Agents Don't...

Partly inspired by a twist on Richard Charkin's recent talk and his 'Don'ts for Publishers', we've turned this on its head and instead put together a list of Agents Don't…’, intended to debunk some common myths about agents, or help explain how and why we agent!

 Agents Don't…

1. Publish your books. We seek a publisher for your book, and ensure your work is in the hands of a great editor and their team of marketers, publicists, digital experts and sales people.

2. Earn anything until you do. We work on a commission basis, so we only get paid when our authors do! This ensures that it's in everyone's best interests to take a book that's in the most appealing shape possible, to publishers, and why we might spend a lot of time honing your manuscripts and proposals before they go out on submission to editors.

3. Know the tastes of other agents. Strange to admit, but other agents are either our friends, our competition or both! We might know them socially, and know a little of their list of authors, but when it comes down to it representing a book is a personal business and we don't always know what floats another agent's boat. So that’s why we are very rarely able to recommend other agents if we turn your book down. Agency websites are most helpful; go and look at an agent's list and their bio, for the best information on what they're looking for.

4. Have any time to read during office hours. It's a common fallacy that we're to be found at our desks, feet propped on stacks of manuscripts, thumbing through our authors' newest deliveries and reading at our leisure. I WISH. Sadly there is no time to read during the day; we're busy negotiating deals and the resulting contracts, chasing payments and checking royalty statements, forwarding requests for our authors' appearances at festivals and events, meeting editors and listening to what they're looking for, liaising with publicity and marketing teams, catching up with colleagues on sending out our books for translation and media sales, and pursuing potential new authors. Very occasionally we might be able to squeeze some editing in on a Friday afternoon, but usually all reading (and editing) is done outside work hours.

5. Have the time to reply to submissions with detailed feedback. Unfortunately we simply don't have enough hours in the day to feedback our thoughts on your three chapters or proposal. And, if we want to be businesslike about it, it’s not in our interests to spend time editing a book we’re not going to work with! However, if we think a book is good enough to consider despite its flaws, or that it could be very interesting to us after a good edit, we will always say so. Equally, if the writer has talent but this book is not for us, we’ll say so.  And no book comes to us in perfect shape!

6. Appreciate rude or persistent writers, whether that's someone calling up the agency reception at regular and increasingly agitated intervals, or barging in on a conversation at a Fair or Festival. We know you're anxious to hear from us and, trust us, if you've a great book or idea then we will definitely be in touch. However, if you've a great book but have been rude to our receptionist or in chasing emails, we won't want to work with you. Polite and professional is the best way for us both to be!

7. Choose brand over book. It has to begin with a great novel or book idea, not just with one hundred million followers on Twitter (however helpful that might be further down the line!). Writers seem to worry a lot these days about their ‘profile’, and it can’t be denied that this is a concern to publishers sometimes too. However, we all need to be convinced that there’s a good, publishable book in whoever we represent (we would always hope that there are many good, publishable books ahead for an author), so the best introduction to us and to a publisher is with a winning idea and strong writing. Not every single author we work with is social-media savvy. I’d personally recommend using Twitter as it’s a LOT of fun and a brilliant place for talking to other writers and sharing writing experiences, as well as a valuable peek into the publishing industry via agents and editors, but it’s not essential.

8. Give up on an author after just one book. As mentioned above, we usually take on an author with a view to them having a long and fruitful career. This is why good writing is important; you could have one great idea, but then… nothing. But if you’re a good writer then we’ll keep chatting with you about potential new book ideas. And if your first book doesn’t sell, we’ll talk to you about pursuing something else. We’re in it for the long term!

9. Chase trends. Because a) we couldn’t possibly predict them (who saw FIFTY SHADES coming? Pardon the unintentional filthy pun) and b) we couldn’t keep up – most books benefit hugely from several months of editing, marketing and publicity, by which time the reading public is going crazy for the next trend: whatever happened to vampires?

 10. Go to lunches and parties just for the free booze. Yes, we know there is the popular belief that we are carousing every night, quaffing cheap party wine and canapes, but actually we go to these kind of social events (much less so now than a decade ago, too) to fit in catching up with editors and their colleagues, hearing about what they’re publishing and using these friendly occasions as an opportunity to pitch our books. And if we can munch a tiny quiche whilst we talk about our fantastic authors, so much the better.

11. Have to read just their own authors’ manuscripts and the submissions pile, but also a wide variety of newly-published books to keep up with competitors and publishing tastes. I try to cram in one non-‘work’ book per weekend, so I’m up-to-date with the books that are appealing to editors and readers alike. Why did everyone rave about The Fault in Our Stars? Best way to find out is to read it…

12. Only make deals.  It’s all about career planning and thinking strategically, looking ahead to try and shape an author’s career in the long term. We’re also sounding boards for our writers, who might come to us with new ideas and their plans for their futures; we maintain a continuous conversation about how we’re going to develop an author and their books, and how best to get them to where they want to be. This is becoming especially important in an ever-evolving publishing landscape, with new platforms, formats and models to explore with our authors.

13. Like telling their clients about rejections.  It hurts the agent too: they’ve taken the client on because they admire and love their work, and have a genuine and unswerving belief that a book should be published. Rejections are rubbish for everyone, and don’t get any easier!

 14. Exist in a vacuum.  We’re all actually human (strange as it might seem) and while reading and editing seeps into every moment of our supposedly spare time, we do occasionally have to have time off, do something else, to maintain perspective. (I don’t think we ever REALLY switch off, but a bit of fresh air can do wonders for new inspiration…) Just as writers are advised to put a book to one side for a little while once they’ve finished the first draft, in order to edit with a bit of new perspective, we all benefit from a break.

15. Sit behind our desks ignoring submissions, feeling superior or polishing our keys to the gates of publishing. (In short: take everything you read about publishing in the newspapers or similar, with a LARGE pinch of salt.) We're desperate to find good books and great authors; we comb our submissions pile as frequently and as thoroughly as we can, and are always happy to meet new writers, whether on Twitter or IRL. It's important for us to be accessible and excitable! And we never get bored of finding that next incredible book. 

By Juliet Pickering

Carole Blake at ChipLitFest: Pitch the Agent

Originally published as a blog post by Emma Lee-Potter, author of three novels, a children’s book and five novellas. She has been a Costa Book Awards judge, has driven across the equator in a Land Rover and interviewed Richard Branson 40 thousand feet above the Atlantic! Emma writes about news, education, books and family and you can visit her website here: http://www.emmaleepotter.com/.

Carole Blake is the doyenne of literary agents. She has worked in publishing for 50 years, started her own literary agency in 1977 and has a star-studded list of clients that includes the likes of Peter James, Barbara Erskine and Sheila O'Flanagan.

She’s also the author of From Pitch to Publication: Everything You Need to Know to Get Your Novel Published, a must-read for writers. Carole is currently writing an updated version, due out in 2015.

At this year’s Chipping Norton Literary Festival Carole teamed up with Wannabe a Writer author Jane Wenham-Jones to present a literary-style Dragons’ Den event. The session was entitled 'Wannabe a Writer – Pitch the Agent' and challenged aspiring writers to submit 1,000 words of their novels for Carole to critique. Five brave individuals were shortlisted and Carole gave her verdict in front of a live audience.

Carole is second to none when it comes to giving advice and guidance to authors and the audience scribbled feverishly as she spoke. Writers agonise about their synopses when submitting work to agents but Carole said that she always reads the chapters first “to find out if someone can write.” She emphasised, however, that a synopsis must include the ending of the novel.

As she talked about the shortlisted writers’ work a host of dos and don'ts emerged along the way. Here are some of them:

  •  “If you are a genius you can break all the rules but be sure that you are a genius before you break them”
  • Beware of using coincidence as a key part of your plot
  • “We don’t necessarily need a shining, sparkling hero but we need to admire him rather than think he’s a twerp”
  • “You need a bit more drama and a bit less melodrama”
  • “Characters are more important than plot”
  • “If you try to please too many people you will end up with something that doesn't appeal to anybody at all”

The session ended with Jane asking Carole for one key “nugget of wisdom to take away.” Carole, who receives up to 25 submissions from writers a day (including Saturdays, Sundays and even Christmas Day) didn't hesitate. Do your homework, she said, pointing to the wealth of information on literary agents’ websites about what they are looking for. Carole herself takes on few new clients these days but states on the Blake Friedmann website that she is interested in “good quality commercial and literary fiction, contemporary or historical.” The guidance couldn't be clearer yet writers still persist in sending her everything, from children’s books to science fiction.

“Given how easy it is to find out information these days do a lot of homework first,” she said. “There is nothing more guaranteed to get a fast rejection than if you enrage the agent.”

Emma's latest book, LOVE AND LAUGHTER, was published in November 2013 and is available here