Wednesday, 18 November 2009


Unpublished writers are always being advised to get an agent. You're constantly told how important it is, and how the agent must be a good agent, and how to spot crappy ones and attract wondrous ones [hooray for mine!]. I have myself waxed* lengthily about the virtues of wondrous agents.

[For clarity: I didn't mean that I have myself waxed...]

Frankly, you must be sick to death of hearing about the glorious importance of agents. And here's another article saying the same thing, and very rightly and persuasively, too.

There's a problem with us banging on about this, though. In fact, there are at least two problems.

Problem 1: It's not easy to get one.

Problem 2: For some types of writing/writer, it's absolutely impossible, to the extent that even those of us who say agents are necessary will agree that you shouldn't bother to try. We'll shake our heads and say, "Oooooh, nooooo, an agent won't look at you, I'm afraid." And then you quite understandably want to knock our contradictory heads together.

Before we come to solutions [hooray for solutions], it may help to understand the reasons for both these problems:
  • agents only earn a % of your income, so while you're wondering how the hell you can survive on a £3000 advance, they're wondering the same about a much smaller amount. Therefore, they can't be expected to take you on unless they've good reason to expect not just a book but a career out of you. Also, all the work they do for you won't be recompensed for ages. [You might say the same about your own writing, but that's your choice; it is also their choice.]
  • So, if you're a one-book wonder or, er, in the twilight zone of your writing life, you may not be a viable proposition. [I know this sounds harsh. I'm simply stating what has to go through an agent's mind, as opposed to a publisher's. A publisher can still be very interested in you. And in certain circumstances an agent may be, too. I'm talking about likelihoods, not certainties.]
  • And if your genre is a low-earning one (such as memoir, poetry, academic or specialist writing), again, you're simply not worth the effort. Don't take this personally: agents have to earn a  living.
So, solutions. In other words, if you are someone who can't have an agent, by virtue of the type of writing you do, or if for some other reason you decide to do without an agent, how can you make sure you don't sign your life away and miss out on all the wonderful opportunities that good agents find for authors?

If you're to persuade a publisher to take your book, you must see the world through their eyes, know how they think, know why they do what they do. How? Luckily, I have a few suggestions. Otherwise that would be a pretty silly point to make.
Carole Blake's book, From Pitch to Publication. 
Carole is a director of Blake Friedman, leading UK literary agency.

The Writer's Handbook  -
a must for all writers both before and after publication

Research your rights and responsibilities with regard to things like copyright, intellectual property right, digital rights, ebooks, territories. Every writer should know about the first two; unagented writers need to learn about the others. Why? Because otherwise, when you're offered a contract (happy day!) how will you know whether it's acceptable or the best you could have?
    Fortunately, being offered a contract usually allows you at least associate membership of the Society of Authors (in the UK  -  and also, I believe, the separate organisations in NZ and Aus). This means that the experts there will look at your contract and advise you  -  free. No unagented writer should pass up this opportunity.

    Other organisations which can be useful, at least for meeting others who may know more than you, are SCBWI (The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators), PEN, Scottish Book Trust, Book Trust, Literature Training, NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education) and regional writing groups. Some of them (eg Literature Training, Book Trust and Scottish Book Trust) don't require membership and are there to offer advice to all interested people.

    There's a vast amount of advice on the internet or available from friends and acquaintances. Some of it is fantastic in the sense that it's excellent; some of it is fantastic in the sense that it's based on fantasy. The human temptation is to follow the advice that we like the sound of  -  it's called confirmation bias. We ignore what we don't like at our peril because the truth is often unpleasant or difficult. So, be ruthless in your analysis of what advice you will choose to follow.

    As you know, I am starting a literary consultancy, Pen2Publication, in order to offer professional (ie not free) advice. I am doing this because I think that if you want good individual advice you have to pay for it. I and my fellow bloggers, devoted as we are to your success, can only give general advice and can't be expected to analyse each individual situation in our own time. And good advice does need to analyse the individual writer's situation and writing. So, if you want the best advice for you, and you don't have an agent, you will need to pay for it. Unless Mother Theresa has reincarnated herself without my knowing. Mind you, I don't think she'd be the best person to advice on publication.

    This is an idea I had five minutes ago. It struck me that when I was struggling to become published, I knew no one who was trying to do the same, and certainly no one who had succeeded. So, I had no concept of what was acceptable or normal. Nowadays, it's easy to find other writers in the same position as you, or a little way ahead. The blogosphere is full of them. So, get down with the bloggers and Twitterers, find fellow writers who seem to have the same goals as you and join together to support each other and share information.

    One of the best ways to make the right contacts for this and to get advice coming your way would be to blog. I blogged about blogging here and Twittering here. I love Twitter and it's a veritable joy to see conversations going on between several of you who are there too, sharing info and support in a fabulous way.

    I suppose that all of this can best be summed up like this: get informed and get connected. It's important for all authors to do this, but for the unagented it's utterly essential.


      Kit Berry said...

      Wonderful collective noun, Nicola!

      Simon Kewin said...

      Ah, more words of wisdom Nicola! The publishing partner idea is very interesting. I can feel a blog post and a tweet coming on!

      Lauri Kubuitsile said...

      I don't really get the agent thing, to be honest. I'm just about to have book 11 published and we don't use agents down here (Southern Africa). I'll admit I read a lot and I'm quite particular about contracts. I'll fight for better, I'll scratch out (with my talons if I'm annoyed enough) bits I don't like and ask until I understand.

      Perhaps I don't know what an agent can do for me besides share my money.

      Sally Zigmond said...

      As a writer without an agent who feels very much 'in the twilight zone' of my writing life, I have to say that this latest blog post of yours has depressed me beyond measure instead of firing me up as they usually do.

      Who knows, though? There may be many agents reading this who are clamouring for a grey-haired, overweight, jaded writer with a gammy leg? (And a few publishing credits)

      Hmmm. Perhaps not.

      Time for my cocoa...

      catdownunder said...

      So, just because I am ancient cat who lives Downunder and will never write a string of best sellers, especially a string of best sellers about Downunder, there is no hope for me? I may as well give up? I should just play at writing on my blog? I spent eight of my lives disposing of mice and I wanted to spend the ninth writing. My fur is all over the place. It's hot. I feel flat. I am, in short, depressed. I will go and scratch on my blog. (I will ignore the fact that you just muttered, "At last I got rid of that dratted cat!)

      Nicola Morgan said...

      Lauri - all I can say is that despite the fact that I could perfectly well get some contracts myself, after having 90 books published, I am still firmly attached to my agent. She mediates, advises, manages, holds my hand AND shouts at publishers. She is my rock. And she increases my income. I am in awe of you that you can do all that AND write!

      Sally - nooooooooo! You have plenty of time for a very "viable" and profitable career in front of you, silly! I am amazed that this post depressed you. It's a really important and obvious fact of writing life that an agent earns only a percentage of what you earn, so, if what you could earn is not much, an agent couldn't be interested. BUT the point of the article was to show you that there are ways to manage without them.

      Cat - same applies to you. Agents are not charities. Most of them are individuals who have to eat.

      Wake up, guys. No one owes us a living. We may be artists but we shouldn't be dippy. One foot in heaven, the other in the real world.

      Come on, come on - this was supposed to be a practical post, not something that was going to plunge you into despair. Get an agent if you can but if you can't it's not the end of civilisation as we know it. Gahhhhhh

      catdownunder said...

      I know they are not charities. I do not expect them to be charities but...oh cat hair on my own blog. I will go and arrange it there.... please come and visit later and I think you might understand....

      Bethany Wiggins said...

      Nice post! My agent is so business savvy, I don't know what I would do without her.

      Sally Zigmond said...

      Nicola. I fully understand what you were saying--after all I managed to get a publisher without an agent--but not for want of trying I might add. It's just that the phrase 'twilight zone' hit me where it hurt and confirmed the truth (not that I didn't know already) that it's a harder slog for the oldie than the youngster with years ahead of them to write and grow.

      No. I don't think the world owes me a living. God forbid. I don't expect favours. I don't expect to become rich and famous. And My tongue was where it usually is, firmly in my wrinkled cheek.

      David J Griffin said...
      This comment has been removed by the author.
      DanielB said...

      I must be doing something right. Carole Blake's book is one I *always* recommend to my Novel students. I start quoting chunks of it at them and end up just wanting to fling it at them and say "oh, look, just go and read the whole thing."

      David J Griffin said...

      Without being in the least patronising, I feel sad for Sally & catdownunder. Depression over obtaining agent representation can be over-bearing sometimes. But I guess it's simply: give up or don't give up. Trust in your own ability as a writer; and as you succinctly put it, Nicola, get your writing right, really right; then keep plugging away at agents. I'm even thinking that when (if) I reach the end of my list of 30 UK agents, I'll just start again at the top. (I might "hit" a different agent second time around).

      I gave up writing for almost 25 years after I "lost" my first (and only) agent. I kick myself once in a while concerning all of those wasted years, writing-wise. (although I'm back on track now; there's no stopping me again).

      Part of it is the luck of finding an agent who quickly latches on to your style, likes the genre and thinks he can excite enough publishers. No one said it was easy. Who said that? More than likely your goodly self, Nicola!


      Nicola Morgan said...

      Sally, I suspect that even if your cheek is wrinkled (and I think you're exaggerating!) your writing is so good that, twilght or dawn, you've got lovely success in front of you. And remember that the whole point of this post was not why some people find it harder to get agents, but what to do if you haven't got one.

      Catherine Hughes said...

      Oh God! I'm turning forty next month - does that make me in the wrong half of my life to get an agent?!

      One thing I do hope I have going for me is that I'm prolific. I've written two novels inside a year and have three WIPS all at the 50k mark (including my current NaNoNovel). Not all - or even any - of those may be commerically viable, but with each one I learn and improve, so I am (I believe and hope) getting there fast!

      The other thing I hope makes me more attractive to agents is that I do some radio and media stuff already, so I have some 'self-promotion' skills, and I have some experience in marketing, which could well be useful.

      Maybe I am just clutching at straws but the reality of the situation does not deter me. I made up my mind a year ago that I could do this at last, and, to date, I have never failed at something I've set my cap at. Of course, there is always a first time, and sometimes it takes far too long for continued sanity....

      But I WILL do this, with or without an agent!

      Douglas said...

      Straightforward and helpful. Thanks for taking the time to write and share this.

      Anonymous said...

      I'm beginning to feel like Enid that the BBC blocked her even though she was enormously popular.
      At what point does one just bite the bullet and start spending money being a publisher/PR person as well as the originator?

      Anonymous said...

      Well, I'm oldish and I have an agent and she is pretty useless, but I was persuaded (by her!) that I needed an agent for fiction. I think I don't. I'm the one that sells stuff, she just takes her %age. I even have to check the contracts carefully as she can't even spell digital. I am on book 130; the agent has handled perhaps 10 of those at most. YOU DO NOT NEED AN AGENT. The only contract she ever got was when I told her who to write to. I can put all this in a blog post because I don't think she can spell blog either. Why do I keep her, you ask? I'm working on something outside my usual genre and then I might need her contacts. But actually I suppose I need the contacts of a more appropriate agent...

      Stroppy Author said...

      My blog also deals with publishingy, contracty sort of things for UK authors, though it has been very quiet recently on account of family problems. But I'm giving it a bit of a kick ;-)

      Lauri Kubuitsile said...

      Anonymous- I feel bad reading what you've written. Imagine an agent sliding along like that and not adding any value! It is shocking. I think most people need agents because publishers make stipulations that they only take manuscripts from agents.

      Why does a good manuscript need "contacts"? If you know the publisher you want and your manuscript is a good fit for them then what is the use of the agent. Can you not say- "I want a better royalty?" And I don't need hand holding- I got married for that.

      Nicola Morgan said...

      All - there is one main reason why having a good agent is a very good idea. It's not about contacts, it's not about publishers stipulating it, it's not about hand-holding. It's about the fact that a good agent increases your income by WAY more than the percentage he or she takes. It's not even mostly about getting the contract in the first place - it's about making the most income from all the subsidiary rights. If an author has the time and expertise fully to exercise all those rights ooneself, and is prepared to sacrifice writing time to do that, forget the idea of having an agent.

      Anon 14:59 - your agent sounds awful. This is not an example of the sort of agent I'm talking about. You do NOT need this sort of agent but I would argue very much that you would enormously benefit from a good agent.

      OK, here's something for you all to think about: of all the hundreds of authors who I know either personally or through hearsay, I only ever heard of one successful, agented author who decided that he no longer needed an agent. And he worked in the business himself, so of course he already knew his stuff re subsidiary rights etc. On the other hand, I know several who have changed agents through dissatisfaction - but they always did so in order to sign with someone else. Doesn't that say something?

      Catherine Hughes said...

      I have a degree in law and wouldn't dream of trying to negotiate my own publishing contract. I know I need an agent.

      But, if I can't get one, then I will try and go it alone. If all else fails.

      I have put in so much hard work, I'm just not prepaerd to give up.

      Nicola Morgan said...

      Stroppy - indeed you do and you are now inserted into the proper place in my post! Sorry for the omission!

      Nicola Morgan said...

      Catherine - by the way, wrong side of 40??? Is there a wrong side of 40? Both sides look equally good to me and I've seen both (though I can't remember so much about the first side...). Honestly, 40s, 50s, 60s - no problem. 70s possibly, but there are still stories of success starting beyond that. It's age + genre + specific style + market + ideas - the whole package that matters. Age is only a factor.

      And good luck - I know how determined and hard-working you are!

      Catherine Hughes said...

      Thank you Nicola.

      I happen to really believe in the positive effects of other people's good wishes, so I appreciate that more than you'd think.

      It's my plan to submit two more novels to various agents in 2010. Put some virtual bubbly aside for me!

      Nicola Morgan said...

      Catherine - forget virtual bubbly. I'm putting some actual bubbly aside for you!

      Catherine Hughes said...

      :-) Then I really will have to prove myself worthy!

      catdownunder said...

      Oh miaou! I have shed half my coat in a day. I could not possibly negotiate a contract on my own. I am confurrsed but (very small miaou here) I still want to write. I know, it's purrthetic. I know agents need their tuna. I just wish they wanted really fresh succulent tuna caught by paw rather than frozen tuna from the trawler. Yes Ms Morgan I do understand that the latter arrives filleted and almost ready to eat. It keeps better. The former requires more work. Filleting fish is hard for cats but I will do my best. Thankyou for all the advice I will go back to fishing and filleting and using the bones to keep the cat hairs in order.

      Bubblecow said...

      I would just like to add that writers need to be very careful about the advise they choose to follow. The last year has seen a number of 'get published' blogs springing up. This is great but many of these are written by writers who have little, if any, experience of the publishing world. I have also seen a number of 'get publsihed' blogs written by self published writers. Again this is great if they are commenting of the self publishing world, but dangerous when talking about more main stream publishing - rant over :-)

      Lauri Kubuitsile said...

      Catherine and Cat- If it's your first contract there will be little to negotiate. It will be- "Here's the contract- take it or leave it" ; unless of course you've written the next DaVinci Code or something along that line.

      Nicola Morgan said...

      Lauri - nooooooo! I cannnot tell you how strongly I disagree with that. There is no such thing as a standard contract (though publishers may say there is). There are standard things that are covered in contracts but very many details of them are up for negotiation. Though I'd never recommend arguing about all or even most of them, it's crucial to know what you can and can't negotiate, or you could lose valuable rights and income. What territories are you including, what rights do you want to keep, what about digital rights and termination clauses and option clauses? That's only the start of it. I'm not saying every contract needs to be argued over but it's a rare author who would understand all the ways in which to get the most out of a contract. Any contract which is entirely "take it or leave it" is a contract I'd want to run a mile from.

      If you can't get and agent or choose not to have one, at least read the booklets from the Society of Authors - there's one called Publishing contracts and one called Authors' Agents. Go to the website at and even non-members can buy them

      Bubblecow - completely agree. And there are some people calling themselves agents who shouldn't be, as well. I am sure I've blogged about how to choose an agent but I'm in a rush and can't look for it now. And if I haven't, I will.

      Lauri Kubuitsile said...

      I absolutely agree that there are numerous places where standard contracts can be adapted to suit what you want (I've already sadi that elsewhere) - especially after you've proven your worth.

      I'm talking about first time authors. Are you trying to tell me that first time authors with no track record are going to be able to manipulate a standard contract to suit their needs? Maybe that happens where you are, but not here. Unless you have completely wow-ed them with your brilliance, they see very little need to give you what you want. Yes- you can ask. And always- you can walk away. It is better to walk away, in fact, then sign a contract you can't live with.

      But let's not be deluded here- with or without an agent the publisher has the upper hand. Moreso when you are a first timer.

      Caroline Dunford said...

      It is also so much about finding the right agent. You need someone who believes in your work as passionately as you do. I'd love an agent, but so far I've sold four books, numerous articles and short stories without one. Hopefully, one day I'll find one who is as excited about my ideas as I am. I don't mean someone who doesn't criticize - because that how all writers learn, but I suppose all I'm saying is don't sign with any agent just because they ask, sign with someone who believes in you. (Now, if only I could find someone who is as keen on my work as my publisher - who has just entered me into the Orange Prize.)

      The romantic query letter and the happy-ever-after said...

      Unagented and grateful for your counsel. All the very best,

      Nicola Morgan said...

      Lauri - first time authors with no track record are absolutely in a position to discuss the terms of a contract. The publisher has offered the contract because the publisher positively wants to publish the book. When a new author is offered a contract, if there is no agent to advise on which aspects should be negotiated, other expert advice should be sought (eg from Soc of Authors, who, as I say, offer free expert legal advice if you sign as an associate member). The "track record" makes no difference to whether the contract can be tweaked. Very often there are little things that might mean a lot to the author but which the publisher won't mind changing at all.

      And the publisher only has the upper hand if you're badly advised - otherwise, this should be a mutual agreement between two parties who are happy to be coming together.

      Don't get me wrong - i'm not suggesting digging heels in and arguing, and especially not from a position of ignorance (which is why a writer needs expert help to be informed). And I am certainly not talking about making yourself unpopular - that would be a very very bad idea. I am talking about only selling the rights that you want and need to, in the right circumstances, and with absolutely informed consent. There are few authors expert enough to be informed enough to gain full benefit from their intellectual property. If you are one of them, I have enormous respect for you. And i'm jealous!

      Joe said...

      I have no idea how you do it!

      So often, I come to these publishing blogs and get depressed. Sometimes, I hold back on posting because I don't want to depress anyone else. Yet I am never depressed here, despite your apparent commitment to be forthright.