It will probably come as no surprise to you, but the entertainment industry is fickle. Trends and phases come and go, giving every budding author the same thought: Wow! This multi-national best-seller is crap! I can do much better than this! And maybe that’s true, but unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Yes, you need talent, and we all hope we have it, but more importantly, you need something that will sell. Oh, and luck. Lots of luck. So much luck you could drown a giraffe in it.
Ok, cynical hat off for a sec — what’s the traditional route to publishing? Thirty years ago, when pulp fiction was flying off the shelves, you could submit directly to a publisher. Not any more. Bigger advances means more profit needs to be made means less risks can be taken on the manuscripts from new authors that pile up faster than can be read. So the publishers have a front line defence: the literary agent.
Most publishers require submission through an agent, which means a writer hoping to be published by a reputable publisher needs an agent. Now here’s the thing: agents get just as swamped by manuscripts as the publishers used to, and they need to weed out the stuff that’s going to sell big. No point taking things that won’t sell, no matter how good they are, because – well, it should be obvious. Go to any bricks-and-mortar book chain and you’ll see celebrity bios, crime fiction and recipe books up the wazoo. Ground-breaking multi-perspective historical fiction? Not so much.
For a new author, finding an agent is as much of a challenge as writing a novel. The problem is thus: an agent wants a best-seller; new authors rarely write best sellers. Proven authors, yes please, but no amount of bright-eyed bushy tailed-ness will seduce an agent. This results in most agents only taking a couple of new authors on a year, if that (out of tens of thousands of manuscripts). But wait, I hear you cry, surely there are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed agents, too, fresh from agent school, eager to find new talent? Well, no. Not that new agents don’t want to find new talent, but because of the way new agents come to be. There are two ways: the first is by climbing the ranks at a publisher, maybe as a senior editor or a buyer, and then starting a new agency. The second is to start off as a junior at an already-established agency. Notice the common theme? Both scenarios include relationships between the agency and the publishers that are long forged. Because that’s what an agent is, really, an intelligent rolodex with every big name in the biz. An agency without the contacts is just a group of people in a room.
I’m going to put my cynical hat back on again for a moment. Remember I said that the quality of writing isn’t as important as the saleability of the manuscript? That’s not speculation. In the self-publishing world, there are books that have been swept up by Amazon’s advertising algorithms, and despite receiving sub-par reviews, have sold tens of thousands of copies. And guess what? Those authors are swamped with offers of representation. Does that mean that a new author should write to appease the masses? No, of course it doesn’t – you should always write to appease yourself.
I’m using the Publishers Marketplace website to source agencies from. It contains an exhaustive list that is filterable by genre, and even lists the agency’s submission requirements. Deciding to self publish is one thing, but I might as well try and get an agent anyway. As a new writer of science fiction, I don’t expect much a of a response. I’ve actually sent a few requests already (mainly to New York agents – despite living in the UK, I prefer them because they allow email submissions) and had a few responses. All said no thanks, but a couple said my work had much to be admired, and that at least is a positive nugget to take from it all.
What I’m trying to say in all this, I suppose, is that getting an agent is hard, so don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t happen for you. But don’t forego the process either, because you never know: it might click with someone, and one person is all it takes.