There is one image of a gentoo penguin being shaken to death by a leopard seal. I was thinking of this as I digested a talk by literary agent Elizabeth Cochrane of Greene & Heaton Agency last Thursday. Her visit was hosted by my writers' group Leicester Writers Club and offered many insights into the world of publishing today. It was undoubtedly a 'very tough industry'. The harsh truth is most books make losses - only a few make money for the publishers. And there are thousands of novelists out there. 'Many writers will write perfectly publishable books that never get sold.' With the crash of Borders bookstore chain last week, the industry is in the throes of the credit crunch. Writers too will feel the pinch. After maybe 3 years work on your first novel, you might be lucky to get a £1,000 advance. Try living on that.
So that was just some of the tough talk. However, Elizabeth Cochrane was there to throw us a few lifelines, not just beat us about the head with home truths. She worked through several hours of detailed, practical advice about what agents were looking for, how to present your pitches and how they would fight for your interests in this climate. The talk was supported by Creative Leicestershire so free. A large room was packed with maybe ninety-odd aspiring and professional writers.
I've been lucky enough to hear a few agents and editors speak at LWC events so a lot of it was familiar. But there are always little gems. Having mentioned the horror story of an unnamed leading agency that kept the 'slush-pile' in a cupboard till some intern could send out all the rejection slips (gasp!) - she explained the routine in her own agency. They refer to 'the unsoliciteds' - not the 'slush-pile' - and take turns each week to do the initial sifting. I liked the mention of 'a little place in the kitchen' where other agents make their tea and get a second look at some of the submissions. A lot of the sifting inevitably has to go on in the margins of a busy day representing existing clients. So the question is always: 'Can I put this down yet? I've got all these other things to read - is this unputdownable?' That's the challenge with sample chapters.
Some DOS and DON'TS:
- don't say your friends loved it
- don't ask them to sign a security clause before they can see your top-secret manuscript ...
- don't mention your holidays
DO mention other writers that your book is 'in the vein of'. But Elizabeth doesn't take to Hollywood-style pitches along the lines of: 'It's Smiley's People crossed with Anna Karenina'. Her talk also reinforced the importance of networking and making full use of any opportunities to meet agents at courses, parties, writers' conferences etc. And indeed, she was generous in her time during and after the event, handing out a great wadge of business cards.
So we were lucky indeed to hear an agent who was both witty and dedicated to getting up-to-date info. out there to writers. She also works for a consultative agency, Cornerstones, that writers can make use of to get in-depth reports on their books. With the freezing winds of recession blowing in, we need all the help we can get. Above all, Elizabeth Cohrane revealed, you need 'to see the joy in it' to sell books, and that's the hallmark of the kind of agent or editor you want to find in this business.