The Writing Business
25) How hard is it to get an agent? Let’s look at some statistics.
26) At her talk at the Romantic Novelists Association summer conference this year, literary agent Carole Blake said she receives between 20 and 50 submissions every single day of the week.
27) She has not taken on a new client in over three years.
28) Her associate agents also get 20-50 submissions a day, which works out to between 7000 and 18,000 submissions each year, of which they take on perhaps four or six new clients.
29) I’ve been told by other good agents that they find publishing deals for about half of the new writers they take on each year.
30) How can we, as writers, become one of those six new writers the agent takes on? Preparation.
31) QUESTION what do you think we need to do to be properly prepared?
a) We can submit to the right places! When I worked as an editor, the majority of the submissions I received each day were of genres which we didn’t publish. So they got rejected regardless of their quality.
(If writers sent their work out only to appropriate markets, slush piles would reduce by at least half, and I think that the big publishers might well reopen their doors to unagented submissions, but that has little to do with my talk today.)
c) And we can make sure our work is good enough: because the vast majority of submissions are dreadfully bad.
32) QUESTION what proportion of submissions do you think are coherent, reasonably well punctuated, follow basic rules of grammar and don’t contain many spelling mistakes?
a) Between 5 and 10%
b) Which means that if your submission is well-written, properly punctuated, and so on, you’re already miles ahead of most other writers. And suddenly, the odds look a lot better, don’t they?
33) So to improve the odds for ourselves we have to
a) Revise and polish our work until it gleams; and
b) do our research, and submit only to appropriate agents and editors.
34) Revision first. How can you improve if you don’t get good advice?
35) Seek help only from people who are qualified to advise you.
a) Writing well often doesn’t necessarily translate to editing well.
b) Success in the field is often a good indicator;
c) being an English teacher is not necessarily a good indicator.
36) Don’t expect your writing to improve as much as it could if you can’t accept fair criticism.
37) Do expect fair criticism to hurt like hell sometimes:
a) try to remember that it’s the writing being criticised, not you;
b) and that it’ll be worth it if it helps you get published.
38) Don’t expect your writing to improve if you only learn from people who aren’t very good. Work with writers who are better than you wherever possible.
39) At this point, we are going to step back and consider Yog’s Law.
40) QUESTION Does anyone know Yog’s Law? All together now:
a) Money flows towards the author. What does this mean?
i) Publishers pay writers, never the other way round
ii) You work hard at your writing: you deserve to be recompensed for that work. Writers should be paid for their work.
41) There are certain things that writers should not pay for:
a) Never work with an agent who demands a reading fee or any other sort of upfront fee
b) Publishers pay for editing, design, printing, marketing and sales, not writers.
c) Don’t pay for copyright registration agencies as this is simply not necessary
d) Don’t pay manuscript display sites to showcase your writing: such sites very rarely have any positive effect.
e) Don’t pay for query-writing services—you wrote the book, you are best-placed to write the query
f) Don’t pay for submissions services either, as many agents and publishers won’t even read the submissions which are generated by such services.
42) So now we know what Yog’s law is, we have to know when to break it. Because sometimes it’s ok to pay.
43) When is it wise to pay for help? Remember the guideline that you should try to get advice from people who are better than you.
a) The first option is to look for free help: writing groups or online writing communities can all be very useful, and provide emotional support.
b) Editorial agencies. Hilary Johnson, The Literary Consultancy, Cornerstones and Pen2Publication are all very good. Sally Zigmond occasionally offers paid-for feedback for short stories and is excellent.
c) Writing courses: Arvon Foundation courses are almost always excellent.
d) Entry-fee competitions can be ok if they are well thought of.
e) If you’re thinking of taking an MA in writing make sure it’s taught by people who are successful in the area you want to write in, and not by academics without a background in commercial publishing.
f) And of course you can buy books about writing, which is never a hardship.
The final part of my talk will appear tomorrow. Thanks for sticking with it!