Tuesday, 4 March 2008


I had a post all written up and ready to go for today and then I saw Mary’s comment on my last post which said something along the lines of not being able to wait for me to write about the literary agent I met. This made me think again. It does seem a bit rotten not to tell all.

First of all I have to say that she, Jenny Brown of Jenny Brown associates, was the most enthusiastic and encouraging person I’ve ever met. She was willing to answer any questions and she had lots of stories to tell about the publishing industry and her line of work. She didn’t, however, artificially sweeten the pill.

Publishing is an industry and it is in the business of making a profit. Like all non-charitable institutions it is only able to survive in this way. Agencies are no different, if the people who work for them are going to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads they need to make money. Bummer. Market forces dictate.

What this means for writers is that we have to put in a bit of effort to find the right agent for the type of work we do. Every agency will have a website and there’s plenty to choose from. So we must do a little research and find out who specialises in what. The best individuals to send work to are the newest recruits to an agency. This is because they will be working to build their lists and will, therefore, be more likely to read submissions eagerly. Send three chapters (the first three for fiction) a synopsis and a covering letter. This letter should say something about the writer’s relationship to the work. For example, I am currently writing a book on Nietzsche, it’s an analysis of his theory of self, viewed through the lens of the domestic realm. If and when I submit it to an agent my letter should give a brief account of both my academic achievements and my life as a housewife and how in this light I came to write the book. Why, in fact, I am the person to write it. The kind of letter that won’t help you is the sort that says something like ‘I’ve worked as a P.E. teacher for the past thirty years and now I’ve retired I thought I’d fill the time by writing a book. I chose to write about the lesser spotted toad of Madagascar as I saw a lovely photo of one in the National Geographic while in the Doctor’s surgery.’ I know none of you chaps are likely to do that but I thought I’d mention it as she did say the number of inappropriate letters she received was bewildering. I guess the covering letter should convey one’s utter conviction and enthusiasm for the subject matter.

On current publishing trends she said that it is almost impossible to sell new fiction writers to publishers at present. However there are a few fledgling publishing companies who are still very enthusiastic about fiction, so all hope is not lost. The big houses are looking for quirky, literary non-fiction, an example of which is a book she has just sold by a woman who has an eighteen-year-old raven for a pet. The book is the story of how the raven came to live with her and how they co-exist. Apparently it eats a particular type of cheese. I have to say she sold it to me, I can’t wait for it to come out. So memoirs are popular as long as they have an edge, are a new story, or, at least, a story told in a new way. Another big seller right now is historical fiction. The book buying public like to learn something when they read, escapism is a secondary concern, where literature is concerned anyway.

Lastly, if you are a poet or short story writer you don’t need an agent at all but rather to submit work to magazines. I believe, from talking to a recently published poet that once you have had twenty-five poems published you can start looking for someone to publish your first collection. But don’t be impatient, it took that particular poet fourteen years to get his book published.

I’m not sure whether or not I’ve covered everything so feel free, please, to ask for any gaps to be filled.


Carole said...

Very interesting. Good information. Sounds like it might be getting more and more difficult to get published. Thanks for the post.

Kim Ayres said...

Great info. Thanks Eryl

Eryl Shields said...

Carole ~ Things are rather different in the rest of the world I think. Only in Britain is fiction not considered worth bothering with. Apparently the climate for fiction writers in the States is good, publishers there still look for new fiction writers, so don't despair.

Kim ~ Very welcome. From what I understood the kind of thing you blog about your 'who am I' etc struggles is exactly the type of stuff publishers are going wild for right now. Get it into a book!

Mary Witzl said...

This is great news -- that memoirs are becoming hot! A couple of years ago, agents practically yawned in your face if you mentioned a memoir. I sent a few chapters of mine (about learning Japanese over the course of decades in four different countries) to an agent who asked to see them, and he responded that my writing was clever and engaging; what a shame that I was not famous, because if I were, he could certainly sell it. It was enough to make me want to go out and rob a bank, using a banana -- just so I could get the requisite fame that might get me a publishing contract.

As for sending the first three chapters, every agent has a different preference. Some will not accept any unsolicited queries, and some will, but only want the first ten pages (or fifty pages, or whatever). A truly great resource is AgentQuery, though this is mainly American.

Maybe I'll polish up that memoir and send it to Jenny Brown!

Kanani said...

Thank you! Sounds like time well spent and I'm appreciative that you shared it with us!

By the way, I recently wrote something for blogcritics.org. The result is that my email was swamped with offers to send me ARC's from self-published books. I had to decline. I've got so much to read already, and those offered were in genres I just don't read!


Eryl Shields said...

Mary ~ You should totally go for it: carpe diem.

Kanani ~ I've been trying to work out what ARCs are and all I can come up with is 'awful random chapters'.

PI said...

I thought arcs were the arc of the story. A meringue?
That is useful and good that there is hope still for non fiction. As usual any old rubbish can get published if you have a name

Eryl said...

Pat ~ I love meringues, especially made with maple sugar.