Tuesday, 7 July 2009

This post follows my audio article on Starship Sofa on writing workshops.

These are a few thoughts about manuscript agencies which may be useful for new writers seeking to get their novel published.

I won't be mentioning any names, but I have become concerned about some of the practices and directions that some of the agencies have been taking in the last year or so. Of course, these are just my views but they're born out of a lot of experience, including a period working for one of the big name agencies.

I'm not suggesting for a moment, by the way, that there are not good readers providing good reports in manuscript agencies. But something that doesn't perhaps get considered enough is the fact that agencies comprise a not always natural mix of well-intentioned readers working for owners/managers who are first and foremost business people. Of course, this dichotomy is often reflected in the publishing world at large too.

The nature of novel writing means it's very difficult to get useful feed-back at a stage that can save you a lot of time and heartache. By contrast, if I was a singer-songwriter, getting feed-back would be relatively simply, if not nerve-wracking. There are three pubs within a few hundred yards of my house that have weekly open music nights, so I could just write a song, trundle down to the pub the very same night, sing it and get instant feed-back as to whether or not I should quit the day job. Obviously, this is not so possible with novels; however, that isn't to say there needs to be such a huge gap between this kind of low-cost instant appraisal and the very expensive reports that many manuscript agencies provide.

The first thing to bear in mind is that a manuscript agency - despite what it might claim to the contrary - is not a stepping stone between you and a publisher, or you and an agent. The way publishing has gone in the past 20 or so years means agents have made themselves a major gatekeeper between publisher and agent (but not exclusively, it has to be said). Also - and this is very important - an agent is working with a manuscript he or she believes is sellable. Manuscript agencies work with any manuscript they're sent (you should take any claim that they work 'mainly through referrals from agents and publishers' with a very large pinch of salt- 'referral' just means they have an arrangement with some publishers to receive their slush pile rejects).

The role of a manuscript agency is to help you improve your manuscript. Nothing else. So you should be wary when they talk up their successes in placing manuscripts with agents. Don't forget, they receive hundreds of manuscripts, so it stands to reason that in the course of a year they will see a few that may be suitable, or near to suitable, for publication. But this would be the case anyway: if your manuscript is good enough, then an agent or publisher will pick it up sooner or later. For an editorial agency to put such a manuscript in front of an agent they happen to know is at absolutely no cost or risk to themselves. So, they aren't doing you any favours; and in fact they'll usually charge you for the privilege (more on this later).

Okay, now let's look at what an editorial agency actually does for you.

The most common service is to write a report on your novel. This will normally be around 8 pages, going into areas such as plot, characterisation, setting, dialogue and so on. Typically, they will charge you around £5 per thousand words for this, i.e. a 100,000 word novel will cost you £500 for a report, although some add VAT which means you're pushing closer to £600.

A 'reader' writes the report; however, you don't get to choose your reader (although if you happen to know one who works for a particular agency, you can always request they do it for you). Does this matter? Oh, yes. Most readers at most agencies are writers, i.e. not editors (even though agencies often call their readers 'editors'. A writer is not necessarily an editor. Writers, for example, tend to produce just one type of fiction, whereas an editor will have experience in most if not all forms of fiction. Writing and editing are two very different skills. Jenson Button is a great driver, for example, but you might think twice before hiring him to repair your engine.

Many writers who read for agencies have only published one or two books, and some have not published or even written any fiction in years. This is extraordinary, when you think about it: that someone with very little experience of a field is given the job of assessing new people who want to break into it. Also, the people who run agencies tend to have contacts mostly in a specific genre - one agency for example is packed with children's writers. Does this mean the agency will only take manuscripts covering the area it has experience with? Of course not. They're businesses, so will take them from absolutely anywhere.

Readers typically get paid only a third of the fee the agency charges you. This matters, because it can have a debilitating effect on readers after a while. Couple that with the fact they're often having to read poorly written books in genres they're not familiar with and you can perhaps guess that their reports are not always as useful as they could be. Oh, they'll talk up the odd good book they come across and say how rewarding it is to work with the author - which is certainly the case - but they won't mention the excruciation of having to write a detailed report on a book that really needs to be scrapped and started again.

Also, it's very important to bear in mind that most agencies keep separate the readers and the authors they write reports for. You can probably guess some of the reasons for this, but the main one is to do with the agency protecting itself, keeping control of its output and any possible trouble over a report. But it's not a satisfactory relationship for a new writer, who would benefit from direct contact with the person who wrote their report. Some readers talk up the fact that they have spoken personally to the author concerned, but this is actually rare with agencies who on the whole prefer not to take the risk. Divide and rule, in effect.

In essence, I would say the agencies are very close to a scam in charging £500 and upwards for a manuscript that simply does not require such a detailed report - and from my experience, this applies to most of the manuscripts they receive. The proper, and moral, service agencies should offer to the majority of manuscripts they receive is along these lines: to have a reader look closely at the first couple of chapters and synopsis and then make a decision about whether or not the book needs a full report. If, as is often the case, they can see there are major things that need doing first - e.g. no plot to speak of at present - they will offer the writer a service that entails a short report based on the reader speed-reading the rest of the mansuscript. The fee for this would normally be about a third of their normal fee for a report. How do I know? Because this is exactly the service I offer writers. Why don't the agencies offer it? Well, I'm sure you can make your own guess . . .

Recently, I saw an agency offering an additional 'service' which I thought was a disgrace. It may even be in breach of trading laws. In essence, they offered to look at your first three chapters and synopsis to see if it was fit to submit to an agent. There would be no report on your work, but if they thought the manuscript was good, they'd submit it to one of their agent contacts. If the book sold, they'd take 10%. Which on the surface may seem like a good deal. But think about it: there's no cost to them - it takes only seconds to tell if a submission is worth reading. Then, if they pass it on, there's no loss to them if the agent doesn't take it. But there could be a big gain. One writer, for example, sold her manuscript after going through an agency, with an advance of £100,000 (caution: this is very, very rare). Which means the agency would have got £10,000 (and the agent £15,000, making a cost to the author of £25,000). This for doing nothing, basically.

Okay, the agent takes a fee but she has to work for it: find a publisher, work on the contract, help promote you, etc; not to mention risk her reputation. All this agency is doing is introducing yet another layer between the writer and the publisher - which is the relationship that counts the most. Also, they only know a few agents, so there's no guarantee your manuscript will get to the right one anyway. You could find more appropriate agents yourself. Besides, while publishers take seriously a manuscript that comes through an agent, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest an agent takes one seriously that comes through an editorial agency. Okay, they may just read it before others in the slush pile but they will only ever take on an author they believe they can sell. And if they believe you can sell, they'll take you on anyway - meaning you could have submitted to them direct. In effect, you're paying this agency for something you could do better yourself. It's win/win for the agency and lose/lose for you, basically. You lose if they place you (10%), and you lose if they don't, i.e. your confidence takes a bashing and you've wasted time that could have been employed submitting direct to an agent or publisher, while you wait for the agency to get round to telling you they haven't passed on your manuscript after all.

In summary, good agencies will tell you that they can only help you improve your manuscript, and won't charge for work you don't need; the questionable ones basically play on writers' dreams, bigging up their successes in placing books with agents and even charging you for your success which would have happened without them anyway.

I'm sure there are people who are going to respond to these comments by saying they had a very useful report from X or Y agency. As said earlier, of course there are good readers who provide good reports. But whether or not you get one, and whether or not he or she is right for your book, is something of a lottery.

Finally, there is the question of validation. It's an unwise and expensive move to make, to go to an editorial agency looking for someone to tell you you're great. Because the only opinion that really counts is the one belonging to the person who can publish your book. To go looking for validation from another writer being paid by an agency which is primarily interested in making money from writers who are at the start of their careers and who may in fact never have one, is to say the least nuts.

Apologies for such a long post, but hopefully it will at least promote some discussion about organisations that, in some cases, are becoming increasingly assertive about their perceived role in helping writers get published.