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Non-agented writers - how does that work?

Just last week, a great writing chum of mine, who knows his way around a bit of PR, commented that I'd done well to get as much visibility for my new book, Waters and the Wild, (you have bought ten, right? You should because it's getting the most awesome reviews) without being agented.

Let me very clear, right from the start. I wanted to be agented. I'd still quite like to be agented. This is not an agent-bashing blog, far from it. I am not anti-agents: it seems they're rather more anti-me. This is frustrating - my books have all done well, for being with indie publishers/self-published but, more to the point, the reviews are stellar. People, when they find the books like them and recommend them. But still the agented world and I are not linked, probably for the simple reason that my books and a big publisher are not seen to be a good match.  

Let's go back a couple of years. I was, as is quite common, agented for my second novel. I then received a publisher's offer on my first novel - on the trilogy - which was languishing without representation and the agent contracted me for it. So far, so great - a contract to get my publishing ears wet and an agent with an agency who state their commitment to their authors' careers. I had the next book pretty well finished (the book which just came out on Sunday as it happened) and the next underway. Productivity was not the problem, nor me being difficult, or any of that: the problem, as it happened, was that my output didn't quite fit with my agent's specialism. All of which happens everyday, everywhere, through the publishing world. Hey-ho, and there I was, no agent, a trilogy contract to see out, a book that hadn't sold and couldn't be repped and another that had been turned down by my existing agent and which would be a hard sell. All of which had taken up 18 months of my writing career.

What to do? Well, I'm nothing, if not a pragmatist. I threw myself into the trilogy, decided to self publish Inish Carraig - the book wot didn't sell - and find a suitable home for Waters and the Wild. Whist I was at it, I'd look to write something else and then see where I ended up.

 And that's where I am at this week, with those five books out there on the market, and a growing writing career. I turned a decent profit last year. Not enough to jack in the day job, for sure, but more than many other writers are turning over. And yet, again, I am on my own, doing this without the support that would be very nice to have.

Now some people, especially the brave souls who are prepared to work hard enough, smart enough and well enough to become successful self-publishers, don't want an agent. Don't want one, don't need one and think anyone giving away 15% of their earnings must be a bit daft.

I don't really count myself in that mix. Partly because I don't work smart enough to become a successful - as in give up the day-job - self publisher and partly because there are aspects of being self published that I don't enjoy. Like formatting. And the drain on my time of little things. And also, partly, whisper it, I'd still quite like to have the dream of the big publishing contract and a little pile of my books in the window of lots of bookstores. And that's okay. To dream.

Which means I'm actually doing a lot that falls under the traditional model and less under self-publishing. I'm dealing with bookstores (I'm in a few now), I'm talking to radio stations, I'm seeking funding, I'm getting myself onto people's reading lists and I'm slowly, but surely and determindedly (I know, I know, I'm an exhausting force of nature to those who I drag along into my maelstrom. The only defence I have is that people want to try working alongside Jane Talbot and they'd see I'm a lightweight whirlpool...) increasing my visibility.

So, to the nitty gritties. What is hard about being an unagented author in a trad world? Well, I suppose contracts is one of the hairy areas. Sign a bad one, and you're facing a disaster. Sign your rights away and you could be finished as a writer.

I have a couple of tools up my belt for this one. Firstly, I have the contract negotiated with my agent, which is a useful document to refer to. If any rights differ, I go and explore what they are and where I might be at risk. When in further doubt, I check - and getting a contract checked is cheap and safe for anyone. Join the Society of Authors, and for less than a hundred quid you can have it checked over. So, I don't see not having someone in my corner a barrier. (I don't doubt that an agent could get me a better deal, however.)

But, what about promotion, I hear you ask! And there is no doubt it is harder without someone in your corner. But contacts can still be made and opportunities are still open. It's a barrier, but not insurmountable.

And, lastly - how do you get a publisher without representation! The answer is two-fold. To get a big 6 publisher, and land that jackpot - it's very, very hard. Almost impossible. In fact, I'd suggest it's worth forgetting about in terms of it actually happening (on the basis that if it did, it would be a lovely surprise!)

But one thing that surprised me when agented was how quickly my agent came down to publishers I could submit to anyway. In fact, it is one of the thing that made me braver when I did find myself on my own and, I have to say, I've had a very nice publishing journey with little stress and an end product that I'm very proud of.

The agent route may still be the gateway to one dream: the big publisher, expanded distribution, the Disney-writer-dream. But they're not the only route to becoming a writer and getting books out there. And, yeah - I might sell more, but I have a lot of say over the product that goes out. I get consulted on pretty much every stage, from cover design, to editorial, to publishing calendar, to promotional activity. For someone like me who is used to autonomy within my workplace (I'm self employed for a reason...) that's really important. In fact, I worry that if that was taken from me - and I don't know how much it is, having never experienced being with a big publisher - if I wouldn't get a bit panicky about what was happening to my book-baby.

All of which meant I felt it would be useful to blog and just say to those writers who haven't got an agent, or struggle to get one, or don't want one: don't worry. You can have a writing career without an agent. It won't the same career and the opportunities might not be as stellar. But it can still be a good career, with books you can be proud of under your name, some income, supportive publishers who believe in you, and respect from your peers (because I have never known any writer, no matter how big, to look down their nose at me. Ever. We all know how hard each other works, and that this is a difficult industry to break. Provided you are putting out good books, you'll get respect.) And, really, once you have that - and I do, in spades - then you're rocking it.

You're a writer - just one striking out there on their own, and making it their own way. And there's absolutely no shame in that.

My five tips for working without an agent:

1. Know your rights and where to get contracts checked (see above)
2. Know what you want from your publishing journey and stay true to that
3. Don't be afraid to reach out and ask for support. Don't feel just because you're an indie and you're not represented that you don't have value. Be proud. You've written a damn book. Join facebook groups that help with promo tips, network yourself as a writer. Don't hide away.
4. Don't be afraid to go for an agent if you have a project that you feels is commercial and suits one. I'm actively trying with my new novel, as it's a series and, if it did well, it would be better placed with a bigger publisher. My next project I plan to self publish. Who knows after that? Each project is unique and it's fine to do different things with each.
5. Enjoy the freedom! Being independent is something to be proud of and enjoy. We don't see self-employment as any worse than employment, if it's working. It's just something with a different lifestyle. Being unagented is a little like that.


acflory said…
"My next project I plan to self publish. Who knows after that? Each project is unique and it's fine to do different things with each. "
I think this says it all. We are in a unique position as writers in that, for perhaps the first time ever, we can choose how we want to be published [obviously within reason].
I've always worried about losing control of my babies as they're my 'legacy', so right from the start, going completely Indie has felt like my only real option. Plus I have to admit that I'm enough of a geek to really enjoy the process.
Vive la Choice!
p.s. And again, the captcha made me go through 6 or 7 screens. When it says 'street signs' I take it literally and click on the poles that hold up the signs as well. I suspect a robot may be better at this than me.
Joanne Zebedee said…
Viva la choice, indeed. I really admire people who are able to go for it on a self published basis.

and that's so frustrating. I've asked around and no one seems to know how to solve it (and I have no settings enabled to cause it). Blogger is clunky, anyhow, so it might be time to change the platform. Although the thought of transferring over so many posts is exhausting - I might just lift the most popular.
timctaylor said…
Great post, Jo, and congratulations on making the top-20 bestselling science fiction authors list on this week. I think you’re right that the route to frontlist stardom with a Big Five publisher remains through an agent. In the world of science fiction, many (I would say nearly all) of the new frontlist stars came via initial success self-publishing, but when you look into their personal story, it was frequently an agent who won the deal, or at least brokered it.

Outside of that, I think the publishing world has been thrown into the air and is settling into many new forms, as you yourself are demonstrating. I myself used to work for a literary agency to produce eBook editions they were publishing on behalf of an author client (Jeff Noon), a sign that agencies themselves are trying new things. These days I make my living primarily through self-publishing, but have had a very successful year publishing another author, have licensed audio rights to one of the two major audiobook publishers who approached me directly, and am (hopefully) about to sign an unagented traditional publishing deal after a little Facebook messaging with your mate, Mr Corcoran. But that just reflects how varied the publishing world has become, not that I am anti-agent. Far from it, I keep telling myself to get my finger out and get agented myself. In my case, I’m not interested in a traditional Big-5 full English rights deal (not unless they talked a frontlist-level advance!) but my foreign-language rights are languishing unloved, and for that I want an agent.

Jo Zebedee said…
Thanks, Tim! It was a nice surprise to wake up to! I think you're right - mixing it up works well. And good luck in your new venture - sounds fun!

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