Thursday, October 23, 2008


How to improve your chances of getting an agent and having your work published

TAN TWAN ENG, the author of The Gift of Rain (Myrmidon, 2007), on what you need to know and do to get your manuscript published

WHEN I WAS ASKED to present a talk at the Singapore Writers’ Festival in December 2007, the organisers suggested a topic and came up with the title, “How to get published.” However, I preferred to call it “How to improve your chances of getting an agent and having your novel published” because there are so many variables and factors in the publishing industry, and there are no guarantees of getting a work published.

I also deal with the question of obtaining a literary agent to represent the writer and thereafter getting published as a fiction writer in the United Kingdom. The advice given, however, would also apply to the publishing industry in other markets, with some logical modifications.


1. Write your book
This is very obvious and simple, but there are people out there who refuse to put a single word down on paper or computer screen until they get a firm assurance from an editor that their ‘novel’ is going to get published. I’ve spoken to editors in the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States and Malaysia, and this problem seems universal.

Another very common problem is where writers write only one or two chapters, and then expect the agent to represent them or the editor to agree to the publication of the yet-to-be-finished book, based on a reading of these early chapters. These writers feel that they’ll only bother completing the novel if the publisher wants to sign them up, as they feel it’s not worthwhile writing the entire novel otherwise.

So, make sure you have the finished manuscript (also commonly known as ‘MS’) before you send out enquiries to literary agents.

2. Choosing a literary agent
It’s extremely rare these days that publishers accept direct and unsolicited submissions of manuscripts from writers. They would much rather have the manuscript sent in by literary agents. Publishers have become smarter—they know that if a reputable agent has accepted a writer as a client, there is a higher probability that the manuscript will be of a better quality. This makes the publisher’s job easier, naturally. But a manuscript sent in by a literary agent may still end up on the publisher’s slush pile. Book tastes are very personal, as I’ve discovered—an agent may love a writer’s work, but publishers may feel otherwise, perhaps due to factors like the marketability of the work, which we’ll discuss later.

How to choose an agent. There’s a book called The Writers’ Handbook, which comes out yearly. This book lists out, among other things, all the main literary agents in the United Kingdom and the United States. Each listing will include the agent’s contact details and normally a small sample of clients the agent represents.

You should pick literary agents whose clients’ works are similar to yours—for example, if you think your writing style is similar to Kazuo Ishiguro’s, or Ian McEwan’s, then select agents representing them or other writers with a similar style or genre.

Most of the agents will have a website, so it’s worthwhile paying them a visit and learning more about their submission requirements. Make sure you follow strictly what they say: Don’t send romance novels to them if they make it clear that they don’t accept romance novels. If they state “We do not accept poetry, children’s books, non-fiction, or historical fiction,” then don’t send these types of works to them because they will not bother reading them. If they say they don’t accept science fiction or fantasy, don’t send your manuscripts with such elements to them.

I’ve mentioned earlier that publishers prefer to consider only novels submitted by agents, because in many cases the agents have polished the manuscripts before submission. This doesn’t mean that the writer should submit a shoddy piece of work to the agent. As the in-house editor of a literary agency said to me once, “Writers must get their book as near to perfection as they can—the amount of work I put in is rare, and the need for it could have been a reason why publishers shied away first time round.”

Literary agents will also have other requirements related to the submission of your manuscript. Most will ask that you do the following when getting in touch with them:
  • Include a cover letter describing yourself briefly;
  • Include your curriculum vitae―what you’ve been doing professionally up to this moment;
  • Include your future goals; and
  • Attach the first three chapters of your manuscript and a synopsis—if they like what they’ve read they’ll ask that you send the rest of your MS. If at this stage you tell them the rest hasn’t been written, you will not get them to represent you. Or they will ask you to contact them again if and when you finish your book.
And send only the first three chapters, not Chapters 10, 15 and 24 or any other three chapters which you feel are your strongest chapters, because by doing so you’re telling them that your other chapters are not worth reading or publishing. Agents can tell from the first paragraph if the writer has talent or not.

When producing these documents, please make sure they look as professional as possible. Imagine you’re applying for a job, because this is very close to what it is, except it’s even more important. No misspellings, no bad grammar, no meandering and vague sentences. Get to the point quickly.

You should also only contact agents who are willing to read your work without asking for a reading fee. A reading fee is what some agents or freelance editors will charge you just to read your manuscript. Reputable agents do not charge reading fees.

Another piece of advice from an agent: “Don’t send a novel twice to the same agent unless they offer advice and specifically say they would be pleased to look at it again when you’ve done it. Agents hate rereading stuff, as do publishers.”

Signing with an agent. Once the agent decides to represent you, you will be asked to sign a contract with them. In most cases the terms of the contract will be quite standard: in return for representing you, and making every effort to get your work accepted by a publisher, the agent will ask for a 10-25 per cent commission of your advance or royalties. At this stage I would advice you not to bicker over the terms, unless you feel that they are unreasonably onerous. Remember your agent wants you to be happy as well, and so the terms will be industry-standard.

Royalties for foreign rights will differ from region to region, as will royalties for ancillary rights such as audio books, translation rights, movie rights, serialisation rights (quite rare), book clubs rights, anthology rights, Public Lending Rights.

The commission earned by the agent is to cover the agent’s costs—making copies of your MS, mailing them to all the publishers in the United Kingdom, the European Union, United States, Australia, taking the commissioning editors of publishing houses out to lunch to convince them to buy your MS, or to get feedback on why they rejected it. You may be able to obtain a standard sample of such contracts from the Society of Authors or even from copies of certain editions of The Writers’ Handbooks.

This also raises the question I’ve been asked quite often: are agents necessary? There are writers who don’t have an agent and still do well—Madeleine Thien, author of Certainty, is one example. She deals straight with her publisher. But she’s Canadian and her publisher is in Canada, so communication is easier for them. If you’re not writing or living in the same city as your agent and your publisher, it makes sense to have somebody there acting on your behalf and for your best interests. And I’ve found that it’s so much easier to get things done with an agent. Any unpleasant business can be done on your behalf by your agent—if he or she is competent and tough.

The agent may sometimes have an in-house editor with whom you are expected to work, to polish your MS, make certain changes to it, before the agent feels it’s good enough to be sent out. Do note that the reputable agencies do not and will not charge you for such services. These services are part of the agent’s operating expenses and should be covered by the commission the agent makes off you. Be wary of agents who ask you for payment for any editing services, or for fees to cover their costs.

I’d also strongly advise that you listen to the in-house editors’ and agents’ suggestions concerning changes, since the editor and the agent have more years of experience than a beginner writer. Don’t reject any suggestions to edit, amend, or delete any word, sentence, or aspect of your MS out of hand. Think it over. Try out the suggestions and study the effect the changes have on the MS. Most of the time, the changes will improve your MS. Discuss the suggestions with your editor and agent, come up with alternatives to the suggested changes if you want to. Be warned that this is not the final stage of editing, as the publisher will also want to have some input into the final MS.

3. Getting a Publisher
At this point, after the suggested rewrites have been done, the agent will send your MS out to all the relevant publishers. There is nothing you can do but sit back and wait. Don’t keep calling up your agents to ask what’s happening, because if there’s news, they will be the one all excited to tell you. But this doesn’t mean you close all lines of communication with them. Ask them if there are any updates once every fortnight, at the maximum. Start working on your second novel. Be prepared for many, many rejections. Ask your editor for a summary of the reasons why the MS was rejected. If your agent is competent, he or she will ask anyway. Once you have the comments from the publishers who have rejected your MS, look at what they’ve said about your book and their reactions to it. Many times they will raise pertinent points, spot weaknesses or inconsistencies.

Another editor I spoke to when researching this topic also said, “Write the right book at the right time. Ten years ago, history was dead in the water; now publishers and readers can’t get enough of it. And suddenly the ‘paranormal romance’ is hot too (for God knows what reason).”

But these are just rules, and I really can’t agree with the above statement. It’s hard to predict what the market wants. You may start writing on a hot topic, but by the time your MS is finished the topic may have become stale or dead. On the other hand, you may write about a topic which is already passé, but still write with such originality and skill that you bring something new to it—for example, look at Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which centres on the moral, social and, more importantly, the emotional issues of cloning. Cloning isn’t a new subject (it’s been replicated so often!), but it was one of Ishiguro’s best works, I felt, and it packed a great emotional punch.

It’s better to write what you want to write, and write it well, with passion, emotional honesty and ignore all fads, unless you’re churning out thrillers with the shelf life of bread.

You do get exceptions. As my agent and editor said, “It has to be said that the saga of The Gift of Rain is not a textbook case by any means! It’s just that we believed in it all along, and was proved right—witness the nice emails we got from publishers miffed with themselves that they hadn’t bagged it when given the chance.”

And also note that even wildly successful writers have doubts. My editor has this to say of Jung Chang when I told her the writer was going to be at the Singapore Writers’ Festival too: “Jung Chang is lovely. I met her at a party once (she won’t remember) and she said she was working on a biography of Mao. ‘But do you think anyone’s going to be interested?’ she asked. I said that after Wild Swans she could transcribe the Beijing telephone directory and people would be interested, and she seemed quite surprised! I also heard her talk for an hour without notes, and with tremendous passion, about growing up in Mao’s China, at the Royal Geographical Society.”

Finally, I love books and I read every single page of a book—including the copyright and acknowledgment pages. I would advise you to pay attention to the acknowledgment pages of a book—they are there for the writer to thank the people who’ve helped them, including their agents. You can often discover the names of your favourite authors’ agents this way, which helps narrow down the list of agents you want to contact.

TAN TWAN ENG is the second Malaysian novelist to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his first novel, The Gift of Rain (Myrmidon, 2007). Penang-born Tan lived in various places in Malaysia as a child. He studied law through the University of London, and later worked as an advocate and solicitor in one of Kuala Lumpur’s most reputable law firms. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa, and is working on a second novel.

Reproduced from the April-June 2008 issue of MPH Quill magazine


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