First thing is that you don’t have to have an agent to get published (you don’t even need a publisher to be published these days which really is pretty astonishing). But it’s also fair to say that an agent can help you get published. And help you understand the process. And make sure you don’t get screwed over. And give you some measure of vindication / kudos / justification for giving up your day job (whilst also advising you not under any circumstances to give up your day job). Getting an offer of representation is seen by many (not all) as being the key to the door of the publishing world; your invitation to the book deals, the champagne lunches, the festivals, the prizes, the glory – or simply the ability to say, ‘I’ll have to check with my agent’ without sounding like a pretentious wanker (NB – you will still sound like a pretentious wanker).
For those who are convinced they don’t need an agent or those who perhaps have had their fingers burnt by a previous unhappy relationship (a professional one, with an agent – nothing untoward implied) then this blog post may be of little interest. But for those who would like to find a champion, someone to hold your hand through the publishing maze and be the terrier snapping at the heels of a vast and intimidating industry, so that you don’t have to, then let me tell you the story of how I found mine. Are we sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin… (as an aside – I read yesterday that only people over the age of forty use ellipses and that the youngsters find them sinister…)
Firstly, as per previous posts, I got my spreadsheet and started subbing. And subbing. And subbed some more. The spreadsheet lengthened and tested my abilities with Excel. Some rejections took hours and some took months but there was just enough interest to keep me coming back over and over again, tweaking my opening three chapters and synopsis to fit the brief and altering my pitch letter (always do this – it’s just unacceptable to cut and paste the wrong agent information). Likewise, make sure there are no spelling mistakes. I sent off one of my very first submissions to the legend Sheila Crowley at Curtis Brown with a grammatical error and spent the rest of the day feeling physically sick, wondering whether it was better to send a follow up email to apologise for the error and whether she would think I was clinically insane for doing so (note – I didn’t send a follow up email. Best to accept that a ship has sailed rather than look like a loon by saying ‘Dear Mrs Crowley, When I said who’s I actually meant whose…)
Second thing is that when you get a request for a full manuscript, celebrate it – whatever happens afterwards you must be doing something right to have piqued their interest – but, whilst celebrating, you must also sit on your hands and resist the temptation to email them the very next day saying ‘Did you like it? Did you? Have you read it yet? Have you? HAVE YOU??? DO YOU LIKE ME????‘ etc etc. There were a couple of agents who requested full manuscripts who then didn’t get back to me for another three or four months (mostly rejections with one notable exception) so don’t stop subbing to other agents in the meantime. Don’t think to yourself, ‘Oh well, they’ve expressed a vague interest in my story and therefore I am now betrothed to them ’til my life’s end.‘ You keep on touting your wares like the book-whore you are (harsh, but in my case, fair).
Third, write something else alongside the submission you are waiting on. Think of it as two entirely separate processes occurring simultaneously – Book One is out on submission whilst you keep a cursory eye on it, there is occasional excitement and a lot of drudgery, whereas Book Two is simply you carrying on writing, ticking along, no pressure, lots of fun – Yay!
Fourth, enter some competitions. It doesn’t need to be a whopper (although why not enter those too?) but short of an agent getting back to you with an offer of representation there is nothing more exciting than being long-listed for something, or that little lift you get when you enter a Twitter pitch and get a shout out. Curtis Brown Creative run a monthly #WriteCBC competition with prompts and honestly, the joy of having other writers like your pitch – it’s a real boost. During my submitting process I entered The Bath Novel prize, the Bridport prize and the Lucy Cavendish prize because, you know, why not aim high? I also entered the Trapeze Search for a love story, Grindstones Literary prize, Myslexia competitions, the Choc-Lit Search for a star, the Gransnet / Harper Collins competition and the Comedy Women in Print prize (short-listing and long-listing for some of these proved to be invaluable). The advantage with competitions is that you have a fixed timetable. You know that on whatever date you’ll have an answer, selected or rejected. This is helpful if you are a bit of a control freak and would rather a straight No than dangling on a string for months at a time.
Although I had interest in Book One from a couple of agents, it was all dragging along a bit slowly until I started subbing my second novel which was subsequently long-listed for the CWIP. At one point (back in the early part of 2020) I had two agents and a publisher with an ongoing interest in book one but nothing concrete. One agent considered it several times bless her and was very good about reading my rewrites but couldn’t quite get past the squeamishness about the hospice setting. The other agent was just taking her time – I’d subbed her later than the others and when I had all but given up on book one I had an email from her asking to see the full manuscript (one of those lovely red letter days). The reason I had subbed this particular agent (Tanera Simons at Darley Anderson Agency) was that my sister had just finished Beth O’Leary’s Flat Share and mentioned that there were some similarities with my manuscript (not least the hospice workplace). I thought, here’s an agent who is prepared to take a punt on a potentially controversial setting, and also, here’s an agent whose client writes like an angel and is doing phenomenally well, rocketing up the bestsellers charts across the world. Worth a punt at least. I didn’t hold out much hope that I’d get into the same stable as Beth O’Leary but a girl can dream, and when Tanera asked to see the full manuscript I was over the bloody moon. The publisher who was also looking at book one in the meantime was making very helpful noises and made a suggestion that totally transformed the manuscript for the better – so Book One was suddenly looking exciting again.
And then, two or three agents got in touch about Book Two….
And then Book Two was longlisted for CWIP… (more ellipses – sorry under 40s)
Suddenly there was a proper flurry of excitement in the Peach household. I was in a position to email the agents who were still looking at either / both of my books and say truthfully that other people were interested. I started lining up meetings with agents – I say meetings when in reality I mean zoom calls because by now the pandemic had kicked in with extreme lockdown in full effect. And I say ‘lining-up’ when really I only mean three meetings with three different agents, but when you’ve been waiting for just one, having three in a row feels astonishingly lucky and thus hyperbole is acceptable.
The rest, as they say, is history. I deliberated long and hard over who I should go with and it wasn’t necessarily the straight-forward situation you’d anticipate. A lot of what you learn about an agent-author relationship occurs after you’ve signed with them and it’s very hard to make such a massive decision based on one conversation. The other thing is that when you’re having your ‘agent chat’ it’s not really clear that you are interviewing them. The reality is that you’re desperately hoping they’re going to end the conversation saying they want to represent you. You’ve been waiting for this moment, you’ve been coached to believe that here is the person who holds the key to publishing success and thus your first instinct is to please them; to say, ‘Oh you want to market my Rom Com as a Sci-Fi thriller set in space? Okay, great. Sounds good. Please sign me. Please.‘ You’re not genuinely considering whether you want them.
And yet this is the mindset you have to try and adopt – you are looking for someone who will work for you.
Some agents are hand-holders and soothers, constantly there with reassurance and support, others are more business focused and when they’re not responding to your email at midnight it’s because they are actually chasing up some tricksy element of a publishing deal on your behalf instead. Some are editorially savvy and others will say, ‘I love what you write, just carry on.’ But as far as I can tell, all agents are completely invested in the work of the clients they take on and committed to doing the very best by those clients. There is no way they would be in the job otherwise – the publishing industry runs on goodwill and the knowledge that those working within it will be thinking about books every waking moment of every day until they retire, irrespective of what they are paid for it. As far as I can gather from those I know who work across the sector, it’s very much a labour of love – which, for a romance writer, is as it should be.