Emails and paper

A few weeks ago someone gave me the name of a literary agency that she’d dealt with before, who she thought might be in the market for Not Your Heart Away . So I had a look at their website.

I’d heard every agency around is swamped with manuscripts, good bad and ugly these days and if most of them are anything like the stuff I find in most ‘writer’s forums’ it’s a job I don’t envy.

There was a huge section of the website about submissions and how to send them, along with the now-almost-statutory:

‘Lurk, we’re rarely busy yah? Say you won’t hair from us for three months and nay, dain’t keep calling to see how it’s gaying, rarely, because it just gets rarely say irritating and if you piss us orf we’ll just put it in the bin, yah?’

Maybe they don’t still speak like that, but I like to imagine they do. The Sophies and Tansys and Carolines that used to knock about Palings wine bar in Hanover Square after a heavy shift at Conde Nast did anyway, even if it was a while ago I went there.


Sophie’s Choice

After that there was an almost equally as big bit on the website about how not to send email submissions, meaning just don’t. Paper only, please. If you can’t be bothered to do that then just don’t bother at all, which I think is fair enough, if a tad anachronistic. I think it’s specifically done because it’s so easy to fire off an email with an attachment – as an agent you’d have to read the whole lot that came in. Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory came in unsolicited, after all.

So I did. Printed it all out, about 270 pages of line-and-a-half spaced A4. It wasn’t totally unsolicited, a friend-of-a-friend had dealt with the agency for years and thought NYHA might be their sort of thing so give it a go, no guarantees. That was a month ago. Last week I got email from them. Can you send it as an email attachment? Got the paper version, lovely, immaculately presented but look, frankly a bit much to pack around town so be a pal and just send it in Word so I don’t break my shoulder, taking it home to read?

Well, since you ask and as you said you liked the the way I’d done it the first time, ok. Just this once, mind. I just hope it’s the same version, that’s all.

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A lot of people are moaning about literary agents, their attitude, their fixed idea that they’re essential,  the apparent lack of much to justify this view and the seeming rise of self-publishing. But it’s nothing new at all. I just found the most delicious thing I’ve seen for a long time.

Lots of people have heard of AE Housman. If you haven’t you probably know the phrase ‘blue remembered hills,’ taken from his epic poem A Shropshire Lad, even if that’s all of the poem you know. Dennis Potter wrote a play about it. It’s epic in the sense that it’s passed into the emotional landscape.

And every publisher turned it down.

Housman had to self-publish it, way back in 1896. According to Wikipedia (so it must be true) even Housman was surprised how big it got with its deep pessimism and obsession, proving that there are more people in England about like that than was ever officially acknowledged, although as a national characteristic it seems to fit quite well.

So the good news is you don’t need an agent, or nowadays, even a publisher. The bad news seems to be for the established book trade. When you think you’re a gatekeeper it helps if you can keep the gate closed or if you can’t do that you need to be doing something positive. Otherwise there’s not much point to you at all.

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