Sunday, December 16, 2007

Masterclass - The Necessities of an Agent, with Ben Mason

Shiel Land Associates are a literary agency based in London, England, boasting a number of big name writers and celebrities:
Including Peter Ackroyd, Melvyn Bragg, Stephanie Calman, Steven Carroll, David Cohen, Anna del Conte, Elizabeth Corley, Seamus Deane, Erik Durschmied, Alan Garner, Robert Green, Bonnie Greer, Susan Hill, Richard Holmes, HRH The Prince of Wales, Mark Irving, Simon Kernick, Richard Mabey, Steve Rider, Martin Riley, Tom Sharpe, Martin Stephen, Jeffrey Tayler, Andrew Taylor, Alan Titchmarsh, Rose Tremain, Phil Vickery, John Wilsher, Paul Wilson, Chris Woodhead and the Estates of Catherine Cookson, Patrick O'Brian and Jean Rhys.
Before you ask... their website doesn't work - not very forward thinking in this day and age I know, but we can't assume reasons for this. Many agents still haven't got a proper web presence.

Ben Mason, one of their agents, who came to speak at NAW this week, has 45 clients that he looks after personally. Having started from a psychology background Mason is primarily interested in finding unpublished newcomers . Most agents, he says, are 40+ years-old, have high levels of workload and their client lists are full, and though all will say (as publishers do) that they aren't looking for new clients, none of them can be so picky as to not entertain a submission pile.

Getting new authors off the ground, he says, required far more effort than an established author. The breakout novel, the new book, it needs a hard push and cannot rely on any of the tactics in place for those established in the trade - not in word of mouth, prime shelf positions, marketing, tv or radio time.

The Agent's Primary Role

main aim today is to prove why an agent is more important to a writer than a publisher (a publisher, of course, is essential but there is a time and a place... do pay attention).

Authors are their own best editors. They know the work, should know their own style and are best place for critiquing their own work. There are always holes and in particular, as Mason pointed out to us, our work on the NAW course isn't intended for the marketplace yet and we aren't pitching to that level. The agent will help prepare the full submission package, assisting on editorial input.

Agents know publishers. They understand the breakdown of these companies; who works where and for whom. The book... your book, the agent knows, will be broken down by five separate units within a publishing house, each of them considering whether or not the book is worth publishing. It is essential, therefore, to be able to boil everything down to single or double sentences. If you can't pitch your work concisely then you're not necessarily going to appeal to anyone and the entire submission will fall through the floor.

After the big submission to the publisher, the agent will guide you through the process of publication and the contract (which has become more and more difficult what with audio books, eBooks, and all the foreign rights). The agent hopes to carve up the rights allowing them to be managed separately between the UK and Commonwealth (inc: Australia and Canada), the US, and Foriegn Rights (translations - selling rights in Germany, for example, can generate as much as those sold in the UK).

The author is given an advance, which is payable in segments; money on signature, on final publication, on release and on the separate rights. This can be released over as much as 4 years. It therefore helps to generate buzz, and requires a great deal of understanding and knowledge on the agent's behalf.

The author's work is edited by the agent, working with the author for a time before even attempting contact with a publisher, so as to ensure the best possible iteration of the book. Once accepted, the book is edited by the in-house editor (which can possibly be a tricky process as publisher's are buying the author's book and have a lot more authority). Editors are creative people, says Mason, and not business people. Working relationships between writers and editors can be great but have to be a match in order to work. If the editor's demands for the work doesn't meet the author's then the agent may need to support and massage the author. Just remember that publishers are gamblers. They take a gamble on every new author and new book they release.


The book jacket is very important and it isn't the case that the author gets to choose. gave examples of some authors wanting their child's artwork on their cover... but it's not possible. Authors headed for publication are in a business environment, despite their creative roots, and though covers may be a bone of contention, the author has (again) sold the book to the publisher. Waterstones and Tesco now have the power to tell a publisher that they don't like the cover of a book and the publishers do go back and redesign and reprint.

Harry Bowling released a book in which, on the first page, the child of the protagonist is killed off. The publishers made the brilliant decision to depict a child in a parent's arms on the jacket! Go figure.


Publishers, says Mason, don't generate big expenses for marketing, adverts, the web or book clubs - these are all useful and available, but for the first time author much of the onus for this is put back to the author. Author's are advised to create their own web presence and get them selves about (it's worth a look at Robert Ronsson's Masterclass on Self Publishing for some brilliant and pertinent advice in this respect). There are book signings, festivals, and Mason places much emphasis on authors building relationships with other authors (there is nothing like networking).

The Selling

It is important to get on with the marketing as soon as possible. Waterstones in particular have a short shelf life for those books not selling well - and a book that doesn't sell well in hardback isn't going to get accepted for sale as a paperback. And despite the trade bodies growing into the web market place (Amazon in particular) the high street is still the main location for book purchases.

The process of selling begins with the surveying of certain (key) buyers in the book trade, to find out what they think of the "product". Testing the buyers' reactions is essential. The publishers are trying to appeal and please. If, for example, Waterstones buys 3000 copies for a new writer, this is considered good.

The Slush Pile

Shiel Land
receives roughly 300 unsolicited manuscripts a week. The majority of them are decided upon in their first lines or on the weakness of the covering letter. Mason has received bribes, chocolate, pictures and more. Even our own Peter Cox has received a manuscript in a glass case (it turned up smashed).

In your covering letter you should attempt to communicate your own identity (whether or not that is similar to other authors). Show your place in the market (you have to do your research here, both in terms of where your book goes on the shelves but also which agent, particularly within an agency, is the right fit for your genre). Avoid CVs, an agent's interest lies in the writing, so get straight to it asap. A 1 page synopsis is preferable and it doesn't have to give the ending - this of course is all at the whim of the agency, and you must do your research and submit what is requested.

Literary or Genre

The industry doesn't, Mason says, talk about literary and genre delineations, however literary books are far more difficult to publish. The problem with them is that they can inspire or be really awful. The signal from the trade buyers may be to commercialise the cover.

Literary writers, says Mason, must be brilliantly inventive. Don't get blinded by panic half way through and beam the characters to the moon (more wildly wacky ideas have passed his eyes). These works must contain their creativity.

And, for every definitive way in doing things there are others. The independent publishers were set up as a way of railing against the conglomerates (an Orion for every Random House), and are more prepared to try Literary works. Mason gave us an example of one book that he'd loved that had sat in his bottom drawer for five years - no one wanted it. On the off chance, two weeks ago, a guy he knew had left a publishing house to set up his own, and Mason submitted the piece to him only to discover the guy loved it. Sold!

Agents can accept on the basis of a single page, or on three. A submission can be made, accepted and then the agent receives 1 chapter every month from the author, edits it and waits for the next. MG Harris was accepted by Peter Cox based on her writing, her initial maniscript was scrapped and she had to write a new one.

Publishers, unlike agents, want a completed manuscript. As Mason puts it, agents represent people, but publishers publish books.


2000 copies sold in hardback is considered a respectable first sell for a new author. The review of a book in trade magazines and papers used to be on hardbacks only, but this is changing. Note: it is not respectable for an established author to sell only 2000 copies.

20,000+ sales in paperback is thought of as respectable for a first time author, but books have a small window (shelf life). If they aren't selling, they will be pulled. And, as with the hardbacks, this number is only respectable for the first time author.

Remember that submitting to an agent gives you support. An agent can often work for an author for free for up to two years (working on spec) with no idea that the book will sell to anyone. That is invested trust you don't get from a publisher.


A final note, contracts and authors are protectected by the Association of Authors Agents. And quite often these contracts can include a 6 weeks termination aspect. Either side may, at any time, end the agreement with 6 weeks notice.


Miss April said...

The plural of publisher is publishers, not "publisher's" as Ben Mason has erroneously written and therfore he is not in a position to edit anyone's book.

R1X said...

Picky picky.

Actually, that would be my bad, during the transcribing of the masterclass. But since it's a blog and I so hate having to read my own posts once I've written them, errors are bound to create mischief from time to time.