Short and Grumpy II, the Sequel
If ever I feel alone or friendless, or fear that these emails are falling into the Great Void of Unknowing, all I have to do is to write a grumpy email about agents and/or publishers. The torrent – the surge, the tsunami, the deluge – of responses tells me that you are out there, and listening, and care as much as I do.
That surge of responses deserves a direct reply.
Before I get to that, though, I do need to ask for your help, please. We’re trying to figure out what we’re doing right, what we’re doing wrong, and what you’d like from us. We ask you about courses, membership, events and more. The survey runs to just ten questions. Your responses will shape what we do next.
Please take the survey here.
Thank you. And now for some short-and-grumpy thoughts about all things Agent and Publisher.
A lot of you – and I mean a lot – wrote to me with stories broadly similar to those I mentioned last week. Probably the commonest tale was the one which, simplified, runs: “A literary agent took on my manuscript with a lot of gushing excitement, but then, as time passed, stopped communicating with me at all.”
And I repeat: that’s not OK. Yes, they’re busy. Yes, until you have formally signed with an agent, you aren’t technically their client. You don’t have an actual contractual claim on their time.
I don’t accept that as an excuse. I once had a shouting row with an official of the Association of Authors Agents. He claimed that agents owed nothing to non-clients, because they weren’t clients. I argued – and still do – that no honourable agent can treat the community of writers with disdain.
I still think that’s obviously true.
And don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with agents rejecting work. I don’t have a problem with them doing so with the blandest and least helpful of form-emails. But if an agent engages in a personal way with your work – perhaps they ask for a full manuscript, or they meet you at a Festival and tell you how great they think your work is, or they ask for editorial changes, or anything of that sort – then they owe you a timely, personal and considered response.
If that response is a “no, sorry, changed my mind” – well, OK. That’s not what you want, but if it’s honest, clear and timely, you can’t really complain. Just seize your manuscript and make it better.
Too many agents, too often, fail to give that personal, timely response, and it’s not OK. (Our advice on getting agents here.)
One or two people who have had bad experiences wrote to tell me that they have basically given up. They’ll write for themselves, but will no longer seek publication.
People need to make their own decisions, of course, but I do think that’s a pity.
The fact is, that for all its problems, Planet Agent is genuinely open to new and unknown writers. If the story you write is blisteringly attractive, it will be picked up. It will secure an agent. It will secure a book deal. From the perspective of the individual writer, these things may feel like a matter of black chance and blind luck, but they’re really not.
At Jericho Writers, we see a lot of manuscripts and a lot of authors. When we see something that really dazzles, we basically know it will find an agent and a deal. Equally, some of the manuscripts we come across aren’t yet publication-ready. That doesn’t mean the author is an idiot. It just means they have more work to do. Those manuscripts, we know, are not yet ready to sell.
And then, yes, there is an intermediate category of good-but-not-yet-dazzling. Those books are sometimes picked up. Sometimes not. In those cases, it is more of a dice roll.
But the smart advice remains the same as it always has. Find a genius concept. Develop your craft. Tell your story well. Write better.
Most of what we do at Jericho Writers is to help you do those things. Do them well enough and the whole getting published bit is reasonably easy.
Avoid, avoid, avoid the vanity presses.
Because it’s hard getting a literary agent, people are tempted into the vanity snake pit. As it happens, I think there’s a whole email’s worth of comments to make about those snakes, so I won’t say much now.
Simply this: if a publisher asks you for money – via ‘partnership contract’, ‘hybrid publishing’, or whatever other term they prefer – they aren’t a publisher at all.
Publishers make their money from selling books to readers.
Vanity publishers make their money from selling dreams to writers.
Please keep your money in your wallet and say no to the snakes. Vanity publishing, I do not love thee.
Self-publishing is an utterly viable route to publication and readers. It’s not second best. It’s just different.
The only real caution here is that you have to commit. You can’t just toss a book out onto Amazon and hope that it flies. It won’t. You must view your writing as a business and your publishing as a career. Your first book won’t make money so don’t expect it to. If you do well, though, then by the time of your third or fourth book, you’ll be seeing results that make you think, Yes, this writing lark might actually pay me. I am finding readers. I have a community of fans. I’m an author, and proud of it.
Even if you go trad, even if you have a wonderful agent, even if you have a terrific publisher, protect yourself.
The single best way you can do that is to write steadily and build a mailing list. That list will, if properly managed, guarantee your access to readers and income for years and years to come. Don’t neglect it, just because your publisher looks shiny and the excitement is palpable. That mailing list is your rock. You may one day need it.
Sixth – and last:-
Don’t forget why you write.
You never came into this game because you wanted this agent or that book deal. You came into this game because a story forced its way into your head and wouldn’t let you goi.
The joys and challenges of that story are real no matter what. So are the rewards. We writers are lucky. We carry joy in our heads.
That’s it from me. I promised you I’d be Mr Sunshine this week and – in a slightly undependable, British January way – I’ve delivered on that, at least approximately.
(Oh yes, and the granular, golden header image to this post is a photograph of the surface of the sun. Each one of those little granules is about the size of France. My six-year-old sun is currently planning to walk on the solar surface. I said, "Don't you think you might get too hot?" He looked at me with the joy of a six-year-old outsmarting his father and said, "Nooo. I'm going to wear a special suit." One-nil to him, I reckon.)
And again: over to you. What are your experiences? Your worries? Your hopes? Your beliefs? Are you bitter, hopeful, cautious, or just happily nuts? Tell me what you think below and let's have a Solar Heated Debate.