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Saturday, 23 February 2013

Do I need an agent?

A couple of weeks ago I went to a blogging meeting in London where I met Vivienne Dacosta who blogs as Serendipity Reviews. When Vivienne found out I was unagented she asked me to give her a quote for a blog which she posted a couple of days ago. This is what I said:-

 "Sometimes I think that I would like an agent and sometimes I think that I am better off on my own.I like to know where my work has been sent to and how long it has been there. I like the freedom to write what I want to write and not to feel the pressure of having to write something for an agent. On the other hand if I had an agent who was getting me commissions that would be lovely too."

There is no doubt that there can be huge benefits in having an agent, someone on your side to do all of the negotiating with publishers, sort out foreign rights, t.v. and film deals etc. etc. But if you are one of those people who has tried to get an agent and failed do not despair. You are not alone and just because you don't have an agent it doesn't meant that your dream of being published cannot be realised.

My first book, Ghost Riders, was sent as an unsolicited manuscript. As was my first work of young fiction, Witch Wendy Cats and Hats.

 After Ghost Riders was accepted I dipped my toe into the agent waters and was given short shrift by one agent in particular. I must have mentioned that I'd sent something to Random House because she told me in no uncertain terms not to bother with them and that I'd never get anything accepted by that particular publishing house. Now I have plenty of faults, as my family will confirm, and one of them is stubbornness. But in this case it proved to be a blessing because that comment was like a red rag to a bull. I'll show you I thought. And I did. My novel for children, Oven Chips For Tea, was sent to Random House and accepted.

I've approached a couple of other agents over the years and been turned down and yes there may have been opportunities missed by not having an agent. But it hasn't stopped me sending my work to publishers and it hasn't stopped me getting my work accepted. So far I have had five books accepted which were sent in as unsolicited manuscripts and several others which came pretty close.

You do have to be persistent. If you get something back from a publisher, don't let the disappointment stop you in you tracks, take not of any comments, maybe, if you think they've got a point, tweak your manuscript and send it back out so someone else can have a look at it.

Look how many times some of these fantastic books and authors were reputedly turned down:-

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell - 38 times
Watership Down by Richard Adams - 26 times
The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot - 17 times
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller - 22 times

John Grisham - 15 publishers and 30 agents
Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen
140 times!
I could go on and on but I won't! The point is that if you believe in what you are doing, if you know in your heart that you have a good story then KEEP GOING.
Do not allow yourself to get demoralised. A couple of years ago I wrote an adult book and approached several agents. One asked me to a meeting in London. I was so excited! Having struggled there on the day of an underground strike and walked the last mile and a half to her offices in rather unsuitable shoes which gave me massive blisters, she hadn't even read the first three chapters I had sent in and her assistant, who I had been dealing with, had stayed at home for the day because of the problems on the underground. The agent was nice and chatty but despite her promises at the time I never heard a word from her again. Another agent rang me at twenty past nine in the morning to 'discuss' my book. She then proceeded to tell me everything she thought was wrong with it and say why she didn't want to represent me. Bizarre in the extreme and it actually made me very cross because if I'd been new to writing she could have completely shattered my confidence. But fortunately I knew that this was the same book which several other agents had seen the first three chapters and asked to see the rest of the manuscript so surely it couldn't be that bad!

So here are a few tips when sending out an unsolicited manuscript:-
1. Make sure that your manuscript is in pristine condition.

2. You do need to do your homework. Check with the Writer's and Author's Yearbook or The Writer's Handbook that the publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts. Then double-check on their website because sometimes their terms change.  
3. Please do follow the submission instructions. I always think of these as a sort of test to get past the first hurdle. I'm not saying that editors won't look at your work if you don't follow their guidelines but they are there for a reason so why put their backs up.
4. I usually try to get a name of someone to send my precious work to. If I can't ask another writer friend then I ring up the publishers. Scary yes but actually they tend to be very nice people and you never know you may end up speaking to the editor who will read your work when it is sent in. So, be brave with this one.  

I know of successful authors who have made a conscious decision to go down the unagented route and enjoy the direct contact they have with editors.  

I'd like to end with a quote from Barbara Kingsolver who wrote The Poisonwood Bible:-

This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor
is a precious package.
Don't consider it rejected.
Consider that you've addressed it 'To the editor who can appreciate my work'
and it has simply come back stamped
'Not at this address'.
 Thank-you for reading and if you are a writer who is reading this, I send you the best of luck for your submissions. Because that's something else we all need, those of us with agents and those of us without - a little bit of luck can go a long way and the more you send out your work, the higher your chances of finding it.


  1. Such a positive piece Alex...which is very timely for me!
    I've just read that less than 1 per cent of blloks published are from the you've really done well.

    Btw, I've been on the macmillan website and it says they're not taking unsolicited mss...only in Australia.

    1. Thanks Bridget, I've read that percentage figure too but I'm always wary of statistics! The info about Macmillan taking unsolicited manuscripts came from another writer but as I can't verify it at the moment I've removed it from the post. Thanks for checking.

  2. Well done for sticking with it and now look! You're reaping the benefits! I often wonder if our whole life is based on that 'being in the right place at the right time' premise... and of course grabbing the opportunities when/if they arise.

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