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  • Writer's pictureMarc Hamer

Literary Agents

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

I said in my last post about how my agent helps me in my work and how he works with publishers. Perhaps I need to say more about the relationship between writers and agents. If you haven't read it and you are interested in how he works with me on a proposal, go there first. The post is called 'A Deal is Struck', the link is down at the bottom of the page.

Yesterday a phone call with my agent Robert, to iron out the details of the new book contract. The contract is on its way and my advance will be paid in four stages, at signing the contract, at delivery of a satisfactory manuscript a year later, at publication of the hardback a year after that and at publication of the paperback a year after that. Also there are audiobook rights and other bits and pieces to do with foreign rights. My agent has negotiated me a good deal that we are all happy with, he has pushed and looked at every angle. You need an agent to do all this stuff, it is complex and filled with legalese and tradition, he is worth every penny of his commission and more. Now this is done he will begin, when the time is right to look to sell the foreign rights. 'How to Catch a Mole' went on to sell in 16 different languages, so far Seed to Dust, launched in a pandemic when nobody is buying anything has done less well.

About forty years ago I wrote a novel which I sent to a well known agent. I typed it on a tiny children’s typewriter, this was before computers, I posted it to her in a brown envelope. Three months later she sent me a very long, very lovely letter saying that she loved my work and thought it was very profound but could not see how it could fit into the market, she told me to keep on writing. She was right, it was very derivative but I wish I still had that novel, I would rewrite it and submit it again now. Being something of a wanderer who doesn’t hold onto things, it has gone the way of all things. On and off I did keep on writing though, but did not submit again for years, instead I served my apprenticeship, writing short stories and poetry and stuff for employers, marketing my own gardening business, leaflets and operational manuals, essays and the odd magazine piece.

To a writer who wants to be published by a traditional publisher, an agent is vital. It is no longer an option. So the first job for any writer if they want to get their work in the bookshops and to earn any money at all, is to get an agent. This is tricky. I have seen rants on social media from writers who thought that any agent should be glad to have them, who have become angry when an agent turns them down as if the agent is there to do their bidding. Such writers fail. This is a hard and cruel business but it is polite. Writers are not special, there are millions of us, and there are many millions more who want to be writers, and there are billions of people who think they could write a book if only they had the time. Writers are ten a penny and agents have their pick of people they feel can make money, or can add something worthwhile and different to the literature that is already available. Agents are literary people who read an awful lot and if you can make one sit up and take notice then you have got something original or engaging to say.

It all goes in fashions that respond to what is going on in the world, angry young men is old hat, angry young women is a wonderful new hat with feathers on, politics is current, coronavirus is a no-no, post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction is a definite ‘no thanks, not for us at this time’. They always say ‘not at this time’, I don’t know why, are they hedging their bets for when the dystopian future fails to arrive and we can read about it happily again? Happy old men? Well that’s my thing, it’s not a thing yet but I’m working on it.

It takes about two years or more for a book to hit the shelves and publishers are always looking ahead to imagine what might be fashionable by then. So if you want to get famous, start a #movement, be ahead of the curve or at the very least on it, and as good as anything else that is coming. Above all write your own thing in your own voice. But that is for another blog.

To find your agent do your research, find an agent who represents people like you or better still, read between the lines and find an agent who wants to be seduced by your work, but doesn’t know it yet. Then get out there and enchant them. After I wrote ‘How to Catch a Mole’, I started to look for an agent. I looked specifically at people who were interested in nature issues or biographies or growing old, maturing or better still, deeper subjects like who and what we are, and why we are here, and what we are supposed to do with our life, because that is what my work is really about when you scratch away the story. I looked for people who were looking for something different and perhaps a bit literary. I avoided people who liked mass market fiction, who wanted thrillers, or books for bird spotters and so on because I am not interested in that kind of stuff and more importantly they would not be interested in me.

Every agent has a website, on their website they tell you who they represent, what kind of work they are looking for and if they are open for submissions. I found three agents who might fit the bill and I targeted them, I had a first choice and two second choices. My first choice was a top literary agent based in Soho, his website said very clearly that he was looking for non-fiction work that introduced him to a different world. So I emailed him and the other two a polite covering letter saying that I had written something that I thought he might like and had taken the liberty of attaching an outline (one page) and the first couple of chapters, about five pages altogether. I was in a freezing house in the North of France, the cows in the field were leaning against the walls to protect themselves from the hailstones, the heating was a log fire and the log pile was diminishing and I was an unemployed writer looking for a break.

Now it usually takes about three months for an agent to reply because they get inundated with books from people who want to be writers, and if the book looks promising they read it, and sometimes their co-agents will read it too, and they will discuss it. Other writers are going to hate me when I say this but, I had an email back in about half an hour, asking me to send more, so I sent him what I had which was what I thought was a finished piece of work, a short snappy book of about 50,000 words. Then he emailed and asked can we talk on the phone, so the rain having stopped I wander round the field outside talking to him on the phone. A few weeks later I was back in Wales and we were hugging in my kitchen after drinking too many Negronis in a cafe in the village. It was fast. I emailed the two other agents who had not got back to me or sent an acknowledgement, one of them replied with a congratulations and thanks for letting me know, the other I never heard from.

An agent has a deep connection with people in the publishing houses, they know each other, often for years, they have a track record together, a relationship. Your agent will look at your work and think about who in the business you will be a good match for, he or she will be thinking of individual editors. They will identify an individual they think might be good fit for you and will start to probe; ‘what are they looking for? Are they interested in this or that? What about this really interesting book that has just come in, it’s fresh, nobody else has seen it yet, it is a real goer and I think it fits your list perfectly, would you like to have a look at it?’ And so the book is read by an editor who will either say maybe or no. If it is ‘no’ your agent will look for other matches who might be in the right place to be looking for something like what you have written, and so on until one of them says, ‘I like it! Maybe, let’s take it to the team and see what they think’. At that point I always feel ‘the game is afoot’ as Sherlock would say and it may get to the next stage or it may be turned down and move onto another editor. There are many reasons it may be a ‘no’. Not all of them are to do with whether you have got a future as a writer or not.

At events writers are always asked by somebody in the audience if not the chair, ‘what was your journey to publication?’ and every time the story is different. Having been to many literary parties and events as audience and participant, I have heard hundreds of these stories. So, find your agent and seduce them with fabulous writing that floats their boat. I think I have the best agent I have come across. That is because we work well together, we understand each other, we have similar philosophies, we are honest with each other and I love him as a person. At every writer event, especially if the booze is flowing you will crash into dozens of boring conversations between authors who are staggering about saying how rubbish their agent is or how crap their publisher is. This little world is full to the gunwales with dissatisfied writers. I am not one of them. I see myself as part of a team which includes my agent, my editor and publisher, the designers, the marketing and sales people and the booksellers. If any one of those falls down, your book dies and you become one of the many hundreds of authors who disappear every year.

So the next thing for this new book of mine is that the contract will arrive by email, I’ll sign it and email it back, keep my copy and get on with writing the first draft. I have until the end of March 2022 to submit.

When I think I have finished it and that I can do no more, when I am exhausted and sick to death of it, when I am wondering why I ever got into this stupid business, and want to find proper job that pays me enough money to live on, my wife will read it and make suggestions, then it will go to my agent who will read it and send me back to work on it some more and I will go back to work. Quality feedback from my agent is vital. Agents all work in different ways, some very rare agents will take on a writer that they think shows promise and will work with them to develop an idea for many months and through loads of drafts. Others will just give the barest minimum of feedback. Mine is just right for me, he will tell me in the nicest possible way what I need to hear, then I’ll go back and fix it and he’ll read it again. That will be the first edit. Before that will come a lot of hard work, heartbreak, terror, joy, worry and sleepless nights.

My home is my office and I am on duty 24 hours a day. I wake in the early hours and my wife often hears me typing at 3am. Before I start on this book I have to clear my decks and my desk. For my North American publisher I have a book review to write - so I need to read it first, and a newspaper article and a video to make thanking some booksellers and a book to finish editing for another writer. When I have done all that I will be free to fully immerse myself in the new book.

The title? Oh I won’t be telling you that until much later in the day, there are many writers who are desperately sniffing about for material, and they will steal your ideas and your title and pretend they are they own, with less guilt than they would feel at taking a chocolate biscuit off the pile on your plate. Never trust a writer, some of them are desperate and immoral creatures.

Ta ta for now!

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