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Does an author need an agent?

Girl writingWriting, as anyone who does it knows, is a solitary occupation which is fine if you’re a miserable, unsociable bastard like I am.  However, once you’ve finished what you’ve been working on you then have the problem of selling it.

This is bad enough if you’ve been writing for a few years but if you’re a new author then it can become downright impossible.  This is mainly due to how the publishing business works these days.  For anyone reading this who has been told by friends, family and anyone else outside the publishing business that they are without doubt the next Tolstoy/Jilly Cooper/Shakespeare then you have a problem.  Your first problem is that you shouldn’t let anyone outside the business read what you’ve written because their opinions mean nothing.  Sorry.

You might be talented.  You might be a brilliant storyteller.  You might make J.K. Rowling look like a beginner, but that counts for nothing.  To be honest, talent counts for very little in today’s publishing business.  What does count is luck.  If you you’ve got the right product (and that’s what books are, nothing more) at the right place at the right time you’ll get published.  It’s as painfully simple as that.  You could have written the greatest novel in the history of the world but if a publisher doesn’t think there’s a market for it then you won’t get published!

If what you’ve written is shite but there’s a market for it then you’ve got a better chance.  How the fuck do you think Jordan and all these other “celebrities” get published?  Quality of writing is absolutely no guarantee of publication.   Also, the actual physical process of getting a manuscript to a publisher is horrendous.  When I first started (yes, that long ago…) you would send off your manuscript (along with the return postage) to a publisher and it would then end up on something called the ‘slush pile’. This was basically all the unsolicited manuscripts that had been sent in by aspiring authors. These were then skimmed through by secretaries on their lunch hours who would judge them on their first paragraph.  If they thought it had value then they would pass it on to an editor who’d read a bit more and it would progress like that until about ten people had read it and they’d give you a yes or no.  I speak from bitter experience here, I had forty rejections on various novels and other work over a three year period when I first started out!

One first novel in every 8,000 was accepted when I first started writing and it’s probably about the same now.  The only thing now is that unsolicited books are usually sent by e-mail and many publishers, editors and agents delete unsolicited stuff without even opening it!

The importance of having an agent

So how do you get into this fucking business?  Well, you need help.  You need an agent.  You need someone to grovel, fawn and beg on your behalf for which they will take anything between ten and twenty per cent of whatever you are finally paid.  And believe me it’s worth it.  A good agent will also help shape your work.  They’ll tell you what’s wrong with it and help make it better.  They’ll tell you what’s popular with publishers at any given time. They’ll guide you in the right direction and they’ll deal with all the bullshit involved in contracts when you finally have to sign one!  That’s what good agents do.  However, with the publishing business in the state it’s in even good agents will struggle to sell your work.

Basically, if your agent has lunch with the right people then you will get published.  If not, then you’re fucked.  Even when you’ve got good representation you can struggle (and yes, I’m aware that this piece has become like a suicide note for all would-be authors but it’s the truth and the truth as they say can hurt).  Of course there is no way of knowing this about your agent, that’s another gamble you have to take.

But in my humble opinion you are still better off with an agent than without one.  Finding a good one is hard but if you manage it then it can be incredibly worthwhile.  To be honest it depends what you yourself want out of writing.  If you just want to see your stuff in print (usually put there by a desktop publisher) and have about twenty people read it then fine but if you want to be ‘a writer’ (published by a recognised publisher and actually sold in bookshops) then you need an agent.  However, here comes another problem.  No agent (or very few anyway) is going to take on a client that they’re not going to make any money out of.  Some are willing to build a writer slowly but the majority want to launch another writing sensation, sell the film rights and make shit loads of money the same as the author does.

The Mistress by Martine McCutcheonAgents pick and choose their clients the same way publishers pick and choose who they publish.  Some represent huge selling clients and can afford to indulge a newcomer while others are scrambling around trying to make ends meet just like everyone else.  That’s why I get so furious about the profusion of ‘celebrity’ books polluting the shelves.  These fuckers haven’t written something and then gone through the pain of rejection, they’ve been approached by publishers waving huge cheques at them and whose books have been ghost-written anyway.  Can you imagine Jordan hunched over a desk late at night, crayon in hand, terrified that she won’t be accepted by the publisher she’s approaching?  No, you can’t because that’s not how it works with her or Fern Brittan, Ulrika Jonson, Martine McCutcheon or any other of these so-called ‘celebrity authors’.  A publisher gives them an obscene amount of money (that could support about twenty ‘normal’ authors) so they can stick their name on a book written by a ghost-writer.  The bastards will then do a few signings and pretend they are writers when we all know in Jordan’s case she can barely spell her own fucking name let alone write a book!

That’s publishing for you.  Mind you, if you’ve got an agent then you might be the lucky one asked to do the ghost writing for her or some other nobody.  And my advice is, if they offer you enough, do it!

So, get yourselves an agent.  At least that way you can concentrate on what authors are supposed to do which is writing.  The agent will take care of everything else.  And if you’re very lucky you might even be able to buy them lunch as a thank you after a few years!

If you’re lucky…

SHAUN HUTSON

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