Sunday 6th of September. It’s 3:30pm and a small crowd are gathered in the event space at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio eagerly awaiting a masterclass to commence. I call it a masterclass partly because that’s what it was called on the website, and partly because the speaker truly was a master in his field. We were lucky enough that NWS had secured renowned sci-fi and fantasy agent John Jarrold to speak with us. As we listened to the list of John’s impressive achievements and experience in the fields of publishing and agency we realised we had a unique opportunity to learn from someone with almost endless knowledge of the industry. John’s CV can be found elsewhere relatively easily so I shan’t go into it here. Suffice it to say that he has been involved at a management level both in publishing, and with literary agencies for many years.
Despite this wealth of experience John stated that anyone involved in this business should be prepared to learn every day, about their craft, and about the industry. He went as far as to say that the day a person thinks they have stopped learning they should give up entirely. This post is therefore about what we learnt from John’s invaluable input.
Over and over again John stressed the things that we all know, but possibly have not attached sufficient importance to before now. The voice of the author is the most important thing to an agent. Books need to be as close to ready for publication as you can get them without an agent’s input before sending them to an agent. Take your time and never rush your manuscript, because if it’s not ready nobody will be interested. Know your market and know which recently published authors your work compares to. Pick an agent that likes the genre you write in. Always follow submission guidelines on the author’s website and always do your homework.
You can find these things stated on hundreds of websites, but when an agent tells you in person that these really are the most important things for getting an agent, and then a publisher, the point is really driven home.
Of course a man of John’s experience did not just have the usual words of wisdom to offer. One thing which I think people may have underestimated is the amount agents (and publishers) talk to one another. “Don’t be a tosser,” was his most blunt piece of advice. Agents and publishers really do have a black list, and if you end up on it nobody apart from money-grabbing vanity publishers will touch your book – or even read your emails. He fondly recalled a number of submissions clearly sent by idiots – and consigned them to the same fate. Hugely successful authors who have already sold millions of books may have a little leeway. The rest of us have to be nice, and follow submissions guidelines!
One of the things that surprised us was his statement that the vast majority of what agents see these days is at least adequate writing and slush piles are not full of absolute drivel. Ten years ago, we were told, this was different; but either people have wised up or the most delusional have now gone to vanity presses or amazon self-publishing to flood the market with more terrible books that give independent authors a bad name. Regardless of this he states that he still turns down 95% of what he reads within the first 5 pages. Again this came back to author voice. If it’s not compelling then why would an agent waste their time reading it?
John talked for a short time about some of his authors, both from his days as a publisher and more recently from his agency. He gave us some eye-opening not-to-be-tweeted figures for the bidding on some particularly famous books; then he brought us back to earth with the far more mundane figures that most authors are likely to be looking at in the event that they do manage to land a publishing deal. The time scale for landing this deal, he stressed, is very much a “how long is a piece of string” question.
So finally to the burning question most people are probably wondering about. What is a sci-fi and fantasy agent looking for right now? Author voice was the immediate reply; followed by some very good advice. The fantasy market is much bigger than the sci-fi market. Audiences, and therefore agents and publishers, are looking for epic fantasy, with a roughly medieval European feel. Think dragons, knights, long journeys by horseback, castles and courts, kings and usurpers, sword fights and roasting pigs on open fires. When he says epic that means two things: firstly a “big idea” with lots of scope, and secondly a hefty word count. The most successful sci-fi and fantasy authors write books over 100,000 words long and he is likely to look at 90,000 words as an absolute minimum. Space Operas are also popular but – with few, rare, exceptions eastern fantasy and cyberpunk are non-starters.
Of course advice in the writing business is never concrete, and every rule has many well-publicised exceptions. We were told to be aware of the market, but never make a conscious effort to write specifically for what we perceive to be a current trend. We have to remember that sales directors at publishing houses play it safe. They buy what they think will sell, and sometimes a fantastic book will be overlooked because the sales team don’t think they can sell it. But, and there is always a but, if the book is good enough, and that all important author voice is strong and unique enough, someone will want it. For reference material for who might be interested in your book and worth their weight in gold as an agent John suggested two websites, Absolute Water Cooling, and SFF Chronicles.
John finished the session with a few tips on the actual writing, and what might make an agent love (or hate) a book from a technical perspective. One of the biggest problems with manuscripts from new writers he stated to be point of view. This he recommends should be first person or deep third person. Never head-hop within a scene – although it is perfectly fine to tell the story from more than one perspective provided it is always clear to the reader who you are following. Never fall in love with your writing he continued, beautiful prose is no use if you story is forgotten, and in general the reader should be so involved with your story and characters that the prose is almost unnoticed. Except of course for that author voice! Don’t make it difficult for your reader, let the story ring through and don’t confuse people. He also recommended that fantasy writers in particular should keep a notebook of names. As someone who has endless lists of names stashed all over the house I was particularly cheered by this.
When asked the age-old question of what to put in a query email John stated that simple is best. Stick to stating who you are, what you have written and what your writing is comparable to. If there are any particular relevant awards to mention then do so briefly. Above all always, always, follow the submission guidelines.
Written by Sarah Hindmarsh
Sarah has been writing for as long as she can remember, and reading for longer than that.
She joined NWS in August 2014; just as she self-published her first children’s book ‘The Mouse Who Howled at the Moon’. This book has subsequently been shortlisted for two national independent book awards. Her first book of writing prompts ‘1001 Writing Prompts for Generating Ideas’ was released on Kindle in October 2014 and has enjoyed steady sales ever since. She recently released the third in her children’s book series ‘The Squirrel who Adventured with otters’ and has also had pieces published in a number of literary journals and anthologies in the last six months. Although she primarily writes for children, she has some projects for adults in the early stages of creation. Her website is www.creatingwithkohla.com