Literary Agents

October 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Literary agents have plenty of advice to give writers who seek representation from them. We are advised not to say in our introductory letter that ‘My aunt loved my book.’ We are advised not to fix, glue, or staple a few pages of our work together, as proof to ourselves (when it is returned—should the fixings still be in place) that the agent never read through it. We are advised not to make demands about advances.

Is it to be inferred that most writers have no idea how to behave?

In my experience, you don’t have to do anything lunatic to be excluded from consideration. Exclusion, after sending a standard submission of the opening three chapters and a synopsis, seems to be inevitable. I sent submissions to about thirty five agents and usually received, a month or so later, a standard refusal. Some quite simply did not reply, although they were equipped with my stamped addressed envelope: so critical an enclosure.

This year, a woman I met once, had a book published. Her experience, as related in a blog, was very different to mine. She was choosy about who she sent her initial query email. Of the four she emailed, two requested, within twenty four hours, a full manuscript. One of them took the manuscript with her to a three day conference. The Monday following the conference was Yom Kippur. On Tuesday, the writer picked up a voice mail from the agent saying she loved her book….

Is this the full story? It seems to be the stuff of fantasy. Is the fault entirely mine? Who—but I— has failed in sample chapters to send agents into paroxysms of excitement?

Anthony Harwood, literary agent (pay: six figures plus) receives more than 100 novels for his consideration every week. He was interviewed in the Guardian (7 February 2009): ‘Surely most of them must enter the bin unread? “No, we look at everything,” he [Anthony Harwood] insists, stubbing his finger hard into the desk. And how many of them are any good? “None of them! he cries. “None of them are any good! But you still look just in case.” And though most of Harwood’s 50 or so clients came to his attention through some other route, his conscientiousness in dredging through the slush pile does occasionally pay off.’

Never have so many people enrolled on so many writing courses…yet the upshot of it all is that they cannot write, and what they send to literary agents deserves the obscurity of the slush pile. Are graduates of MA courses in creative writing so hopeless? Unless, of course, they too are amongst those who land an agent through SOME OTHER ROUTE.

Wouldn’t it be better if agents, instead of giving unhelpful advice, stated their practice? A statement might go something like this: ‘I would never act on my own taste and judgement alone. Unpublished writers, soliciting my representation, should be famous already or have won a celebrated short story or novel competition or been recommended to me by another agent or established writer.’

Perhaps agents could list how many clients they have found—if ever they found one—on the slush pile. This is the sort of information that unpublished, unpaid writers would value.


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