A verbose literary agent
January 15, 2012
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I sent the opening six chapters of ‘The Companion’ to an agent called John Jarrold. He rejected it, but he made some comments instead of just telling me to get lost, which is what the previous three did.
I have now read your material. I can see the imagination and intelligence at work here, but I can’t honestly say I loved it. After fifteen years in publishing before setting up the agency, I’m all too aware how difficult it is to get a publisher interested in a new writer, so I feel that I do have to love my clients’ work – personally and professionally – to do the best possible job. If I don’t feel that strongly, I’m the wrong agent. Publishing is a notoriously subjective business, and every new author needs both an agent and an editor who do love their work. It’s hellishly difficult getting the bookselling chains to take a new novelist seriously, so that initial enthusiasm is vital. If an author’s prose doesn’t set me on fire, first and foremost, I say no, as do editors in this situation.
Most UK editors see around thirty books every week and only take on one or two debut novels over an entire year.
The entry level for a new novelist now is ‘special’, not ‘good’. This is partially because sales and marketing directors have so much more power than they did a dozen years ago. If they don’t believe they will be able to sell a first novel into W H Smiths and the rest of the bookselling trade in numbers, they’ll block the editor from acquiring it in many companies. A senior editor told me a few weeks ago that even if he loved an author’s writing, he wouldn’t make an offer until the book that was submitted to him was 100% right for the market – he has just acquired an author whose previous four novels he (and everyone else in London) had turned down despite liking them a great deal. Thus, I have to believe the writers I take on are truly wonderful, or it’s pointless submitting them. There is nothing specific I can point at – I just wasn’t entirely drawn in by your story and characters. I wasn’t thinking WOW, which is what I look for. Another agent may feel differently, of course. So often, it’s about unquantifiable gut reaction and the pricking of your thumbs.
FYI, I’ve taken on about forty writers as clients and turned down well over 8,000, so far…I know it can be as difficult to get an agent as it is to be taken on by a publisher. You just have to keep plugging away.
All best wishes for the future.