Writing and publishing

In the land of the blind, could the literary agent be king?

literary agent self publishing

Writers have a problem.  It’s harder than it ever was to get published.  It’s also easier than it ever was to get published.

A writer can prepare their work for submission to literary agents and publishers and over the course of at least a year, get a folder full of rejections.  The market is risk averse, publishers are consolidating and fewer people are reading (half of 16-24 year olds don’t read for pleasure these days and over a third of 25+ year olds don’t read for pleasure).

Yet in less than an hour, I can have my book on the Amazon website, available to earn money and visible to the entire online world.

Along with around 400,000 other self-published fiction titles per year!

Increasingly, I see comments on forums and newspaper articles1 lamenting the problem with such a huge volume of books.  How do good books stand out and how do good writers get the readers they deserve?

Millions of pixels have been filled with the views of writers, publishers, agents and readers on what it all means, but as a writer, daunted by the thought I would need to self-publish, I wondered how on earth I could establish a readership and begin to make money out of it, so I could do it for a living.

I’d read about the significant promotional efforts of other writers, some ‘gurus’ advocating so much time be devoted to marketing your work that you’d probably have no more than five or six hours a week to do any writing.  Am I the only one that thinks this is a depressing state of affairs?

It struck me that this effort is all very well if your work is good enough, but how do you tell?  Are you marketing your heart out for a product that is crap, to put it bluntly?

I was further disheartened when I decided one day to read fifty odd self-published ‘Look Inside’ previews on Amazon, from writers advertising their wares on forum threads and comments threads, many of which spoke of their extraordinary marketing efforts.  The writers of these fifty works would likely have been marketing at least as, if not more, intensively than I could for eyeballs and a readership.

All but one of the books, in my opinion, ranged from obtuse and unbearably slow to having missing full stops, capital letters and spelling mistakes.

But each of them sit as proudly as my book would have in a cursory search of the genre, so why spend all that time trying to find one pearl in the vast sea when ‘properly’ published writers are bound to at least have avoided basic mistakes and will have put together a coherent piece of work (due to the investment on behalf of said publishers).

It is still crucial that a book is to be written well to attract any attention, either traditionally or self-published, but how can a reader find the good stuff that didn’t fit the publishers’ trends, or just didn’t get lucky? How does the self-published writer get a spark of interest that seeds the viral spread that might mean you can earn more than the cost of a takeaway for your years of work?

May I introduce the literary agent.

Among other things, the agent is a voracious and passionate reader whose goal is to find writing so good that they think both they, the writer and a publisher can make money from it.  Let’s be clear; to survive as an agent, that passion for your chosen genre, indeed writing and books in general, has to be there if you’re to succeed.  Furthermore, your critical eye has to be good, because whatever work you spend time promoting needs to be able to pay the bills.

The superficial paradox here is that on the one hand the agent is making a cold and hard calculation: ‘Can I make money from this book?’ but it’s simultaneously a calculation born of passion; they answer ‘Yes’ to that question because they love what it is they’ve just read, they couldn’t put it down.

They’re doing the legwork for readers, sifting through, as an average per agent, something like 50-80 manuscripts a week, while working to represent the writers they do have.

If publishers trust agents to find good writers, it follows that we could too.  But if digital publishing means that traditional publishing structures aren’t all-powerful, then literary agents are in a unique position.  They have the talent signed up, they have access to freelance artists and copy editors and they have websites and digital publishing behemoths by which to sell their writers’ work.  Crucially, they have almost no costs in comparison to publishers and can thus offer more generous terms for writers, themselves too, the benefit for the writer being a much better shot at getting eyeballs on their work, along with editing and proofing services to boot.

An agency website that contains details of the work of its ‘non-published’ writers is a potentially powerful new source of filtering for the reader when it comes to looking for a book to buy.

You don’t have to sift through Amazon anymore, and indeed, you’re probably not doing it now, but if agencies start to advertise themselves in terms of the writers and genres they specialise in, they provide a compelling new focal point for readers and reviewers (via review sites, blogs, fanzines, reading groups etc.) to find new work.  The directory of such new services and exposure for writers would quickly be established by the ‘crowd’.

The literary agent may well find themselves in an awkward position with regard to the long established relationships they have with publishers as it stands, because it threatens the model.  But if the work they offer has been rejected by publishers, for whatever reasons, the agent is free to promote work they believe in by this alternative method.

If we’re looking for something a bit different from what we’re seeing in Barnes & Noble or Waterstones, something edgier perhaps, less ‘processed by a committee’, we currently either have to trawl review sites or Amazon itself to make a decision.

A directory of literary agents’ online shops, full of writers that the agents think are good enough to be published, would seem to be a powerful and interesting new filter for readers.  The means are there, the mechanisms are not, currently.  These could be interesting times for the enterprising literary agent.

  1. http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/feb/22/sci-fi-hunt-independently-published []

2 thoughts on “In the land of the blind, could the literary agent be king?

  1. This is a very interesting and worthwhile idea, and I wouldn’t be surprised if something like this doesn’t develop.

    It would certainly be of interest to readers who currently have no need ever to engage with the great mass of self-published books, and no desire to either, and who are also understandably suspicious of “writers’ groups” masquerading as “small presses” and all the multitudinous ugly little things out there in the digital ether which, ultimately, place the aspirations of writers way above those of readers…

    But a brand of agent-approved but technically self-published books would be very exciting indeed.

    Of course, it would blur the lines between agents and publishers, and if it worked I’m sure there’d very quickly be a tendency for agents to hang on to even the publisher-salable stuff for themselves – which would then mean that the agents actually became publishers!

    And of course, none of this would meet the approval of the vast horde of “mainstream” self-publishing champions, who would still howl bitterly about “gatekeepers”…

    1. Hi Tim,
      Many thanks for your comment, I agree completely. I know the agency I’ve just signed up to, the Ampersand Agency, have a print on demand offering in the works, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if there isn’t some kind of ‘side-on’ career opportunity here for me alongside the writing :)

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