Feb 04, 2022
6 mins read
This time last year, I thought I'd never find a literary agent.
Finding the right agent is tough, partly because they have to be very picky but also because there are lots of agents out there and many of them won't be the right fit for you. I think as authors we can often forget that the traffic shouldn't be going one way. It's not like sitting at a debutantes ball hoping someone asks us to dance. We shouldn't be hoping for just any agent, we should be looking for someone who has established a really good reputation or is maybe starting out and has the hunger to shoot their authors to the stars or really gets our style of writing or, or, or ... has a smaller client list and wants to give you the time you need to achieve your potential. You get the idea. Like any relationship, it needs to work both ways, or you'll end up unhappy and arguing over the washing up.
Now, I was published without an agent, having been hoiked from the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts. In fact, that's not quite accurate. I'd previously contacted the editor via twitter after we shared a mutual interest, unconnected to my writing. We DMd just like millennials do, and I asked to send him my manuscript and he said 'sure, just fill out this form' which was a bit like applying for a job only with a novel instead of a CV. I did as I was told, certain I was wasting my time yet again, but to my complete joy and genuine shock, they took the book on.
It was great, but it also left me in a funny position: a debut author being traditionally published without an agent. I thought: hey it's all gravy now, right? I've proven myself a worthy, investable author, so agents will be more interested in me! Nope. I'll come to that, but...
It is at least proof there are ways to get published without an agent. For me, it seemed the only possible route at the time, because I was exhausted by rejections or silence from agents who said in their guidelines that they were looking for exactly what I was offering but ... seemingly weren't. Or a considerable proportion who made it clear they were only looking for women writers and female protagonists, and as a gay man writing a straight man in book 1, I offered neither. Add to that the comprehensive school inferiority complex written into my soul, my struggle for work, time, energy, and general confidence, and the fact I'd written a darkly gothic, historical fiction novel ... I came to realise that I had a real challenge on my hands and it was pretty unlikely I was going to get representation via the normal route.
Side note: remind me to write a short blog on suggested agent 'form responses'. These are the copy and paste responses agents send when they're busy and not really that interested but do want to acknowledge your submission. I think 'unfortunately this manuscript/project isn't quite right for my list because it's rubbish' or 'working on projects can take a lot of time and energy, so I have to feel passionate about a story and I'm afraid yours only made me horny' just lacks a certain flair.
Thank goodness then for landing a publishing deal unrepresented! This was only really possible for me because my publisher is a boutique independent, with a real focus on thoroughly-researched historical fiction. Getting that deal come through was an incredible feeling. Yes, I cried. Nonetheless, the publisher agrees, I think, that it would have been optimal if I'd had an agent. Editors feel more comfy that way, knowing that everyone is clear on expectations. Truth is, I had little idea what I was signing and whether it was right for me. I wasn't a member of the SoA at the time. If you want trusted independent advice, I recommend! Fortunately, the publisher was straight up and things are great. I've also learned a lot that I can take forward. Perhaps more on that in future posts!
The thing is: getting an agent seemed even more difficult after landing a publishing deal not less.
I couldn't get my head around it at first, but coming to understand the reason helped me to change my attitude to publishing altogether in a way that I hope will make me a more practical, realistic and resilient writer for the rest of my career.
You have written a novel that's attractive to a publisher, and you're clearly going to write more, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're a great investment for an agent. I'm still new to this so don't take it as gospel but, having spoken to agents over the past year, my understanding is that most aren't likely to have the time for unknown or little-known authors who have a book coming out but no fresh manuscript to sell. Put simply, I was going to agents saying: 'Hi, can you sell my next book which doesn't exist please?'
The medium and long term is uncertain for agents. The industry doesn't know whether the zeitgeist in five years will be Victoriana, secret agents, Greek myth, elderly crime busters or whatever Matt Haig has written. Actually, the last one is pretty much certain, and rightly so, but the future is unclear and time is as tight as it is unpredictable, so the proof that you're the real deal as an author with lots of potential, talent, vision, and a great work ethic ... doesn't guarantee the return on investment.
So, how did I get my agent? Well as I say, I got myself published by finishing my book and promoting it hard on social media. (Check out InstaBookTours if you want to create a buzz for your book by the way.) And I waited and worked hard with the publisher to get my book out there in the build up to publication. And then ...
I asked to talk to a brilliant agent for advice not representation, after following his work on social media for the past year. He said 'yes' and by the end of the call it just seemed natural to work together. It was a quite friendly, relaxed thing really, and it meant we were working together because we like and respect each other. I must say kudos to David Headley for taking on and supporting a writer who didn't have a finished manuscript for a second book, but he said he could see how determined I was and that meant the world to me.
So as I say, this time last year I thought I'd never find a literary agent. I was wrong. I just needed to wait for my moment. If you're still searching and struggling too, then I recommend doing what I - unwittingly - did. Turn yourself into an attractive prospect as an author first, on your own terms. That may be through traditional publishing or self-publishing, but follow your own passion and enjoy the freedom to write and find your audience in your own way. Then you'll find an agent who you know you can trust. Good luck and keep writing!