One of the benefits of the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate is that publishers, authors and agents are more pliable to handing out their business cards at 2am. Agent Philip Patterson from the Marjacq literary agent did just that…So You’re Booked got in touch with a Q&A to ask him about the tricks of the literary trade.
Philip joined Marjacq in 2003 from Curtis Brown where he was an Agent for 7 years, before which he worked for HarperCollins Publishers.
There’s a Writer Rejected blog written by a ‘literary reject’ whose interests include:
‘Dodging bullets, putting out fires, stalking editors, dating agents, writing a novel, hoping against hope.’ Do you get your fair share of stalking, demented wannabe novelists asking for your telephone number?
Where has this blog been all my life? I really have had very little stalking of any kind or offers of shoe boxes of used fivers, sexual favours, tickets to see Newcastle United play or supermodels’ phone numbers. Because let’s face it, I am a literary agent. The best offer a literary agent could have is a nice cup of tea and a guarantee that your arteries would not clog up by the age of fifty-five.
Actually, I have had the occasional tea bag, chocolate biscuit or boiled sweet sent with a submission and it was a very kind gesture. Thank you all. I have also had a cat nip mouse, which my cat made good use of. Someone gave me a bottle of whisky, but as I turned him down, I am not sure it was actually whisky in the bottle. I haven’t opened it to see!
We receive about 5,000 submissions a year by post or e-mail. The vast majority are reasonable. But there is usually at least one a year who is pretty wacko. It is the law of probability. We had a person sending a letter once a week for six months and it was quite nasty, all because we said ‘not for us’. I think a few other agencies had been targeted in the same way, and really, it is just bad luck. The UK and US governments were also on the mailing list, so you get the picture. This is what print journalists call ‘green ink’ letters. One or two have been in green ink. Often they are multi-coloured, and I am eternally grateful for the advent of cheap laser printers. All agents get door-stepped, at which point we set our fierce office pekingese on the person and shout, ‘Seize! Kill!’
It does not get your work seen any quicker than the majority of people who follow the submission guidelines of the agency. If you are thinking of doing it, don’t – as it generally marks your cards in the wrong way.
Another mild irritation and on behalf of my brethren and sistren agents, to all those poor souls who manage to get into the Rights Centres at the Book Fairs each year, please don’t do it. You are doing yourself more harm than good. Book Fairs are about the worst place to try and pitch your work if you are a new, unpublished author. Agents are there to meet overseas editors, co-agents and the like. It is not good, as happened to me, when I am sitting in a meeting with someone who has flown thousands of miles, for someone to butt in and say, ‘I am sorry, but I am unpublished author. Can I give you my book?’ “I am in a meeting.” “Oh, I thought you were just chatting.” “No, I was in a meeting and I am still in a meeting.”. Use your common sense. This is not the best way to find representation.
Finally, I had a crime submission with a photo of the author pointing a gun at the camera with the words, ‘I am a psycho’ written underneath. Unbelievably, I turned that one down.
How many novels do you receive in an average week? How many of those will you take on?
Between my colleague and myself we receive about 100-150 per week. I have taken on two people so far this year, so do the maths. Most agents only take on a handful of clients a year. It is probably about a hit rate of one in a thousand. But, don’t give up. There are lots of agents out there and ultimately it is just my opinion or A.N. Other’s.
Perseverance, timing and luck is the name of the game.
Are there any things that you see regularly in submissions that are an instant turn-off (or turn-on)?
Most agents have websites. The guidelines are usually posted there. Try and follow them. If you are submitting to an agent overseas, don’t waste your money, aviation fuel and paper on sending from Australia, Canada or the States. Think of the environment. Send an attachment by e-mail. Most of us accept this. Those that don’t really should. It makes no sense to ask people to spend $30-40 to send their material overseas on spec.
If you are sending by e-mail, don’t cut and paste the first few chapters under your letter. It looks dreadful. Send an attachment (assuming the agent isn’t worried about accepting corrupted files).
By post. Don’t send your only hand-written manuscript or typed copy. Single page, double-spaced. Number the pages. Don’t bother with fancy, bulky binding and folders. There’s nothing like a leaning, yet structurally unsound tower of submissions toppling onto a pint-sized agent like me to really piss me off.
Keep your cover letter short and sweet. As we are talking about fiction here, send a synopsis. I am not a huge fan of synopses, so I would only want to read one or two pages. I hated film treatments in a past life as a film agent because they have an infinite capacity to deaden the story. I would rather get into the opening chapters of the work and read as a reader, and see if it grabs me. Then, a smart and brief outline will give me an idea of how the story develops. This is my personal preference. Some agents love longer outlines.
In your pitch letter, try and give me a brief outline of what your book is, and where you think it sits in the market. That does not mean making grandiose claims that you are the next INSERT CURRENT BESTSELLER’S NAME HERE. But if you are writing traditional lock-door mysteries in the vein of Agatha Christie, then say this. If you are writing US set thrillers, a la Karin Slaughter, then say it.
In terms of your own experience, then if you are an ex-Met police officer writing procedurals set in a south London division in the 80s, then knowing that you were a copper is a relevant and valuable hook.
Two pages of life history is not necessary at this stage.
Avoid typos if you can.
Send sequential chapters. There are a few people who will send chapters 7, 12 and 23 because they are the best. Again, not a good idea.
Don’t send author photos, unless you look like – or preferably are – Angeline Jolie. In which case please send your telephone number as well.
Do you ever get to the point where you get sick of reading and just want to watch Coronation Street (or whatever literary agents watch when they’re off duty)?
Off-duty, we avoid direct sunlight and hang around in graveyards drinking the blood of the living.
It is safe to say that I have far less time to read purely for pleasure than I used to, without getting in an industry/agent-y mindset. I can still do it, but I am far less tolerant of sloppy writing. In my youth, I would stick with a book if it was slow to get going, often to the bitter end. Now, I hurl it out the window. It is a gripe of agents and editors that they often dip into books, because of the amount of books we get sent. We are not only reading our clients books, submissions, etc, but we are looking at what else is out there. I have lots of books on the ‘to be read pile’. There are not enough hours in the day.
No, I never get sick of reading, but it is easy to get blasé or a little jaded if you are not careful. The delights of the job are finding writing that you are passionate about and it is that eureka moment where you think, wow! That is the big buzz of being an agent. Good story telling. There is nothing like being grabbed by a story and transported to another place. It is sometimes better than sitting in Heathrow Terminal 4’s departure lounge.
I love crime and I have quite a few crime and thriller writers, but I love other genres, I love non-fiction. I also love my family and there has to be time away from books. I read a lot, but I have always loved reading, otherwise what I on earth am I doing?
I guess you have a notorious slush pile – do you read everything that comes in?
Between us, we try and read everything. It might be that you do not get very far with something before you decline it. It might be badly written or you might feel that it is not going to be something that will sell. My slush pile is currently under control. I try and deal with it as quickly as I can, otherwise it is feet-high before I know it and obscuring any daylight. Then I develop rickets.
What’s the worst letter/ photo/ submission you’ve ever received?
The bloke with a gun pointing at the camera was one. A burlesque dancer who looked like she did her dancing in an Atlantic City joint in the late 1940s put me off my danish pastry one morning. Photos are not a good idea. Handwritten letters with ‘All agents will die!’ are not a good idea as I spend 48 hours in my book cupboard refusing to come out.
Is there anyone you looked over who went on to become big?
I have a few big sellers on my list – one is currently on the Sunday Times Fiction Top 10. I have quite a young list, so there are some rising stars there. It is always nice when authors start doing really well. So many good authors do not do well as they should. The average earnings for a writer are not huge, so if you are in a very well-paid job and want to give it all up to write, or if you think this is the quick and fast route to fame and fortune, think again. Writing is a solitary business with plenty of ups and downs and needs a lot of hard work and dedication on a daily basis. I doff my cap to all writers.
“I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” Novelists I guess are a sensitive lot – do you have a standard rejection letter or do you try and be sensitive with personal replies?
This is a tough one, because generally any kind of ‘no’ is still a no. There are not enough hours in the day for me to give everyone a bespoke answer, so often I give a very neutral, standard rejection letter. It is not a good idea for anyone to scoff at someone’s work, even if you have had an expletive-filled reply with the line, ‘don’t you know I am a genius?” and you really want to tell the person to eff off and get a life. It only attracts a rather tiresome series of insults. There was an US blogsite run by some US agents and editors who published their worst submission letters. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but it wasn’t a very clever or nice thing to do.
If I feel that something is good, but really not my area (science-fiction – I don’t have a natural eye for it), I might suggest one or two other agents. I sometimes give advice, but again, you can get locked into a correspondence and my clients have to come first.
Ok, what every wannabe writer wants to know is what does s/he have to do to stand out from the slush pile?
The million dollar question. Don’t make the silly mistakes which get you passed over. Some of the things above. A good clear, succinct letter. A snappy title. Most of all good writing. Publishing has got a lot tougher in the last five years. When I am looking for someone, they have to fulfil some requirements: good writing; do I feel I can work with them (do I get on with them – it is very hard to work with someone if you hate each others’ guts!); and increasingly, what is it about them that sets them apart? Sometimes and in a bookseller-driven market this might mean something in their lives that gives their work a hook. Publishers are struggling to find their market, so anything additional helps their cause.
Of the writers you’ve discovered over the years, who are you proudest of?
All of them. It is the hardest thing to sit down, finish (and folks, the best advice I could give you, is to finish your first novel, before submitting it – to prove to yourself you can do it and last the distance) a book and show it to someone else. Two of my brothers are artists and I am proud of them to have that ability to just make that statement.
I read an interview with an agent (Anthony Harwood) who said the only thing that matters when you’re an agent is your own taste. It takes me half an hour dithering over what sandwich to have for lunch. Do you have to be pretty bombastic, confident and self assured to be an agent?
I think taste is important. You have to be sure of your own judgement. I know I have made a few bad calls in my time, and I hope I have learned from my mistakes. I would like to think I have made a lot more good calls. You have to fight the writer’s corner, so you need to be a bloody-minded. You need to know who is buying what, have some idea of the market, have an idea of whether the book will work overseas and/or in translation. You need to have a thick-skin as agents get rejections too. You need to be a good listener and realise that each client has different needs. We are part confessor, pimp and rotweiler, I suppose.
But taste has a lot to do with it, and being able to communicate the merits of a book. Editors are also the writer’s advocate in-house. They need to convince their sales teams, marketing, publicity, etc, that what they are hoping to buy is the next big thing.
Harwood said, “I always think the money follows your instincts, if you’ve got the right instincts. And if you haven’t you’re in the wrong job.” Do you always trust your instincts?
I think I read this interview. Anthony is right. If you called it wrong every time, you would earn no money and would soon take up alternative employment. You have to trust your instincts and your professional reputation is tied up in making the right call. But we are all subject to the vagaries of luck. Publishing is littered with books that were bought for a huge amount and money pumped at them, only for the readers to vote with their feet or er…. hands. And then you get books that seem to appear from nowhere and outperform expectations. Somewhere in between, you find a writer who is actually very good, who found an agent, who placed it with the right house for him or her, with a publisher who got it right, with a nicely published book that hit the mark.
You have very strict submission guidelines – but do you ever get taken in by an unconventional submission?
I am trying to think what an unconventional submission is? I don’t think so. No one has left a 40-foot high wooden horse on my door step with ‘Read me’ pinned to the side.
I did hear a great story of how an editor was in an auction for a first novel. The novel featured a bird of prey in it, so the editor turned up in a taxi wearing a falconry gauntlet and with a hawk on her arm. She rang on the bell, the agent answered and fainted. He has a phobia of birds. I don’t think she won the auction.
I’ve read that angels are the next big thing in teenage fiction (after vampires) do you look for trends in crime fiction?
I hear angels are too, and I have two angel books- but neither are for the teenage/YA (young adult) market. Vampires are still doing good stuff, but I am so far behind the curve on that one, that I think I will wave a tear-sodden hanky to all of my comrades who are sending out toothsome submissions. Zombie mash-ups are/were popular. Bizarre.
In short, historical crime seems to be gaining popularity again. Procedurals and serial killers still seem to dominate, though they seem to be at saturation point, especially in regional-based crime. It is very hard to see another Edinburgh-based detective, etc, etc. Ditto in the Martina Cole/Lynda LaPlante/Jessie Keane bracket – I cannot quite see another one of these breaking through unless they have a background story so extraordinary that distinguishes them from those books already out there. I am not sure about romantic suspense which was doing so well abroad and in the States. There are a few British writers working in this area, but I am not sure if it has taken hold her in quite the same way. US crime imports still seem to dominate the UK lists, and in a busy market, it is harder to launch new crime writers. Scandi crime is still selling. Comedy crime is as tough as it ever was. Publishing is gripped with e-book/digital fear at the moment. No one is quite sure how it is going to work or how anyone is going to make any money. So despite all the brave new world talk, everyone is looking nervously at going the same way as the music industry with downloads, file sharing, etc, and the inevitable dominance of Google, Amazon and Apple. Strange times and as ever the poor bloody writer seems to be the last in the queue when they are dishing out the grub. So we all have a fight on our hands, writers, agents, publishers to try and make things work.
Cross over vampire/angel crime? Bound to happen. A woeful concept and I look forward to the day when a bit sanity returns to publishing.
Agents clearly have to be passionate about books, are you a frustrated writer?
As you can tell from my Q&A I am planning to stick to my day job. Quite a few agents have had a go and some have done a good job. Ditto with editors, there are a number of bestselling editors out there, Harriet Evans and Rowland White to name two. I felt the urge a few years ago, and then promptly forgot what I was going to write. One day I will, and I hope it will never get above 1,000,000 rank on Amazon.
You’re an agent across genres – how does crime differ – what qualities do you look for?
We are all a bit obsessed by classifying things into genres in this industry and it seems to be an obsession. All good writing needs to tell a story, within its own terms. Crime can be looked down upon as pulp, mass-market and commercial. I have read some very bad so-called literary fiction. I have read some equally bad crime. The qualities are highly subjective from the reader’s point of view, but not much different across the genres. Crime is wonderfully all-encompassing. You can look at all sorts of works and see crime in them, mainly because crime does with wish-fulfilment and our fears. It deals with the fallible nature of humanity, temptation, lust, all these fun things.
Perfection in a literary creation is not very interesting. There is an element of sadism in most writers’ make-up and seeing someone fall with style seems deeply satisfying. Whether you resolve everything neatly and securely at the end is another question and up to the taste of the author. Crime fiction, which is a very broad church, allows writers and readers to transgress in a way that other genres may not do to a degree.
So, what do I look for? A satisfying story well-told.
Finally, can you tell me what’s the secret to success?
Flaunt it baby, flaunt it!
Find out more about Marjacq, visit http://www.marjacq.com