Saturday, 25 August 2007

Agent Bothering and Other Hobbies

I’ve been bothering UK literary agents for years with a spectacular run of what I like to describe as ‘ur-success’ (which is a lot like failure but stretched over a period of many years). Bear in mind the agents below are only the ones I’ve had significant exchanges with over the last few years.

So, in no particular order:

Brie Burkeman. I recently received a lovely e-mail from Brie saying that although 'technically' she is looking for new clients, she is simply too busy to dedicate any time to them at the moment. That said, her kind words are probably a euphemism for ‘feck off’. I think Brie used to be at:

Jonathan Clowes. These guys are the original big hitters. Clients include Len Deighton, Doris Lessing, David Nobbs and the Sir Kingsley Amis Estate. No email and no website, so you will have to approach by letter (unlike a lot of agents out there, JC always respond to initial queries, even if it is a ‘no thanks’).

Elspeth Cochrane. Now this is more like it. I can’t remember the name of the guy I dealt with here (a few years back, admittedly), but he was a rough diamond and make no mistake, guv’nor.

This agent (let’s call him Bob) expressed an interest in one of the first scripts I ever wrote – however, rather than taking me on as a bonafide client, he suggested that I reside on his ‘temporary list’ (something I suspected he had just made up on the spot). The concept behind this ‘list’ was that I should continue to market my script all by my lonesome with no assistance from the agency whatsoever – until I made a sale that is. Bob would then magically pop out of his box and slap a commission on whatever I had managed to negotiate for myself. Cracking deal, eh? I continued to market the script myself but without recourse to this obviously spaced out lunatic (me and about seven hundred other writers on his temporary list I suspect).

Six months later, I called Bob for an idle chat only to be told by Elspeth Cochrane herself (sounding delightfully cranky, like a dotty old maiden aunt in an Ealing film) that he had gone AWOL, and that she had no idea where he was (selling London Bridge to Japanese tourists perhaps?). By the way, she said, do you want your script back, or shall I shred it? What about your prestigious ‘temporary list’ I almost asked, but bit my tongue (that said, they’re the only agents to have done this to me. Everyone else has been thoroughly professional and eminently polite, even if they think my work is a load of plop).

Notable clients: Royce Ryton, Alex Jones and Robert Tanitch. Elspeth Cochrane appear to have had the same clients for about a million years, so god knows what they were doing toying with me (and on their high-status ‘temporary list’ to boot). I seem to recall they also counted Ernie Wise amongst their clients, but that’s not important right now.

They don’t have a website (I can’t find one anyway). How very post-modern!

Curtis Brown. I worried Ben Hall for a while when he was at AP Watt, and this tradition has continued since he moved to Curtis Brown. Ben writes very polite and encouraging ‘no thanks’ letters, which I receive with alarming frequency.

Notable clients: the prodigious Colin Bateman (just thinking about his output makes me want to go and lie down in dark room for a couple of weeks), Rob Grant, Harriet Warner.

Dench Arnold. The first port of call for screenwriters fresh out of the blocks these days, so it appears. They managed to kick me into touch after eight months and two scripts – always in a considerate and professional way, mind you. However, their email answering skills would occasionally fall into Marchmont type levels of inactivity. I’m not quite sure why it takes four months to respond to an initial script query, but there you go – ours is not to reason why.

Send Fiona Grant (Elizabeth Dench’s assistant) an email – she’d love to hear from you.

Notable clients: Peter Chelsom, Adrian Dunbar, Caroline Sax (the script supervisor for Underworld – like, wow, there was a script for that? You learn something new every day).

Futerman, Rose & Associates. Guy Rose was a thoroughly likeable sort, so I bothered him for a while to no avail. Barney Fisher-Turner as well – who also isn’t interested. Meh. Their loss.

Notable Clients: Toyah Wilcox, Brian Harvey (huh?) and Iain Duncan-Smith. There’s a nice picture of Toyah post-facelift on their website, which has got to be worth a visit.

Marjacq Scripts. What a beautiful front door!

We are always seeking to expand our talented client base and welcome new submissions.

Well, you don’t see that every day. Their website features potted biographies of the writers they represent, which should give you an idea of who they are looking for. Worth a punt, I reckon. Luke Speed is the man you need.

Peters, Fraser Dunlop: a tutor of mine at Cambridge is represented by Rosemary Canter (children’s illustration) – she put me in touch with Charles Walker a few years back. Charles was always polite and accommodating, so I continued to bother him for a while until I got the message. Jago Irwin was the next in line, another thoroughly decent chap with a sideline in carefully crafted automatic rejection emails. There are so many agents at PFD by the time you got round to being rejected by them all, you could probably start at the beginning again without Agent #1 recognising your name – a bit like painting the Forth Bridge I guess.

Notable Clients: take your pick really. Everyone who’s anyone. There are absolutely millions of writers, directors, illustrators and French polishers all available at handsome rates.

There is an excellent list of UK literary agents at the Bloomsbury website here.

Agents are, of course, looking for talented, prodigious writers with finely honed commercial sensibilities, which obviously means that I’m making a series of (rash?) assumptions about my ability that may or may not be true.

That said, give me a deadline and I’ll go at it like a fat kid after a doughnut – however, I’m sure that my ‘commercial sensibility’ could do with a bit of a buff. For god’s sake, my favourite book is Bouvard and Pecuchet by Flaubert. Perhaps I should catch up on all those Doctor Who episodes that I’ve been (deliberately) missing.

With all the above in mind, I don’t think that having an agent provides anyone with a gift wrapped solution. Friends of mine seem to get on perfectly well without representation – the percentage that the agent would have taken sits very nicely inside their pockets, thank you very much. At the very least, having an agent should widen the base of companies that are prepared to read your work.

As for marketing (when I can be bothered), my current hit rate comes in at about the 1 in 4 mark, i.e., for every agent that requests to see something, another three either don’t reply or simply send a brief ‘no thank you’ note - which I don’t think is too bad (that’s discounting all those offers I have to sit on prestigious ‘temporary lists’, of course).


Elinor said...

Thanks Chip, that made very amusing and informative reading.

Chip Smith said...

Thanks Elinor - I have a few queries out at the moment, so I suspect this post will be added to in the not too distant future!

Lucy said...

Lol, I know most of those intimately, either by being rejected by them, reading for them back in the mists of time or getting drunk with them and falling under a chair and getting stuck at Chiquito's on Leicester Square. But I'm not telling you which one is which! Though you can probably guess most of them have rejected me at some point, some more than once. Ah, memories.

Chip Smith said...

Let me guess - you got drunk with Elpseth Cochrane. I thought she sounded a bit skewed on the phone that day - turns out it's all your fault (double tequilas do tend to make one a little cranky)!

I've got a story about David Higham and Inktip as well, but I'll save that for when I've banked a few more rejections...

Cress said...

Thanks for the memorable evaluations of a few agents I was checking out. I'm an Australian - there were about three children's agents in Australia, the last time I bothered to look.

What's the protocol of multiple submissions to UK agents? I'd really appreciate advice on this one if you have the time.

Fine if you don't!


Chip Smith said...

Hello Cress, thanks for stopping by - bearing in mind that not all of them will respond, multiple submissions to UK agents are fine. I don't know a lot about children's publishing, but you might likie to try Rosemary Canter at United Agents or even PFD (both are very easy to find via Google).