Tag Archives: Literary Agent

How bestsellers are born

An article in today’s Independent newspaper gives a good idea what’s involved in going from the slush pile to the book shelf:


Profile of interviewed literary agent Stephen Barbara:


As a veteran of querying—I sent off my 701st submission on Friday—I’m glad that I’m returning to self-publishing. I’m preparing to launch my Cornish Detective novels this summer, which means building an author platform. Getting two blogs together and deciding how to post on social media doesn’t feel much like being a writer, but at least I’m getting a prompt reaction. Querying feels like throwing a message in a bottle into the sea, hoping to be immediately rescued.

What Literary Agents Should Tell You….

While exploring the Galley Beggar Press website, I came across this wise advice from one of Galley Beggar’s founders Sam Jordison:

“I also want to give a few words of encouragement. Submitting a book takes guts. I know it can feel like cutting your own heart out and serving it up so other people can poke around in the red, bleeding, somehow-still-beating flesh. I’m acutely aware of how dispiriting it can be when this act of emotional exposure is met with either a negative answer or silence. So I want to be clear on a few things. We admire anyone who has finished a novel, let alone been brave enough to send it to us. Just because we might say ‘no’ (or nothing) this time, it doesn’t mean we won’t say ‘yes’ another time. Just because we might feel your book doesn’t fit on our list, it doesn’t mean it might not fit somewhere else. Just because we’ve said ‘no’—it also doesn’t mean we might not have regrets later. (In the past we’ve missed some damn good books. It happens. You can’t always understand what you’ve got in front of you when a manuscript comes in.) 

All of which is a convoluted way of saying that you’ve really got nothing to lose by sending in your work, if you think it fits with what we do. And potentially, lots to gain. Even if it’s quite a long shot…

It’s also a way of saying: don’t give up.”

There are some decent and polite agents around, but on the whole, I’ve found literary agents to be just about the most uncommunicative profession I’ve ever had dealings with—silence being their default setting unless they’ve been programmed to spit out form letters of rejection!

All the same, It’s vital to keep on keeping on with the querying, while investigating other ways of getting your name and stories known to the general public, such as entering competitions.

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I read of one Science Fiction writer (whose name escapes me), who spent several years querying literary agents, getting nowhere. He knew that one particular agency was an ideal match for his debut novel, and even though he’d written several more in the intervening period, he continued to submit this book. On the twelfth submission, he was signed to them. When he sat down opposite his new agent, she claimed to have never heard of him before!

I’m not sure what this proves…other than, that if you don’t persevere no one is going to come out searching for you and your novel.

As John Greenleaf Whittier observed:

Of all sad words of mouth or pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.

Quite by chance, I came across a quote from super-agent Carmen Balcells,  said not long before she died:

‘To be a literary agent: it’s a modest job. But it’s a job that’s important for the writer. It’s a position that you take the right decision for your clients. And the problem is that the ego [of the agents] can get in the way. It’s very important that the agency is a person, one person. It’s not about money.’

I’ve just read a volume of poetry by Ursula K. Le Guin, called Late In The Daywhich included a couple of essays as an afterward. One was on verse form, the other, an extract from the acceptance speech she gave to the National Book Foundation for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

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The whole speech is here, with a video. She has wise words to say about the current state of publishing; this resonated with me:

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship….

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us—the producers who write the books and make the books—accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write….

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I’ve had my own experience of my self-published books being treated like ‘deodorant’, for I uploaded 44 titles to Amazon three years ago. I priced them attractively, but all the same, after about 18 months Amazon contacted me to suggest that I allow them to bundle various short stories and poetry collections with nine other writers’ work—as if my creativity could be shrinkwrapped like a multipack of lightbulbs, toothpaste or deodorant.

This would have given me a profit of 10 cents for each sale, instead of the original $1.99 I’d priced a 6,000-word short story. No skin off Amazon’s nose, as they make their profit whatever happens, and it’s certainly a tempting purchase for a customer, but it put me in the bargain basement, priced at less than what a charity/thrift store would ask for my secondhand book.

The commercial imperative tramples a writer’s message underfoot. It even affects the book cover design, for I’ve read several crime thrillers this year where the illustration on the jacket misrepresented what happened in the story. Sure, it looked alluring or sinisterly malevolent, with a rugged hero, but it was plain that the artist hadn’t read the book, or if they had they were instructed by marketing to sex things up! In this way, books are becoming like processed microwave meals.

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Getting Mad, Baby! What angers you about writing?

Since returning to creative writing six years ago, I’ve scrambled up several steep learning curves to do with the business of writing. These include formatting, book cover design, marketing the ebooks I self-published on Smashwords and Amazon and the all-important lessons of how to write a synopsis and query agents.

I made another round of supplications to the ‘gatekeepers’, in February, after spending the previous two months editing my fifth novel. As any writer knows, that feels like wading through porridge, but there’s still a discernible feeling of achievement in having polished a manuscript.

I’m at a stage where I feel like I’ve created a potentially commercial product—which is how I’m increasingly coming to view my novels—rather than taking joy in them as a readable story. Despite this confidence, I know I’m a nobody, an unpublished author looking for his first publishing contract. Any marketability I have comes from where I live in Cornwall, which is popular as a holiday destination and from being the location of the successful television adaptation of Winston Graham’s Poldark stories.

I know that some bestselling authors are poor writers, but what makes me mad is that if my manuscript was submitted to the gatekeepers by a media celebrity (who’s already got fame and wealth), then it would be snaffled up immediately. Commercially, it’s the way of the world in publishing that someone with an existing high profile, a ‘platform’, will be more attractive a risk than someone anonymous who will take more effort to promote—but it still makes me mad!

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It’s proof that no one cares what you’ve written. Would-be readers are more enticed by already knowing who the author is, than anything to do with the quality of the story. As an example supermodel/supertwit Naomi Campbell has ‘written’ several novels and biographies—I don’t know if she’s read them! 

That’s what makes me angry—realising publishing is a business and has little to do with art.

How about you?

Longest Wait for a Rejection Letter ever!

After spending five months at the beginning of 2015 researching the likes, dislikes, blogs, tweets and YouTube videos of literary agents, and querying 160 of them to a chorus of rejections and total silence, I’ve since run two more campaigns of querying, bringing my total of submissions to 690!

I’ve written five novels in my series featuring a Cornish detective, so can pick and choose which title to use to query. Most agents reply within six months, with the quickest taking only two hours! I have a hide like a rhinoceros, so take rejections philosophically.

I’ve learnt a lot about the querying process, for, like editing, creating a blurb and a synopsis or self-publishing on Smashwords and Amazon, you have to do it to appreciate the problems and refine your technique. 

To my astonishment, two form letter rejections came in during the last week. I queried both agencies 16 months ago! It’s polite for them to eventually reply, though I now have an image of them buried under piles of manuscripts, their hard drives clogged with queries as they labour to say ‘No’ to legions of hopeful writers.

Can any of you beat this record?

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories

In researching the likes and dislikes of a literary agent this evening, I found an interview with her in which she recommended that prospective clients should consider the shape of their story.

She recommended that they watch this video clip, which features Kurt Vonnegut and an appreciative audience:

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This short clip brings up a series of videos with famous authors – not that I’m trying to distract you.

The Page 117 Rule

Over many years of reading advice about editing and making submissions, I’ve come across mysterious references to the Page 117 Rule.

We’re told to have a strong opening to our story, one that hooks the reader making them want to find out what happens next. When querying, we’re often instructed to send the first three chapters or first 10,000 words. Noah Lukeman wrote The First Five Pages explaining how to stay out of the rejection pile.

One of the dangers of writers obsessing about the first few pages is that they polish them too much, neglecting the rest of the manuscript which slumps into tedious dross in Chapter 4.

There were a couple of posts that mentioned Page 117 in my Quora feed this morning.

Personally speaking, I’ve never understood the importance placed on a book’s beginning. I understand that the same part of a manuscript needs to be chosen as an industry standard for assessing writing, but I’ve never chosen to read a book because of a killer opening. Nor have I rejected a novel if it starts slowly, giving it at least until Page 50 to decide if I want to read on. The only time I’ll dip into the middle of a story while standing in the library, is if I’m trying to recall if I’ve read it before, especially when it’s part of a series. It’s Amazon that has driven up the importance of the opening, with their Look Inside feature.

All the same, the Page 117 Rule might have some worth. I tried it on my five Cornish Detective novels—curious to see if the story had picked up the pace by this point—also looking for any similarities in mood. I found that my Page 117s all described how the investigations were progressing, with three of the stories featuring my protagonist detective interviewing the murder suspect.

This was entirely unplanned and I’m not sure what it means about how unknowingly I pace a plot. 

What do you think of the Page 117 Rule?

How do you choose a book to read?

I tend to go by reviews in newspapers and online, and if I’ve read the author before. Cover blurb telling me about the story has a minor effect.

How does your Page 117 look?