The Golden Ticket
Do I really need an agent? What do they do for me anyway? Why can’t I just apply directly to publishers? Why is it all so complicated?
The best way for me to answer these questions is to talk though my own experience. Do you need an agent? That entirely depends on what you want. Self-publishing wasn’t really an option for me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I just want to write and not spend what limited time I have investigating self-publishing options and how to do it. I found the idea intimidating and marketing isn’t my forte. If you self-publish – it’s two full time jobs. One for the actual writing, the other for the promotion. But if you do get traditionally published, you will still be expected to be involved in marketing, no matter how big the publisher. This can be anything from school tours (For YA in my case) to book signings, conferences and panels, and often teaching. I feel, with the backing of a publisher, much more confident in handling this. And as for applying directly to publishers? Some of the smaller ones have open submission periods, but the larger ones don’t want to know unless you have an agent.
So, several years ago, when I was pregnant with my third child and after I had written my disastrous first book that will never see the light of day, I came up with a new idea for a novel. A trilogy, actually. After having completed a Writer’s Bureau course on novel writing, I felt I was in a better place to make this book better. And it was. But I was a newbie. Twitter wasn’t really out there yet and Facebook was just for finding old friends, not connecting with other authors. I had no one to give me advice or tell me what a query letter was. I got myself a copy of the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook, scanned the list of agents, and sent off my second draft (!) to everyone.
My query letter consisted of a lot of information about why I write and the time of day I favoured (oh dear), and not much about the book beyond a sentence.
Which, I guess, in hindsight, was the elevator pitch and, luckily, seemed to draw some interest.
Magically (I realise that now) I received a few full requests. One ultimately ended in being signed with my first agent. (whoop). I thought I had it made. This was it. She put me in touch with a freelance editor she used, we did three months of edits, and off my book baby went into the world while I started writing book 2 & 3. After a year, it was time to face the reality that my book wasn’t going to sell. But I had a new series, and could we try that too please. But my agent didn’t like that book, despite fabulous support from beta readers.
Needless to say, I was crushed. What happened to all those pre-empts and six-way auctions? Didn’t they know this was the next Hunger Games? How can you say Dystopia is dead when so many people are reading it?
After a further three books died out on sub over the next three years, it was time to figure out what the hell was going on.
During that time, I did a few more courses, met my tribe on Twitter and my writing rocketed up a few levels. So did my understanding of how the literary world works. Looking back on my relationship with my first agent, I realised she was all wrong for me. Being a very well renowned agent but also a one-woman band, she out-sourced the editing to freelancers. Which is fine. But (A) I wasn’t pushed hard enough to improve my craft and (B) my agent never really read the books again before sending them out on sub, but took the editor’s word for it. (Red flag). Secondly, my agent didn’t really do YA. So why was I with an agent that didn’t understand the YA market? BECAUSE IT WAS MY ONLY OFFER! AND A BAD AGENT IS BETTER THAN NONE. Or so I thought. It took me three years to cut the tie that I thought was going to launch my career and realise I had to start over. Also, communication. She wasn’t a hand holder. And I don’t need 24/7 contact, but answers to the odd email would be nice too.
As bad as all this sounds, we split very amicably and remain in touch. I was despondent for a while and determined to get my first book ready for self-publication while I queried agents with my others. (I had written 15 novels by this point).
Hiring a US editor (where the book is set) made me realise there was still a lot I could improve in the book. It had a big saggy middle and was nearing 100k. (uh-oh). Plus, she taught me a few things about craft and what to look out for.
(An aside – the more people you expose to your work for feedback, the more you will grow. And you will never stop learning).
A few weeks after I’d edited it, I pitched it at a live event to an agent (Freaking scary – but yay, I did it!). We hit it off. Separately, I got a few offers from small US publishers and managed to put the whole querying thing on fast forward (And by this time, damn, I knew how to write a query letter). Note: it didn’t get me a bunch of offers, it just sped up the whole process. But I ended up with the agent I wanted. And she made me cut another 10k from the book. Now, after 12 drafts, the book is finally ready and is out on sub. But I also fully except there will be an editing round when/if it gets picked up. I say ‘if’ not because I’m a pessimist – actually you have to be an eternal optimist with a bottomless determination to stay in this game – but because I know, no matter how ‘well written’ my book may be, it also depends on whether the editor is in the right frame of mind, doesn’t have something similar on their books, is still looking for my genre, feels that YA is still selling, had the appropriate amount of chilli flakes on their breakfast eggs, and that there’s a blue moon and mercury is in retrograde, for it to get to that next stage. And then you have to start all over again with book 2.
Having one published isn’t a free ticket to success.
I can feel you reeling right now. (Why do we do this to ourselves?) I do it because it’s my dream and I will never give up. Never.
My advice about finding an agent: It’s not a guarantee for a publishing deal, but they will protect you from the rejections, they will hold your hand and be your cheerleader, they will give you good advice about the market and the timing for your book, they will take you out for a drink when it all goes wrong, or right. But you do need to find the right one. I learned the hard way. And yes, self-publishing is always an option if you want, but hire that editor, make sure you know your stuff about marketing so your book stands out from the ones that haven’t put in that necessary effort.
More about Marisa Noelle –
I have completed a Writer’s Bureau novel and short story writing course, Curtis Brown’s acclaimed three-month novel writing course for children (London), Aaron Sorkin’s online master class for screen writing, and Writers HQ Plotstormers 1 plotting course and Plotstormers 2 editing course. Plus the Writers HQ Characterisation master class and short fiction courses. I have been short listed for both #peerpitch1 & 2 (2017) competitions, and shortlisted for #1st 50, and longlisted for the #peerpitch Q1 2018 competition. I have been longlisted for Adventures in Fiction New Voices Competition and Flash 500 Novel Opening Competition. I am a member of SCWBI and have completed a mentorship at the Golden Egg Academy with Matilda Johnson. I hold a BSc in psychology. I have written 16 YA novels in the urban fantasy/light-sci-fi genre and I also tackle mental health.
Twitter & Instagram: @marisanoelle77