Posts Tagged ‘literary agent’

A light has gone out. Goodbye, Carole Blake.

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

For those not in the know, Carole was one of London’s fiercest literary agents. She wasn’t my agent (I never dared submit to her) but I met her quite a few times at RNA parties and the London Book Fair, where you would have a conversation with Carole that would take half an hour with most people but under five minutes with her, such was her speed of living. Sadly, this speed of living ultimately translated and she passed away very suddenly, and shockingly, on 26th October.

Finding a literary agent to represent your work is like looking for an elusive eyebrow hair in a haystack. You know what they look like, they’re terribly familiar, and yet you can never quite find one. Any author will be able to describe the work, the dedication, the intense commitment and frustration that go along with trying to get published. Many will eventually follow the diversion signs and trundle off into self-publishing, but for those that choose to battle on in traditional publishing – the fight is real. It’s hours and hours of your life. It’s hundreds upon hundreds of words. It’s your creativity, poured out and shaped on a page. And yet when you submit this precious work to a literary agent for their appraisal, and hopefully representation, it’s all too common to never hear back. We can’t blame the agents, we really can’t. They are all perpetually snowed under. The writing world has burst at its seams and literary agents are the first bastion of support. Nonetheless, it’s very demoralising to never hear a peep about your word-baby.

Carole Blake, co-founder of the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency, was in quite a different class to other agents. She was always interested and devastatingly honest about whatever it was you were discussing. I remember a conversation about ensuring that submissions are properly proof read before they’re sent off, “I love reading the manuscripts,” she told me, “but one wrong spelling and that’s it.” One wrong spelling?! That’s standards for you.

Though I didn’t know Carole, like many others I followed sections of her life through her effervescent use of social media and especially Twitter. In one day you could get photographs of her latest book purchases, what she was eating for lunch and details about her shoe and perfume collections. There wasn’t much that this lady didn’t bring to the table.

And that is why she will be so sorely missed by family, friends, clients and her Twitter followers. Carole had such a genuine enthusiasm for, and engagement with, life that it’s very hard to believe she won’t be ferociously representing her chosen authors any more, or posting thirty tweets a day.

I can’t claim more than a passing acquaintance with this great lady, but those over at Vulpes Libris can:


Good night Carole, and God bless.

Self-publishing – why not?

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

When people think of becoming an author and publishing a novel, I think it’s fair to say that even now it’s considered as something you can apply to do and you may or may not be accepted. For the vast majority, it is unfortunately the latter. The well-trodden, traditional route to becoming a published author is to write a book, seek and find a literary agent and for them to secure a publisher on your behalf. The number of people who achieve this, versus the number of people who try and don’t, is tiny. There are literally millions of aspiring writers worldwide, look at the current phenomenon that is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), the slightly kamikaze idea being to write a 50,000 word novel in a month, quantity, not quality, being important. I think it’s a great idea and gives those people who have ‘always meant to write a book’ a kick in the right direction towards doing so. I am passionately committed to encouraging writing of every description. Even if it never leaves the author’s desk it can still be a wholly enjoyable and often therapeutic thing to do. There are people out there with fascinating stories to tell. Sadly, it has become clear that the writing industry is viewing NaNoWriMo extremely sceptically, because a percentage of these currently-being-written manuscripts will inevitably land on the desk of some agent or editor who already has their hands full. Anyway, I digress. Most of these writers that I’m talking about, for one reason and another, will never become published. Breaking into this tightly protected industry is an incredibly hard thing to do. We’ve all heard the infamous stories of how often Stephen King and JK Rowling were turned down which people repeat ad infinitum in an effort to be encouraging to aspiring writers, but for me it has always had the opposite effect. Instead of reassurance, it just demonstrates that actually, the publishing industry is completely prejudiced against the unknown, no matter how good that unknown work is. And frankly, one view is why shouldn’t they be? Agents and publishers are ultimately looking to make money out of a book, not give a wannabe writer their chance of a lifetime. For an agent to accept a manuscript they have to be 100% behind the project, and believe that it can be a marketable, profitable book which will sell well. Added to which there are hundreds of fully-established novelists in every genre who regularly turn out work which sells extremely well, thanks in part to their recognisable name. Therefore, it is easy to see why agents and publishers may not be fully enthusiastic about welcoming new writers into the fold. However, as I know from experience, there are those who are more open-minded than others and who have one eye more or less continually open for new projects and new authors. Sense dictates that there WILL be undiscovered talent, though these days the bar is set extremely high. But I shall not be side-tracked, this is not a piece on how to become published, instead I’m looking at the other option, the option that is currently a sneered-at phrase among the publishing fraternity: SELF-PUBLISHING.

The self-publishing industry has seen a real explosion over the last few years. More people have become aware that it exists, websites like have helped promote it as a concept, and like any new venture, the more people that go forth into it, the more people want to follow them. The reason for this is all those hundreds of writers (and I’m talking purely UK-based here) who are not given the chance through traditional publishing, yet yearn to see their work in print. And furthermore bound into a recognisable format. And why not? Should they forget their aspirations and resign themselves to be failed novelists just because the person at the top of the writing chain hasn’t liked their style or content? I don’t see any reason why. If a person has invested the amount of time and energy it takes to write a book, then that potentially deserves some outlet.

What becomes vitally important here is to be realistic, and recognise that very few people will become household names because of their writing, and still yet fewer if they self-published. But if the aim is simply to write a book and have it published through some form or other, for it to be available as an actual book in other words, then turning to self-publishing becomes a viable option. The publishing industry has experienced something of a backlash from irritated writers due to its closed -ranks policy; and this can be seen in a number of ways. For example, the growth of websites such as and The latter was the brainchild of HarperCollins publishers, designed to discover new writing talent. Once a month they review the most popular submissions, with a view to publishing them. It’s a unique site and a relatively new idea, but furthermore it creates a holding bay for aspiring writers who have a place to focus their creative energies and have the knowledge that their work has a purpose. After all, the most successful novels will be placed into the direct attention of an editor at HarperCollins. It’s massively popular, but, ultimately, just another way of breaking into the same industry, it’s not a new way of becoming a successful author.

Self-publishing is a different method. This is where the author bears all of the costs associated with publishing purely to get their book printed and bound. There are a few companies who offer this service, there is no selection criteria applied, but it does cost thousands of pounds. So why this prejudice against it? That’s an easy question to answer: no selection criteria means that absolutely anything can be printed and published. No-one in a position of authority has actually made the decision that a book is worthy of publication. However ultimately, this doesn’t really matter because if it’s no good then the market will judge it as such and it won’t sell no matter how hard the author tries. It often comes down to an issue of vanity.

And speaking of the author trying, I met a very interesting chap last week in Waterstones. He was called Alan Gilliland and he’d written and illustrated a children’s book called “The Amazing Adventures of Curd the Lion in the Land at the Back of Beyond”. He had previously worked for 18 years for a national newspaper in their graphics department. Through conversation it became clear that he had marketed his book very effectively, selling £90,000 worth. In addition he’d had interest from the USA in turning it into a feature film. No small amount of success in other words. Well, I thought, of course that’s possible with a big publishing house and consequent marketing department behind you, plus he probably has hundreds of contacts from his media days which would be handy for review purposes; it’s no surprise really. After a brief conversation about the various merits of book-signing and gaining some valuable advice, I asked which publishers he was with. His response knocked me sideways, “No-one,” he said. “I’m with myself. Completely self-published.” I was so amazed that I couldn’t speak for a second (very unusual), but it was literally the last thing that I expected him to say. He had a well-rehearsed patter which he then gave me, telling me how beneficial it was to be in control of the whole operation, that it would never go out of print unless he chose, the books would never be pulped unless he chose – and perhaps most pertinently – the amount of money that he earns per book sold is far in excess of what most authors earn. All undoubtedly true. And what is more, he’d had no help in terms of reviews, simply because he was self-published. Even after working for 18 years in the media industry, he had not been given a helping hand of any sort. It doesn’t appear to have affected his success, I was extremely impressed and it opened up a side of self-publishing that I hadn’t realised existed. However, whilst his story is undoubtedly true and inspirational in part, I do wonder what difference it would have made to him to have had the support of a publishing house.  What this story does prove is that the success of a product, and in this case the book, depends on the marketing. Being with a mainstream publisher gives the author all the advice and expertise that they could wish for. It’s on tap. For a self-published author, they have no such access to free advice and support, which makes it an expensive business to achieve even a small amount of success. Not forgetting the substantial upfront costs to manufacture such an enormous number of books.

The conclusion that I’m going to draw is that although it’s a sad fact, it is probably still true that to achieve even a moderate amount of success, respect and recognition as a writer, you do need to tread the traditional route. Being a self-published author in the eyes of the publishing industry is worse than being an unpublished author. I suggest that the reason for this is that those people high up in the business want to make the decision that a book is worthy of publication; unless they or someone of their set standards has ratified it as such, then it does not merit a glance, much less any respect, regardless of the fact that it may actually be quite a good book. They appear to loathe the confidence/arrogance of the person who chooses to go ahead anyway. There are, and always will be, exceptions to this, but I don’t think the publishing world is ready to welcome self-published tomes with open arms just yet.

Interesting sites:

How I stumbled into my career.

Friday, August 20th, 2010

In general it can be interesting to learn how people ended up in their chosen career. In general.

However, when you’re talking about writers, that makes the leap from interesting to fascinating in my opinion, because you can’t just choose to become a writer. There is no ready-made protocol to follow, nor job vacancies with a sheet of interview questions. From experience I can tell you that you need talent, determination, tenacity and luck. Not necessarily in that order. And virtually no two writers will have entered their profession in the same way.

For myself, I always assumed that I would become a writer. This isn’t quite as arrogant as it sounds because I wrote stories from a very young age, in a classic torch-under-the-bedcovers type of way and I was an A-student in English throughout my academic career. The same cannot be said for maths. I was seven when I wrote my very first story, it was fifty notepages long and called ‘Once in a Blue Ribbon’. Most of my early stories involved ponies. Throughout my childhood I wrote lots of little stories and poems and plays; in fact I was probably always writing something or other. However, whilst I took for granted that I would write books one day, I also thought that I would have a proper career before that. You know, one that needs qualifications and that you get paid for, that type of thing. So I thought I might be a lawyer. I took 11 GCSEs, an AS-Level and A-Levels in English, Spanish and History, gained good grades (A, A, C) and went to Southampton University to study Law.

Sarah Haynes wearing a Southampton University Top

At the end of my first year I took the unusual step of having a baby. You won’t find it as an acknowledged option for undergraduates, but I took a year out to stay at home with my new daughter, and then returned to studying, graduating a year later than planned. And right up until my graduation I fully intended to become a solicitor. I had a place at the College of Law in Guildford and everything. But something niggled at me. And then one day shortly before I was due to start I had a conversation with my husband which ran a bit like this:

“Darling, I think I might not become a solicitor and go out to work after all.”

“Right. And what did you think you might do instead?”

“Well, I thought I might write a book.”

And he’d looked aghast, as well he might. I was exchanging potentially well-paid, permanent employment for what was little more than a whim. But sensibly, he did not voice that thought and I suppose he must have agreed because look where we are now.

And so I bowled headlong into writing my first, rushed manuscript which was a potted history of – at that time – the most eventful period of my life, namely being at University, studying Law with my baby in tow. Plus one or two other more salacious elements which don’t need to be mentioned.

When I’d written roughly half of it, I began sending it out to agents and I had a very encouraging response. Without actually being signed up. I was utterly determined though and took no notice of the rejections that poured through my door like lava out of Vesuvius. Every would-be writer knows that you don’t take any notice of rejections until you have literally exhausted every agent in the Writers & Artists Yearbook. For every ten agents that I approached, I would have a positive, personal response from perhaps one. The rest hadn’t even read it; you can just tell.

What I have covered in a few lines actually took a surprisingly long time. I was disciplined towards my writing (a skill learnt from studying and taking my finals with a baby; time management is essential) and refused to let the rejections knock my confidence. I knew I could write. But the process of researching appropriate agents, learning whom they already represented and writing personalised, covering letters with a measured amount of information, putting in a soupcon of arrogance and a handful of confidence with a sprinkling of determination all takes time. Then you have to be able to afford the postage for ten lots of three chapters, double-spaced and a brief synopsis to all these London-based agents, which as graduates we struggled to do. And then you have to wait. And wait. And after you’ve done that you wait a bit more. It can – and frequently does – take up to eight weeks for them to get back to you, often with a crushing response. But as a writer you cannot let that affect you, you must have confidence in your work and carry on. Unless you receive the same, negative response from fifty agents and then probably accept that your manuscript needs some editing.

It was a time of colossal uncertainty, hope and excitement. A lot of excitement about what I was doing, what I hoped to do and what I thought I could do. It did go on a bit though. I was ready for something concrete to happen a long time before it did, but unfortunately my writing wasn’t, so it didn’t come about.

However, the most exciting thing to happen to me during this time was that I came within a hairs breadth of being signed by a very good literary agent. She read my synopsis and first three chapters, loved it and rang me one evening to discuss it. However, ultimately, she decided that the manuscript wasn’t quite good enough and said no. After being so close this was a real blow. And I was so disenchanted with the manuscript after that I put it to one side and didn’t touch it for three years. I forgot about it. I eventually went back to it on the advice of another agent, read through the writing and realised that the first agent had been completely right. It was absolutely no good at all; it needed to be entirely re-written. I was so grateful for her advice (which is always spot on by the way) that I emailed to tell her, and to cut a long story short she ended up accepting the re-written version and it’s currently waiting for attention in the inboxes of various editors of publishing houses scattered around London.

I know that presented like this my route into writing sounds gloriously easy and really quite a laugh – it absolutely was not. I had years of rejections and uncertainty and I was forced to face up to the fact that I just wasn’t good enough for a long time. I had to be ruthlessly honest with myself about the standard that I was writing to. But I didn’t give up, I didn’t lose hope, I just became more determined; it’s the only way you can do it. As I said in the beginning of this post, I had to keep going, keep trying, improve my writing, continually strive to be better, understand the marketplace more and do my research. And keep taking deep breaths and diving back in to the pool of agents to try and persuade them to represent me. That was my ultimate goal and I refused to compromise. It was a good thing that I didn’t because I got there in the end.

Next challenge: persuading a publisher that they want my manuscript. And the one after it. And the one after that, ad infinitum……