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Agent Wanted

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cov0706I 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.

Comments on “Agent Wanted”

  1. RobotBoy says:

    I’ve had four agents, only two of whom have sold book proposals and one of those books wasn’t published as the publisher went bankrupt (I’ve sold all my journalism and another book myself). Your clear snapshot looks like the state of publishing in the 21st Century where each year is worse than the last. I can’t believe that it’s been such a struggle for a writer with your credentials but then again, it makes perfect sense. If misery loves company than you have a host of fellows; count me among them.

  2. Simon Wood says:

    There can be few literary brands with such sheer poke as that of Fiona Pitt-kethley. She is the Sex Pistols’ English teacher.

    It is well known in the business that publishing is as much subject to luck and fixing as boxing, pop music and horse racing.

    There will be some strange twists to come in this tale.

  3. Timothy Rogers says:

    The situation on this side of the pond is similar, but with some complications that may exist here but not in the UK (or, if their counterpart exists, may be of less significance). Both the literary and publishing worlds have always been full of mutual back-scratching, log-rolling, and, through the medium of the effusively positive book review or critical column, the creation or propping up of reputations; the final hope is to increase sales, or, failing that, to keep someone in the game as a writer worthy of notice. That was (is) just business as normal. Due to the very different “academic-critical” pathway into writing renown that replaced a looser, less formal, less credential-obsessed network of influence in earlier days, the period from about the mid- or late 70s forward has relied on a new network put in place to control (or influence) access to publication. That is the MFA-writing program-university department little magazine “axis of influence”. Most of the writing yielded by this educational and professional path is technically polished, but, as the late David Foster Wallace (both a product and a critic of this world) put it, a great deal of it is “dead on the page”. One of reasons this is so is the uniformity of life-experience (or lack of it) of the young people who are literally processed, like cheese, through these mills; they all know how to put together “the well-made story”, which, from both emotional and intellectual vantages, is duller than ditchwater in the minds of readers who have a vastly different experience of life. At the moment I doubt if much can (or will be) done to remedy this situation, since both programs and writers feel they are under assault, either by prospective funders, or by the “relative indifference” of the public, including that segment of it that actually likes to read both fiction and nonfiction. I call this “relative” because readers, with limited time and resources, have to become indifferent to the vast number of new works published each year, and it’s usually only by chance or luck that they happen upon works that truly stimulate them. The “well-made story,” like the “well-made play” of yesteryear, will satisfy their “automatic aesthetic reflexes,” but won’t deliver much in the way of making the reader sit up and pay real notice. I say all of this as a lifelong reader, not a frustrated writer.

  4. RobotBoy says:

    While I don’t think your analysis is incorrect – the MFA is homogenizing and annoying in many ways – I think you leave out the far greater problems that have dismembered the literary world over the past 15 years. Ultimately, the spread of entertainment options and the power of the cell phone have completely devastated the book business. Most people would rather check their FB feed than open a book and now there is almost no point in the day where option one isn’t available. The subway was the last bastion of readers for a long time – you’d see all kinds of titles on the way to work but the cell phone has extended its tentacles below the earth. I don’t think my partner, god bless her, has read a book for pleasure in the decade since she got an iPhone. Things in the U.S. seem to be much worse for writers than in the U.K., at least that’s the sense I get when talking to my British writer friends. We’re returning to the time when interest is literature was the purlieu of a small subculture. In previous centuries this was because most people were illiterate, today it’s because connectivity has made isolation optional, and who would chose to be alone?

    • Timothy Rogers says:

      Yep, maybe I overdid it with respect to the way in which new writing programs have adversely affected the writing and reading of books. There is no doubt that “virtual connectedness” (being connected without being committed to anything entailed by a real friendship with a fellow human being) brought about by social media and the gadgets that go along with this has had an equally bad effect on the reading habits of young Americans. Based on my own informal survey of very well-educated young men and women working in the neurosciences (this was about six years ago, at the time of my own retirement from that field of endeavor), the ignorance of and indifference to literary fiction and good “general nonfiction” (i.e., thought essay collections) is both deep and wide. It ain’t a pretty or promising picture.

  5. If someone of this author’s calibre and successes cannot find a suitable agent, it does not bode well for new unpublished writers.

    Publishers are looking for instant big hits – which usually precludes most literary writing – unless a seriously big player is involved ie… Zadie Smith … Martin Amis.

    Someone mentioned the cell phone as having obliterated a lot of reading.

    Maybe writers have to be their own agent and follow the audience to the internet. There is a multitude of approaches on the internet to publishing and making money; the younger generation lives on and in the internet.

    Bypassing traditional routes and being creative could be the answer.

  6. quasimodo5000 says:

    You certainly seem a charming lunch companion, makes me wish I were an agent.

  7. JohnJoss says:

    Many trenchant observations here, most especially with reference to the MFA conspiracy.
    My own experience matches the article writer’s. I have contacted literally hundreds of agents but the usual reaction is the Japanese ‘response:’ mokusatsu, which is ‘killing with silence’ or ‘treating with silent contempt.’
    The literary publications themselves have brought mokusatsu down to the level of high art (yes, down). Even if one sends an SASE, they do not deign to reply.
    The fundamental fact is that 400,000 books are now published yearly, and few succeed. Unless one is established or a celebrity, the market for a book is shrinking. Think also of the proliferation of blogs–reportedly 25 million worldwide, most of which are badly written, un-fact-checked, self-serving drivel (probably including this comment of mine).
    Finally: has it not occurred to us, all of us, that we are required to ‘submit’ our ‘submissions.’ That is, to me, a degrading posture. We are poor pathetic supplicants, begging for the attention of our literary betters. Betters? Yes, and if you don’t believe me, ask them.

  8. Christine Whittemore says:

    Good heavens, I can’t believe this, Fiona Pitt-Kethley! Extraordinary and appalling that you can’t find an agent—I well remember when your name and your work was very prominent everywhere for quite a while.

    It is all very sad.

  9. Adam_Morris says:

    Observations on above:

    — Few people under the age of 30 seem to read canonical ’Literature’ any more – even the supposedly literate ones. Why put in the effort when you have instant and endless gratification from Netflix, et al ?

    — I’ll bet Martin Amis’s royalties on titles since ‘The Information’ (1995) aren’t vast.

    — If you think finding an agent/getting published is tricky, try getting a drama script accepted by Radio 4 (TV is now a completely closed shop).

  10. Anaximander says:

    At first I thought the comments so far covered the waterfront of publishing today.
    Now I see a few gaps in the hedge.

    First — and most difficult — is getting attached to academia yourself. This is what several writers have done after they’ve established a minor name for themselves, in order to get a steady (if small) income. “Writer in residence” is scarcely irksome. But it all depends on string-pulling, and you present yourself as having none to pull. But trawl your previous contacts, however slight: someone might just come up, possibly now already on the academic choo-choo. Obvs avoid teaching people to write!

    Some other institutions have writers in residence — maybe Hastings has one?!

    Also, contact your previous commissioning editors on the papers/periodicals that used to publish you — if they’re still in post. They might have valuable advice/contacts, as they will have kept up with the shifting ground.

    Most of your likely readers are going to be 50+ now (although with your style, as I remember it, it should appeal to younger ones too). So sift through the self-publishing options, which are mainly online.

    At the bottom of the list will be to publish your work entirely as a blog. As one poster says, they’re nearly all trashy, so yours will stand out. You’ll need a way to get it advanced up the search engines, but hints on that are widely available.

    If I lived in Spain or Britain, I’d take you to lunch, but I’m afraid I don’t, which is my loss.

  11. Anaximander says:

    I should add that sales of books in Britain did rise last year (while Kindle sales flattened). It might be worth asking staff at Daunts or — brace yourself — Waterstone’s — about their buying policies.

  12. Sorry, but I’m amused at all this blah, near closingtime in a life of reading
    AND PAINTING. And no one correlates the problem in the H’ART world, the decay
    setting in perhaps with Duchamp’s “Urinal”…. My mother never stopped
    pleading with me to take on an agent, while I lived all the romantic ideas of
    being an artist (equated to starving?), though the early years promised better.
    I still read ten books a week, and I still don’t have a mobile phone……

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