Finding a literary agent isn’t just about writing well, it’s also about networking. The trouble is, networking is something I’m not very good at. To me, it just feels too much like using people.
To put this in context, let me tell you a story. I used to be an antiques dealer, I’d do all the early morning markets in London (Portobello Road, Bermondsey) plus a good sprinkling of antiques fairs. When I wasn’t selling I was off at the auction, buying stock.
The theory was that, being self-employed, I’d be able to put time aside for my writing. BIG mistake. You see, I don’t do things by halves and my antiquing was taking up so much time, no writing was getting done.
A new plan
In need of a new plan, I discussed the situation with my then-husband and we agreed that I should take three years off and devote myself to getting published. As plans go, it seemed a good one but I quickly realised that the odds of publication being against me, I needed a back-up plan and to go back to antiques felt a retrograde step. To cut a long story short, I signed up to do an Open University degree and it was on an OU study tour to Greece that I met retired publisher (formerly with Macmillan), James Wright.
It was a grand networking opportunity. However, he was also a new friend and I didn’t want him to think I was taking advantage, so the last thing I was going to do was tell him about my novel. I held out for the best part of a week but then one evening in a cafe in Athens, a discussion about paperback novels versus hardback kicked off. Now I was, and still am, very much of the view that publishing a hardback first is a nonsense. In those days the argument was that it ‘tested the market’ but it only evaluates those who have the means to pay a substantial amount of dosh for an unknown writer. Surely it makes more sense to gauge the market with an affordable paperback, then maybe produce a luxury hardback edition if the novel turns out to be a rip-roaring success?
This then was my argument, expressed with passion, at which point James looked me in the eye, took a long puff on his cigarette, and said, ‘So … why do you care so much, my dear?’
Arghhhh, I had unintentionally outed myself.
Despite having broken cover, I remained reluctant to talk to James about it: if I sent my novel to a publisher and it was rejected, well I could always fool myself that the publisher hadn’t read it or had read it and not understood. If gave my novel to James and he said it was no good, I’d have to take notice. James agreed, he didn’t want this to spoil our friendship.
A True Friend
Fast forward a couple of months. James and I kept in touch and he was beginning to change his mind. Our conversations led him to believe that my writing might have value. He asked to read my novel. I refused. I held out for another three or four months but in the end, because I respected him and his opinion of my writing did matter, by not letting him see it I was basically cutting off my nose to spite my face.
He rang me late one evening and after a long, dramatic pause, told me he loved it. He wanted to be my agent. The novel needed work but I’ll talk about that another time in another blog, suffice to say that he sent it to five publishers, two of whom made offers and a third interested party dropped out in the face of the competition. Publication of A Rational Man coincided almost exactly with my OU graduation.
The question is, why is all this on my mind now? Well, I need to find an agent/publisher for either or both of my current novels (Looking for Jonah and Queen’s Daughter). I met a couple of publishers and a literary agent at the Penzance Literary Festival’s Publishing Day. In fact I organised that day and booked these people. So why is this innate oh-so-British politeness holding me back from contacting them?
Answers, as they say, on a postcard please …