Sunday, 23 April 2017

Life without a Literary Agent

Can a writer survive without a literary agent?

A few weeks ago I decided to take a step back from the traditional route to publishing and cancel the contract with my agent. A bit of a leap of faith in one respect, and a bit scary in another, especially when you consider that many writers are desperate to get taken on by an agent. After all, if you want to get a manuscript in front of an editor with a major publisher, the only way to do it is via an agent, right? So why give up that chance?

The short version: I had an agent with my first two YA novels. She retired, so I approached another with two new YA books. She liked them and pitched them out. Meanwhile, I wrote a middle grade book which also went out. Two of the books got nowhere but one landed a contract. Eighteen months in, the publisher breached the contract and it all fell apart. During that time I wrote four other books which the agent liked, but not enough to pitch - this is because an agency is a business, and rejections don't just affect the writer. Agents build up a reputation with sales - rejections are set backs, so pitching a second or third book from a writer that an editor has already rejected is a bit of risk to that reputation. The agent works for the agency first, the writer second. I also wrote a book she didn't like - which I'll come back to. The bottom line is that about a month ago, I sat down and looked at what I had in front of me: a load of books and a feeling of utter frustration.

Bit of holiday reading
And then I ordered something through Amazon - a book written by a friend and published directly through Amazon's Createspace and KDP. No agent. No publisher. Now I'm going to be harsh here because I think it's important. The book has some minor formatting issues and more than a few spelling mistakes but you know what? I absolutely loved it. It's an adult horror bloodbath with a story that entertained me for three whole days. It was brutal, stomach churning and completely OTT - Manga meets 90s Splatterpunk.

For some reason, it reminded me of the early copies of VIZ, back in the eighties when the illustrations were messy as hell. VIZ wasn't about quality or pleasing some third party; it was about laughs and an audience that wanted something utterly insane. VIZ had the feel of a punk fanzine. In fact, VIZ was punk as fuck.
VIZ, issue 5. One of the first I read.

Which got me thinking about punk music and the bands I liked as a kid. I grew up on a diet of Sex Pistols and Stiff Little Fingers. When I hit my teens I developed a thing for thrash metal, then speed/death metal, indie punk, grunge and industrial goth.

That stuff was never about the sales, never about the big deal. While my older brother followed the likes of KISS and Bon Jovi who could fill arenas, I was into Napalm Death and Gaye Bykers on Acid. I loved the underground stuff: the smelly bars and sticky floors, the weird looking fans, photocopied fanzines, moshpits, murk and meyhem. I used to go to gigs where the place was nearly an empty room - I once saw Extreme Noise Terror with only about fifty people in the audience, but they were amazing. If there is a literary equivalent to the 90s indie music scene, then it's Pray Cathal by Stephen Brown. This isn't about the big deal or agencies or publishers - it's punk. It's a bloke writing the stuff he likes for the sheer horrible hell of it.

And that's why I left the agency. I'm not really bothered about the dream deal anymore because I'm never going to be Bon Jovi or KISS - I just want to find the fun in writing because really, deep down, that's what's important. And the book my agent really didn't like - for some mad reason, it's my favourite of them all.

Can I survive without an agent? Hell yeah. I've got KDP and Createspace and a load of books all ready to go. I've got Facebook and Twitter and blogging. Will I make any money? Probably not, but I wasn't making any anyway. Will I have fun? Too bloody right I will, because fun is subjective. It's personal to your own tastes, not what you think will please others.

Dance like no one's watching.

Write like no one's reading.
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Added - The first of these books is out. Here in the Poison Garden is available in paperback and ebook from amazon.

Colin Mulhern