Recent agent experience

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    I’ve been thinking of posting something about this for a while, and have been prompted to do so by Sandra’s link to the Bookouture post about commercial fiction.

    I began submitting my novel to agents in July last year. I had my first full request the next day, even though it was the weekend, so you can imagine my excitement. I received two more full requests within the month, and later three more. One of those never replied. Four of them declined. I submitted to 28 agents altogether and had one or two personal rejections, many form rejections, and several no replies.

    The other full request resulted in an email asking for a meeting. Well, of course this agent (I’m not going to say who) was going to offer me representation. Why else would she want to meet me? A meeting is a really big deal, right? My book was going to be snapped up by a top publisher, and all my dreams would come true.

    Nervous, excited, hopeful, I scuttled off to London (via a rail replacement bus at 7.15 am…) and met the agent in a café in Covent Garden. Beverages, chatting about this and that, and then – into the discussion about the book. It was so satisfying to hear this professional talking about my book like she knew it. She did! BUT… reader, she did not offer to represent me. She did not even say if you can make these revisions I will represent you. She did say if you revise I will look at it again.

    BUT do I want to make the revisions she suggested? I won’t go into detail but the gist of it was that the novel wasn’t commercial enough to be commercial and wasn’t literary enough to be literary. Which brings me back to the Bookouture post. It mentions Book Club fiction as being that crossover between the two. Many, many agents have book club fiction or reading group fiction on their wish list. I had been told by agents at the York Festival that this was what my novel was. Another term was ‘accessible literary fiction.’ But this agent said that as far as publishers are concerned there’s no such category. It has to be commercial OR literary. And if it’s commercial it has to be more ‘hooky’ than mine is.

    She must know what she’s talking about, I thought. She’s the professional. She has experience. She pointed me to the Bookseller, and someone else suggested looking at publishers’ catalogues. I haven’t gone all out on this research, not yet, but I’ve put that novel aside for now and am writing another one. It’s book club fiction! I can’t help it – but maybe I’ll have to research the market a bit harder.

    One other thing – my age was mentioned. And there is so much positive stuff out there (eg on twitter) about older writers and how it’s the actual writing that counts, that I found that rather disconcerting, not to mention discouraging, even upsetting. Are we an underrepresented or disadvantaged group now?

    Anyway, I keep going.

    Interested to hear other opinions/experiences about book club / commercial / literary /submitting to agents.


    Oh blimey Hilary! What a demoralising experience! Did she mention your age ina negative ‘this is offputting’ kind of way? Because that’s outrageous if so. And you’re right – I see so many ‘I got my first book deal at x yrs old’ that I would never have expected it to be an issue. My guess/hope is that this agent is perhaps the exception rather than the rule in this particular issue. In the three phone-call meetings & two long email conversations I’ve had with agents (they’ve all known I was in Scotland before arranging to speak!!), my age didn’t come up at all. So fingers crossed you won’t face this again.

    On the meeting and then not offering, I think that’s really hard. It feels like such a big and ‘nearly there’ step (more so than my phone calls, I think), and asking you to go to the effort of coming in without making it clear that this was a discussion not a prelim-to-offer thing is pretty inconsiderate, imo. And it’s hardly something you can ask in advance, is it?

    Re book club fic … I don’t know what to say. Lots of agents list it as something they are looking for, don’t they? It’s what I’d class my stuff as, though I tend to call it ‘upmarket’ as that seems a more common term. So for her to then say it’s unmarketable is really odd. It’s a huge swathe of publishing, isn’t it? The central bookshop tables that aren’t smothered in crime are full of book club books!

    I wonder whether this all flags up some doubts about the agent, rather than you and your book. If she can’t see how to market book club fic, and thinks author age is a factor, I’d say that’s on her, not you. That said, I know Philippa was asked to completely rewrite her novel by an agent, who didn’t formally offer rep until she’d seen a chunk of the rewrite, I think. So perhaps that in itself is not uncommon as a strategy, and does show her belief in you as a writer. So that would come down to whether you *want* to edit it the way she suggested…

    WELL DONE on getting SO BLOODY CLOSE though. You must be doing lots right, so I would say don’t shelve that book yet – send it out to another round of agents! Then forget about it and write the new one 🙂


    I sort of worry a bit when I see agents pushing writers this way. In fact, my hackles start to hack or rise or whatever they’d do if I had them. Book Club fiction is Literary Fiction that agents reckon they should be able to sell better than average. As for this splitting of work into ever more categories as though this is some kind of scientific determination – and saying that a book must fit in there: I think it’s nonsense. If the agent doesn’t want your book then she should tell you that. If she thinks improvements could be made she should tell you what she thinks they are. And these should be improvements to make the book better, not more suited to a category. What I do think is bloody-minded thoughtlessness is dragging you all the way down to London when she hasn’t even got any intention of offering representation. There’s a bit of a whiff of entitlement about it as well. OK, I may have got this wrong. She might be the loveliest agent to ever sit in Covent Garden, but it sounds off to me.


    To be fair, she didn’t say it was about representation. I just thought/hoped it would be. She said it was to discuss suggested revisions and how we might work together. As well as the thing about commercial/literary, there were so many aspects of the book that she thought didn’t work, I even asked her why she had wanted to meet me and she said because she had read the book all the way to the end. (?!!) I suppose if I had enthusiastically agreed with her opinions and assured her I could do exactly what she asked, and if I was a publicist’s dream (it was in this context she mentioned age, Raine, and definitely a negative), she might have been keener! The notes she emailed later did have some positive feedback in.

    I think Philippa might have signed before she’d done the rewrite, but maybe not. Either way, she knew her agent basically loved her book. And this one did not give me the impression she loved mine.

    It’s a tricky one, Ath, about making the book better. Because from her point of view, she has to think about whether she can sell it, and for her that meant she’d have to pitch it in a category. You would think ‘better’ = ‘marketable’, but maybe not.

    To be honest, although it was a huge disappointment, I’m not very confident with skype or phonecalls, so I did appreciate the chance for a face-to-face meeting. And I can chalk it up to experience.

    Also, there must be reasons why none of the other full requests wanted to go any further – maybe they were similar to her reasons. Who knows.

    It’s a hard business, this writing lark, innit?

    Good to have support and friends on here, or where would we be?


    Hilary, as an aside, the Bookoture girl did say she had a 96 year-old on her list for whom she had so far published some 23 ‘cosy crime’ novels. ‘One every couple of weeks’ she said.

    Feedback today from those who did pitch to her said she refused most straight off. Made suggestions to make more acceptable to one and I now of another who pitched for the hell of it (far from the finished she asked for) but she said ‘I’m interested, Get back when you’ve done it’

    For the record I did not pitch. For one I’m not in an obvious, singly, clear-cut genre, and also because she said ‘We ALWAYS change title’ – ‘Because We Know Best’ the unspoken sub-text.

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 2 months ago by Sandra.

    Hilary, my reactions to this are twofold. First, intense sympathy for you. What an awful let-down! Even if she did make clear what the actual purpose of the meeting was, it shows a certain sense of entitlement (as Ath said) to expect you to come running to London at the crook of a finger just for a chat about revisions. And if it never occurred to her how high her invitation would push your hopes and expectations, then that shows a regrettable lack of empathy too.

    Second, in a strange way it’s made me feel a little better. Last year, after submitting two novels over the last few years and getting absolutely zero interest for either, I decided that the drain on my emotional and mental resources (the time-and-emotion suck, as Emma Darwin once put it) of jumping through the hoops of the submission process simply wasn’t worth it, and gave up. I’ve been feeling like there’s a big hole in my life ever since, but now I’m sure I made the right decision, because God knows how I would have coped with being messed around like this. I reckon I’m better off out of it. Do I want to invest my hopes in people who’d treat me like this? i think not.

    And the age thing. I don’t know how old you are, but you’re certainly quite a bit younger than I am, so where would that leave me? Yes, you see a lot of people telling aspirants that age doesn’t matter, but I’m convinced it does.

    Once again, commiserations. And congratulation: you’re showing more resilience than i have.


    Hilary, I am seething with outrage. Firstly, let me say your writing is beautiful and the comp entries we have both seen and heard about are testament to that. I’m not surprised but very pleased to hear that you had those full requests, but to drag you down to London only to relay so many negatives – including your age for goodness sake – that’s beyond scandalous, and I’d be hesitant to work with such an agent.

    As for other experiences, as some others know I pitched to an agent after succeeding in getting a place at his one-to-one event. He saw me last, and gushed so much about my work that the 10 minute allocated time doubled. He told me he had been begging his signed authors for strong voice like that, and the story had moved him more than anything recently read. He asked if I knew of Eleanor Oliphant and said mine was on a par or better. We talked second books and he even offered to help with the research. He asked for very specific edits of my wip and then to send the full, when we would talk again. Like you, I was giddy with hope and worked on the edits he asked for. Result? After deathly silence, a standard ‘dear John’, penned by his secretary.

    Putting that experience behind me, I attended York where both 1-1s showed interest and agreed to see the full after their suggested edits. So far, they have ghosted on me.

    I have since had a critique (after receiving none from the agents), and an issue was flagged which is now being addressed, along with other ‘quick fixes’. After the edit, I will try again, but I am not holding my breath.


    Oh Hilary and Janette, I feel for you. Somehow it’s much harder when your hopes have been raised. I guess they’ve got further to fall.

    . I understand that agents receive zillions of submissions everyday and can’t respond personally to each one but I do think, when they’ve requested a full or asked for edits to be made, they could at least reply and send a few lines of response rather than a form letter. It’s so tough and ‘ghosting’ is exactly the right term for it.

    I’m of the same opinion as everybody else @hilary that the agent should have been clearer about the reason for the meeting. However she does sound very interested. She met you. She knew your book. She mailed you notes afterwards. She said she would look at it again if you revised it. These are all huge positives.


    Incidentally, as this year I am coasting towards the age where I am ‘losing my hair’, and wondering whether I will be locked out at quarter to three (never mind getting a bottle of wine for my birthday or a Valentine’s card), I suppose I should resign myself to joining that league of elderly no-hopers that includes Hilary Mantel, Philip Pullman and Margaret Atwood, not to mention Stephen King or Michael Rosen.


    I’m astounded by all these badly behaved agents, because bad behaviour it is. It’s just rude, and they must understand how galling it is for an author to get their hopes up needlessly – or maybe they don’t. And as for not replying after requesting a full – well, it’s appalling. @janette your experience in particular has me fuming. How can he gush on like that, to end with a ‘dear John’ letter penned by someone else? It’s rude and unprofessional.

    , your writing is exquisite so please don’t doubt that for a moment, if you are. Perhaps this agent is not someone you want to work with, after all – like the others, how can she not see how to market book club lit? Isn’t it just literary fiction, but more approachable and therefore saleable? And that comment about your age – what rubbish. She’s showing her own weaknesses as an agent if these are really issues for her.

    But the positive news is that your book really snagged her attention and interest, and she is still interested, pending edits. That in itself is huge. Your book stood out, and she wanted to meet you – even if she didn’t offer rep (and she handled that really badly, imo), she is definitely interested in you and your work.


    One thing I’m taking away from all this is that it’s never safe to assume you’ve made it until you’re actually holding the book in your hands.

    I used to be contemptuous of writers who go off on hostile rants about the arrogance of agents, assuming they were being paranoid, were unable to face up to not being good enough to be published, and were blaming others for their own inadequacies. Now I’m beginning to wonder. I’ve heard too many stories like the ones in this thread.

    Or maybe I’ve become one of those people…

    Ath, my daughter got married in Scotland on my birthday, the one you’re coasting up to. Being Scotland, there was a piper, and my daughter got him to play That Song.

    Ah, but all those people you mention, they’ve already made it.


    How incredibly insensitive of her, Hilary. Of course you were excited and expecting something after being asked to meet her. What on earth was the agent thinking? But, as others have said, there mat be a positive side. Perhaps give yourself time to get some distance then decide if her suggested revision are for you or not.

    And Janette – another strange story. Exceedingly rude of the agent. I know they’re inundated, but to have expressed such interest then send a standard rejection. Unbelievable.


    Thank you everyone for your solidarity and kind comments about my writing, and for the encouragement to realise all the positives in this tale as well. And, @janette, for someone not to reply properly having suggested revisions – that is, indeed, unprofessional.

    I am taking a step back from that experience and that novel, and working on the next. It’s the only thing to do, really. But I may come back to it, and to her notes. I’m not dismissing everything she said. If I ever get another request for a meeting, I might ask for some clarification first…

    Mad Iguana

    Jeez that’s shocking behaviour. Both from your agent @Hilary and @janette.
    I’ve never got that close – I mean, I’ve had full requests but no more than that – but I’d have thought you could at least rely on agents to be honest.
    We’ve all been blanked on a submission – which is par for the course, even if I don’t particularly like it. But to bring someone down to London for a meeting only to insult them, to ask for changes with no indication of whether they’re for no reason or not…
    I had an agent make suggestions to me on a partial submission, but it was absolutely clear that those were based on her opinion and they were offered in the spirit of helpfulness, and if I made the changes, she still didn’t want to see the submission again. It was actually nice to get that kind of feedback. And at least I knew where I stood.
    Anything else is just teasing! And that’s never a good look, in any game.
    On the bright side, you have to take the whole process as a sign that you’re on the right path.

    Debi Alper

    Oh Hilary! I was alerted to this thread by Ath. I can see you’re taking this well but I know how much it must hurt. I’m going to try to take a step back and see where the agent might have been coming from. Don’t shout at me!

    Agents love books, of course, and get very excited when they are part of the process that leads to publication. For some, that might just be because they then make money but I’m sure most get genuine pleasure. But they don’t know what it is to actually create something. To take a blank sheet of paper and nothing more than your own imagination to form a whole world and people it with characters we come to care about so deeply. They’ll never know that joy – nor that pain. They simply don’t ever have the same kind of emotional investment in our stories as we have.

    The thing is, I have a strong feeling that the agent *felt* they were being kind and supportive. They gave up their time to meet with you, even though they may well not be on a salary and could be spending that time working on the authors they already represent and who do make them money. We’re all outraged on your behalf because we love and care for you – and because we can identify so strongly with the raised hopes and the contrast with the reality. I think she would possibly be horrified if she knew how it all felt from your perspective. And it *is* very positive affirmation – she would never have done if she didn’t feel you had the potential to be published.

    The age thing is something else and has got me seething. It’s bollocks. All it proves is she’s definitely not the right agent for you if she even sees that as a barrier to you be being published. And the genre thing sounds to me like she was scrabbling round for reasons why she wasn’t taking you on. I’ve chaired at least two reading group fiction panels with agents and publishers and there’s a very clear consensus that reading or book group fiction straddles commercial and literary novels and often covers books that would have previously been perceived as literary = hard sell, or neither one nor the other. So that’s bollocks too.

    But to have had as many requests for the full MS as you have shows you’re achingly close. Did you have any feedback from any of them? The wise Denizens have already said you shouldn’t make any radical changes that don’t feel right to you and I completely agree. Have you had any beta readers who have seen the whole draft?

    Janette – what happened to you is completely inexcusable. I suspect it might even have been an admin error. It just makes no sense to me at all. I think you should make the changes you’ve already decided on and then consider pitching back to them, with a ‘remember me?’ covering letter that doesn’t mention the form rejection.

    Sorry I don’t get here as often as I’d like. Most of you know how to get in touch with me to alert me to anything like this. Always there for you guys. xx

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 2 months ago by Debi Alper.

    Debi thank you for this. Yes, I do think you’re right about the agent giving her time and it’s true that my disappointment is down to my expectations and hopes more than anything else. As I say, she was perfectly ‘nice’ and of course her prime motivation is going to be can she sell it. But in the meeting, I felt her doubt about this came across more strongly than any love for the book. I suppose what she might have hoped was that I would respond with an enthusiastic ‘Yes, I see exactly what you mean, and I can certainly make those changes,’ etc.

    It’s interesting and helpful to have your take on the age thing and the book club fiction issue, too.

    I would never shout at you, Debi! Your wisdom, knowledge and encouragement are truly valued, by me and by many, many people.


    And thank you for your comments too, Mad Iguana.


    Wow, thank you, everybody, for your kind, supportive words. I only relayed my experiences to show @Hilary that she was not alone, but your responses have touched me deeply.

    – thank you for your support. Of course, you know all about my MS, and you really are the best.

    – re the suggested beta read, I’m happy to put my name forward as one, if you think it might be helpful.


    @Hilary – I know we talked about this before but I will say it again. That age comment from this agent is rubbish, plenty of authors have their debut later in life. I’m quite sure Kit de Waal was over 50 when she published My Name is Leon.

    There are still plenty of agents out there to submit to and the number of full request you’ve received shows the quality of your writing

    I’m happy to put my name forward as well regarding a beta read

    – I’m so sorry this happened to you. I cannot understand this kind of response after actually meeting the agent and have them being so positive.


    Thank you for the beta read offers. I’m not sure I’m ready yet, but I will keep you in mind, and return the offer. Swapsies!


    Very late to this, Hilary and sorry to hear of your disappointment. I have always loved your writing and it does sound as though you are within a whisper of novel publishing success with all those requests for a full manuscript. Others have already said much that I agree with. Best wishes. Jill

    Philippa East

    Oh Hil, I’m so sorry. You know my thoughts on this through the messages we’ve exchanged, and I just send my commiserations again xxx


    Thanks, Jill and Philippa. I’m getting over the experience! But I still want to find a balanced overview about 1) whether book club fiction is a thing, and 2) whether age matters. I’m prepared to accept that it isn’t (as far as pitching to editors is concerned) and it does, but I’d still want an agent who said ‘We’ll show them …’ rather than ‘How are you going to show them…?’


    Coming to this late…but hugs to both Hil and Janette… Agents can be beetles at times, can’t they? Fill us full of hope and then dash us down. We are stronger than they think though – we get back up and live to fight another day, and keep writing, whatever they say.
    Hil, your writing is gorgeous, and you have deservedly got agent interest. Don’t give up x


    Thanks, Squidge! Don’t worry – I’m not giving up. Thanks for the vote of confidence!

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