Maybe it was thinking about my blog on the ‘fear of failure’ and how it applied to me. Maybe it was reading a post on Twitter from a literary agent, explaining her admiration for ‘commercial women’s fiction’, or CWF as she called it. Maybe it was thinking about the daunting amount of time and investment involved in producing a high-quality self-published novel once a year. Whatever it was, all of a sudden I asked myself whether it was time to try again to find an agent, something I hadn’t done since 2011.
It was so long ago, I can’t remember now which draft of my first novel ‘A Good Liar’ I decided four years ago to submit to various agents drawn from the pages of the ‘Writers and Artists’ Yearbook’. I didn’t enjoy the process, which varied from one agency to another, but I expected something to come of it. I wanted someone in the publishing world to take me seriously and write back, with comments perhaps, or encouragement or possibly an interest in what I was doing. None of that happened. After waiting the anticipated number of weeks I received brief standard responses that arrived with numbing regularity. None showed any indication that the submission had even been read. All had roughly the same wording, thanks but no thanks, not our kind of book, etc etc. I got the message loud and clear. No point in going down this route: a 60 year old woman writing family saga fiction in a place no-one in London has ever heard of has absolutely no chance of getting on the radar.
Life is short. It didn’t take me long to decide to self-publish and avoid further rejection, and I’ve done so for the past four years, with some success. Last week for the first time I considered trying the ‘conventional’ publishing route again. I followed the trail of the agent who wrote favourably about ‘CWF’, found the agency website, read and followed the submission process to the letter despite its inappropriateness for someone with books already on the market, and posted it all off. I could have used email but somehow a set of papers in an envelope felt better.
Trying again to find an agent may be a complete waste of time, for the same reasons as before. My work is not ‘fashionable’, if that’s what agents – and presumably publishers – are looking for. The novels in my trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ have characters and stories designed to draw the readers in and keep them there, turning pages of one book in the trilogy and on into the next: quarter of a million words that carry you along until the end when you feel bereft. Some of my readers tell me that’s what I’ve achieved. And now I’ve finished the first crime fiction story ‘Cruel Tide’, which looks promising, but who knows?
I’ve been on the courses where agents talk about the books they want. ‘What are you looking for?’ we writers ask. ‘I’ll know it when I see it,’ one agent responds. ‘I have to fall in love with the book,’ says another. We writers shake our heads. We are being told that the process is as mysterious as falling in love, all rationality suspended. Frustrated by all this, I gave up thinking about what agents might want and listened instead to the readers who talked to me, and to my own sense of what makes a good story, well-told.
And now, with three books out and another on the way I am weighing it up again. Writing is the most important thing for me: self-publishing is fun, and potentially more lucrative than earning tiny royalties, but only if you take the cheapest route or stick with ebooks, where the investment is minimal. That’s not really what I want. My books have to be high quality in both content and presentation or I won’t feel proud of them. Hence the daunting investment of money as well as time that I mentioned before. I could keep going down the self-publishing road, but just in case there’s another way I want to try again.
So far, just one agent submission. I know that’s not enough if I’m serious about finding a publisher to take my writing to the next level. I’ll do all the necessary research about which other agents to approach, but even so it feels like a lottery, and I’ve never bought a lottery ticket. Maybe I’ll wait and see with the first one, and then decide. Fear of failure is part of it, but only part. There’s something about putting myself in the hands of an intermediary that I’m not comfortable with. It’s the publishers I want to talk to, but they’re hiding behind the door. In front of the door, determining who is allowed to peek through, are the agents. No wonder many writers feel as ambivalent about them as I do myself.