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?

Short version: An agency is a business built on reputations. 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.

In my time with my last agency, my first novel scored a contract (18 months later, the publisher had problems and the book didn't come out). However, after that I wrote two other books - one YA, one MG. These got very positive responses, but no contract. Because of that, the next books, (two MG and one YA) simply didn't get pitched - not because they were bad, but because they weren't so fantastic that the agent was sure of a sale.

And that's the crux - the agent has to be sure. And that's fair enough - an agency is a business. But here's the problem - you can't go off to another agent who might love that book, and would be very happy to send it out. You can't, because when you sign to an agent, you agree that all work goes to that agent.

This doesn't make sense - all of your books don't have to go through one editor. Those contracts are on a book by book basis, so why can't we have the same arrangements with agents? If you don't want to represent this book, how about I ask someone else? Nope. That's just not how we work.

The last book I sent to the agent was a short middle grade novel about a zombie attack on a fairytale cottage. I wrote it as a break from the frustration of trying to write for the market. I wanted to write something fun and silly and zany - something our Matthew would have loved. And you know what, I had the best time. I was so proud of the result. I sent it off - my agent liked it, but again, wasn't confident in sending it out. Same thing over again.

Bit of holiday reading
Around the same time, I ordered something through Amazon - a book written by a friend and published directly through Amazon's KDP. No agent. No publisher. The book has some minor formatting issues and a few copy edit issues 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 through and through.
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.

And so I took another look at the books I'd written - in particular that last MG book. The one I'd written just for the sheer utter, silly fun of it. A book that would never see a publisher so long as I stayed with this agent. So I left, because I realised right there that I'm never going to be Bon Jovi or KISS. My books might never appeal to a huge audience, but I'm okay with that. In fact, I'm better than okay with it - I think I've finally found out the key of being a writer, and that last book was the most fun I've had for years and I want more of that.

Can I survive without an agent?

Don't know. What I do know is that if the only books pitched to editors were the safe books, the ones guaranteed a sale, then we'd have no Bunker Diary, no Watership Down, Lord of the Rings or even Harry Potter. Because in their own way, these books are all punk too.

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Added - The book that got a deal but never came out is available in paperback and ebook from amazon.

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Added - The MG book came out through Maverick as Buttercup Sunshine and the Zombies of DOOOOOM. On the back of that, I got another agent, but the same problems outlined above came back causing frustrations on both sides, and so, exactly two years later, here I am again.

Only this time, I have a plan.

Colin Mulhern