I saw an advert today for a ‘writing conference’, but actually it was an event designed solely to give writers access to a group of agents, for whom the writers were expected to ‘perform’, aka ‘pitching’. For this experience the writers would travel to the venue and pay a considerable fee. Could this be entitled a ‘writing conference’? It was about seeking approval from an agent, nothing more. Who are these arbiters of quality, and where does their power come from?
I need to declare an interest: twice in my writing life over the past ten years I have tried to find a agent, and twice the attempt has been fruitless. The second time, as a moderately successful self-published author, I said as much in my ‘pitching’ letter, and in one of the few responses I received I was told that my success so far was really nothing special and that I should be more ‘humble’. Thanks for that. Most of the responses from agents I have gathered over the years have been generic, making no specific reference to my work, which I suspect had not been read.
Sour grapes? Bitterness? Yes, probably. I’ve had a long professional career and don’t relish being ‘judged’ by a group of people whose qualifications for their role are so hard to define or to check. Granted my experience is limited, but the ‘average’ agent appears to be young (ie. younger than my daughter), well-spoken, publicly anodyne, and based in London. All of the agents I have encountered at conferences have been female, but some of the ones I’ve written to have been male, so gender may be immaterial.
I suspect that age may matter in this lottery of who will be of interest to an agent. The agent’s living comes from a percentage of an author’s sales/earnings. If the author has thirty or so years of writing life ahead of them they are a more attractive investment than someone like me who started late. It must also help to be well-connected in writing circles, with a wide reach for promotion purposes. When agents are, as they claim to be, inundated by submissions, the fact that the writer knows someone who knows someone would probably help too. Selecting a very small number from a huge range of applicants must be a nightmare, and any easy selection criteria must be welcome.
A fundamental dilemma of current publishing lurks beneath all these more superficial choice mechanisms. No one in publishing seems to be clear about what they are looking for. ‘We need new voices’, they cry, but are drawn by the lure of sales to replicate the most recent best-seller. Best-sellers are regularly a surprise, as predictable as a winning lottery ticket. The agent must be risk-averse and a risk-taker simultaneously. No wonder their public statements are often so bland and unhelpful. A regular pronouncement from the agenting group is that they know a good book because they ‘fall in love’ with it, and we all know what an arbitrary process that is, impossible to define or to rationalise.
If the yearned-for book is impossible to describe, perhaps the agent is actually looking for a writer instead? Does he/she really want someone young, photogenic, articulate, ambitious, flexible/malleable? Find a book with some quality – not much better than thousands of others but with a ‘promotable’ author – pour a great deal of money into promotion and hope for the best. We are told that the great majority of published fiction fails to make any money at all: not a great affirmation of the agents’ or publishers’ judgement.
Without an agent, I continue to self-publish, and it’s hard work. I would love someone to take on the responsibility of getting my manuscript into production, although I would be less happy with the paltry royalties. But I’m done with agents. Going to a ‘pitching’ conference seems like buying a very expensive lottery ticket, with similar chances of success.