“…..Wherever there was a gentleman of renown
in his home I had silver and a mount.
From whomsoever some had greatness and gifts,
greatness and gifts had I from the house of Saman.
The Prince of Khorassan gave me forty thousand dirhems,
Prince Makan more by a fifth,
and eight thousand in all from his nobles
severally. That was a fine time!
When the Prince heard a fair phrase he gave, and his men,
each of his nobles, as much as the Prince saw fit.
Times have changed. I have changed. Bring me my stick.
Now for the beggar’s staff and wallet.”
*xxxxxxxxxRudaki, from the Odes of Basil Bunting
“Thank you for your reply. You are so right when you say that when we are young we may have plenty of champions – and then time passes and things change. I know only too well what you mean. So it makes it all the harder for me to tell you that I don’t see any of my fellow agents here wanting to get involved with your project. To be honest with you, they are either not accepting new authors and majoring on their well established and high earning ones, or if they are, they are on the look-out for young debut novelists with a view to career building from the beginning. In other words I can’t recommend any colleagues, and I am so sorry about this. Poetry doesn’t make money, to be brutally frank. You know this!
As for me – well I am playing my way out and have very little spare time. Caring for my small handful of authors takes up a full three days a week and a lot more.
I regret writing in this disappointing way……”
And another and and another and another. Now “I” responds – Thank you for sending me material from your works, which I was grateful to have the opportunity to consider. I’m afraid it’s not right for my list, so I’m going to pass, but wish you the best of luck with your writing.
I reply: Dear I – Well, thank you very much for reading what I sent, but you must admit there is something deeply wrong with how UK publishing works these days. Of the eight agents I sent the work to, you were the only one to reply. A year ago I sent work out to eight other agents and got no response at all, except from one person who told me I was too old.
There is just no way that someone of my age with a serious reputation, an individual style and more than fifty years dedicated to writing can get anywhere in contemporary publishing. So by all means wish me luck, but it is ironic that someone who was published by Calder & Boyars alongside Beckett and Borges finds himself unable even to secure an agent in the current climate.
I told you that I would be interested in your response to my work, and any advice as to securing representation. Are there no agents you know with a sense of adventure, or a desire to promote genuine literature? As you can imagine, I am disappointed by your response (although it must be said that I predicted it), and I’m sickened by the state of affairs here – Sincerely etc.
Response: Dear Anthony, I understand your frustration, but to take it out on me as the one agent who has so far responded, seems unreasonable.
Many agents take 8 weeks minimum to respond, some now have a rule that if they haven’t responded in x weeks/months, it’s a pass. My personal feelings about that rule aside, you cannot fathom how many submissions we receive, on top of how much work we have to do for our actual clients, which of course has to be our priority. We are stretched very thin – you might have noticed I sent that email at 7am. If your original email to agents followed their submission guidelines (or even just followed the gist more broadly, including material from one book), you might find you get a better response rate.
Age is not an issue, but your emails suggest an attachment to heritage literature. As agents we have to be very focused on the contemporary market, as that is what we, and onward publishers, are selling into.
At the end of the day, this is a subjective business, and neither I nor any other agent can take on an author we don’t feel confident of selling.
Dear I – I was not taking it out on you. I was responding. At least I goaded you into a more cogent and informative reply. The phrase ‘heritage literature’ is intriguing, as is ‘onward publishers’. The only reference to ‘onward publishing’ I can find is for publishers of avowedly Christian literature. The danger with only taking on authors you are ‘confident of selling’ is that it suggests that there is a formula you recognise as saleable. Well, if you had James Joyce as a client, would you be confident of selling his work? It is sad that contemporary agents seem to stick with a jargon they have concocted so as to feel ok about only promoting books which adhere to some cliched recipe. You say, this is a subjective business. From the scant responses I’ve had, over the last twenty years, I would say you all respond in the same objective way. So why not be more subjective, and less confident?
The contemporary market could do with a kick up the bum.
The West used to pride itself on freedom of expression, as opposed to the censorship of the Soviet Union, for example. A famous Ethiopian writer at the International Writers’ Program at Iowa University once said to me rather accusingly, I cannot mention ‘old man’ in my books, because the Emperor is old, but you, in the UK, you have freedom of speech. I replied (and this was back in the 60s), that in the UK everything was dependent on ‘commercial viability’ – and this was actually far worse than state censorship. What was true 50 years ago is even more the case today.
I’m sorry, but age, colour and sex are definitely issues. I am white, 78 and male – and discriminated against on all three counts.
I assure you, I bear you no resentment. Actually I am very grateful to receive your response, and that you took the time to read some of my work. But I also think it’s important to give you feedback about how neglected many older writers of originality tend to feel. And it is a fact that their work is ignored by contemporary literary agents. My own press, Grey Suit Editions UK, tries to redress this injustice. We will be publishing David Plante soon; a successful novelist in the 70s, published by Bloomsbury then, and still writing today.
With best wishes – Anthony
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I think your reply is a thoughtful summary of the reality we face in the literary world.
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It’s a reply I got from an agent.
I wish the first agent I wrote provided this insight. Lucky you.