For example, doing so removes much of the stress and emotional turmoil of submitting a work of literature to publishers. Literary agents are also well-placed to deal calmly and sensibly with financial matters.
There is also the important practical fact that increasingly, publishers prefer to get submissions from a literary agent rather than direct from authors. The reason for this is while many authors are highly professional in their approach to their careers and their work, many authors aren’t, and submit material to publishers which is not of publishable standard and which causes publishers inconvenience when having to find a way of dealing with it.
In practice, nowadays, literary agents are consequently in effect a kind of unpaid first port of call for literary works. Unpaid because agents only get paid their commission when they sell books. Some agencies, including Canterbury Literary Agency, provide detailed editorial assistance for a modest fee but this only applies to works that the agency feels have considerable potential and which the agency is thinking of representing. We make a small charge for this assistance because that way you don’t need to feel tied to this agency once your work has been brought to publication standard: if you then want to seek agency representation elsewhere, you are free to do so, although of course we hope you will stay with us! Please note that any payments made for editorial assistance are refunded free of agency commission from a sale of the book to a publisher.
Our commission rates are those standard in the industry: that is, fifteen percent for UK book sales and UK audio sales, twenty per cent for North American rights (US and Canada). And all translation rights, overseas audio, film and television and all other rights including serialisations. We won’t of course offer your work to the market unless we’ve made you an offer of representation and you’ve accepted.
In terms of fiction, we handle novels that are at least 60,000 words long and ideally in the vicinity of 75,000 words. Normally we will only take on a work that is longer than 100,000 words in special cases, simply because books of this length by first-time authors can be very difficult to sell.
Please note that we don’t handle novellas, or any novel shorter than 60,000 words. We don’t handle individual short stories, or collections of short stories, unless by writers whom the agency already represents. We don’t handle poetry or collections of poems (except in very special circumstances) and we don’t solicit these submissions. We also don’t handle screenplays unless written by people who already have a track record in writing for film or television, or written by existing clients. But if you do have a track record of writing for film or television – which we take to mean that you have sold at least one film script or television script – we’d be very happy to hear from you.
We also handle non-fiction books or biographies of a projected length of between 60,000 and 100,000 words. Globally, in the book world, about twice as many non-fiction books are sold compared with works of fiction. If you are eager to become a professional writer, it’s worth remembering that it can be easier to start your career writing non-fiction than fiction. We are especially interested in well-written biographies of scientists who have made a major impact on the world, or any other kind of pioneer.
Please note that in many cases, non-fiction books do not need to be written out in full to attract a possible publication deal. It is usually enough to produce a detailed proposal and some sample material from the beginning of the book, although not usually including the introduction. Up to about 10,000 words of sample material may be necessary, although sometimes 5,000 words may suffice. If we like your non-fiction book idea, we will give you advice about how to draft a professional proposal.
Much of the work of a literary agent is fundamentally speculative. I am a published writer of fiction and non-fition and literary agent, I think I am good at spotting literary talent and helping the writer develop their talent. But it’s a tough market out there: publishers will not offer for books unless the books are objectively outstanding, and even if a book is outstanding, there is no guarantee that the book will be bought by a publisher. Publishers themselves are in many cases under enormous financial pressure and usually can only afford to publish a book if they believe it has the potential to sell many thousands of copies.
I have in fact set up my own fiction publishing imprint, The Conrad Press, to publish books I love but which despite all my efforts I haven’t been able to sell to longer-established publishers, or to publish books which I love but which I don’t believe a longer-established publisher would offer for.
The actual work of launching a writer’s career is extremely time-consuming and is indeed very much a speculative process. I therefore do not welcome correspondence with writers who seem to think, as some do, that agents exist in order to give writers someone to complain about or to moan to! I also have no interest in contact with writers who want to argue with me about what I think of their work! In fact, as a matter of common sense, I want to love your work: why wouldn’t I? So if I don’t love it, on balance that’s probably because it’s not good enough. But if the agency thinks you have potential, we may help you make your work better.
Writing an excellent novel is one of the supreme achievements of the human spirit and intellect, and too many people aspire to do it without first taking the trouble to master the art of writing, and indeed of using language. Also, you need to start with some talent, and with a genuine interest in people other than yourself, or you’re never going to create characters your readers find engaging.
I am a practising writer of fiction and non-fiction myself, and I know that writing a book is an extremely difficult job and can be frustrating, especially when you read about accounts of enormous sums earned by first-time writers by the way, these accounts are not always factually accurate, and even if they are, the writer won’t get another huge initial advance unless the first book’s sales justifies the hype) and wonder how they did it.
In practice, not only do you need to have produced a really excellent novel (or, for a non-fiction book, a really good proposal and piece of sample material) to get a good publication deal, you also need quite a bit of luck. At heart, publishers are venture capitalists, and while they are mostly very nice people, they need to have a hard commercial head if they are going to survive in a highly commercial marketplace.
Generally, I advise anyone wanting to write a book of any kind to seek in the first instance to enjoy the gratification stemming from the very process of writing it. If you really don’t like writing and are only writing because you are hoping to make some money, it’s probably on balance unlikely that you’ll succeed. More to the point, because in practice novelists only earn very large sums of money in very rare cases, you may be better putting your effort into doing something else that is more reliably remunerative.
So, yes. my advice is this: if you can’t not write, then write. If you don’t really like writing and would rather do something else, then do it.
I personally think the example of J K Rowling is highly instructive in this case. Even after her huge success with the Harry Potter novels, she continues to write and has said in an interview that she needs to do so. It seems to me that this is exactly what writers should be like. I get the feeling that even if J K Rowling had never sold a Harry Potter novel to a publisher or any other novel, she’d still be writing, and that’s the real point. By the way, she didn’t sell the first Harry Potter novel direct to a publisher; she used a literary agent.
So yes, enjoy the process of writing your book: I personally feel that writing books is one of the greatest experiences a person can have. Enjoy that process and also, if you are working with this agency or any other agency, the process of polishing your work until it is good as it can be. After that, anything else that happens is in some ways a bonus.