I am just about to deliver the 21st Spider Shepherd book - First Strike. Hodder and Stoughton are set to publish it in July. No agent has been involved in the process, in fact I haven't used an agent for any of the Spider Shepherd series.
Getting an agent these days is difficult. I hesitate to use the word impossible, but for most first time writers I am sure it feels that way. In my experience, most agents lack even basic courtesy and don’t even reply to most writers who approach them. And it’s been that way for many years. I wrote to five agents after I’d written my first thriller - more than thirty years ago - and not one even bothered to reply. Even when I had three books in print and was trying to get an agent for The Chinaman, only two agents out of six replied to my letter. If they won’t even reply to a published author and former Fleet Street journalist, what chance does a first-time writer have? And if anything, it has got worse since then. I am contacted regularly by frustrated writers who are simply being ignored by agents. You’re just going to have to accept that getting an agent is no easy task, no matter how good a writer you are or how good your book is. I’m sorry, but that’s the cold hard truth of modern-day publishing.
Most agents these days have websites and on those websites they will explain their policy on submissions. When I first started you had to send a pristine typed manuscript. That's all changed, these days it’s all done by email. So send the manuscript, but bear in mind that you also have to sell yourself. You need to convince them that they need to read your work. If you’ve written a thriller, then push your military background if you have one. If you’ve written a book set in a school and you were a teacher, mention that. If you’ve written a crime novel and have spent time in prison, sell that. Push yourself as much as you push your book.
The Writers and Artists Year Book has a comprehensive list of agents in the UK, Ireland and the United States. Or you can Google ‘Literary agents who take submissions’. Write to them all. Every one. That’s the beauty of the new technologies, you can send a hundred emails as easily as one. Agents would prefer that you approach them one at at time, but as most don’t reply they have no right to ask that. Write to every agent you can. Dozens. Hundreds, if you want. Emails are free. If an agent really wants to represent you, he’s not going to care who else you approached.
In your email, promote yourself but flatter the agent. Find out who they represent and tell them what a great job they are doing for such-and-such a writer and that you think they’d be the perfect agent to handle your book. That’s how I got my first agent – I wrote Gerald Seymour’s agent a flattering letter and he took me on. He eventually sold The Chinaman and The Vets for a good six-figure sum. He went on to become an absolute nightmare - about which, more later!
Please don’t blame me if agents don’t write back. Most won’t even acknowledge receipt of your email. They can be very frustrating people to deal with. Just keep trying. Keep pushing. Work your contacts. Do you know anyone who works for an agency in any capacity? Did you go to school with someone who works for an agency? Start asking all your friends and relatives if they have any contacts. If it’s any comfort, the publishers I’ve spoken to all tell me the same thing – that if a book is good then it will be published eventually.
Don’t forget that every literary agency has several agents, so if one agent says no it’s still worth approaching other agents at the firm. Writing is very subjective, and what one agent hates another might love. So keep on trying! I am afraid I have a very low opinion of agents in general. That’s not an irrational dislike, it’s based on many, many bad experiences with agents. I’ll run a few by you and you can judge for yourself.
My first bad experience was with literary agent legend Michael Sissons, of Peters Fraser and Dunlop. He sold my book The Chinaman and The Vets to Hodder and Stoughton and I will always be grateful to him for that.
But he then joined forces with an agent called Peter Matson at Sterling Lord Literistic in New York. They got me a six figure deal with Simon & Schuster, which was great, but the deal turned out to be a disaster. Simon and Schuster did no marketing and no publicity and both books died. Peter Matson tried to move me to another publisher but he let Simon and Schuster find out. I had the most embarrassing lunch ever when Bill Grose of Simon and Schuster effectively slapped Peter Matson down in front of me and clearly took great pleasure doing it. I can still remember the evil smile on his face and the plate of untouched pasta in front of me. I have never had a US deal since.
I tried to talk to Michael Sissons about the US situation but he refused. By that point he had acquired something of a reputation for being grumpy and terse, and he was definitely that way with me! He refused point blank to discuss it with me. ‘I am not prepared to talk about it any more,’ he said. We parted company soon after.
After I split with Michael Sissons, I went looking for another agent and met Sonia Land of Sheil Land. Big mistake. She talked a good game and said she would go after more money for a two-book deal. I had written a book called The Stretch, which Sky One turned into a movie. She went to see my then editor - Jon Wood (of who more later) and phoned me next day to say that she hadn’t managed to get me any more money. It was a same again deal and she recommended that I accept it.
I phoned Jon and asked him what had happened. He said that it was a very strange meeting. Sonia had turned up with a large bag and asked him what he was prepared to pay for two more books from me. He said he was offering the same deal as he had offered for the two previous books and she said okay. Then she opened her bag, took out six manuscripts and spent the rest of the lunch pitching work by six other writers to him.
Jon thought it was hilarious. I didn’t, and parted ways with Sonia, who insisted on being paid her ten per cent commission, even though I never signed the deal. Back then agents took ten per cent. Now they take fifteen per cent. Do they do fifty per cent more work than they used to? No, they do not. So why did they all start charging more? It’s a question that no one seems able - or willing - to answer.
Anyway, I went on to deal with Hodder and Stoughton direct and negotiated a fifty per cent increase in my advance, for worldwide rights. And no, I would not recommend Sonia Land as an agent.
Jon Wood later became an agent himself, at RCW Literary Agency, having “left” the top job at Orion, which like Hodder and Stoughton is part of the Hachette group. I had lunch with him not long after he left Orion. It was a very strange affair, he launched straight into a long story about how he had been hankering after new challenges, pastures new etc etc. I listened and smiled and nodded, knowing full well that it hadn’t been his idea to leave. To add insult to injury, he asked me to pay for my lunch!
As part of the deal on leaving Orion, he was to act as Ian Rankin’s agent and take fifteen per cent of his earnings. That’s a hell of a deal, as Rankin’s last Rebus advance was seven figures, meaning Jon took six figures. I had just finished a book called The Runner and Jon said he would read it. A month later I hadn’t heard anything so I dropped him an email. ‘I’ve been busy, I’ll get right onto it,’ he said. Then nothing. I left it two years to the day before getting back to him, by which time I’d sold the book to Hodder and Stoughton.
He did have the good grace to apologise - he said he was very busy - but the damage had been done so I didn’t reply and I haven’t spoken to him since. I thought he treated me really badly and I am someone he worked with. In fact I was one of the first authors he edited, he wanted to move from sales to editing and Hodder asked me if I would take him on as an editor. I agreed, as a favour to Jon and to Hodder. He owed me and he still let me down, so I don’t expect new authors trying to break into the business will be treated any better. He wasn’t a great publisher - hence his departure from Orion - and I don’t think he’ll be much better as an agent, so no, I can’t recommend him.
For a few years I was represented by Julian Alexander of the LAW Agency, now rebranded as the Soho Agency. Julian dropped more balls than a juggler with Tourette’s. The Jack Nightingale series was cancelled by Hodder and Stoughton on his watch and he also lost me a publishing deal with Amazon. He failed to sell my standalone First Response, which I went on to sell to Hodder and Stoughton direct. I asked him to sell the foreign rights to my books - any of them - and he couldn’t. He did manage to sell the TV rights to the Nightingale books and to my standalone thriller The Runner but allowed both deals to wither and die. Oh, when he did the deal for STX to film my book The Chinaman as The Foreigner, he forgot to include flights to the premier as part of my package. I ended up having to buy my own plane tickets, though I did get to shake hands with Jackie Chan on the red carpet in LA so I guess it was money well spent! Ben Clark at the Soho Agency is a better bet, he handles the books I publish through Amazon’s White Glove program and is still young enough to be enthusiastic!
It is still worthwhile having an agent, if you can find a good one. But anyone who has tried to attract the attention of an agent knows just how difficult that can be! In 2022 I wrote a thriller called Triggers, about an assassin with multiple personality disorder and figured I would try to get an agent to sell it for me. I wrote to Ed Wilson of the Johnson and Alcock agency and sent him a copy of the manuscript. No reply. I wrote to Sam Hodder at Blake Friedman (twice). No reply. I sent the manuscript to two agents at Curtis Brown, one of the UK’s biggest literary agents. One agent, Gordon Wise, didn’t reply. That’s despite us both being selected by The Bookseller Magazine as being among the 100 most influential people in the book trade. I wouldn’t recommend him, obviously. I would recommend his colleague Sheila Crowley even less. Because I know her - she used to work for Hodder and Stoughton - I emailed her three times. She ignored the first two emails and then sent me a very frosty reply after the third when she realised I wasn’t giving up. She said she wasn’t interested and that no one else at the agency would be, either. Good to know that she speaks for all the agents there LOL! If nothing else it proved that she was actually receiving my emails and was ignoring them! If she treats me like that - a Sunday Times bestselling author who has sold millions of books - then I doubt she will be any more welcoming to unknown authors trying to get their first publishing deal. Not long after her frosty email, I saw her walking out of the lifts at Hachette’s HQ, laughing and joking with a couple of colleagues. The look on her face when she saw me was priceless, and she spent the entire walk to the exit avoiding eye contact with me. She knew she’d behaved badly. Anyway, I recommend giving Curtis Brown a miss, obviously.
Why are agents generally so unhelpful to aspiring authors? I think it’s because most really good agents are just too busy, and the not-so-good ones have become disillusioned with the book trade. The hard fact is that advances generally have fallen dramatically over the past few years, which means that agents have seen their incomes fall, too. An average thriller or crime novel might now get an advance of just £10,000, which means the agent gets only £1,500. How hard are they going to work for £1,500? You know the answer to that!
Also, agents tend to have many, many authors on their books. Take a look at Jon Wood’s page on the RCW Literary Agency website, Jon has at least four dozen authors to look after including Ian Rankin, Steve Cavanagh, Joanne Harris and the estate of Terry Pratchett. Assuming he works a forty hour week, that means he devotes less than an hour a week to each of his authors. So said authors are paying fifteen per cent of their income for an hour a week. Is that a good deal? I guess you’d have to ask his authors!
So who would I recommend? That’s a tough question. Luigi Bonham (LBA Books) is a great agent. He read Triggers and we had a long chat about it but he’s not taking on new clients.
I did receive very nice emails from Richard Pike at the CWA Agency, Jamie Cowen at The Ampersand Agency, Harry Illingworth at the DHH Literary Agency, and Sian Ellis-Martin at Blake Friedmann. It’s definitely worth trying them, at least there is a chance they will acknowledge you! None of them wanted to try to sell Triggers, which was fine, and I went on to self publish it. It made close to £30,000 in its first year of publication, which is good going.
If you are eventually rejected by every agent in town then there are two possibilities – either your book isn’t very good, or the agents are just incompetent. Either is a real possibility. But it might be worth having a closer look at your work, and try to be objective. Maybe the brutal truth is that your book isn’t as good as you think it is. Maybe it needs a total rewrite or maybe you need to start a new book. I think anyone who actually finishes a book deserves a pat on the back for that alone, but just because a book has been written doesn’t mean that it’s publishable.
One thing you must always remember is that agents are the middle-men in the publishing world. They are acting for writers (their clients) but the actual money comes from publishers. A writer has only one agent, but an agent has dozens, often hundreds, of writers, and will be dealing with all the major publishers. At the end of the day, an agent is not going to jeopardise his relationship with a publisher for the sake of one writer. Publishers are far more important to agents than writers are, and the writer is always going to come off worst in any conflict unless you have the clout that comes with being one of the really big sellers. That’s a sad fact of life, and all writers should remember it.
There’s no doubt that there are advantages in having a good agent in your corner. The agent can act as a buffer between you and your publisher, so that problems can be resolved without anyone taking it personally. It’s better to have a moan at your agent and let him or her negotiate with your publisher rather than you letting off steam yourself! Publishers generally have think skins and don’t react well to criticism. And it’s definitely true that an agent is better placed to negotiate the financial arrangements – there’s more to a book deal than the advance, and often it’s in the small print that a good agent can really earn his commission. The trick is to find an agent who believes in you and who believes in your work. Needle in a haystack time, I’m afraid. The worst agents by far are those that I have come across in the States. Awful people. I had one who told me he didn’t think he could represent me ‘because I don’t think I would walk through walls for the book’. It was a stupid thing to say – a good agent is a salesman and a good salesman should be able to sell anything. I had another agent from a large agency grinning with pleasure when he told me that he wasn’t going to take me on. They seem to take pleasure in belittling wannabe writers, an attitude I’ve always been unable to understand.
One of the great unfairnesses of life is that once an agent has done a deal for you, they will continue to take a percentage of the revenue from that deal for ever. Even if they stop working for you, even if they don’t lift a finger to help you, they still take their cut.
So royalties of my early books that were handled by Peters Fraser and Dunlop continue to go through the company, which is now run by the son of Michael Sissons, Jonathan. I went in to see Jonathan a few years back to ask for help selling the film rights to my books - that’s his speciality. He was more interested in getting the rights to more of my books and pretty much refused to help me on the film/TV front. He had me meet Tim Bates, one of their literary agents. Some time later I sent Tim a copy of Triggers, my female assassin story, Three weeks later I had heard nothing and when I emailed to ask what had happened, he said he was waiting to talk to Jonathan, who was sick. Really? I was asking for advice about the book, not the film rights, so his reply made no sense. I said that better we part company and that I would look for an agent who was more interested in helping build my career. That’s when Tim said he had no intention of giving up his percentage of my early books. This is what he wrote - ‘PFD will continue to collect money on the live contracts with Hodder, as the agents of record, as outlined in the agency clauses in those contracts and the terms of business you signed. This is entirely normal and straightforward and does not compel us to represent you or offer you advice for any projects going forward.’
It’s almost as if he takes pleasure in taking money off me without doing anything in return. Scum-sucking parasites? That’s maybe a bit harsh, but I would not recommend Tim Bates or Jonathan Sissons as agents, in fact I’d be wary of the whole Peters, Fraser and Dunlop set-up.
So, long story short, my advice would be to get an agent if you can. Once you have a deal and the big money starts rolling in, watch your agent like a hawk and if they start to take you for granted, sack them and get another. Most writers I’ve spoken to are unhappy with their agents but few ever move. It’s like banks. People are reluctant to change banks but they should do so at the first sign of a problem. There are plenty of banks out there and there are plenty of agents.