Friday, 3 March 2017


'Computerization eliminates the middleman'
                                 - Isaac Asimov

   If he were around today I wonder whether Asimov would want to modify that assertion. For writers the internet has stirred up a swarm of middlemen offering to publish or promote our work. Since there are a multitude of hopefuls wanting to get their MSS into print and since it's difficult for beginners to make the breakthrough, it's not surprising that there should be hundreds of slick operators hungry to exploit them. Now, the book bizz has always had its middlemen. They're called literary agents. Are they any different from the johnnie-come-latelies buzziing around in cyberspace? And do we need them anyway? 

   Basically, 'yes' and 'yes'. A good agent is invaluable to an author - and that for three reasons - Contacts, Contracts and Critique.

(1) Contacts: The adage, 'It's not what you know but who you know that matters' works in all branches of the media industry just as much as in most other businesses. Networking sells book ideas, just as it advances company careers and gives Oomph to popular protest movements. As an author with a MS to promote you can build up your own networks if you've nothing better to do with your time. The problem is that, as a writer, you do have something better to do with your time - writing. Building a fan base of 100,000+ readers is enormously difficult and vastly time-consuming. If that were not so there would not be hundreds of 'new middlemen' offering their services - for a fee. What's the difference between them and established literary agents? Well, just the fact that they are established, part of the book creating establishment. They belong to the network. They spend every working day in touch with editors, producers and marketing people round the world. Some publishers only look at MSS submitted through agents. They know what's 'in' and who's 'in'. The fact that my agent works in London means that I don't have to and can enjoy the peace and quiet of the countryside, concentrating on my job - writing.
(2) Contracts: Publishing contracts are long and complicated and every year, thanks to electronic books, they become longer and more complicated. I can't keep up with all the legal small print about rights and penalty clauses, etc. These things matter. So does making sure that all payments due to me come in correctly and on time. My agency has an accounts office dedicated to doing precisely that. All this saves me many precious hours - hours I can spend doing my job - writing.
(3) Critique: My agent is an invaluable filter, straining my brilliant ideas and enthusiasms into the market. There are several reasons why a project I propose should be adapted or even abandoned. It might be that someone else has an almost identical book coming out in six months' time. It might be that the publisher I have in mind has had a change of editorial policy. It might be that a commissioning editor is planning a new series into which my book might fit - with a bit of tweaking. The market is constantly changing and I need help in remaining a part of it. I need good advice and I'm not too proud to take it. Working in harness with my agent is the best way I can do my job - writing.

   Of course agents are not infallible. Of course, there are good ones and less good ones. During my fifty years I've had two and they have both served me well. Occasionally I have disagreed over a decision but for the most part I have benefited from their inside knowledge. After all, it pays them to help me succeed. If I don't make money, they don't.

   I know, I know what you may be thinking: 'That's all very well but how can I get onto an agent's books?' If an agent is good, his/her client list is likely to be full. How to overcome that problem? I wish I had an easy answer. All I can suggest is keeping up with the the latest info in the  Artists' and Writers' Yearbook and being persistent. Knock on doors as often as you can. One day one will open. Then you will have someone in the bizz who is on your side, who wants you to succeed and will do his/her best for you - even down to offering a shoulder to cry on. And that is worth its weight in gold.
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