Thursday, December 08, 2005

Choose your literary agent with care

A while back I did a piece which mentioned literary agents, and it was plain to me from the comments that finding an agent in the USA must be easier than it is in the UK.

I can't offer any hard data on that, but I think that any UK-based writer who is not yet published is likely to agree that getting an established agent even to read your work is difficult; getting her to take you on as a client is close to impossible. The bigger and better the agency, the more this is true. For the top firms, the ratio is something like 500 rejections to 1 acceptance at best.

In the USA, however, the book market is four or five times bigger than the UK's, and it is spread over a far vaster geographical area. In the UK, with a handful of exceptions, all leading agents are based in London, and everybody knows everybody else. An agent in Sunderland or Wigan is not going to be taken seriously by anyone. But in the US most major cities seem to have a sprinkling of agents, and the West Coast seems to me to have plenty of firms which rival those in New York. So perhaps there is more opportunity for people to set up shop as agents with some sort of credibility, even if they aren't known names.

All of that being said, this post is simply to advise you to choose your agent with care, wherever you live. Publishers Lunch provides a link to a report about a 'literary agent' who was not only in it for the money but used deliberate fraud as a standard operating procedure. By name, Martha Ivery.

Ms Ivery, it transpires, took $700,000 dollars from 200 would-be authors. That's -- lemme see, punches calculator -- $3,500 a head, on average. Look, I know people are keen to get published, but this is ridiculous.

And on top of that, Martha Ivery seems not to have been a very nice person. A.C. Crispin, a Maryland author who helped to unmask her through the Writer Beware web site, says 'This case, unlike the other ones we followed, really got personal. She made death threats to us, and stalked us online. I plan to go to the sentencing.'


Dr Ian Hocking said...

It sure ain't fun trying to snag a literary agent. Today I got rejected for the umpteenth time, but at least the letter contained some feedback, so I feel pretty lucky. Onwards and upwards...even if the gradient is bit shallow.

Anonymous said...

The case of Martha Ivery certainly is extraordinary, but I don't think she has anything on Melanie Mills/Elisabeth von Hullessem/Lisa Hackney. I mean, at least Ms Ivery hasn't tried to murder her own mother . . . as far as we know.

You can compare their stories here, the Writer Beware page which covers both stories.

I followed the Melanie Mills saga as it was unfolding here, and I would say it was the finest thriller I've ever read -- and, in my opinion, the real reason that Stephen King decided to quit the game(sort of).

Another matter. Like the GOB, I have the strong impression that it is less difficult to find an agent (and even a publisher) in the States than it is in the UK. I have no figures, but US writers' websites are full of postings from writers who, if they are to be believed, have found either or even both with little difficulty.

Is this even possible? Are there fewer writers per head of population in the States? Are more agents and publishers prepared to take risks? Or is it that more writers are paying to have their work published (or at least represented), but are just not admitting it?

To put the question at its simplest, is the percentage chance of success for a real unknown greater in the US than in the UK? Does anyone know?

Anonymous said...

So, do you think UK writers would be well advised to approach US agents? The distance and time differences could make communication tricky.

Faye Davies said...

Hmm. I've been approaching both US and UK agents and what baffles me is the difference in what they appear to expect from a submission. Nathan Bransford, Query Shark etc. post tons of advice about the US query letter (or email), which is a one-shot, hard-sell pitch of your story.

UK writers want biographical info, a full plot outline, and 3 chapters. All by snail mail (and sometimes exclusively, staggering as it is to believe). In theory, this gives you more space to wow the agent. In practice, they probably still only give it 30 seconds' consideration.

I'm nervous to try the US style approach on UK agents, as I worry they'll consider it crass. But their business demands are just the same, if not tougher.

And yet, since I'm British and live in Europe, it would seem preferable to have an agent I can actually afford to see...

Any thoughts or enlightening experiences?