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Why are you submitting your novel to agents?
Most publishers worth talking to won't talk to an un-agented author. If you want to get your work in front of an editor, the person who decides to take a book on within a publishing company, you'll need an agent. Agents are also useful further down the line for things like contract negotiations and a number of other things that make them worth the 15% of your income they'll charge.
No, I mean why are YOU submitting your novel to agents?
Mr Self Publishing, you mean? I've always sent my novels to agents. About 100 rejected Space, about another 80 rejected Olives - A Violent Romance, another 80 or so rejected Beirut - An Explosive Thriller before one signed me up and then 14 publishers rejected that book. Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy was sent out to a small number of agents, 3 or 4, including my own. When HE rejected it, my own blasted agent, I terminated our agreement. And when the others did, I self published it. Believe me, I am very, very good indeed at rejection. I can, we can safely say, handle it.
Why only a few agents for Shemlan?
I was weary then, (and I'm even more weary now) and was pretty much going through the motions before self-publishing the book. Shemlan didn't even get the promotion it deserved because of that weariness, which is a shame because it's probably (IMHO) my best work so far. I reckon if you pick up 10-25 rejections, you're self publishing or sticking it in a desk drawer.
Submitting to three million agents won't change your chances. Don't ever waste your hopes and talents on a desk drawer. Self publish. Hell, what have you to lose? Amazon, Smashwords et al don't cost a penny and if you earn $10 from that book, it's a) $10 more than you had b) been enjoyed by several more people than it took to write.
So you want a publisher?
Yes. I need a UK publisher to get some scale and traction into that market and beyond. With Olives and Beirut selling out their print runs in the UAE, a very small market, and all three books getting positive reviews from media reviewers as well as Amazon and Goodreads I still haven't managed to drive any scale. I need help to do that.
What if they all reject you?
Self publish. I've said this all along at workshops and things: don't do what I did and collect 100 rejections. Submit to a number of agents who are open to submissions and willing to look at work in your genre. If they all pass on it, self-publish rather than get caught in iterative Sisyphean loops of polishing the work and resubmitting it. In my experience the issue isn't necessarily quality.
What is it, then?
Serendipity. Is your book the kind of thing they're looking for? Does it press the right buttons? Does it deal with issues they don't think the market will buy, either for reasons of squeamishness, sensibility or ignorance? Is it in a genre that's selling, with a clear standout 'hook' that makes it a powerful book to market? All these things are commercial decisions agents take.
Being able to write well doesn't mean your book will sell well and knowing what will and won't sell is where agents pretty much stake their livelihoods. 15% of the author's 10% cut of the cover price of a book that doesn't sell is hardly going to send young Clarence and Philomena to Repton, is it?
What do you send them?
A query letter that clearly states who you are and what your book's about, a synopsis of the book as a one page document, a bio of yourself and 10 or 50 pages of the manuscript, depending on their guidelines.
It's very, very important to visit each agency's website, make sure they're working in your genre and that you identify an agent who would be interested in you. Make your submission to that agent, ideally explaining why you think you might be interesting to them. And then you sit back and wait, for anything up to a couple of months.
Do they ever give you helpful feedback?
Almost never. Getting feedback from an agent is quite a deal. An average UK agent gets about 40 submissions a day, an American one anything up to 200. Nobody in their right minds is going to give 40 free writing a book sessions every day. And if they did, they wouldn't be in their right minds for long.
A high percentage of those submissions will be way off the mark, so the winnowing is quite harsh. Very few will have enough spark to merit a closer look and a read of that 50 pages. And very, very few will get through to the next stage, which is a request for a 'full read'.
I've heard that term before. What's a 'full' vs a 'partial'?
There are three stages, really. A query, which is a letter saying I've written a book in this genre, it's about this and that, do you want to take a look? If they say yes to that, they'll ask for a partial read. Many will take the partial as part of the original submission package and, if the book's in a genre and has a hook they can see is commercial, they'll dip into the writing sample you've sent.
A 'partial' as I noted above is a sample of 10 or perhaps 50 pages which demonstrates to the agent that a) you can string two words together b) your plot and characters are developing as per the synopsis. Now, if they think your book's in a commercially viable genre (and they don't already have full complement of writers already working in that genre/area) and stands out within that genre AND you can write and your book seems to be delivering the goods, they'll ask for a 'full read' - that's the whole manuscript.
At this stage you'd better really have finished the manuscript and not be winging it in case someone says yes to it. You send 'em the full MS and they will read or, typically, pay a reader to look at it. Very few get through to the 'full' stage precisely because at this stage an agent is putting a lot of time or a little bit of skin in the game.
So you're almost there!
Yes, you are. But not for sure. I've known full reads come to nothing (and yes, it sucks), so don't go getting all puppyish about it. If the agent thinks the whole thing smells of roses, they'll sign you and go on to represent your books to the publishers they deal with. In an ideal world, loads of publishers will fight to get their hands on your brilliance and the agent will conduct an auction, getting your book into the hands of the highest bidding publisher.
It doesn't happen so much these days, although it does still happen. Large advances are not so much a part of the publishing landscape. Agents like advances, because they pay for Tuscan holidays in nice, satisfying single transactions. Authors have to earn back their advances, so it's a bit like having a mortgage.
Can you play one agent off against another?
No! If you get an offer of representation, take it. Don't go playing silly B's at this stage, just take it. If you have two offers, take the agent you think you can work with - who will do the best job for you and with whom you could bear working. Sign and then sit back and let them get on with selling your book.
If agents aren't buying the kinds of book you're writing, why not write what they do buy?
I'm not really very interested in writing to order. I write what I do because the situations, locations and characters interest me. As a life-long voracious reader, I like the idea of different, intelligent thrillers. And if nobody's buying Middle East thrillers, or editors don't like books about people with cancer or retired IRA bombers, that's my tough luck. That's what interests me - and in my experience so far - has interested readers. I can't write Scottish romances. Not only would it bore me to death, I'd probably be really bad at it.
So what happens next?
You sits back and you waits to hear from 'em. You NEVER ever call 'em up. Just leave it with them. Welcome to your first taste of the passivity of the book industry...