This is an extended version of a section taken from February 2020’s “Writers’ Lab” masterclass. Every month award-winning author Keith Gray offers idiosyncratic hints, tips and advice on many different aspects of creative writing – perhaps how to build Suspense, maybe ideas for combining Words and Music in your stories, and even why Literary Agent’s matter. Keith’s monthly “Writers’ Lab” is free to all Sunday Writers’ Club members. Click here to discover what other benefits you’d gain if you became a member too: https://sundaywritersclub.com/about-membership/
An Anecdote About Agents
By Keith Gray
It seems so unfair to shove a contract full of labyrinthine legalise in front of a novelist and expect them to understand it. They’ve probably just spent their whole day imagining haunted heroes, or at the very least trying to invent new metaphors for woolly gloves. And now they’re expected to sign away their beloved book, their rightful rights and their financial future to those ‘herein known as The Publisher’? That book may have taken years to write, while scratching their X is going to take a single second. And that single second is brimming over with microseconds of excitement, trepidation, fulfilment, pride, relief and redemption. There’s a hell of a lot of trust packed in there too. It’s not a simple business transaction for any author.
I’m not claiming publishers purposely go out of their way to screw authors over. I don’t buy it – it’s a conspiracy theory. (Neither am I saying all publishers are pearly angels of integrity) but a publishing house is a business. They kind of have to be or they wouldn’t be able to afford to publish your book. Few writers would call themselves a business. I’ve met plenty who’d be offended by the very notion! They are, obviously, artists. Yet they need a publishing business to survive to be able to pay for their art. The contract is often where the two ideals collide. And I suggest a literary agent can make an incredibly good buffer.
Whenever new and aspiring writers ask me for advice I always say that the very second thing they should do is get an agent. (The first being to finish the book – and you’d be amazed how many haven’t done that yet). I think agents are invaluable as cheerleaders, gurus, negotiators and forcefields. I’ve been a published author for 25 years this year and have always been represented. I’ve actually had two agents in my career – one died (not my fault).
I was only 22 when I received my first book contract and it was a moment in my life full of exactly those emotions I’ve mentioned above. I felt drunk. I was drunk… My best friend and I hit all of our favourite pubs in Grimsby town that celebratory afternoon. The wodge of printed papers had ker-thumped through the letterbox with the morning mail. Of course I’d read the contract – I wasn’t that stupid. But I only had a vague idea of what everything meant – I wasn’t that clever. And then Steve arrived, and we drank beer as I preened and dreamed. I wondered if I should buy an extra special pen which would only ever be used for signing book contracts. Fortunately my clever agent was much more sober when she read the contract. She told me to wait, hang-on before I signed and it felt like Christmas getting cancelled.
Creepers, my first novel, is about groups of kids who spend their free time ‘garden creeping’. Imagine a street or a row of English suburban houses, all next-door to each other, separated only by fences or walls. Now imagine young teenagers daring each other to race secretly through all those back gardens in the middle of the night – scaling the fences, leaping the walls, fast as they can, avoiding pet dogs, not being caught by the residents… Of course, the most daring kid who makes it furthest along the street without incarceration is the coolest kid in class.
Receiving the contract for its publication was so much bigger than being the coolest kid in class, however. I was volcanoing hope and pride. I would have signed in blood! But I was having to wait. Had Steve and I’s celebrations been premature?
My agent had spotted a clause in the contract which caused her concern. The clause stated (and I’m paraphrasing here) that if any teenager who’d read my book attempted to emulate its heroes and inflicted damage to property or themselves, I as the author would have to fight any subsequent legal battles alone. My agent didn’t feel this was a fair stance for the publisher to take. They were agreeing to publish the book. They should take equal responsibility for smashed fences, tumbled walls and broken bones. I remember it was a tense couple of weeks with several back-and-forth phone conversations while my agent fought for me, my book and my rights. The lid stayed on my brand new extra special pen. Until fortunately the publishers relented and the clause was changed. (And even more fortunately, although Creepers was published way back in 1996, no one seems to have been stupid enough to injure themselves while using my book as an A-Z Guide of How to Trespass).
Even if I’d spotted that clause, I honestly don’t know how well I’d have been able to stand up to the might of a publishing house and fight my case alone. I’m grateful my agent wasn’t easily intimidated. I’m extra grateful that she did all of the intense phone calls and forceful letter writing while my new editor and me never had to mention the disputed contract even once. We just got on with making Creepers the best book we could.
I still make a valiant attempt to read new contracts. Over the years I’ve come to understand them more and more but it’s definitely not my of area expertise. And, being honest, my agent’s always been pretty awful at inventing metaphors. We respect what the other one does and stick to what we’re good at.
Sunday Writers' Club Team Member and Author
Keith is an author from the UK best known for his award-winning novels for children and teenagers. He’s published over 20 books which have been translated into a dozen languages and has edited 2 anthologies of short stories for Young Adult readers. His novel ‘Ostrich Boys’ was adapted for the stage and played to sell-out audiences in such far-flung places as Birmingham, Seoul and Mumbai. He’s traveled to book festivals all over the world promoting reading, writing and literature to teachers, teenagers, parents, librarians and anybody else who’d listen. You can find out more about Keith on the Sunday Writers’ Club “About” page here.