Wednesday, 29 May 2013

What Can Agents Offer Self Publishing Authors?

By Joanne Phillips

Last night I was lucky enough to be part of an online chat with two literary agents, Bryony Woods and Ella Kahn from Diamond Khan & Wood Agency. This Q&A session was offered as part of my creative writing MA, and I jumped at the chance to put my own questions to the agents.

When I knew this session was coming up, I asked my fellow Alli (Alliance of Independent Authors) members what kind of questions they’d ask. A very bold one was: What can agents offer to indie authors? Bold, but reasonable. With all the talk of ‘hybrid’ authors currently, I don’t think there’s any reason to perpetuate the them-and-us attitude towards agents, traditional publishing, and indies. Surely we can all open our eyes and see how well different professions and different approaches work in the market today?

We’ll come back to that. First, my report on what I learned from the very lovely Bryony and Ella – who typed so fast and tried so hard to answer questions from 32 students in a very short time their fingers must be sore today! Some of the submission guidelines may not be news to some of you, but for other readers who are considering submitting their novels (and DK&W seems like a great agency to submit to), I’m sure you’ll find something to interest you here:

Submission Guidelines

Bryony and Ella like to see submissions containing the first 3 chapters, or around 50 pages. You should also add a 1-2 page synopsis and - this is interesting – they like it if you add the synopsis at the end of the sample chapters within the same document. Both agents said they will read the cover letter (or email) first, and if it grabs them they’ll put the sample on their Kindle to read. They read the sample chapters first, and if they like them enough to get to the end, they will read the synopsis to see if the writer has fully developed the plot. Oh, and do include the ending in the synopsis. If I was submitting to an agent I might send the sample in mobi format too, just to make it easier for them to read. But this might come across as a bit desperate …

The covering letter was highlighted as being super-important. This is where they get an idea if you’re someone they could work with. In the letter you should include a short blurb to grab their interest, information about yourself, your writing history, qualifications if any, and why you wrote the book.

One of the nicest, and most refreshing thing about Bryony and Ella was their open attitude to submissions. Bryony loves ghost stories, gothic novels and fairy tales (are you reading this, Mum?), while Ella is looking for historical fiction of all types and ‘reading group fiction’ with a fast-paced plot. But both agreed they are open to most genres and that a strong concept and great writing are the most important factors. They really don’t like clunky dialogue and overuse of clich├ęs.

My personal thoughts after this part of the session? I would definitely submit to this agency in the future. Both are committed to working with their authors long-term and developing careers, and while many in the indie world argue against having an agent at all, I disagree. Self publishing is wonderful, empowering, and under-appreciated by many in the industry – and misunderstand by many more. But there is much a good agent can offer to new authors, or published authors with a new project to pitch.

So, what can they offer to indie authors?

Which brings me to the meaty part of my post: Did I ask the bold question? Here is the question I put to Bryony and Ella:

Ella answered most of the questions, and the first thing she said was that many mainstream publishers are willing to look at self-published authors, but sales figures have to be really high – in the tens of thousands. She was very honest and admitted that her heart sinks slightly when a submission states that they self-published to test the market – but she did go on to explain the reason is that unless a debut novel has sold hugely, many publishers will consider it a flop, which is unfair, but as Ella rightly points out, you can only be a debut novelist once.

Asked about rights for successful indie titles, Ella explained that she’d rather work on all rights for a project, which I think is fair enough, don’t you? Besides, why would a big publisher offer print-only rights to anyone except those already selling massively? It wouldn’t be a good business model to cut off a source of income like digital book revenue.

One of the other students asked an interesting question, which was about representing an author who was committed to indie publishing as the start to a career, perhaps nurturing them (and taking a cut, of course) until they did make the big publisher’s lists. The answer in a nutshell was that the best start to an author’s career was to be with a mainstream publisher. (I’m just the messenger, guys!)

There wasn’t really a definitive answer to the question of what agents can offer to indies, but that might be down to the hectic nature of the chat. I did get the impression that while Bryony and Ella are totally open-minded to any quality submission, they are not about to start jumping for joy if an indie contacts them and offers their existing ebook or POD title for representation. And after hearing their arguments, I don’t blame them frankly.

My Summary 

Pre-existing opinions about self-publishing, and agents, and mainstream publishers go two ways. Indie authors have a lot to offer – at one point the conversation moved to marketing and promotion, and I was thinking how indie authors are way ahead of mainstream publishers in the most recent developments when it comes to reaching readers on a wider scale. Indie authors work SO HARD, they are committed to reaching the guys who matter – readers – and they are a determined bunch to boot!

But agents have a business model; they need to work within that and pay their bills. The two sides of publishing – if they are different sides – do meet, and often very successfully. But there still exists at best a mild suspicion of authors who’ve gone over to the dark side, and an unwillingness to match like for like. How do I know this? Because of the markers for success! Trad published authors are considered successful if they earn out their advance, and sometimes this means selling as few as 1000 books. They may have a marketing push behind them for a few months, and they may sell a few thousand ebooks as well, but this is an average run for many mid-list authors in the first year after publication of a title. But an indie author who sells ‘only’ a few thousand books? Not good enough. Indies have to sell tens of thousands to be considered as successful as their mid-list, trad pubbed counterparts. And if that’s not inequality, I don’t know what is.

Ending on a more positive note, both Bryony and Ella are looking for submissions, so those of you with polished novels ready to go should check out the guidelines on their website and go for it. They were lovely, and anyone who gets to work with them will be very lucky indeed.

About Joanne: Joanne is a writer seeking to connect with readers and other writers. She lives in Shropshire, England with her husband and five-year-old daughter. Her genre is commercial women’s fiction – chick lit for some – and her first novel Can’t Live Without is now for sale onAmazon Kindle and in paperback. You can find her website here:


  1. This was much as I suspected. Publishers and agents are interested in making money (fair enough, that's what they do) Writers are interested in getting their work out there and having people read it and enjoy it, even if not in great numbers. It would be quite nice to make some serious money from my writing, but I'm quite happy if it's out there and I sell a hundred copies. Hurrah for self publishing!

  2. Publishers are keen on a say in the last draft of the book, from a book's cover to a publication stance.should I self publish

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