Saturday, 5 October 2013

Authors will have choices - thoughts on the morning after the Agents' Party

By Candy Gourlay

Last Thursday, I attended the Agents' Party, a yearly SCBWI event that I stopped attending when I got signed by my agent a few years ago.

The Agents' Party used to be the highlight of my year on the slushpile and I kind of missed being a part of it ... so I decided to go, if only for the social life.

Left to right: Hannah Whitty of Plum Pudding, Emma Herdman of Curtis Brown, Hannah Shepherd of DHH Literary Agency, Vicki Le Feuvre of Darley Anderson, Sally Ann Sweeney of Mulcahey Associates.
The agents said all the things that one would expect  and that we on the Slushpile have heard so many times before -  to get an agent, WRITE A GREAT BOOK. If you're a Slushpile newbie and have never heard the agents say this in their many ways, do check out the Facebook photos - I typed up the little write-ups on the leaflet about what they're looking for in the captions.

(For your convenience - and because I couldn't resist the new Facebook feature - I've embedded the FB post about it at the end of this rumination)

Pressure to change

This is an interesting time for agents. I don't have to rehash how dramatically the publishing landscape has been changing - a metamorphosis that is fast, fickle and unpredictable.

The pressure means that to succeed, those lovely young agents sitting in a row have to be more creative, have sharper eyes for talent, and have bigger balls than most.

Hannah (left) and Emma in front of a rather startling photo at the Frontline Club venue.
Indeed, the first agent to speak, Hannah Whitty told the extraordinary story of how they saw so much promise in the character work of an illustrator that they persuaded her to author a series. Three books have been published and three more have been commissioned. (Hey Kate Pankhurst, good job!)

Emma Herdman described Curtis Brown's involvement in the "slightly scary" Discovery Day at Foyles - in which agents responded to excerpts and pitches from authors. The net is being cast wide, and the agents are doing more than just sitting at their desks watching their slushpiles grow.

I'm sure it's not just me - agents, editors, publishers - they all seem to be holding conferences, seminars, workshops for aspiring authors.  Now that the author has the power to cut gatekeepers out of the chain, there are changing perceptions about who is serving who.

Following the money

In the latest edition of The Author, the Society of Authors magazine for members, Nicholas Clee (Bookbrunch) describes how various agents are trying to follow the money.

Clee tells the story of how literary agent Ed Victor has become a publisher - his imprint Bedford Square Books published ebooks and print-on-demand "that without exception publishers have turned down".

It is Victor's rule to go to a publisher in every case and ask: 'Would you like to publish this wonderful book? If you don't, we will.' Publishers: the bigger the better? by Nicholas Clee, Autumn 2013 edition of The Author

Victor points out that the better deal for the author would be with Bedford Square (50 per cent of proceeds minus costs) than with the publisher (25 percent).

(Helpful note to aspiring children's authors: Sophie Hicks handles children's books at Ed Victor)

Clee also describes the approach of the agency Curtis Brown who pioneers in author assisted self-publishing. Here is something about author assisted self-publishing from the Jane Friedman blog:

With independent author success on the rise, the role of agents has taken a precarious turn for the unknown. Many agents are seeing fewer sales and lower advances (which equates to lower income), and are looking for ways to keep their heads above water. One path that some have taken is agent-assisted self-publishing. By Melissa Foster. Read the whole thing after you finish reading my blog

Curtis Brown MD Johnny Geller tells Clee: 'I don't describe us as a publisher' - but the Curtis Brown list can be regarded as 'a training ground or a showcase'. Plus: they have had the odd bestseller or two.

Under Amazon's White Glove service, Amazon gets 30 percent and authors get 70 per cent, paying the Curtis Brown the usual commissions. Editorial and marketing services are purchased from the Whitefox agency.

In his article, Clee writes:
Ed Victor and Jonny Geller both believe that their authors will choose to go with well-known imprints when the option is available; and these agents' deals enable their authors to take up alternative offers should they arise.
It's not SELF publishing anymore is it, when professionals are involved?

Clee ends his article declaring that whatever happens in the near future it looks like 'authors will have choices' - and the choices that belong to the traditional world ought to realize that soon.

Indie-publishing is here to stay

The usual questions were asked about self-publishing at the Agent's Party - and it was interesting to hear how positive the agents were ... in previous years, agents could be quite sniffy about authors who had already self-published their work.

I thought there was excellent advice to be had from this blog by Nicola Morgan on why publishers might not want to publish you once you've self-published your novel.

Self-publishing is a strategy. But there are different intended or desired goals. If the goal is becoming published by a publisher, then you need to understand how publishing works. And it doesn't work by republishing books that haven't sold squillions. Nicola Morgan blogging in Help! I Need a Publisher

At the same time of course, the minority who have succeeded in getting publishers to fall in love with their self-published work appear to have spectacular success.

Which brings me to the big news in the SCBWI world today. SCBWI HQ has just announced a new prize: the SPARK AWARD - recognizing excellence in a children's book published via a non-traditional route. Read about it here.

It is time that SCBWI recognize that there are new models for publishing. The Spark Award is one way we can reward those authors and illustrators who are pursuing independent and self-publishing in a legitimate and high quality way. SCBWI Executive Director Lin Oliver and President Steve Mooser

So there you have it. Indie authors have joined the ranks of legitimate.

Which begs a question to this long term denizen of the slushpile: where does the slushpile belong in this unrecognizeable new world?

With big thanks to Michelle Newell who did a brilliant job organizing the Agents' Party. If you're reading this and wondering 'What in the world is SCBWI?' you can find out more about the organization here. Below is my Facebook album on the Agents' Party embedded - if you can't see it, you can view it here (you might have to be logged into FB).


  1. Thanks, Candy, great post.
    Facebook post missing atm?

    1. Gah. It only shows when you're logged in even if the album is set to public. So I guess the new FB thingy doesn't work properly. You can view it here

  2. Great post Candy
    Yes the gate keepers are still there but we can now easily clamber over the wall into the land of published author. But getting noticed is incredibly difficult and like you say, needs balls and I don't have them. We still need these people to do the shouting for us.
    So back to trying to write a great book with what agents want - Voice Story Characters - always those three in occasionally varying order.
    And yes, they're all so young aren't they?

  3. Fascinating. Thought provoking. Hm.


  4. Wonderful stuff, Candy, Can't thank you enough.

  5. Really interesting post, Candy. Eye opening! Thanks!


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