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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Cross

Colony: the story behind the book... Part 2, Finding an Agent

Welcome along. Before I start this blog, I just want to say a huge thank you to all of you who have read Colony so far, and for the very generous praise and reviews that it's received from so many of you. Those of you who haven't read it yet (but would like to), the trade publication date is still January 2021; with any luck that same month will mark the start of a much better year for all of us!

So let's talk about agents. (Not secret. Literary. Trust me, they're much tougher.)

One of the many many realities to confront a new author is that the chances of an unsolicited (un-requested / speculative) submission being accepted or even considered for publication by a commercial publishing house are remote. And even assuming an unsolicited novel was picked up, the chances that that newbie author would have any idea about publishing contracts, royalties, rights and all the other commercial publishing aspects that can make or break a career are also remote.

It's not the case that publishers would want to exploit new authors, or otherwise take advantage. But the reality is that once a book is written and offered up for publication, it ceases to be a purely creative work and becomes a commercial prospect. One of the biggest reality checks I got was discovering that the length of your average novel isn't guided by the story, but by commercial factors such as: what length a particular genre's readership expects, per-page printing costs, and even the number of copies that need to fit into a particular size of box for distribution.

So while their output may be creative works, publishing houses are businesses first and foremost, and they are very much driven by commercial considerations, targets, turnover and, yes, profit. That's no bad thing. It's how business works, and how a lot of great books get published. But combined with a newbie author's emotional investment in their work and lack of commercial savvy, they are at least at a disadvantage when it comes to contractual negotiations and understanding their rights and responsibilities.

Enter the literary agent.

If you're not familiar with what a literary agent is or does, then they are basically a publishing industry expert contracted to represent authors and sell their work to publishing houses. They are effectively the 'middle men' of the publishing world. The value they add for authors derives from their knowledge of what publishers are looking for and when, and in particular their close relationship with publishing house editors. The reality is that editors are far more likely to consider manuscripts received from credible literary agents than speculative, unsolicited manuscripts submitted direct by unpublished authors. And for good reason.

From a publisher's perspective, literary agents fulfill something similar to the role of scouts in professional sport; they identify the top potential from an otherwise colossal and unwieldy pool of wannabes. Publishers can therefore have confidence that the manuscripts submitted to them by literary agents are going to be of a particular standard, commercially viable and worth expending the time and resources necessary to read and consider.

That is the reason literary agents have such notoriously high standards and are so difficult for new authors to 'land'. Publishers are their bread and butter, and their value to publishers is based upon their objective rigor. It is a perfect example of commercial symbiosis.

Agents are also much better versed in the minutiae of publishing contracts, terms and conditions. They are much more likely to be able to negotiate the best possible deal(s) on behalf of the authors they represent, and guide them through the minefield that is the publishing industry.

In return, agents take a % of their authors' earnings, typically between 12% and 15%. In my view, this is a sound investment. 88% of nothing is nothing, while 88% of £1000 is £880. And an agent's commission is only due if/once they actually sell an author's novel. Prior to that, they will typically add a huge amount of value. They will read an author's manuscript multiple times, provide expert critique and help them batter it into great shape. They will then use their contacts to pitch the novel and pursue responses. A good agent will also provide emotional support, coaching and even friendship. And all the time they are working on faith (not commission), driven by an educated belief that your novel is of a good enough standard to stand shoulder to shoulder with established authors on high-street shelves.

Okay, so agents are a big deal. So how exactly do you get one?

In short, you have to pitch your novel and yourself. This is another steep learning-curve, and more than ever as a newbie you need to develop a very thick hide very quickly. Few authors, no matter how successful they go on to become, will not experience the dreaded 'R-word'. Rejection. Let me tell you, each rejection hurts like hell. It's nothing personal of course; it's commercially-driven. But at the same time it is virtually impossible not to take it 100% personally when you are on the receiving end. It can't be anything else when you've worked so hard and dreamed so long.

Colony was rejected by half a dozen agencies at least before I finally received the phone-call from my agent to say that she loved the manuscript and, subject to a few revisions, would be delighted to represent me. The worst to receive are 'form' rejections, which basically consist of a standardised cut n' paste response, into which the name of the latest unsuccessful writer is inserted before the secretary hits send. These come with a particular sting because they are so impersonal; in effect they convey the following message: 'not only did we not enjoy your submission, but we found it so unremarkable that we are not inclined to even provide you with a personalised response. Now please do us all a favour and piss off.'

Of course the real reason is that they simply cannot respond individually on every submission they receive, due to the sheer volume. My agency, for example, receives somewhere in the region of 100-200 submissions per week and takes on between 10 and 20 new authors per year. Providing individual responses to each of those who are unsuccessful would be a full-time job in and of itself. That said, agents do send personalised rejections on occasion. This is most commonly when they've been impressed by a submission and either want to provide some words of encouragement to a writer they consider promising or want to justify why they haven't taken a promising novel on. I was lucky enough to receive a couple of these for Colony and they meant a lot. One agent in particular (one who had requested a full) communicated with me extensively and gave me some great advice despite ultimately rejecting the submission.

Every agency has its own bespoke submission requirements, but in general they all boil down to some combination of the following: i) a cover letter setting out your experience and biography, what your novel is about and how it would place within the market; ii) a synopsis outlining the development of your novel; and iii) the first few chapters of the novel itself. That's stage one. It gives the prospective agent enough information about you and your novel to decide whether you are a time-waster. If they decide you're not, and they enjoy/see potential in what they read, they will then request the full manuscript ('a full').

Having a full requested is a triumph in and of itself. If you consider how long it takes you to read a novel on average, then the agent is interested enough to commit that length of time to reading what you've written. If not for quiet confidence, this is at least a time to give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back. Maybe even to dream...

If you enjoyed this blog, then join me again for Part 3, where I'll be talking about the publication process and what goes on behind the scenes. Oh, and I'll try not to leave it 2 months between blogs this time! Take care til then.

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