I have spent 15 years or so looking for a new agent. I had one once, but he died. I am being slightly economical with the truth when I say that. I shall tell the whole story. I have spent most of my time writing since 1978. This has only ever been subsidised by part-time work. Writing is much more than a hobby or interest in my case. While my first love is poetry, I also write novels, travel books and journalism.
In the early 1980s I began to get more and more work published in magazines (including the London Review of Books, who once put my photo on the cover), anthologies and collections brought out by small publishers. My breakthrough came with the publication of Sky Ray Lolly by Chatto and Windus in 1986.
At this stage, I still did not have an agent. My second mainstream poetry collection, Private Parts, was due out in 1987 and a travel book was commissioned for 1988. With these came publicity in the colour supplements. I started to apply for an agent and after being turned down by several did the cheeky thing of advertising for one. Giles Gordon of Sheil Land was amused enough to take me on. Under his wing my income improved greatly and for a few years things were good. When the travel book came out I started writing fairly regularly for the Independent. The Guardian started using me soon afterwards and I often reviewed for the Times and Telegraph as well as doing occasional pieces for a variety of magazines. Several more books with large publishers followed, including the bestselling Literary Companion to Sex. Most of this work is out of print now, though available on Kindle.
A few years later, Giles decided to move to Edinburgh. My contract and those of his other authors was with the agency rather than him directly, which meant that his clients lost him as an agent. Some sort of legal embargo meant that he couldn’t take us with him. For a while I was with his assistant, Robert Kirby, who was pleasant enough but never had the same kind of enthusiasm for my work. When I made a minor criticism of his inability to sell my project on the red light districts of the world he showed a desire to shed me and we went our separate ways. At this stage I was still relatively well-known and I assumed I would be able to acquire another agent. I still bumped into Giles occasionally at literary parties but he said he thought I would be better with a London-based agent. Soon after this, he died in an accident falling downstairs. This is why I sometimes sum the whole story up as ‘I had an agent but he died.’
Over the next few years, I asked a few well-known agents to represent me but they all said no. Many said, either truthfully or tactfully, that they were taking no new clients. The novelist Wendy Perriam suggested I ask some others who might at least take me out to lunch. I never got a lunch out of it. In one case I was asked to meet up in London and the agent failed to show. I wrote to him afterwards and he said there was a reason but never gave it. From then on, it was all downhill. An agent I sent a copy of a new novel to suggested it would all be better in the first person. I spent a week or two altering it and he still refused it. I changed it back again.
Over the next few years, I continued with ever shrinking amounts of journalism. I moved to Spain, which at least lessened my outgoings. My Selected Poems was published but other ideas I tried on publishers did not find takers. I began to write more slowly. At the start of my career most publishers were willing to look, at any rate. These days, most of the major ones make their contact details unavailable to those of us without agents. As I worked towards finishing new poetry collections and a travel book, Washing Amethysts in the Bidet, an agent became a necessity. The sad reality is I have been refused by dozens, not counting the few dozen who could not even be bothered to reply.
Excuses vary. Some say they are taking no new clients and perhaps recommend a younger, newer agent in their office. Invariably, that agent is too young to be aware of my former fame and says no rather quickly. In the case where I probably got nearest I was told my book might suit Picador but was not commercial enough for their agency. Picador is one of the many publishers that will not look at work without an agent. It seems they are only looking for the next blockbuster rather than minor steady high-quality earners, which is a shame. Another agent would not take me on because she could no longer sell travel books. The latest said my subject was too obscure, ignoring the fact that my previous travel books had had much more obscure subjects and it was the way I wrote them that mattered.
Friends have personally recommended me to their agents but this did not work either. My latest effort has been to compile a list from a site called Agent Hunter, not sure if this will work better. I paid £5 for a month’s membership and found hundreds of agents who, in theory, are willing to look at new clients with travel books. I narrowed this down to 15 or so with interests in Spain, history or archaeology. The refusals are beginning to come in as per usual.
For the moment I will carry on trying but there may come a time when I have to do something else. The travel book is too personal to put under a pseudonym, but what of the novel I have started writing? That could perhaps be marketed under a young male persona. It may come to that.