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Literary Agents, Rip Off Merchants & One Armed Bandits

Literary Agents! I doubt that anyone who has ever tried to publish a book has not come across literary agents. For those unfamiliar with literary agents, most big name, traditional publishers do not deal directly with authors. Prospective authors need to engage the services of a literary agent and they are a very picky lot when it comes to who and what they will take on board. If you have read my blog on why I am a literary pariah, you will know that I think literary agents are a rum lot.

Not that I have ever met a literary agent. I am sure that they are like some nationalities: when you meet them individually they are perfectly charming, likeable people, but en masse it’s a completely different story.

Like many wannabe authors, I have, of course come across literary agents, or rather I have sent my manuscript off to them. About forty five of them, in fact. About twenty two, just under half were kind enough to reply, though sadly, for me, without any offers to take up my novel. I do have to say that all twenty two were polite and suggested it was worth my while trying elsewhere. There are, I should point out, quite a lot of them, around about about one hundred and sixty in the UK and Ireland. The agencies range in size, generally small to medium enterprises but some are part of international groups. All have a common cause; seeking out new authors of exciting, beautifully written great literature. Is that what they do? They are after all businesses and businesses are there for one purpose – to make money.

It’s a moot point as to whether or not ‘great literature’ sells a lot of books, or whether books become ‘great literature’ simply because they are best sellers. It’s not a simple question though, you won’t find Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, Franz Kafka or Charles Dickens in the Sunday Times’ or Amazon’s best seller lists, although the rankings suggest they do sell consistently well. As for best sellers, well are the works of Jeremy Clarkson or Prince Harry destined to become great literature? Perhaps not.

What you have to remember is that literary agents do not sell books. Publishers sell books, and what are publishers interested in? Books that sell or books that are great literature? I think there is only one answer to that, and perhaps it is clearly exemplified by the recent proposed changes to the works of Roald Dahl. Reportedly, the BFG’s coat is no longer black, and ‘as white as a sheet’ has been replaced by ‘as still as a statue’. What purpose can these changes serve, other than to continue coining it in from a new generation of easily offended readers? What can we look forward to? What will become of ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘Snow White’? Will ‘On the Black Hill’ become ‘In the Brooding Landscape’?

Literary agents are not, of course, responsible for the actions of publishers, but they do provide the raw materials, so to speak, that feed the publisher’s presses. Do literary agents have the noble and lofty goal of improving the quality of what publishers sell? Or are they going to provide them with what they are asking for? Books that sell, regardless of whether or not they are great literature.

It’s not that I am being cynical, well not that cynical, but publishing is a business, and a business in which most of the products probably sell at a loss. In an earlier blog, I mentioned an article in ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2021’ on the mathematics of publishing, by Scott Pack. Average success for a book is probably about 3,000 copies. If the book sells for £7.99 (2021 prices!), then, after trade discount, the publisher will earn £3.59 per copy, or £10,787 in total. Out of that he has to cover production, as well as sales and marketing costs, which probably come close to £10,000. A small profit? Sadly not. Books are sold on a sale or return basis, and on average about 15-20% will be returned for a refund. If that isn’t enough to tip the balance into a loss, then the author has to be paid a royalty and indeed may already have been paid an advance on royalties before the book appeared. To put it more simply, most books make a loss and the pressure is on to find a best seller to balance the books – whether or not it is great literature. And who supplies the publisher with potential best sellers? The literary agents.

Advertising budgets and public interest have a lot to do with reaching the best seller lists, but don’t write off authors just because they are celebrities. Perhaps not destined for perpetual fame, but I have been pleasantly surprised by Graham Norton and Robert Peston. High praise perhaps from a reader who was disappointed with Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall) and Emile Zola (Thérèse Raquin).

But I digress, I should continue my discourse about literary agents. You should not send your work to a randomly selected literary agent, you need to pick and choose to whom you offer your work. These are smart people who know what they are looking for and, usually, individual agents specialise in particular genres, so some homework is needed before sending off the manuscript.

Your homework will show that most literary agents ask for three things; a cover letter, a one page synopsis and the first three chapters of the book. And woe betide you if a typo or two creeps in there. Literary agents get a lot of manuscripts sent to them, one of the reasons they claim they are often too busy to send you a reply – though how much work does it take to send a standard form letter, by email, thanking the author but regretting you are unable to offer a contract? They do get a lot of manuscripts, and no doubt a reasonable proportion really are, to be polite, pedestrian and ordinary, or, indeed, just badly written. Is that an excuse for the seemingly universal habit of calling unsolicited manuscripts ‘the slush pile’? Does the term ‘slush pile’ suggest literary agents have a prejudiced or jaundiced view of all unsolicited manuscripts?

Why only three chapters you might ask? Well, I imagine that in the days when manuscripts were typed or printed, double spaced on paper, it was quite a practical solution. Sufficient information to make a judgement on the quality of the work, without clogging up the office with subsequent piles of paper for disposal. With electronic submission, however, that argument no longer holds. Would the file size of a complete manuscript really overburden the capacity of a literary agent’s computer system? A 350 page Word document would take up about 350 kB of memory. Are literary agents simple stuck in the past?

I have already noted that you must be meticulous in rooting out typos and spelling mistakes in everything you send. These would seem to be anathema to literary agents. I did, once, watch a YouTube video of a literary agent who was supposedly giving advice on how make a successful submission. His offhand and, quite frankly, arrogantly superior manner as he ridiculed one submission, rejected on the basis of a single page, made sure I never sent my manuscript to him. If typos or spelling mistakes mean instant rejection, then I do have to ask a question. Can these super talented demigods, the guardians of the portals of publication, not see great fiction behind a couple of typos? Or do they just want an easy ride when it comes to editing?

Perhaps one telling remark about the real business of literary agents is embedded in one of their polite replies when declining to take on a manuscript. Phrases such as ‘not the kind of book we are looking for at the moment’ or ‘not quite right for my list’ imply that there are some genres that do not match the agent’s current area of interest. Turning down great literature because they would prefer historical fiction to a thriller, ‘at the moment’? Really?

Not all literary agents are bad, well not that bad. To be honest, when I first started submitting my three ‘chaptersworth’ they were not in a good state for publication, though my comment above, essentially not seeing the wood for the trees, still stands. I did hear a story that said Mick Herron’s first book in the Slough House series was so poorly received that his publisher turned down the chance to take on his next two novels. It was only because Herron’s literary agent, who believed in him, persisted, apparently for the best part of seven years, that he became a successful author, eventually. Is it true? I hope so.

So much for literary agents but where, you are asking, are the rip off merchants and one armed bandits promised in the title of this blog? Well, they really come about from a consideration of the odd way in which literary agents work, a way that I doubt would be tolerated in many other industries. Imagine, for a moment, that I am a fashion buyer for a major high street retail store. A representative from a fashion house comes along, trying to interest me in his company’s latest offering. ‘I am terribly busy,’ I tell him, ‘can’t look at that just now. If you just rip off a sleeve (aka one arm) and put it over there, on the rag pile, I should be able to get around to looking at it in the next six weeks or so. If I like it, I’ll get back to and you can show me some more, but if I don’t, sorry, I am far too busy to let you know. Rest assured, however, I shall look at it meticulously, but if a line of stitching is even one millimetre out of straight, I won’t bother examining any more.’

How long do you think I would last in that job?

Have I, I wonder, just shredded any chance that I might have, in the future, of getting a literary agent to give me an unbiased review of my work? I doubt it. They are far too important and busy, seeking out great literature and unheard of, but exciting, new voices. I doubt they have time to read the blog of someone who, as you know from my previous posts, is just a literary pariah whose work doesn’t match their noble aims, nor reach their high standards!

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