the secret world of literary agents
Hands up who's looking for a literary agent.
If you're a writer keen on getting published using conventional methods, your best bet to get publishers to notice you is the legendary literary agent.
Legendary because they have traditionally been seen as a "gatekeeper" to publishing success, and also because they are the first port of call for critical feedback.
I attended a talk by four literary agents at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to hear more about their role in the industry, and also any tips they might have for budding and ambitious authors.
The agents were:
• Emma Paterson (Aitken Alexander Associates)
• Chloe Seager (Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV & Film Agency)
• Abi Fellows (The Good Literary Agency)
• Isobel Dixon (Blake Friedmann Literary Agency).
They were interviewed by Heather Parry, co-founder of Extra Teeth literary magazine and the Society of Authors’ senior policy and liaison manager for Scotland.
First of all, I will say that none of the women was at all scary. Not even the tiniest bit. They were reasonable, approachable and softly spoken, so I shall cast aside my previous understanding of them as being hard-nosed and brusque...
So, first off – do writers really need a literary agent?
Chloe said: "I can't imagine the publishing process without agents. We are fighting on the author's behalf. We're managing the author's career, talking about their writing, their next steps, publicity... We are the middle man. We are on the writer's side."
That last point is the most apposite – an agent is not your enemy. They know if your writing will sell, can help you edit and rework it in the first instance, then sell it to a publisher, oversee and approve contracts, liaise with editors and publishers to see you through the process, make sure you're getting paid...
And the agent doesn't get paid unless you do, so they're going to work hard on your behalf!
(Heather added here, in her role with the Society of Authors, that authors shouldn't sign a contract with a literary agent until the SoA has had a look at it and made sure it's all above board.)
So, what are literary agents looking for among the thousands of submissions they get sent by authors? The women agreed on the following, among other points:
• The writer must have conviction (in their own story)
• The voice must be distinct
• There is an element of gut feeling, before the agent thinks strategically about whether the story can be sold
• The work should be tapping into conversations that are bubbling up (since it typically takes a year or so for a book to be published, writing that predicts what will be talked about is on to a winner)
• Sentences should sing on the page
• A rhythm and tightness of writing.
Ultimately, though, Isobel said: "The magic is hard to describe!"
While agents are canny with their knowledge of the markets and what is likely to sell, they are also human and therefore subjective, so don't be too downhearted if they don't connect with your work.
And that connection is definitely what the agent is after. Authors are generally asked to submit a cover letter, synopsis and first chapter or two of their work. You might think the synopsis would get read before the sample – the agent wants to know the plot, right? – but that's not necessarily the case.
Isobel said: "I read the letter then go straight to the first page of the sample, then to the synopsis. There is no point reading the synopsis at all if you don't like the writing."
And if the agent loves your work and is convinced by it, the author also has to have that conviction in their writing, as Emma reiterated.
"The writer must have conviction in their work because it will need to persuade [publishers, editors, readers] when it's out in the market – and before," she said. If you aren't passionate about your writing, why should anyone else be?
Passion was a concept Isobel also referred to in the relationship with her clients. She compared that professional connection with love affairs, the chemistry necessary to make it work.
"The chemistry has to work," she said. "I want to be with an author for a long time. You have to have that passion at the beginning [of the relationship]. You can't think, 'I will maybe take a punt on this.' That won't end well."
One interesting question, in this day and age, was about social media exposure, and whether agents thought authors should be active on social media platforms.
The overwhelming response was 'not necessarily'.
It does seem to depend on the genre the author is writing in, specifically whether they are writing for adults or children.
Chloe, who works with children's and YA authors, said that being active on social media wasn't important in the initial stages but authors should show a willingness to engage with audiences via social media and at author events.
She added: "It is a tricky balance engaging on social media and maybe saying the wrong thing, especially in children's and YA writing."
Abi pointed out that social media can be a toxic place, and her duty is to safeguard her authors.
She said: "There is a danger in excluding those who aren't or can't be on social media platforms."
In fact, Abi was the most vocal about the need for diversity in the industry, and the importance of making it accessible and attractive to all.
A final word on the chat about editing, which of course made me prick up my ears, because that's my job, in case you hadn't noticed.
It seems that publishers' in-house editors are more and more stretched these days, and ideally want to see work that is already as 'clean' as possible.
The agents themselves do quite a lot of editing before submitting a work to publishers, pre-empting what publishers will like or dislike.
Emma said: "You need to feel as confident as you can of the work's editorial quality."
Isobel added: "I am always looking for reasons an editor will turn a work down."
So at this point, I'd like to proffer my services as an editor who can clean up your work before you even submit it to an agent. Let's get that work of art as shiny and beautiful as possible before you send it on its journey.
Something vs anything
I’m learning Spanish. Cómo estás? Me llamo Isla. Tengo dos hijos y un perro.
That’s about the sum total of my conversational ability.
What I’m really enjoying about the lessons, aside from my wonderfully eccentric tutor Ana Maria, are the grammar pointers she gives the class.
I’ve said elsewhere in this blog, I wasn’t taught grammar at school. Knowing what is right and wrong came organically through reading many, many books.
(Ana Maria has to give grammar pointers in English precisely because none of us understands our own language, and we have to be able to before we can understand Spanish. Rolls eyes emoji.)
I am always fascinated when Ana Maria names and explains a rule I knew but didn’t know I knew.
My latest favourite: when we use “something” or “anything”*.
I hadn’t ever paid the blindest bit of notice to when or why I say “something” or “anything” but, when you think about it, there are definitely contexts that require one over the other.
As Ana Maria explained: “If we have been for a hike, and you come back to my house, I might say, ‘Do you want something to eat?’ The assumption is that you will answer yes. The assumption is that you are hungry and will want something.
“If I say, ‘Do you want anything to eat?’ I am open to the fact you will say no.”
The implications of this rule blew. me. away.
I had never thought about it like that!
Generally, in English we use “something” in a positive sentence or expecting a positive response; but we use “anything” either in more negative sentences or not assuming there will be a positive response.
“I got something lovely for my birthday”
“I haven’t eaten anything”.
Have a think about this. Isn’t it great?
* We needed to learn this because Spanish does not use the word “anything” (or “any” or “anyone”). Depending on the context of “anything” in an English sentence, Spanish would use “something” or “nothing”.
Freedom to access information
One of the most important things about communication is making yourself understood.
Simple messages, expressed clearly using uncomplicated language.
Left to my own devices I’m naturally pretty voluble, thanks to my formative teen years reading swathes of Victorian literature, lol.
But where I let rip in my personal writing, when it comes to sharing essential information, I believe in getting to the point.
Management speak annoys me. Bureaucratic twaddle infuriates me. Complicating a sentence doesn’t make it more important. Making up new words in place of perfectly serviceable ones that already exist isn’t clever, it’s egotistic.
But if corporate jargon irritates me – someone who works with words – what about those with much more serious literacy issues?
The isolation and exclusion faced by those who struggle with reading and writing is something that has bothered me for some years, ever since I started helping five-year-olds to read in my children’s primary school classes.
But it was highlighted and emphasised during a workshop at last year’s CIEP conference.
The conference was hosted by Cathy Basterfield, of Access Easy English, a service which interprets written content into simple everyday language, often supported by images.
The statistics Cathy shared at the workshop were eye-opening, to say the least.
Data from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult
Competencies has shown that 33.1% of UK adults and 31.5% of US adults do not have the literacy to manage a range of day-to-day reading tasks.
When you think about the sheer amount of written information you encounter every day, imagine how hard it is for someone who can’t read to navigate.
Instructions for medication. Bank statements. Letters from the local authority. Ingredients on a cereal packet. Directions to a venue. Consent forms.
As Cathy pointed out, everyone has a right to access the same information, and everyone has an equal right to be able to access it at the same time.
Indeed, this right is expressed in the United Nations’ Article 21 – Freedom of expression and opinion, and access to information.
Put simply, everyone has the right to receive information in a way that is understood, such as sign language, braille, large print, so it can be heard, using easy words and pictures, or in a different language.
It’s not just a case of being “fair” or polite*.
People with serious literacy issues are more likely to:
• live in poverty
• struggle with employment
• have poorer health
• be involved in the justice system.
It is incumbent** upon us all to make sure our message, whatever it might be, can be understood by everyone. Whatever the reason for an individual’s issue with literacy, that isn’t the point. Making information accessible and easily understood makes people’s lives easier.
And who wouldn’t want to help with that?
*At this point, some people would probably use the word woke. I’m not going to.
** I could have just said necessary
This is the bit where I write about wordy and linguistic things that take my fancy...