Represent me – Andy Jones
By Andy Jones
Thank you for inviting me to write a guest post. You suggested a top-tips/dos and don’ts kind of thing, which is a great idea. The thing is, there are many great books for aspiring writers, and before I deigned to offer advice, I’d suggest picking up a few of my favourites: On Writing by Stephen King, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott or The 38 Most Common Writing Mistakes by Jack Bickham. ♥
So what can I tell you that these guys can’t tell you better? Well, I’m pretty good at getting agents. In fact, if I were as good at getting published as I was at finding agents, I’d have three novels out there by now. So let’s talk about agents.
It is entirely possible to get a deal without an agent. Just like it’s possible to swim the Channel, climb Everest, and pull a fully fuelled 747 along the tarmac with your teeth. It can be done, but chances are you won’t. Getting an agent, though; well that’s reported to be almost as difficult as getting a book deal without an agent, so what the hell are you supposed to do?
First, write the best book you can. Even better, write two. Agents don’t want to represent one-off books, they want to represent authors who will write lots of books. The odds of a single book making a ton of cash are remote, particularly a debut novel. And let’s not forget, this is how these people put food on the table; sure they love books, but they’re not out there to indulge your dream. That’s what your mum and your boyfriend are for. So if you can demonstrate to an agent that you are serious about a career as an author, rather than just ‘having a go’, then your chances of them sending you a contract will increase.
The Two of Us is actually the third novel I’ve written. My first attempt was fairly amateur, but I won a small competition and made damn sure I mentioned the fact in the dozens of letters I sent to agents. Two of them replied.
The first was from a well-established agency and he looked after several authors I’d heard of. He read my manuscript then invited me to meet him for a beer. We talked for an hour or more, but the salient point was that he thought my writing was good but my novel wasn’t. In a nutshell, he said I should keep going, but start again.
[Digression. This agent asked if I outlined. My character was ‘blown by the wind,’ he said, and he thought the book needed more structure. No, I told him, I wrote if off-the-cuff. I explained that I had read Stephen King’s On Writing, and the old SK had recommended against plotting – that it was the enemy of creativity etc. ‘Yeah,’ said the agent, ‘thing is … Stephen King’s a genius.’ Point made.]
Tip 1: Be careful of what you read in how-to-write-a-book books.
The other agent was from an agency I had never heard of, and I didn’t recognise any of the clients on his list. But he was an agent and he offered to represent me. We talked on email and the phone but we never met in person. He was a lovely guy and he always answered my calls. Plus, he tried hard to sell my book. But with no success. In truth, I’m not sure he ever got the manuscript into a publisher’s hands. And it wasn’t necessarily his fault; as the first agent said, the book wasn’t great.
Still… Tip 2: Don’t take the first offer that comes your way.
Tip 3: Don’t seek representation before you’re ready for it.
Both easier said than done, and there is no way in hell I would have heeded this advice, but there it is.
By the time I finished book two, I was a little more savvy and realised I should seek representation from a more established agency. I felt I’d written a pretty good novel, so once again I began the process of finding an agent. I wrote fewer letters, targeting mid-level and junior agents in mid-level and large agencies. Now, back to my initial point – I had two manuscripts under my belt at this point. And the responses were very different – a few agents replied and requested the full manuscript, a couple explicitly mentioned it was good that this was a second book. I got two offers and went with a junior editor at a big shop – I was his first fiction client and it was all very exciting. We met in the flesh (in the Groucho, actually); he said nice things about my book and I was impressed by his attitude and energy. This guy did better. He got my book into a couple of acquisition meetings. More than that, he got me a real-life book deal. The only fly in the ink was that it was a German deal. But that’s not my agent’s fault, the book has to take responsibility for itself. Or I do.
People often put agents into two camps: Editors and predators. I never really understood that, I assumed ‘predator’ meant someone unscrupulous, but I have a different take on it now. I take it to mean there are agents who will guide you and help you improve your work, and there are those that see it more as a business transaction. Both are fine – as stated before, this is a business. But you need to decide which type of agent you want and need.
I began book 3, and sent the first 100 pages to my agent. He didn’t like it. In fact, he said he didn’t think he could sell it. Well what do you say to that? To be fair, a few years had passed and the junior agent who had taken me on as his first novelist was now a successful middleweight agent representing lots of writers – some of them very famous and selling in volume. He had put a lot of effort and energy into selling my previous novel, and (here’s the thing) I’d gone and written a bloody sequel. A sequel to a book we couldn’t sell first time around. He had a point.
But I thought it was a good book, so I picked myself up and carried on writing. I got to the end and began – again! – looking for an agent. This time I sent it to only two agents. The first was a fiction editor at the agency representing my children’s books.
[Digression 2: I have also written a few manuscripts for children’s books, and I have a picture book called That Bug’s Not Big coming out with Bloomsbury next year. And for that, I have to thank my Children’s Book agent. I told you I was good at getting agents.]
The second was a chap I had contacted once before on Twitter. He had been shortlisted previously for agent of the year, and he worked at a well-established firm. I researched him, and thought we might be a good match. He asked to read the manuscript, then came back very quickly with some suggested edits. This is before talking about representation. And they were good suggestions. I acted on his edits and he suggested a few more. Also bloody good notes. And then we met for lunch and a beer, and we had a grown-up conversation about what to do with this book and/or its predecessor. He also gave me some final edits. We shook hands, he sent me a contract, I made the changes and he sold my book within a fortnight.
Tip 4: Find the right type of agent for you.
Tip 5: Don’t give up.
Andy Jones is the author of The Two of Us. He lives in London with his wife and two little girls. During the day he works in an advertising agency; at weekends and horribly early in the mornings, he writes fiction.