Posts Tagged ‘literary 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 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.


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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