Do Agents Really Know

Years ago I sought the advice of a professional agent from an Author’s Advisory Service in the UK, about a book I was planning to write. I wanted to know whether it would have any commercial value after completion, and most importantly, what the chances were of such a book being published in the UK or US markets. Here’s what she wrote back:

“The British are extremely insular and tend to prefer stories that feature British characters and familiar locations. They don’t take the trouble to learn about other countries and know little of their policies and history. They don’t even like books with French, German or Italian protagonists and these are countries widely visited by the average British tourist.
In the other large English-language market, the United States, matters are, if anything slightly worse. American readers are equally insular and not only like to see American citizens feature strongly, but also expect them to be presented in a positive light in most media presentations. Which is why so many American films now rewrite history so that Americans can feature as good guys on the winning side, even winning battles at which they were not historically present.”

And to think that I paid money for this. This was years after Arundhati Roy had won the Booker prize for her debut novel, The God Of Small Things. This was years after The Kite Runner and The Joke were published. What was she talking about? Did she mean to say that the British don’t like to read Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, Dr. Zhivago, Les Miserables, The Brothers Karamazov? Nor books by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Paulo Coelho, Balzac, Flaubert, Nietzsche, Sartre or Schiller, to name just a few? Because the characters do not have British names and the setting, the locale, of these stories is foreign to them? Doesn’t she know that:

“A literary creation can appeal to us in all sorts of ways-by its theme, subject, situations, characters. But above all it appeals to us by the presence in it of art. It is the presence of art in Crime and Punishment that moves us deeply rather than the story of Raskolnikov’s crime.” Boris Pasternak

Now, when we can access information and download books from all around the world with a click of the mouse, allow me to say I don’t buy what you are trying to sell me. Thanks but no thanks.

“The other commercial problem will be,” she continued “a short book costs almost as much in terms of production and marketing costs as a long one. To recoup the costs publishers have to price a short novel almost as high as a long one. And readers back off because they don’t feel that they’re getting value for money. Even well-respected and best-selling novelists such as William Trevor tend to have two novellas published in the same volume to get round the problem.”

Does this mean that the British people do not read Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea because it is short, because they wouldn’t get their money’s worth from the book? How about Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie, or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings?

“The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.” Ray Bradbury

May I ask this agent then what the British and the Americans read? And if they do not like or are not interested to read foreign literature, then why do English translations of so many foreign books exist? Doesn’t literature portray life in general? And what is the aim of every artist, if not

“to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.” William Faulkner

For all you enthusiasts out there seeking help, please go with your guts and don’t waste money on advice which you know deep in your heart is not true. After all;

“The contract between the author and the reader is a game; the game of telling stories, inventing characters, and creating the imaginary paradise of the individual, from whence no one can be expelled because, in a novel, no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be heard and understood.” Carlos Fuentes


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18 Responses to Do Agents Really Know

  1. I too have received bad advice from industry insiders who told me that I couldn’t sell a book with an internal struggle as the primary conflict. “Who’s the antagonist?” they demanded to know. Before I could even squeak out that my protagonist was her own antagonist they shushed me with a resounding, “And don’t tell me that your hero is the villain. Those kinds of books never sell.”

    Not every good book has a cut and dry bad guy because that’s not the way life is. Not every story takes place in England or America, either; there are other places in the world to explore and other worlds to create.

    (And by the way, I did sell that book, so HA!)

  2. Amber says:

    Unfortunately, most people are egocentric and do tend to read within their “comfort zone”.

    UNLESS you hand them something spectacular, new, exotic, compelling. Or you hand it to their friends, who tell them about it. Or their friends’ friends, neighbors, business associates, etc.

    The truth is, if you write a beautiful story, people will enjoy it. The selling/marketing aspect is largely a matter of fortune. In that regard, I wish you luck. Keep writing!

  3. Tania says:

    This exemplifies the trouble with sales statistics. Statistics don’t reflect recent trending in the marketplace and are limited by the population included. You should never take statiscal information at face value. In this ever changing ebook and digital world, publishers should be looking at pushing the envelope past old business models. We are increasingly becoming more connected with other countries because of the internet, past stats and ways of thinking should just be one factor, not the only factor. I was really insulted by what this agent said, all of it, her thinking was fraught with stereotypes and a bit demeaning. Social media is changing the way we make buying choices. The old traditional marketing was a push mentality, we probably were more insular in our reading because those were the choices available to us, pushed down from the publishers and book retailers. With social media, peer reviews and recommendations along with how well readers relate to their favorite writers will have more of an impact on our buying choices.

  4. Judith says:

    Wow, what an uninformed agent you had! I, too, have received bad advice from agents. I think every author has at one time or another. Right now, with the advent of technology and self-publishing, agents are scrambling to reinvent themselves. Many of the are injecting themselves into self-publishing, professing to help authors get published that way. But who needs them? I self-published my novel “Husbands May Come and Go but Friends are Forever,” and it’s been optioned for the big screen. So there!

  5. RLB Hartmann says:

    Many years ago I had an agent who read the manuscript of a book I’m proofing at the moment for a November release (see my website at, who told me “the main character does nothing but grow up.” Well, duh….

  6. First of all, it is disturbing to find that you ‘paid’ for this advice. Reputable agents shouldn’t charge for assessing a book for possible representation. Second, every book noted as a perennial seller (foreign or novella) is a recognized classic that is still available today years after its debut either because the author had gained fame or notoriety, or was recognized as a seasoned and popular writer. Perhaps what the agent was trying to tell you was that AN UNKNOWN WRITER will be a hard sell with a book featuring a main character foreign to the target readership. That is not bad advice, it is the norm. And anyone who manages to succeed despite that trend in reading will be an exception to the norm, presumably offering an exceptional story that is not simply another genre rerun with a ‘foreign’ character at the helm. Your best test for marketing a book in a foreign readership is to take your own character ethnicity and change it to something that is foreign to you. If you wouldn’t be compelled to buy the book, why should anyone else in your peer ethnicity? The story itself should transcend locale and nationality in some way to be universally interesting and compelling. That’s the kind of book any agent would be thrilled to represent.

    • chichikir says:

      Thanks for your useful advice. Now I know that I shouldn’t pay for an agent’s services, I learned it the hard way though. And as for my book, I believe it does transcend locale and nationality, in that it is about war and conflict, civil war to be specific, and many who have read it could easily relate with the story and the characters. 🙂

  7. Never look back unless youre planning to go that way. – Henry David Thoreau

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