that rare to find agents boasting that they had never failed to achieve publication for their clients. These days, I’ve never come across an agent making the same boast. In fiction, an editor at a top publishing house might easily receive a dozen novels a week. From that total, let’s say a round five or six hundred, they might take on five or six new authors. In non-fiction, the odds are probably a little better, but they’re still rough. (You have a much better chance if you are an obvious authority in your field. If you are an authority and have a high profile online/offline platform, then so much the better.) Now, it’s not right simply to calculate out those odds (one in a thousand times one in a hundred equals something scary.) First of all, agents will be submitting to multiple editors, so the figure that matters isn’t the selection ratio of one particular editor but of the industry as a whole. Secondly, and more important, this game is never about odds, but about quality. What were the odds that Zadie Smith’s first book (a work of fiction, White Teeth) would be taken on by a literary agent? Answer: about 100%. What were the odds of her achieving publication? Answer: about the same. That novel was so good (so original, so fresh, so funny, so compelling) that it would have been inconceivable for it to have failed. In non-fiction, the same thing. The odds of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point making the grade? Again: about 100% What’s more, it helps to know that writing is a game where no qualifications are necessary. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have an MFA. Doesn’t matter if you haven’t been on any creative writing courses. Doesn’t matter if you hate the very idea of creative writing courses! All that matters is originality, talent and a capacity for hard work. Agents know as well as the rest of us that great fiction, great non-fiction can come from anywhere. In short, the first key lesson for any writer is to write a good book. That’s the hardest part of their job, but also the only one that really matters.
But what then? Let’s assume you’ve written a wonderful book. You’ll need a literary agent to represent you b
ecause, quite apart from the intricacies of contract negotiation, the larger publishers simply won’t look at your work unless it comes to them via a literary agent. So, the million dollar question: how do you find one? In the bad old days, there were essentially two answers to that question. One, overused route, was simply to have been at school with the right person. Or an old friend at university.Or some other back door into what used to be an over-stuffy, rather gentlemanly industry. That route (hooray!) is now largely dead. The second time-honoured route was via the pages of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. That book was essentially a phone directory for all the literary agents in the UK, with plenty of other listings and advice thrown in as well. The trouble is the book only ever offered you a list of agencies, not agents, and in this business it’s the personal, not the corporate, relationship which really matters. Secondly, it only provided a list of names and addresses, and what use was that? So in due course, two further routes have emerged. The first is the spread of writers’ conferences: events where writers can meet agents face-to-face and can even get one-to-one feedback on their work. These face-to-face encounters are, in one respect, irreplaceable, simply in the sense that only by meeting somebody can you develop a sense of whether there is an adequate chemistry between the pair of you. Speed dating for writers, indeed. And finally, just as the internet has revolutionised so much else, it has revolutionised agent search as well. There are now an increasing spread of online agent hunting resources available online. The best of these offer a completely searchable database and very rich data. So you should be looking for a database that provides photos and biographies of all (or nearly all) UK literary agents, plus much further information besides: likes and dislikes, submission advice, Twitter accounts, interesting links, and much more too.
If your book is strong enough, this advice will work for you … but not every book is right for commercial publication. If self-publishing is your goal, then you don’t need a literary agent at all. E-publishing is simple, fast and free: just go to Kindle Direct and, if you’re even slightly computer savvy, you will have your e-book online in an afternoon. If you want to self-publish but actually have a book in your hand at the end of the process, then you will need to budget perhaps USD2000, GBP1200 for a really good job, but there are budget options for less than that. Don’t expect huge sales though. The big publishers are big for a reason – and literary agents are your route inside.