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Books, Poems, Thoughts Uncategorized

How to get a literary agent (or not)

I’ve just responded to an aspiring author on this topic, and thought it was worth sharing my advice (such as it is) more widely. Here’s what I told him:

Here are a few thoughts based on my own experience of getting publishers/agents to be interested in my work.

It’s always a struggle, as you have clearly already found out! What we as writers find fascinating – and it’s generally obvious to us why we wrote, or are writing, a particular book – often seems to leave the potential publisher or agent cold.

What they are always looking for is what they call a ‘hook’ – by which I suppose they mean both: what will reach out and ‘grab’ the reader, and what can they ‘hang it on’ when they’re describing the book to others? While we, the authors, are wondering what will engage a publisher, they are in turn thinking what will booksellers (i.e. the buyers in book stores etc.) respond to. And unfortunately, our expectations often differ, in that authors tend to think in terms of being original, doing something no one has ever done before, whereas the booksellers (at least as perceived by publishers’ marketing departments) want the tried and tested, something familiar, something ‘like’ something else, so that they know where to put it on the shelves. Sounds stupid, but I’ve had that kind of response so many times.

What we somehow have to try to do is achieve both those things – be different, and the same, simultaneously.

So, in a covering letter and synopsis, what ideally should come across is that your book just had to be written, that you are the person to write it, that, yes, it is original but at the same time it can be ‘placed’. Which successful authors/books is it in line with, which existing audiences will it appeal to? Does it have some particular relevance to world events now? To ‘entertain and educate’ is too vague. There are millions of books already doing that – or trying to – so why is yours especially worth reading? Why wasn’t it enough for you to read other people’s books, come to that? If you can give convincing answers to those kinds of questions, you may be on the way to being heard.

Then, once you’ve got something you’re happy with and believe ought to convince others, the only other thing to do is not to give up. Pick an agent that deals with your kind of topic and, when they reject you, try the next on the list and keep going!

Good luck…

Categories
Work in Progress

Crowd-funding The Burning Time

Martyrs

When I was working on my last book Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina, I initiated a form of “crowd-funding” to help me finish it, and was fortunate that this met with a good reception from a number of friends who, in return for a contribution of £50, received the dubious honour of being listed in the Acknowledgments. Nearly one book further on, I am issuing another “call” to my long-suffering friends and acquaintances to assist me in reaching completion. And, again, if as many people as possible were able to contribute £50 to my “writer’s survival fund”, in return for my gratitude and a mention in the Acknowledgments, I would be able to spend the next few weeks (or months, if I’m being realistic) in concentrating on bringing it to completion. Without assistance, it will be difficult for me to find time to work on it properly, as I will constantly be needing to find other ways of earning enough money to pay the bills. What, you may ask (if you don’t already know) is the next book about, and is it worth being assisted to see the light of day? As you may indeed already know (or have worked out from the heading of this email) its title is The Burning Time and it is mainly about the people known as the Smithfield Martyrs, men and women who, in the mid-16th century, during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I, were burnt at the stake in the area of London now known as West Smithfield for refusing to abandon their particular set of religious beliefs, which did not happen to accord with the prevailing orthodoxy (an orthodoxy that kept changing with the change of monarch, or merely with the change of the monarch’s mind). The Burning Time (provided I manage to finish it!) will be published by St Martin’s Press in the US and Macmillan in the UK. The book will, I hope, be more than a compilation of biographies of the martyrs, for during the course of my working on it, the questions it raises have become ever more pertinent – questions such as:

  • What makes people kill other people in the name of religion?
  • Why are some people prepared to die for their beliefs, while the rest of us are content to muddle along with compromise and uncertainty?
  • What led to this awful period in English history and how did we get over it? (if we have)
  • Are there any wider lessons we can draw to help bring an end to continuing, or new, deathly religious conflicts?

I can’t promise to come up with the answers – or satisfactory answers, at any rate – to all these ‘burning’ questions, but 16th-century Smithfield is certainly a good place to start. If I were American, I would apply to the Public Scholar Program of the National Endowment for the Humanities as I think this book will rise to the challenge to “make sense of a significant topic in a way that will appeal to general readers”. But, being British and lacking such opportunities, I am going down the path of friendly crowd-funding instead. (I did initially receive a fairly modest advance from my publishers – but, as is generally the way with these things, it’s enough to get a writer started but not enough to enable one to finish.) If, after reading this, you feel able to assist me with a contribution of £50, please let me know and I will send you details of my bank account. Alternatively you can contribute via PayPal (to email address: Virginia.Rounding@btinternet.com). I will of course be immensely grateful and will ensure you get a mention in the Acknowledgments of The Burning Time. But if you don’t feel this would be appropriate, or possible, then I hope you have nevertheless found this message interesting and non-intrusive – and please don’t feel under any pressure to respond. (Some of you will already have had an individual email from me with the same information – and I am very grateful to those of you who have already responded positively to my request.)

Categories
Commonplace Book

An Anthony Powell character on being a writer

From Books Do Furnish A Room (Dance to the Music of Time)
 

“[Trapnel] borrowed literally to keep alive, a good example of something often unrecognized outside the world of books, that a writer can have his name spread all over the papers, at the same time net perhaps only a hundred pounds to keep him going until he next writes a book.”

Too true.