Representing debut fiction now is just as exciting as it’s ever been. Selling it is another matter. An agent agreeing to take on an unpublished writer always ventures into the unknown. We must always be extraordinarily excited by the work, and sure there is a market for it before taking on a new client,: but even experienced agents are facing setbacks now with work they have taken on confidently.
When publishers are as risk-averse and cautious as they are now about what they buy, agents have to be equally as careful about who they offer to represent. The caution will inevitably make its way back along the publishing food chain. It isn't impossible to get a first time writer published now, but it probably is more difficult now than at any time in the past decade. Because authors can so easily publish themselves now, they are often less willing to wait for publication by the more traditional route. But self-publishing requires a huge amount of marketing and sales effort on the part of the author, and a thick hide too …
Ask any book business person – agent, publisher, bookseller - what they are looking for and you will hear phrases like ‘a fresh voice’, ‘a new take on a universal theme’, ‘something that surprises me’. In those shorthand phrases lies hope. None of us really knows precisely what we are looking for, but we all hope we will find ourselves reading a manuscript that truly excites us. Whether an agent, or a publisher’s editor, we all want to read a manuscript that glues us to the page, entertains and informs, and leaves us needing to urge a friend to read it too. And if that involves discovering a new writing talent, the adrenalin surge is quite extraordinary.
When I take on a new client (which is very seldom now), it’s because I can’t help it: I can’t bear to let that manuscript be handled by someone else because I understand it, I know exactly which editor will love it, exactly which publishing house – in a number of markets - will be able to sell it well. For me it is crucial to believe there will be a multiplicity of markets for the work.
Fiction in particular, can be completely international. By that I certainly don’t mean the story has to move from one country to another, with the central character spending half the novel travelling. I mean instead, that storytelling is universal and a novel that engages the reader emotionally can be set in a village on a Norwegian fjord, but if readers empathise with what the characters are experiencing, they will trust the writer and embark on that journey.
My agency isn't daunted if we can’t get a British publisher right away. We have several authors where we were able to sell them in more than a dozen languages before a British publisher made an offer.
The so-called ‘slushpile’ (horrible phrase) can yield gems. Just some of the authors I represent who I've found among the unsolicited submissions are Elizabeth Chadwick, Beryl Matthews, Michael Ridpath, Julian Stockwin: a stellar crew. Some have long careers, in multiple markets: one was 70+ when we began representation and is still publishing, more than a decade later.
So I stick by my comment that representing debut fiction is just as exciting as it has ever been. Exciting, worrying – it certainly keeps us on the edge of our seats. Both the storytelling and the business of selling it!
Joint Managing Director, Blake Friedmann Literary Agency Ltd
From Pitch to Publication: Everything you need to know to get your novel published, Pan Macmillan
First published in New Books Magazine, 2009. Revised text © Carole Blake 2014