Posts Tagged ‘agents’

Who keeps gate for the gatekeepers?

Here is a story from my unwritten memoir. I was about ten years old and sitting at the kitchen table with my brother, who was three years older. Dad was yet to return home from work and Mum, with a dangling-ash cigarette attached to her bottom lip, was serving egg and chips for tea. The kitchen air was cloudy blue with the smoke from the chip-pan and grease vapour settled in my hair to add piquancy to the broken-biscuit boy-smell I trailed to school each morning.
As was our custom my older brother and I were arguing and, when Mum supported him, I chirruped, ‘It’s not fair.’
To which she responded, ‘You’ve got a chip on your shoulder.’
‘No, I haven’t.’
My brother sniggered, ‘Yes you have.’
I felt a heart-wrenching sense of building injustice, ‘Haven’t.’
‘You have,’ Mum said.
‘I have not.’
This went on for some time, my tears burning ever hotter, my meal forgotten.
Finally, Mum said, ‘You have. Look.’ And she pointed.
I turned my head and squinted down at my shoulder and saw the single chip she had deposited there at the start of the meal.
Ever since I have been aware that when I say: ‘It’s not fair.’ I can be perceived as wearing a deep-fried, potato-based comestible as an epaulette.
So it is with a sense of trepidation I return to the subject of the south-sea sized bubble of hope generated by aspiring authors like me. There are tens of thousands of us in the UK, all harbouring dreams of being published.
Picture workers gathered round a factory gate in the days of casual labour, craning forward, their arms in the air shouting, ‘Pick me!’ to the charge hand with the clip-board whose job it is to take on three. ‘Sorry,’ he says as he lets the chosen few, seemingly picked at random, squeeze past, ‘try again tomorrow.’
And, as the hopefuls shuffle away, eyes down for dog-ends, a new man appears among them. He speaks from behind his hand. ‘I can get you in tomorrow. The charge-hand is my cousin. How much will you pay to get through the back-door?’
The market for aspiring authors looks increasing like this. We huddle around the gatekeepers – agents and editors – and push forward our submissions shouting, ‘Choose me!’ When this fails, we find ourselves confronted by a growing number of academies and consultancies that imply they know where the back door is. If the firm has a relationship with a gatekeeper – it is run by a literary agency, for instance – so much the better. It gives credence to the implication that a publishing deal is that much closer.
It makes me wonder how much money this market of desperate authors controls. It must be sizeable because it’s supporting an ever-expanding band of advisers offering to improve the work, the submission package or both to make entry that much easier.
What if the back-door merchants fulfil their ‘promises’? Given the seemingly inexhaustible supply of wannabes and the relatively small number of books published, how long will it be before the academy or consultancy route becomes the norm? Will these organisations, in the role of gatekeepers’ gatekeepers, control the flow of submissions? In this version of the future, talent is no longer enough. The author has to be be able to flash the cash that buys the back-door pass.
So is this growth of academies and consultancies unfair? Or is it the chip on my shoulder talking?


03 2011

How to lose an author

I am prompted to write this in response to How to avoid getting an agent by a literary agent in America, Rachelle Gardner.  I don’t know of Rachelle or her reputation but her provocative posting has lured me into writing something which matters to me.

It’s a buyer’s market. We constantly hear stories about the thousands of writers vying to have our books published. The numbers are against us. Even if our novel has the literary quality, zeitgeist topicality and marketing potential to be the ‘next big thing’ it still has to rise to the top of the slush pile at precisely the right moment.

The hands that resignedly take it from the pile have to belong to a person who is in the frame of mind to recognise that this one, unlike the fifty that preceded it and the hundreds that follow, is the one. What if the person had a row with their partner that morning? Or their dog was sick the day before? It doesn’t matter to the editor or agent if they miss this one – another will come along. But it does matter to the individual who invested hundreds of hours in the manuscript that is passed over.

We know we are in a lottery. It’s the way the game is set up and it’s the way we play it. But does it mean we have to like it? We buy the ticket knowing our chances are minimal. Surely, this gives us the right to console ourselves with a mini-bitch when our number doesn’t come up. It isn’t ingrained negativity, it’s a normal human reaction to disappointment (aka rejection).

So I say this to agents who may be tempted to lecture wannabe published authors about the destructive impact on our careers of perceived negativity: please remember that we are individuals too. We may look like an amorphous mass of seething hope and our desperation may make us whiff a bit, but actually you depend on us. The only thing we are guilty of is showing a normal reaction to having our hopes crushed – again.

Maybe agents who lecture us wannabe writers about our failings are guilty of something worse – demonstrating insufficient empathy with our plight to be the sort of agents we would want to work with.


01 2011

Fast-track if you can afford it

The Curtis Brown literary agency’s launch of a creative writing school set me thinking about how this is yet another method of separating a wannabe published author from his or her money. Then I thought, why are you always being so grumpy? Why is the glass always half-full? Have you forgotten the power of positive thinking?

I was a salesman working in the UK financial services industry in the early 1980s and the company I worked with sent me and some other high-flyers (yes, really) on an Unleash the Power Within seminar with The Worlds (sic) Number One Success Coach Anthony Robbins. Mr Robbins was a proponent of the ‘science’ of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and the ‘power of positive thinking’. Put simply, this means that if you really believe that you can achieve something and if you commit to it then you will reach your goal.

You are probably thinking that already my tone is unnecessarily negative and that, if this is my response, it is hardly surprising that I have yet to make it as a published author. And you may be right. However, there are two lessons I think I learned from Anthony, which have been borne out by my experience since then.

The first is that NLP – the use of mantra to condition one’s attitude and therefore likelihood of success – does work but not in the way Anthony would have us believe. I don’t think you can achieve a goal merely by constantly repeating to yourself that you have the ability, the will and the commitment to reach it. This is especially true when ‘success’ is in the gift of gatekeepers such as agents and editors.

No, my view is the mirror of this; I believe that negative NLP works. If you say you can’t, you are programming yourself to fail. Your negative mindset predetermines your negative result as certainly as poo follows a meal.

The second thing Anthony said that has stayed with me, is that you can easily determine what you want to get out of life. The answer to one simple question will reveal your life goal. His question then was equivalent to this: if you were the winner of the recent £113 million pounds Euromillions jackpot, what would you do with your time?

When he posed this thirty years ago, my answer was the same as it is now: write. I was hard-headed enough to know the odds of making money from writing were stacked against me. Consequently, I wasn’t going to leave my high-paid job even though Anthony had helpfully pointed out it wasn’t what I should be doing. So I kept on doing it – without enthusiasm and unfulfilled. Hardly a positive result for me or for the company that sent me to the seminar. However, I’m dwelling on the negatives again.

The point is I am writing now and I will continue to write for as long as I can, irrespective of whether or not agents and publishers see any value in what I produce. Does it matter that it doesn’t get published? Of course it does because I want to have an audience for my work. I can’t imagine many more futile exercises than performing a play when you haven’t sold any tickets and the audience comprises two door-monitors and a dog. But there I go being negative again.

My work is good. No, it’s better than good; it’s a bloody sight better than half the stuff that does get published. But my gold is hidden below thick layers of silt in the slush-pile. Perhaps it would be revealed if agents and publishers used a better method than the age-old panning process. Which, I suppose, is where Curtis Brown’s ‘fast-track-if -you-can-afford-it’ writing school initiative comes in.


12 2010

View from the slush pile

Help! I’m drowning under the weight of paper. I’m waving, trying to attract your attention, but you sit up there and you don’t even seem to glance in my direction. Have you forgotten we are here – this carbuncle of unrequited hope?

I know, you’ve told me often enough, it’s a full-time job for you, a competent literary agent, to look after your existing clients and you receive more than enough solicited manuscripts. The slush pile has to be an afterthought – a subsidiary pursuit where the odds against finding a gem are so glaring they blind you to the seething mass’s existence.

You will get round to me, you say, but in the meantime I must be patient; it is counter-productive to do anything to draw attention to myself.

For a serious novelist, who exists outside the charmed circle of the ‘solicited manuscript’, the slush pile is a bleak place to be. I have done everything I can to make my novel publishable. It is currently in its umpteenth draft. It has been restructured and re-drafted after input from a professional editor and then copy-edited.

You have instructed me how you like your submissions to be presented and I have followed your rules to the letter. I have justified why you are the most suitable person to represent me and my book. I have detailed my writerly credentials. I have written the synopsis according to your preference. Yet, here is my professional effort languishing alongside crudely produced first drafts. My publishable, marketable script is suffocating under the ‘everyone-has-a-novel-in-them’ amateurish sludge that makes ‘slush pile’ synonymous with ‘cesspit’.

What’s this? You are taking time out to have a scratch and look around. You absent-mindedly reach in this direction. Evading the other grasping hands, you respond to my cries of ‘choose me, choose me’ and I am lifted from the pile. You glance at the letter. Perhaps you are smiling at its Uriah Heep-like earnestness. You scan the synopsis and your brow furrows. You even read the first three lines of the script but you shake your head. You cast me on a new pile – the one for standard rejection letters: I’m sorry but I have to be totally committed to a work to represent it and this doesn’t quite engage me enough.

As I have blogged elsewhere, I can take your rejection; it’s my hope I can’t stand.

Down here in the netherworld we know it’s not the same for all hopefuls. Celebrities, your relatives, your friends, your colleagues, your acquaintances in the business, fellow alumni of your alma mater, all these exist within the charmed circle and their efforts by-pass the slush pile. Not for them the standard submission process and the six- to eight-week wait. ‘It’s not fair,’ I cry, as the weight of despondency drags me under for the final time.

Okay, I’m a writer with enough experience to craft a good novel so I have learned that life is seldom fair. Some people find their way into the fast track and the rest of us are in the slush. But just because you’re in the cesspit, it doesn’t mean that you’re shit.


07 2010

Launch of Book of Numbers

Monday July 1 was the date for the launch of the National Academy of Writing short story anthology, The Book of Numbers. I had one story accepted this year, The Man Who Beat the Credit Crunch. The event, which was held in the Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross Road, London, went very well. The expected queue of agents jostling to sign up my latest novel, The Spaniard’s Wife, did not materialise.

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07 2009