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Posts Tagged ‘finding an agent’

tennerIt’s no secret trying to become a professional author is one of the toughest trials of mental endurance ever invented. You need levels of self belief verging on megalomania, and a determination greater than Hercules in order to pass all the trials you’ll be set before a publisher will shake your hand. This has nothing to do with the actual gut-wrenching business of writing a publishable manuscript of course, which, since you call yourself a writer we must take as for granted. It’s what comes afterwards that will really test you. It’s no exaggeration to say an aspiring author will submit a manuscript ten or fifteen times and it will be returned, each time probably unread, and certainly with no helpful indication why it was rejected. We might persevere at this game for decades, but most will give up. The more dogged will die trying, while a few, just a few, of those left standing,… will make it through.

An aspiring author should be under no illusions how difficult it is to break into traditional print and I’ll advise anyone to get a proper job first because they also need to be under no illusions how much money they’re going to make if they defy the odds and succeed in eventually going pro. Headline celebrity authors have distorted our expectations. The Sunday Times Rich List estimates the Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling is worth a phenomenal £570 million, but this is an exception. A study just published by the Authors’ Licensing and Collection Society (ALCS) reveals your typical professional author earns more like £11,000 a year. It doesn’t sound a lot does it? That’s because it isn’t.

Let’s put this into perspective. If you worked in a shop, or a fast food emporium for a really stingy employer – which is about everyone these days – you’d get the legal minimum wage, and not a penny more, which amounts to £12,300 a year. That’s right, you’re likely to earn more flipping burgers than publishing novels. But it’s worse than that: there’s a big debate at the moment how much you actually need to live on to meet the basic minimum standards of life in western society. The absolute minimum you actually need, the so called a “living wage”, is currently about £14,700 a year, so you can forget luxury; your earnings as a professional author are going to be well below what’s even considered decent for any human being to live on. You’re probably in breach of your own human rights by persisting. It’s perhaps not surprising then the ALCS study also tells us the number of professional writers has fallen from 40% in 2005, to just 11.5% now. This isn’t saying writing is in decline, but that writing as a profession clearly is. There’s something weird going on. We’re all becoming hobby writers.

As a professional, the writer clearly isn’t valued much by society and if they want to earn the basic minimum standards for living a normal, happy life, they need another job, preferably one that still leaves them time to write. A doctor working in private practice can charge you £200 an hour. A garage mechanic will charge you about £40 an hour. With an hourly rate below minimum wage of £6.31, dear writer, financially, you are the lowest of the low, which makes it even weirder that so many of us are still drawn to writing, and persist in holding to this fantasy image of writing for a living. It flies in the face of reality, to say nothing of common sense.

When stymied by perpetual rejection, the great Victorian novelist Charles Dickens set up his own magazine, primarily as a vehicle for the serialised stories he couldn’t get published anywhere else. He was able to think outside of the box and to basically self publish, successfully, in a world where editors were telling him he’d not the talent to write at all. Yet the ALCS study tells us only a quarter of contemporary writers have even tried the online version of self publishing, though of those who have, the vast majority say they would do it again because the returns are now better than for many traditional paying markets like magazines, TV or Radio. Dickens would definitely have been in there. As for the three quarters of writers who won’t consider it, they must be getting far more from their writing than money can give them, and that’s fair enough – I know how they feel – but how they’re managing to keep body and soul together, I really don’t know.

Some might say this decline in professional authorship bodes ill for the creative arts, that the continual grooming of a top ten of glossy celebrity authors is a bit incestuous, that it suppresses the creative gene pool, stifling latent talent among the masses and preventing other great genre busting stories from reaching the audience they deserve. But the good stories will always find a way to their readers, regardless of how they’re published, or who by. There’s still plenty of paid talent out there, doing great things, though they might not be paid as much as we think they are. And then there’s always self publishing online for those who can no longer bear the grind, and are able to disabuse themselves of the supposed kudos of the “professional” author.

As for me, I’ll need to be safely retired before I consider going pro. In the mean time I’m happy to carry on giving my work away. £11,000 a year is better than a slap in the face, but that I could earn more flipping burgers is a real wake-up call. It’s not worth the hassle, or the postage, or the SAE envelopes, or the printer ink, or the double line spaced MS, or studying the market, or drafting the grovelling enquiry letter, or polishing the synopsis, time and time and time again.

There has to be another way; and there is: self publish. But most of all, if you want to write, stop talking about it and…

Just write.

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man writingRows keep breaking out between Amazon and the world of corporate publishing. It goes like this: Amazon squeezes the publisher’s profit margin by insisting on lower prices, the publisher bends as much as they can, keen for access to Amazon’s awesome distributive power, while trying to maintain a decent cut for themselves. And if Amazon’s not happy with the deal they switch off the “buy” button. If the reader wants that publisher’s titles, they have to get them from somewhere else, they’ll be harder to find, and more expensive. None of this is personal; it’s just business.

From my perspective the struggles going on in contemporary publishing are merely symptoms of a near extinct business model, and its inevitable demise at the hands of a scary new predator. Amazon has sharp teeth and is using them to reshape the way we buy books – or indeed anything else for that matter. The big publishing houses may yet find their balance and survive in some new shape or form, I don’t know, and I find it hard to care. What interests me more is what all this means for the aspiring writer.

Traditionally, a writer plugged away in obscurity for years in order to finish “the novel”, then they spent even more years debasing themselves in search of the beneficence of the notoriously mercurial literary agent. The agent then fixed it so a publisher would read their work. If the publisher liked it, then began the writer’s slow rise from obscurity to mid-list mediocrity – except in rare cases, where a chosen few were invited to the top table of celebrity authorship. Here, in exchange for getting their teeth fixed, they might at last sup from the publisher’s golden chalice.

For the aspiring writer, at the bottom of the money chain, this system left much to be desired. To be a writer, and happy, you had to be either pathologically deluded or well connected. For the publishers and the agents though, it worked very well, enabling them to exploit a limitless ocean of creativity on which they floated their luxury liners. When they were low on talent to stoke the boilers, they just reached down and pulled another one on board. It was obvious anyone who came along and threatened this centuries old system was going to be viewed in a dim light. But unless you’ve been living on another planet this past ten years, it’s impossible to miss the fact that something is changing. Many of the smaller luxury liners have now been torpedoed. The ones that remain have become overloaded with hangers on and are sailing pretty low in the water.

There’s no shortage of writers to stoke the boilers of course, but to stretch the nautical metaphor to destruction, there’s now a problem in the engine room, and it’s this: the route from writer to reader is no longer controlled by the gatekeeper of traditional publishing. That you’re even reading this is proof that anyone can publish anything now, for nothing and find an audience. Surf over to Amazon or Smashwords and you’ll find novels by unknown writers for free, or for a couple of quid. Most of them look and sound crap, as most blogs are also meaningless crap, but this new age does shed rather a clinical light on the traditionally published stuff, a light that strips these expensively marketed and slickly edited works of their mystique, and you know what? A lot of them are crap too.

So, anyone can publish anything? Isn’t that great? Well, on the one hand, yes, but on the other,whether anyone notices you or not is a matter of luck, unless you’re prepared commit some heinous act on the basis there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But by the same token, there’s been many a traditionally published book pulped long before the public has had time to wake up to it. As any aspiring writer with more than ten years experience will tell you, traditional publishing is no guarantee of making any money at all, let alone fame and fortune – neither is the fact of getting that novel miraculously published. So you’re published, so what? We’re still turning up obscure Victorian authors and lauding them as undiscovered geniuses, but who died penniless, believing themselves failures in their own time.

So, the question is this: does the “Amazon” way of doing things, torpedoing those fuddy duddy publishers and bursting the market wide open, make it any easier for your average unknown person to take up the pen and make a decent living at it? The answer of course is a resounding no – indeed, you still have to be slightly mad even to try it. Really, don’t do it. Get yourself a proper job and, write in your spare time.

I can shift a few hundred of my titles on Feedbooks and Smashwords each week, by giving them away, and that’s fine, I seem to be happy with that, but if I were to charge so much as pennies for them, that hit-rate would dwindle to a trickle that was hardly worth logging in to check. True, some authors have done well, financially, by self-publishing, and good luck to them, but then some authors always do make it big – it just doesn’t happen very often and the likes of Amazon won’t change that.

Publishing will always be about celebrity and the shifting of large numbers of catchy titles, crap or otherwise, at a tenner each. As profit margins are squeezed, those writers in the “paid but mediocre” bracket will find themselves squeezed out too as a bigger slice of the marketing cake is reserved for those authors with the perfect teeth. More and more writers will be joining the scruffy ranks of the indy scene, self-publishing for peanuts, while scratching a living doing minimum wage type jobs. It’s not a rosy picture, but then it never was. Creative individuals will always be at the mercy of patronage, wherever it comes from. Yes, things are changing drastically at the money end of the book business, but for your average aspiring writer, it looks pretty much like business as usual to me.

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man writing

It can come as a shock to a first time would-be author, how difficult is is to interest a literary agent or a publisher in your work. You’ve studied the market, you’ve penned your masterpiece, honed it to perfection and sent it off, confident your genius is about to be recognised. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, after the first dozen submissions your confidence in that early victory is by now mired in something more akin to trench warfare. You grit your teeth and lob it over the wall, again, and they lob it back, but try as you might you can’t beat the odds and outshine all the other manuscripts agents and publishers are inundated with. It’s strictly a buyers market – and there’s nothing we can do about that.

Some writers persevere and make it, others persevere their whole lives and don’t. Others give up along the way and get themselves a proper job while some, like me, decide to self-publish for free online – better that way, I think, than my kids having to dispose of a shed full of unpublished manuscripts when I finally shuffle off to my cosy little study in the sky.

But, whichever category you fit into, there’s always a risk you’ll become downhearted, even desperate, for that one last shot at fame. You need to be careful at this point because it’s precisely now you become vulnerable to the predators who circle the publishing battlefield: vultures, on the look out for that most fatal and profusely bleeding of all literary wounds: the shattered dream.

But cheer up chum. Don’t look so glum. Pay me some money and I’ll make that tired old manuscript of yours really shine. Honest! It’ll shine so bright it’ll light up an agent’s eyes. Pay me some money and I’ll print you a thousand copies. Pay me some money and I’ll market it for you.

Hmm,..

Think very carefully now. Follow the money, and ask yourself: who profits here? For all these enticing offers of “help”, you still have no guarantee your work will ever reach the shelves of the book store. And for all of those rosy assurances, most likely, it won’t. Call me old-school, but I believe a writer must never pay anyone anything in pursuit of “publication”. The fact that so many of us do is the one thing responsible for the vanity publishing industry’s persistence in the face of a technological revolution that should have wiped it from the face of the earth.

But how do I go pro, if no one will publish me? I know. It’s a hard road and I’ve been there. I fell by the wayside some time ago, and found myself a quieter backwater, one where there’s no money, but plenty of readers and that suits me fine. Go pro? Then persevere with your submissions to agents – you never know – or write for free until someone offers to pay you. But don’t let your love of writing, your devotion to the muse, your obsession for your subject – whatever you want to call it – become a financial liability as well.

Remember, you are the important one here. You are the source. Yours are the fingers on the keyboard, night after night. Yours is the head lost for years in the mysterious labyrinth of creation. Yours is the book, the poem, the story. If you can profit from that, then do. But when others seek to cosy up, and offer their literary consultancy services in exchange for money, a writer needs to be wary.

Your writing is a gift, take pleasure in it, but don’t let others use it to make money out of you, when there’s no guarantee you’ll be making any money out of it yourself. You want your little piece of immortality? I know. I understand. But you already have it. If you self-publish online, or keep a blog, your words will remain in the clouds until the sun burns out, and that’s as much immortality as anyone can expect. No need to feed the culture vultures.

What more do you want?

Oh, fame,…

Pfft,.. that old thing.

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I’m not sure why I’m putting this up because it’s something I’ve not been interested in for a long time now, and every time I research it, I’m reminded why. But if you’re interested in writing fiction, traditional publishing is still the only way of attaining any significant “financial” reward for your work. In order to achieve this you need a publisher and an agent, but you should be realistic about your chances of securing either. As I’m fond of saying: someone always wins the lottery, even though the odds are vanishingly small, but for every person who wins, there are millions of others tearing up their tickets (or manuscripts) wondering why they ever bothered.

But if you’re deadly serious and determined to scale the edifice of the traditional publishing world, and become a successful author you need to narrow the odds a bit. This starts before you ever put pen to paper. Published books fall into a number of genres. Each one has a specific heading which can neatly pigeon hole a story, and if your book doesn’t fit clearly into one of them you’re off to a bad start already. It’s no use writing to a publisher or an agent and saying your book is likely to appeal to a wide audience. That’s really not good enough. You must be specific. Say it’s like one of those Twilight books, or a Light Romance, or Crime, or Historical Aventure. And there’s nothing to be gained from inventing your own weird crossover genre because publishers have figures that show how much a book in a particular “official” genre is likely to generate. No use twisting one of your own stories to fit a recognisable genre either. You start with the genre and you write something specifically to fit it, after overdosing on reading other books in that genre until they’re coming out of your ears and you can barely bring yourself to contemplate writing something similar. This is otherwise known as studying the “market”. However, be aware that the “top” genre you identify at the time you begin writing is likely to be at the bottom by the time you “finish”, because tastes are so fickle, darling!

Want to carry on?

Okay,…

So, you hack away for a couple of years and produce your novel. What then? Do you seek a publisher or an agent? Well this is where your Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook comes in. I’ve not bought one for a decade or more, but I presume they still publish the damned thing. What is it? It’s about two inches thick and it makes you feel like an important writer simply by handing it over to the check-out girl in Smiths or Waterstones.  In there, along with a lot of other guff, the nature of which I can’t recall now, you’ll find the listings of Publishers and Agents. Read them carefully. There’s no point sending a light romance to a sci-fi publisher eh? That’s what all those trite self help “how to get published” books will tell you. But there’s more. Indeed the “how tos” are endless, mysterious and constantly changing. You may find for example that that the publisher suddenly decides they don’t read unsolicited manuscripts any more. What are are unsolicited manuscripts? Well, they are you, my friend. That’s what they are. Unsolicited equates to: un-asked for and translates as: you’re wasting your time sending your story in. This publisher only reads stuff sent to them by agents – and the last time I passed this way it seemed to be all of them. Even if you find a publisher who will sully themselves by actually reading your unsolicited manuscript, don’t expect them to give it any priority. It’ll land in a pile of other unsolicited material to be picked up and flicked through when editors and their readers have nothing better to do on a Friday afternoon. But don’t blame them. They didn’t ask for it. It’s like junk mail to them. What would you do? Put it in the bin? Or would you read it on the off chance it might be to your advantage? Whatever, expect to wait six months for a reply, longer for the return of your manuscript, with a standard rejection letter.

Not sounding so glamorous now, is it?

Want to carry on?

Okay,…

I think the advice these days is for the newbie writer to steer clear of publishers, and to seek an agent instead from the outset. But don’t waste your postage on sending in the full manuscript. Send a few chapters, a synopsis and a snappy introductory letter that tells the agent how brilliant you are, and why you stand out from the hum-drum cloud of losers, but without sounding sick-makingly and pretentiously juvenile, nor grovellingly desperate. Tricky, I know,… and humiliating for you, I can assure you, but it’s what you want, so go ahead.

The agents’ listings in Writer and Artist’s Year Book will probably also suggest you don’t send your synopsis off to more than one agent at a time, but since you’re unlikely to see it again for six months you should ignore this rather archaic advice and send it off simultaneously to as many as you like. I mean life’s too short, isn’t it? And you may have to write to twenty agents in order to score with just one.

What I’m trying to say is the odds of attracting an agent’s attention are small – even if your work is reasonably literate and yew can spel. Trust your uncle Michael: there are thousands of writers just like you: unknown, ambitious, filled with a sense of the vital importance of their own work. A few will make it and get a fabled life-changing acceptance letter. The rest are also-rans whom no godlike reader will ever know. Celebrities? You say they’re off to a head start? Well of course they are, but there’s no use crying over it.  Publishing’s a business, and celebrities sell. Does that surprise you? I know, terrible isn’t it.

But it’s worse than that. Given a hundred unknown writers, all of them with a readable story and a punchy query letter, the one who’ll get their work taken on is the one who knows the agent personally, bumped into them at a literary do and made friends with them, or got themselves introduced to that agent by another writer the agent already represents and whose opinion they value. This isn’t Michael Graeme being a cynical old git. It’s human nature. It’s how deals are made in the real world. Don’t live in the big city where those literary parties are thrown? Don’t know any agents or other suited literary types? Don’t even know any other writers, published or unpublished? Live out in the countryside in some remote village no one’s ever heard of, but like to write? Don’t let me put you off, it’s still possible to get yourself published, but you need to understand the obstacles in your path.

Want to carry on?

Okay.

So,… you’re a newbie writer. You’ve attained the impossible heights of success and by hook or by crook, you’ve secured an agent, and miracle of miracles, after a couple of years, your agent has even found you a publisher for this manuscript, the gist of which you can barely recall by now. But you’re not a name yet. What’s a name? A name is a label. A brand. It is a mythical symbol, a magical spell. Cast thine name upon the bookshelves of the hightstreet and the buyer knows instantly what to expect. A name sells books in large quantities. A name alone  attains that mythological status: the professional writer.

Praise be!

But you’re a newbie so don’t expect your publisher to spend a lot of money on a big print run, nor a promotional tour allowing you to sample the high life: first class travel, top hotels, celebrity parties, millions of adoring fans. A thousand copies or so. That’s your limit. They’ve done the mathematics. They know the market. They know a thousand copies is what you’ll sell so they’re not going to print any spares. Think about this: I don’t know how big a cut the Publishers or the Agents take, but if you break even, you’ll be lucky. What does that mean? It means you can call yourself a published author, but you’re a long way from making your living at it. A thousand or so people have read your work! Is that good? Well, of course it is and considering the odds you were up against, well done to you.

But think about this:

I put my novel Push Hands online, about a year ago and it’s been downloaded about 7000 times, and rising. The Lavender and the Rose went up last month, and it’s already up to 1500. I’m an independent author, hacking stuff out in whatever spare moments the day or night allows. You can go into any bar in the world these days and ask who Michael Graeme is, and no one will know – but it’s the same for you. We are the same, you and I, dear wannabe writer, both of us obscure. You’ve “sold” more books than me, but more people are likely to have read one of my books than yours.

My message to the frustrated wannabe writer is this: does your dayjob pay the bills? Can you bear it? Then make your peace with it, and consider going independent. You’ll never make a fortune, but you’ll achieve a global readership almost by default.  Your words, your thoughts, your idiosyncrasies,.. they are important to us. Who are we? We are you. We are readers, writers, onliners, just like you. Upload them to the collective, to what in modern parlance is known as “the cloud”. Cool eh?  Don’t sniff at the online independent freebie ebook thing because you can shift a lot of copies that way. If it’s down to money for you and you’re determined to quit that boring dayjob, then so be it, go for paper, and good luck. Otherwise hang in there. You’re important. Traditionally published or not.

Relevant anecdote: Michael Graeme is a secret. I live and work under the name of my primary personality, and no one except my immediate family can link the two. I was listening to a conversation between a couple of colleagues in my day-job office, one who had just bought an Amazon Kindle and was amazed by the amount of  free original fiction available online, and wondered why he would ever want to pay for fiction again. Another colleague countered rather sniffily: okay, but is it any good? Colleague number one said: Who cares? Of course some of its  crap but its not cost me anything, so what’s the problem?  Have you never paid good money for a book, only to decide it was crap? And some of this free stuff’s okay.

Age-wise both colleagues were in the fifty plus bracket. But then a young lad,… seventeen or eighteen joined in, and said he liked blagging free fiction on his iPod touch of an evening from this site called Feedbooks. I concluded therefore the indy publishing scene was appealing to a very wide demographic. I smiled, kept my secret, pleased that people were still enjoying simply reading stuff.

Free? Why not? How weird is that? It makes a change when just about every other person in the real world is trying to sell you something you don’t want and making you feel like an idiot for not wanting it. The world of writing is changing, and traditional publishing is beginning to looking seriously dull – especially for the wannabe writer. Whether you are a reader, a writer, or  both, take a look at Feedbooks or Lulu or Smashwords. Seek out their free stuff. Give it the first paragraph test. I dare you. Some of it you’ll cringe at because it’s more idiosyncratic than legible. Some of it you’ll find a bit ragged around the edges, like reading your mate’s submission for his English creative writing homework. But some of it will grab you, suck you in and move you to tears. This is the work of ordinary people who like to write. This is the indy scene; anarchic, careless of spelling and grammar at times, but sincere, raw and thought provoking. Let those celebrities pen their sterile, expertly edited yarns, and their jolly autobiographies to adorn the highstreet bookshelves, but if you want truly sincere meat and drink, if you want it told the way it is, it’s now to be found exclusively in “the cloud” and its tagged “free”.

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