Saturday, 7 February 2009

A literary agent

I wrote this some two years ago but quickly took it off when some students thought it might prejudice their chances of being taken on by the subject of this blog. Well, best not prejudice that.


The man looks more like a literate estate agent and before his talk shows some interest in the high finance of small art school degrees. When it comes to the talk itself - in a none too comfortable, quiet or well-ventilated room in Carol Ann Duffy Towers to a sprinkling of second years chiefly interested in fiction - we are told that he is agent not only for X and Y novelists but for Jordan

He describes in some detail what an agent does, which resembles ever more what an editor does. He gives two or three conflicting versions of what he looks for in an approach letter, in a synopsis, and in an excerpt.

As concerns the letter, he advises, make it brief and humble. Preferably very humble. Apologise profusely for taking up his valuable time. Do not come on big or boast. However, if you have any claims to celebrity status or connection with anyone of even faintly celebrity status do mention it. On the other hand do not write more than one page. Or preferably half a page. He will respond in one page. Or actually half a page. He will be perfectly polite. He will tell you if you are boring and talentless. He hates misspellings. He'll throw away a letter if a word is misspelt or inelegantly phrased. He is a hard man. These are hard times. I can't help wondering what sort of approach letter Jordan might have written.

On the synopsis and excerpt, never more than one page of synopsis. Agents and editors have short attention spans, so no more than three characters to be named, no complex descriptions. Keep it SIMPLE. But be extraordinary, different, eye-catching, just like an advertising tagline in other words. This is, after all, advertising. The word product slips through his lips once or twice. He stuffs it back in.

The novel extract is usually the first fifty odd pages. But then, sometimes, the next hundred is better. Then again sometimes not. Choose carefully.

Time and again he emphasises the increasing power of corporations who are not interested in books selling in less than five figures. Most novels don't. Most first novelists sell even less. It helps being photogenic. But, he hastily adds, it isn't a matter of prettiness or looks. Not even, I inwardly add, for Jordan. Frankly an agent isn't going to make money out of anyone selling in four figures. He discounts the internet revolution and print on demand. Not what it's cracked up to be.

He supposes people who sell in four figures are satisfying themselves: it must be spiritually fulfilling, he suggests, to whistle in the wind to other no-counts. Creative Writing courses produce nothing of course. Genius, even talent, (unlike in music, dance, the visual arts or any other art - GS) is entirely self-nourishing. Go on whistling in the wind! There are agents who sit at the gates of UEA waiting for innocent McEwans and Ishiguros to emerge. But stuff that comes off creative writing courses is essentially dull, formulaic and naff. He wouldn't waste his time hanging round such places. Albeit one of his writers, A, is sitting next to him and he is... a graduate of the UEA MA in Creative Writing. Jordan never did a course in creative writing and she sells in six figures!

Carol Ann Duffy Towers is not the most materially assuring of places. It looks like the old industrial building it was. No one likes it. We don't.

Daughter H is an editor at a big publishing house. The editors loathe the agents, she says. She works five or six days a week sometimes late into the night. She has never met Jordan.

The agent has literary standards. He cares deeply, first and foremost for literature. It's a sad world, he implies, and you are sad wankers. He at least, he lets us know, is making money.


Gwil W said...

Would I buy the heap of the week off him? Don't think so somehow. My best bet would be to change my name, something like Danny Brown would get me a good spot on the shelves.
Now I need a snazzy name for my my agency header. Something solid, Scottish sounding. Dalglish & Sons.
Now I'm business. Any takers?

Gwil W said...

It's like buying a car. I could get one cheaper in India.

George S said...

Och, Gwilym, I frankly didn't take to him. Does it show?

Jordan seems to be doing OK though. Now all I need are implants.