How I got a literary agent - An interview with author, Charlie Carroll
firstwriter.com – Monday October 25, 2010
Charlie Carroll recently signed a deal with the esteemed Paterson Marsh literary agency, as a result of searching firstwriter.com's database of over 850 literary agents. We asked him about his writing, and how he found success.
fw: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Charlie. Can we ask you to tell us a little bit about your book?
CC: My book is called On the Edge: One Teacher, A Camper Van, Britain’s Toughest Schools, and it is about the year I spent living in a VW Campervan and travelling around England working in some of the country’s most challenging schools.
fw: Sounds like quite a challenge! What prompted you to take on such a task?
CC: I suppose, if anything, On the Edge was born of frustration. I had written a few nonfiction pieces based on my earlier travels around the globe, but no publishers or agents had been interested. So I decided to reverse my process – namely, I would formulate the book idea first, and then do the travelling after. It struck me that, for a first-time writer, a simple travelogue would not be enough, and that I would need some kind of gimmick to make my project saleable. If you like to think of yourself as an artist, it is horrible to begin a work of art with the contemplation of its marketability, but if you are a realist (and an unsolicited one), it is a necessity. I came to the conclusion that the best thing for me to do would be to take on a journey which the average person would not, but would be interested to read about. From there, it was a logical step to teaching in difficult schools. I have taught for six years, much of that in tough schools, and I knew this was something I could do. So, after a lot of research into the most challenging schools in the country, I moved into my Campervan, and set off in pursuit of them.
fw: Thinking of their "art" as a commercial product is often a difficult (but as you point out, necessary) step towards publication for authors to take. Once you'd taken this difficult step, how long did the process of actually creating the book take?
CC: It took an enormous amount of time. Perhaps my most significant piece of advice to any aspiring writers would be not to underestimate just how long it takes to write a book – especially if, like most of us, you are also working full-time. From the first to the last sentence of the original draft took me eighteen months, and then to revise and edit and rewrite until it was fit for publishing took another year. Perhaps it took me so long because I had to do the journey first, but I still chipped away at it whenever I could on the road. I had a lot of cold, dark nights parked on an A-road lay-by outside some large English city, so my increasingly lengthy Word document was a good companion during those times.
fw: You certainly seem to have approached the project with a great deal of commitment. Does that come from previous experiences of getting material published?
CC: I have never been published before, though I have tried. I started at university, when I wrote a very strange children’s book called Harold the Cheese. It was a silly little thing and completely unpublishable (lumps of cheese achieve consciousness, sprout arms and legs, and take over a derelict Cornish cottage for an epic Dairy War, that kind of thing), but it at least made me realise that not only could I write a long piece of prose, I actually rather enjoyed it, too. I began to look at writers’ websites and forums and learnt that children’s books are perhaps the most competitive area of the industry and the hardest to break into, so I turned my attention to travel writing (which, after the novel, has always been my favourite form of literature). Over the past years I had spent a long time sporadically visiting and travelling South-East Asia, and so I decided to turn the journeys into one written narrative. That book must have been rejected by almost a hundred publishers and agents. At the time, I couldn’t understand why, though I can now. That book could have been written by anyone. There was nothing special about it. I resolved to write something special.
fw: Do you think the fact that you hadn't been published before was an important factor when trying to attract an agent?
CC: I think it is massively important. From the vantage point of the unsolicited writer, the whole industry is hazy and impenetrable. It’s all about getting your foot in the door, and the little section on your proposal which says either "published" or "unpublished" can make a huge difference to your appeal. And sadly, it only seems to be getting harder as more and more publishing houses close and others such as Penguin realise they can make more money by publishing the tepid autobiographies of waifish and backcombed celebrities rather than taking a chance on someone unheard of.
fw: Is that why you felt it important to first secure the services of a literary agent before approaching publishers?
CC: It seemed natural to me to approach literary agents before publishers. I have no idea about the publishing world and would far rather have a guide through it all, even if she does take 20%. Some writers can do very well for themselves without ever signing to an agency, but it has always been part of my plan, and knowing I now have an agent gives me a sense of safety I find comforting. After the success of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, someone asked John Fowles if he was going to get rid of his agent. “No,” Fowles replied. “In fact, I need him now more than ever.”
fw: So how did you set about finding your agent?
CC: I was completely shameless about my approach. I had been a member of firstwriter.com for a while, so continued to utilise this along with The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, but I also decided to try and contact anyone who might be of some help. I researched online any published writer I thought might be similar to me, found their email addresses, and badgered them relentlessly. I’m not particularly proud of such hard-sell tactics, but I had put far too much work into my book to let it disappear. In fact, most of the writers I contacted were very helpful and gracious, and I am extremely indebted to a few (one quite famous) for looking through the first chapters of my book, offering advice, and even putting me in touch with their agents or publishers. I remain convinced that, had I not been so ruthless in my approach, I would still be unpublished. If you are unsolicited, you have to hustle.
fw: Were there any particular ways in which firstwriter.com or your other sources helped in finding your agent?
CC: firstwriter.com is, of course, an excellent tool, simply because it is so user-friendly. One of the keys to finding an agent or publisher willing to take on your work is to be as discerning and selective as possible. The more information you have about a business the better, and firstwriter.com provides that information far more usefully than any other resource.
fw: How much research did you do about each agency before approaching them?
CC: When I first approached agents for my earlier (unpublished) books, I did so in quite a haphazard and random manner, which may have been part of the disaster. For this one, I did my research beforehand, using bothfirstwriter.com and The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook to find which agencies would be suitable for my material and for me, and then researching them further online. I found it particularly useful to look at each agency’s author list or to find out the agent of a writer I thought myself similar to – this way I knew I would be approaching people who had proved an interest in material like mine. I also managed to get some personal recommendations from writers to their agents, and pursued these diligently: a personal recommendation is a rare and valuable thing. Eventually, I narrowed it down to ten agents who seemed to me likely, and prepared an individual proposal for each, making each one as specific to that agency as I could (for example, I looked at their "mission statements" on their websites and used the same language and terms in my proposal, or referred to writers I knew were signed to them). I also made sure to follow their submission guidelines to the letter: not doing so is a sure way to end up on the slush-pile. Finally, I made sure everything was double-spaced.
fw: How many of the agencies you identified gave a positive response?
CC: Three of the original ten agencies I approached expressed an interest and asked me to send them the full manuscript of my book. I certainly feel lucky for this, as I know some writers can approach scores without getting one callback, but I think I got such a good response because I had put the research and work in beforehand. I had my fair share of rejections with my first two books, and I like to think that these informed my submission process for On the Edge.
fw: Which agency did you sign with in the end?
CC: I was signed by Paterson Marsh – fortunately for me, one of my first choices. I was attracted to them because they straddle the line between small, independent company and large business. As a subsidiary of the giant Marsh Agency, they have plenty of contacts throughout the agency, whilst also maintaining a degree of intimacy – meaning that my agent can give me the focus and attention I need without becoming lost in a sea of clients.
fw: How did things change after you signed? Was it what you expected?
CC: I naively expected that, once I had an agent, the horror of self-promotion would be entirely taken out of my hands, and that I could just get on with happily writing new material and then passing it on for her to submit to the world on my behalf. In fact, this hasn’t been the case at all, and I am still as instrumental in pushing this book as I always have been – which is, I realise now, the way it should be. Nevertheless, my agent has been brilliant at the business/financial side of things, and having her there while we negotiated contracts with my publisher was invaluable.
fw: Did you find a publisher quickly once you had professional representation?
CC: I knew that securing an agent in no way guaranteed that my book would be published. And, indeed, it took us a long time – over six months – before we found anyone willing to take it on. We got a lot of positive feedback on the book, but the general response was always the same: I was an unknown, unpublished writer, the UK was in dark recession, and it was far too much of a financial risk to publish my book.
fw: And which publisher was it that decided to take that risk?
CC: Finally, On the Edge was taken on by Monday Books and, after a long system of correspondence which lasted something like three months, I signed a contract with them to publish my book. I am fairly certain they would have even if I didn’t have an agent (most of their writers do not) but, again, she was a big help to me as we pushed through the discussions and negotiations. Primarily, Monday Books signed me because I had a text which fit their catalogue (they love the whistle-blowers), which ties in with what I said before. It’s useless approaching a publishing house which has never previously published anything like yours – though they are businesses, they are run by readers, and therefore conform to all the subjectivity that a reader has. And, as a writer, success hinges upon pandering to this subjectivity. On the other hand, though, my agent did once tell me that there was no point approaching one particular publisher who had recently released a book very similar to mine – this would not, she told me, be in their best interests as a business.
fw: Once you'd been accepted, how did the publishing process go?
CC: Between us, my publisher and I must have worked through ten different drafts of the text until we were both happy with the end product. I’ll admit that I found this extremely difficult at first. Writing is so personal, and to have someone stamp all over your work and flatten it to fit their shoeprints can be a jarring experience. However, it was my agent who reminded me – quite rightly – that, though it was my name that was to be tied to the book, it was my publisher’s money, and that he was taking just as big a risk in publishing it as I was. Nevertheless, I’ve never been so self-righteous as to believe that I know more about the industry than he does: this is, after all, his livelihood, and he understands the publishing world with an intimacy that I do not even come close to. As he once said to me: "writers must learn to murder their darlings".
fw: And do you find you're now having to work just as hard (or even harder?) at pushing your book? Do you feel that you've changed from a writer into a publicist?
CC: Suggesting I’ve changed from being a writer to being a publicist presupposes I was ever a writer in the first place. I am not. If people ask me what I do, I tell them I am an English teacher. Perhaps one day I’ll be afforded the privilege of labelling myself a writer in pub-conversations, but I have a lot of work to do until then.
fw: When is the book coming out?
CC: The book was scheduled to be released this month, but my publisher has put it back at least a month, and for good reason. September is a busy time for new book-releases, and so in order for On the Edge not to get lost in the swamp, we are biding our time slightly. Already this seems to be paying off – both the Times and Radio Five Live have called requesting to interview me, and the prospect of it being serialised in a national daily is looking promising. Though I am publishing under a pseudonym, and must maintain anonymity in order to protect both myself and the identities of all the schools and students I discuss in the book, I’m very happy to do whatever I need to in order to publicise the book. Writers I know lament that "gone are the days when a good book promoted itself", but I wonder if this has ever been the case. The most successful authors aren’t necessarily the best writers, but are the ones who understand how to manipulate the media. And though I don’t exactly have this skill myself, my publisher does, so we’re hoping for as much coverage as we can get – although any TV appearances will of course be shot in silhouette.
fw: Do you have any general tips or advice for other writers trying to get published and /or get an agent?
CC: Listen to what they say. If they tell you to submit a two-paragraph synopsis, keep it at exactly that; if they want a brief bio, give them one, not your entire CV featuring work experience and A-Level results; and definitely double-space everything. However, if a month has passed and you’ve not heard back from them, don’t be afraid to get in touch with a gentle reminder. They may just have forgotten. Finally, don’t take anything personally. Understand that publishers and agents have far more to do than just look through manuscripts, and even if that were their only job, yours is just one of thousands that year.
fw: What are your plans for the future?
CC: To live from my writing would be astounding, and now I’ve got my foot wedged between the door and its frame, I intend to make the most of it. I’m already 20,000 words into my next book, though I won’t say much about it, except perhaps that it follows a similar vein to the existing one – it is about a journey I took which most others would not, but I hope would like to read about.
fw: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Charlie, and best of luck with your new book!