The business of writing

Out and about

For various reasons I'm been thinking lately about how writing is a business.  I mean that if you wish to pursue a career in writing (because let's face it, who really writes a screenplay/novel/poem only intending to rest within the pages of a Moleskine or on the screen of the Mac?  Liar.)  then you have to approach writing in a professional way. 

After meeting a diverse collection of interesting creative people lately, I realised that I should make more efforts at networking – to meet more of these people, to immerse myself in inspiring situations and honestly, to get out of my comfort zone slightly. I rejoined Women in Film and Television after a long hiatus and five hours later, found myself at one of their events, "Meet the Agents" at Waterstones Piccadilly.

The speakers were Maxine Hoffman, Julian Friedmann, Matthew Dench and Vivienne Clore who all come from slightly different angles in terms of the talent they represent and the markets and how they work. Maxine will answer every personal letter she gets though doesn't watch YouTube, but that where Vivienne often views new clients as her eclectic list has an 'alternative comedy' bent, though she was representing that sort of talent before that genre's name was coined.  Matthew estimates that for every hundred submissions he receives, he meets one person and of those he agrees to represent one in ten (yes, that's one in a thousand, folks.)  Julian's agency are proactive in matching talent and projects where appropriate and have a huge knowledge of the European market and I loved listening to his common sense yet incredibly industry-savvy responses.  Many moons ago I was an intern for his business partner and they were extremely generous with their knowledge then too and in fact indirectly helped me to get into publishing.

All the speakers offered specific advice to audience members about deals, options, getting a credit and how to get out of a contract and get your rights back.  Refreshingly candid about whether they were taking on new clients, mostly they said a flat-out "No". Their reasons are simple: they have to believe in the client's work, be prepared to put in a lot of work without being paid for it in order to market that client and they already have a long list of people for whom they're already working. At that point an audience member muttered 'So someone has to die then'.  Not necessarily, but perhaps you've got a better chance of being represented by a more junior agent who is looking to build their list.  As well as you showing an understanding of your market and business, you also have to want to be a professional writer. In it for the long haul.  Overall, what was the most important X factor?

Simple. They have to like you. As Vivienne said, "If I'm telling them that they can call me 24/7, which they can, then I have to like them. If they're going to sometimes have a tantrum or an off day, I have to like them the rest of the time'.  That sounds fair enough to me and when I was a commissioning editor, I used precisely the same rationale – I didn't take on an author unless I felt that, if necessary, I could be in a room with them for eight hours straight hammering out the final edits.  Also it's a reciprocal relationship, you need to believe in your agent as much as they believe in you.

I'd spent time talking to various people in the room and it turned out to be a most interesting evening: I'd spoken to another woman, a well-known presenter before the event started. We we were on the same fund-raising team for a recent charity event and I congratulated her on her efforts.  Later on an old contact, who I hadn't seen for perhaps four years said 'Oh – I've just been talking about you!'  It turns out that my fellow fund-raiser is working on a book proposal and now I'm going to give her a hand – so something else exciting to work on.  In July, natch, as June is already booked up…

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