Are literary agents still the key to success?

I’ve touched on this issue before in my post Back on the shelf again, where I compared getting a literary agent to getting a new boyfriend. But I thought I’d revisit the subject, given that many writers today are asking themselves if they even need a literary agent anymore, now that self-publishing online is giving traditional publishing a run for its money.

When I first got a literary agent, I made the mistake of assuming I’d made it, that I was one teeny-tiny step away from getting a publishing deal. I’d been plucked from the slushpile and deemed worthy. I had an industry professional’s stamp of approval on my work. My self-esteem was lifted from the doubtful doldrums to heights it had never known.

But despite my agent’s total confidence that she would sell my novel Package Deal in a jiffy, she was unable to. ‘Not to worry,’ she said. ‘Go and write something else. No one gets their first novel published.’ Alas I was eight months’ pregnant with my first child at this point, and writing didn’t feature on my agenda for a while.

Cut to a few years later, and I’ve self-published Package Deal (against Agent One’s advice) in paperback format. I’ve got it into a few branches of Waterstones, and I’m getting a weeny bit of publicity. At this point I hadn’t embraced blogging, Twitter (don’t think it existed yet) or any other social media – not even Facebook – partly because I was knee-deep in nappies, and partly because I’m a bit of a luddite. In terms of marketing and sales I was going nowhere, but I wasn’t bothered because a new agent was interested in my next novel Hot Property.

However, I now knew that getting an agent didn’t necessarily lead to a deal. ‘What if you don’t manage to sell my book to a publisher?’ I asked Agent Two. ‘It’s not a case of if, but when,’ she said with the kind of uber-confidence I wish I’d been born with. I liked this woman, but I was a little wiser and so I kept my joy in check. I was just thankful to be back in with a chance.

Together with Agent Two’s guidance, I wrote several drafts of Hot Property. Each time I sent it back to her, there was something else she felt needed adjusting. I did whatever she suggested. I trusted her expertise. This went on for six months, a year, perhaps. Then she said, ‘How about you put Hot Property to one side for a while and write something else?’ This sounded familiar. I could only assume the economy was driving publishers to invest less and less in new authors and my book was in the saturated category of women’s fiction. Never mind. I had a new idea anyway.

I wrote a synopsis of my new idea and sent it to Agent Two. She asked me to change the characters’ ages, which I did, and eight months or so later, I’d written a new novel. After months of waiting for a response, she rejected it and soon after left the agency, leaving me high and dry. I don’t mind admitting that I cried. (Not in front of her, thankfully.)

A year goes by and, not quite knowing where to start again, with an increasing sense of the utter futility of trying to get a publishing deal, my husband finally persuaded me to stick my books on Amazon – after all, what’s the point of two perfectly decent commercial manuscripts sitting at home gathering dust?

They are now selling, slowly but surely. This month’s sales are up on last month’s, and last month’s are up on the previous month’s. I’ve waited a long time for the satisfaction of having total strangers buy my novels. If sales accelerate to a noticeable amount at some point, maybe I’ll approach an agent again. Or maybe I won’t. The nice thing is, my feelings of self-worth as a writer are no longer dependent on having an industry professional’s stamp of approval.

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