Friday, 4 December 2009

NETWORK FAIL


My novelist’s group were discussing getting agents (as you do) recently. The prevalent feeling was that most published writers were lucky enough to have got an ‘in’ - a chance meeting, a recommendation, someone who knew someone else who knew… I’ve heard of a few writers who’ve been picked up off the slush pile, but they do seem to be in the minority. Of course, your book has to be sh** hot as well. But I couldn’t help but wonder (a la Carrie Bradshaw):

Do we have to learn how to network as well as how to write?

When I worked at the BBC, I remember being told that my ‘profile’ wasn’t high enough in my department and that I needed to raise it. I was up in arms. I thought I was there to make programmes. And truth be known, I’m a lousy networker. The thought of arriving at some huge writerly event and infiltrating groups of people I don’t know fills me with abject terror. Strangely, I’d have no problem standing up in front of people and talking. It’s the informal, one-to-one stuff that’s so scary.

With the popularity and proliferation of literary events these days – The York Literature Festival being the latest – there are more and more opportunities for aspiring writers to rub shoulders with agents, publishers and authors. Indeed, many festivals now include bookable one-to-ones with agents, each lasting about ten minutes, during which said aspirants can pitch their novel. There are also those terrifying ‘Pitch Idol’ type evenings where you can compete with about fifteen other writers in front of a panel to convince an agent to take you on. I went to one in Cornwall (as a member of the audience, I should quickly add) where the panel included Simon Cowell’s half-brother (who happens to be a literary agent). It was all very entertaining. But is this something I want to do?

The online equivalent, I suppose, are sites like Authonomy and You Write On, where hours are spent ‘networking’ to gain the attention of a) fellow writers and, through them b) publishers or agents. Sadly it seems that the majority of these hours are wasted, since only one writer has been ‘plucked off the slush pile’ at Authonomy and both sites now seem to have segued seamlessly into offering self-publishing services.

The irony is that if I were confident at speaking and meeting n’greeting and networking, I’d not be a writer. I’d probably be an agent. Writing is the way I communicate best. Yet I suspect that part of the writerly ‘package’ these days includes an ability to be confident socially and adept at persuading, arguing, and otherwise influencing people verbally. Preferably with a Unique Selling Point which will go down well on the telly, the patience of Job and the tenacity of, er, someone tenacious. All this on top of having the talent to write an amazing, marketable book.

Tell you what, by the time I’ve developed all these assets, I’m not only going to be a bankable writer. I’ll also be an incredible – and probably insufferable - human being.

Thoughts?

25 comments:

Rosy T said...

Interesting post, Susie. But personally, I think the idea that you need to network to land an agent or publisher a myth - and a distraction. I know very few published writers who knew anyone or had done any 'networking' before they were picked up. They just kept their heads down and honed their work as best they could, said a prayer and posted it off. It's certainly what I did. These skills may make you, as you say, an incredible human being (even more incredible than you already are!). But it's the writing (and a pinch of pure luck) that gets you the deal, and nothing else.

Kate said...

If this is true then there's no hope for the likes of me who live out in the sticks and can never get to such events!!

It's slushpile or nothing!!

Derek said...

I think netowrking can give you an opportunity to create an 'in' but only the quality of your writing can get you an 'in in'. If the writing's poor then you'll be out whether you were in first or not.
Also, it is an industry that we're part of so we need to recognise that our work has to be seen to be snapped up.
And Kate, I know how you feel. It's sticks-ville here too! But there's always the internet.

Olivia Ryan said...

Susie, I'm no good at 'networking' either and I think you're right that most writers (not all, of course) find this type of thing difficult. But I agree with Rosy that it isn't the only way 'in'. Personally I was one of the lucky 'slush pile acceptees' - and I still don't have an agent (despite a couple of interesting forays into agent-dom, which are a story for another time!) - but approaching publishers without an agent is becoming harder every year: most mainstream publishers won't look at unagented subs, so dogged determination at submitting to agents seems to be the best way forward for anyone trying to get published now. Networking can only get you an introduction - not a contract.

Samantha Tonge said...

Networking won't get you an agent directly, but it will improve your writing and get you opportunities.

Because of my online networking, i have, over the years, had my opening chapters edited for free, advice given, i have had doors opened to get my work in front of certain agents - all of this has led to receiving great advice, but because my writing hasn't been good enough yet, i haven't got a deal.

One contact of mine even gets the first 10 chapters i write of anybook in front of a top agent, and i get personal feedback. 3 books on this hasn't resulted in success in terms of a contract, but i have learnt a lot.

so yes, i would network if you've got the time. But have realistic expectations as to what it will acheive.

Samantha Tonge said...

Yikes, excuse all the typos and spelling error in that - i blame my new keyboard.

Nicola Morgan said...

I've now been published for a few years and have in that time met and become friends with hundreds of writers. Obvisouly I don't know the detailed story of how all of them became published but i know quite a lot of their stories - and i can't think of a single one who was "picked up" by either agent or publisher in this way. Every single one of them simply eventually write the right book and sent it to the right agent/publisher at the right time. The networking comes later and is very helpful in many ways, mostly because it is an opportunity to learn.

I am afraid it makes me rather irritated and frustrated when I hear writers blaming their rejections on not having emt the right person. It detracts from the key aim of publication: to come up with an idea that will sell and write it well enough to sell.

Rosy T sums it up in the first comment.

I'm afraid it's this kind of thing that has earned me the epithet "crabbit old bat" because it brings out the crabbit in me. Sorry!

Samantha also makes some very good points (so do the others). Networking has all sorts of benefits, not least because to network is human, a natural need to socialise and make connections, enriching in so many ways. I'd maybe say that to network is human, to write better is divine.

Nicola Morgan said...

Yes, and sorry for my typos, too! Am on a phone!

Roderic Vincent said...

Interesting post, Susie. It's reassuring to read the comments above. You have inspired me to bag up another batch and take the lonely road to the post office again.

CarolineG said...

I don't think getting an agent requires the ability to network either. Which is a good job, because I am crap at it. On the other hand, I have excellent walking-to-the-post office skills :)

Susie Nott-Bower said...

I knew this one would be inflammatory! Don't misunderstand me - there is NO substitute at all for great writing, and obviously without that no-one's going to take you on. And as writers, our task is to learn to write as well as we possibly can, and then some. And I absolutely agree with Nicola and Sam that networking amongst other writers provides huge support, information and learning.
I'm certainly not blaming my own rejections on the fact that I haven't had a personal introduction: I blame that on one of two things - that a) my writing isn't yet of publishable standard or b) my writing isn't marketable.
The post was based on a recent radio programme I'd heard about on getting an agent, where every published writer interviewed said that they had received help in this way. None had been picked up from the slush pile.
I do know several writers who have been picked up like this, including Rosy and Olivia - which is fabulous. However I do wonder whether, in this financial and nervous climate, the chances of this happening may be reducing.
Susiex

Karen said...

I'm lucky enough to have just signed with an agent, and have to confess it came about via a friend's recommendation.

Having said that, I know I wouldn't have happened if the story and the quality of my writing wasn't up to scratch and, also, another agency showed interest based on a random submission, so I'm hoping that means it's definitely not all about networking.

Karen said...

'IT' wouldn't have happened, sorry! Still a bit over-excited :o)

Susie Nott-Bower said...

YAY, Karen! Well done you. All the very best with selling the book.
Susiex

Paul Lamb said...

Tenacity of a bulldog, perhaps?

For networking to work, it has to be subtle. There's nothing more off-putting (to me) that a person who is so obviously tyring to "make connections" and ask for leads and hand out cards and hustle and push. Sure all of this may be helpful, but it needs to be done is a way that isn't counterproductive.

As for me, I'm doomed if networking is the answer. Geez, I don't even Tweet.

Curiously, no one on that radio program said anything about building credentials, did they? I would imagine someone with twenty published short stories would get at least as much agent attention as someone who "knows the right people."

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Good point, Paul, about building credentials. I'm sure that having a good writing CV really helps in the query letter.
Susiex

Samantha Tonge said...

Well done, Karen!

Nora Lumiere said...

I agree with all the posters who said it's the WRITING that counts. Even in this precarious age of DIY promotion, I think we're freaking ourselves out with the idea of having to be adept at all forms of self-promotion. Few of us are, that's why we write and if we just get on with it and send out our work, we'll get an agent, we'll get published and we'll do the best we can with all the rest.
Don't let the fear of PR stop you from WRITING.

Nora Lumiere said...

I agree with all the posters who said it's the WRITING that counts. Even in this precarious age of DIY promotion, I think we're freaking ourselves out with the idea of having to be adept at all forms of self-promotion. Few of us are, that's why we write and if we just get on with it and send out our work, we'll get an agent, we'll get published and we'll do the best we can with all the rest.
Don't let the fear of PR stop you from WRITING.

Nora Lumiere said...

I agree with all the posters who said it's the WRITING that counts. Even in this precarious age of DIY promotion, I think we're freaking ourselves out with the idea of having to be adept at all forms of self-promotion. Few of us are, that's why we write and if we just get on with it and send out our work, we'll get an agent, we'll get published and we'll do the best we can with all the rest.
Don't let the fear of PR stop you from WRITING.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Ooh, Norah - you said that three times!
Of course the writing is what counts - though even that may not necessarily get you an agent or a publisher. Funny how other jobs have a nice straight line of promotion from x to y to z, whereas writing is just a case of perseverence - and no pot of gold, necessarily, at the end. Just hope...
Susiex

Kirsty said...

Thought I'd pop my tuppence worth in here as passions are roused by this one Susie. Well done on that! I think it goes without saying that nobody is going to give you a deal unless the writing is good enough. However, does anyone (even the agents themselves) believe that if the writing is good enough you are guaranteed to get a deal? Not a jot of it. And that is where the 'in' can make all the difference I guess, by getting a favourable eye to take the time to consider your fabulous manuscript. I did an MA in Professional Writing and it was with growing despair that I listened to each and every writer who came to talk to us describe how they found their agent. Every one, without exception, began their tale with something along the lines of: "Well, funny you should ask that because oddly enough the way it happened was I had a friend who..."
One thing is for sure: when something as fickle as 'luck' is acknowledged to be such an important part of getting a deal, having an 'in' can only be a good thing, all other things being equal.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Thanks, Kirsty. Wish I'd managed to write the post as you just have! Sums it up very succinctly.
Susiex

Elen Caldecott said...

Networking is terrifying when you think of it that way. If, instead, you think of it 'having a conversation with someone who likes the same things you like' it suddenly becomes much easier. Things like writing comments on blogs, joining forums, chatting to strangers at conventions, all seem much more normal. If we didn't call it 'networking' I think writers wouldn't get so scared, or so defensive about it.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Very good point, Elen. 'Networking' does sound so formal and businesslike, doesn't it? I guess there's a difference between 'networking' with people like yourself (ie other writers) and 'networking' with people who may or may not be your agent/publisher. That's where the fear factor really comes in.
Susiex