Tuesday, 15 November 2011

(Literary) Agents of Doom

Black Eunuch of the Ottoman Sultan. Eunuque du...Image via WikipediaA writer friend of mine, a rather posh one, once cheered me up on the topic of literary agents. “Don’t worry, Alexander,” he said. “Literary agents are like eunuchs in the Ottoman court. They know it’s done, they see it done all around them, but they’re damned if they can do it for themselves.”

His words did, indeed, lift my spirits at the time. Agents had been rejecting me, something of a habit on their part.

Literary agents are the gatekeepers to editors. Editors are beings of pure energy who have the ability to take your manuscript to Marketing Meetings, if they so desire. But they will only look at your MS if is attached to a recommendation from an agent. There are exceptions to this, but they are relatively few and far between.

Literary agents in the UK receive something between 40-100 submissions a day from authors – it’s more in the US. Even the language used is a give-away – ‘submission’. We’re talking the full-on crawling on your stomach as a Cuban Heel is inserted insidiously between your buttocks and the lash descends.

A submission is a package of your first three chapters (50 pages) in Times New Roman (I have always wanted to be a literary agent just so I can request manuscripts in Comic Sans), twelve point, double-spaced with a 5mm paragraph indent. This would be accompanied by a compelling pitch letter and a synopsis of your whole work. Nothing less will do. When I started out in this game, that whole kit and caboodle had to be slide-bound, packaged up in the post with a self addressed envelope and an international reply paid coupon. Any deviation from this requirement results in getting your MS trashed without the option.

These days most agents, not all mind you, will accept an e-submission, which takes a huge burden off authors but makes it easier for them to spam agents. To be fair to agents, who often appear an appallingly stand-offish lot, authors will behave in extraordinary ways to get manuscripts across to them and will whine, spam and imprecate without any compassion for the target of their unwanted affections.

Fifty pages of book weighs quite a bit and costs about £10 to mail from Dubai to London. I reckon I have mailed about 180 such packages over the nine years I’ve been writing, editing, submitting, editing and submitting again. Never a week went by when I didn’t pop by Sharjah post office to find envelopes I’d printed out waiting for me. These frequently contained a photocopied rejection slip inside saying they were sorry but this wasn’t quite for them, apologising that the weight of submissions meant they couldn’t reply to me personally but wishing me the best of luck with my career in writing. Occasionally, a note would be scrawled in the margins with an observation, but this was pretty rare.

e-submission hurts less than physical submission, but only marginally.

As time went by, I got the occasional nibble. A nibble from an agent means a request for a ‘full read’. And then one fine day earlier this year, I landed me an agent. Robin set to right away, shopping my second novel, Beirut, at the London Book Fair. Twelve editors asked to see the MS. And, seven months later, twelve editors passed.

I’m glad to still have Robin on board, despite my decision to self-publish. But looking back on it, I do rather regret having spent so much time, effort and money on trying to sell my books to literary agents. With the changes in today’s publishing industry, the disruption of Amazon and e-books, the role of a literary agent to an author is no longer as critical as it was when I first started on this road. In fact, it’s never looked so dangerous – agents are starting to tread on publishers’ toes as they try to redefine their role in a world where authors are increasingly choosing to ‘go direct’ to readers. Publishers are also trying to see a clear path to the future.

Of course, there isn’t one. Unless you’re amazon.com...

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