The market is overcrowded – very competitive.
- of 200,000 books sold per year, 190,000 sold less than 3000 copies.
- of 85,000 new (first-time) books published – 60,000 sold an average of 18 books
- it costs a publisher £7500 to publish a book (printing, marketing, design, distribution) and that doesn’t include any advance – generally it is reckoned that 20,000 must be sold to cover costs
The new writer therefore has to stand out. The question is how? First look at the market – what is selling?
The market is divided between literary fiction and commercial fiction (a distinction that is beginning to dissolve)
- Literary Fiction takes about 5% of the market. Important to have a big concept, big theme, not parochial small town ideas. Often what sells it is Prizes, and programmes like Richard and Judy (which is ending). Original structure and good writing is important – e.g. The Book Thief.
- Commercial Fiction takes about 95% of the market. Despite reports sales are vibrant – but in specific areas – sci-fi is quiet, crime is overcrowded, thrillers and romance are thriving. The pending recession suggests that like in the 80s (look at trends then) ‘sex and shopping’ is a likely to make a comeback. Other strong areas: (post Dan Brown) adventure and history (with esoteric references), male relationships (with father, with son, with woman).
- Children’s market is strong – especially 7-12 years
How do you get an agent?
The agent’s goal is to find the next talent – but they are overworked so they aim to reject – to weed out. The writer’s aim is therefore not to give the agent a chance to reject you.
Provide – a synopsis (3-4 pages maximum), 3 chapters or less, 1 short page covering letter. Luigi’s agency receives approximately 5000 submissions a year (100 a week). – of these they will look at 60 (5 a month).
What happens when a submission is received?
The parcel is opened. If there is anything more than a simple rubber band for binding it is rejected.
The cover letter is read. If there are any spelling mistakes or it is badly presented it is rejected.
The first paragraph of the first page of the text (not the synopsis) is read – then the second paragraph – if it looks interesting it is put aside, otherwise it is rejected.
In half an hour he will process 40 submissions and put aside possibly 4, of those he will read pages 2 and 3 – and probably reject – resulting in perhaps 1 a week.
He will then read that submission (the first three chapters – or less).
If he likes it he will ask to read the rest of the book.
There will be no feedback or suggestions re-revision – though if he is really interested he may send it to a reading agency for a critique.
The language, style, rhythm, sound – is very influential. So it is important to listen to other people reading it (reading aloud to yourself is valuable, but hearing other people read shows better how it will be received).
Then plot, storyline and characters.
‘Me too publishing’
There is a tendency for (especially big) publishers to follow a successful trend. He gave the example of Atlantis by David Gibbins. This was initially rejected by many publishers, so was sold to a small publisher. It became a best-seller, and the big publishers went back to the agent to ask for some the same (not similar but exactly the same!). Then they went back through the slush pile to find something – and did.
The Agents Association has a list of accredited agents – and it is best to look for agents on the list (marked in the Writer’s Handbook).
If you are lucky enough to have different agents interested, look at how you feel you could work with that agent, the types of book they have sold, their market share etc.
The agents work really starts when they take you on – then they or an editor may work with you, though the publishers too will often want a further level of editorial input.
The relationship is essentially with the agent – not the agency. If the writer work on different types of book it is acceptable to use a different agent – though often in consultation with the initial agent.
The going rate is 15%, though there are moves to try and increase this. Advances are very variable – and there has been a suggestion that the agent’s commission should be on a sliding scale linked to the advance.
The Writers Yearbook , and the Writer and Artists Yearbook have lists of agents – but to find who represents a specific writer look initially in the acknowledgements page of the book or contact the publisher (or Google the writer).
Small versus large agencies
Small agencies are more responsive, more accessible, and you get to know the team – and they may promote you harder.
With larger agencies you may have less contact, more competition but possibly larger advances.
However in most cases you will go with the one who will take you on.
Are Agents proactive in looking for new talent?
The masterclass wasn’t a proactive exercise to find new writers. He stressed that people should not think that agents are charities or see promoting new writing as their role. They simply don’t have the time for that. They operate a business.
Remember however that the selection is very much a matter of personal taste – so it is important to send out to as many agents as you can. Don’t worry if agents have rejected you in the past – they will not remember your name.
- My thanks to Roger for his notes