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.