As far as agents were concerned, I was unashamedly promiscuous as a young writer. Like most budding writers I had been hoping for instant success, spurred on by endless headlines of first books getting improbably huge advances, but, for me at least, reality was invariably very different: there was the agent who reluctantly agreed to send out three chapters of my first novel to two publishers to prove to me that it was no good (one got on the phone straight away, wanting to read more); there was the agent who kept forgetting the title of my screenplay (The Writer, is that so hard to remember?); and there was the agent who has yet to find time to read an 80-page novella I sent them some years ago. So when yet another ineffectual agent suggested that I write about what I know, I decided that the thing I know most about is ineffectual agents.
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The problem is that there are many more writers than the market can bear, and to most publishers writers are about as important as farmers are to Tesco - they know that there is an endless supply of produce. Of course most of the unsolicited writing that lands on agents' desks is rubbish, but how can we be sure that the occasional gem will be discovered? The short answer is that we can't and, sadly, neither agents nor publishers lose any sleep over it. The undiscovered writer is the acceptable victim of a system which, ironically, works for everyone concerned except for the very people who are its lifeblood.
Most young writers, keen for their first break, accept any offer from an agent, no questions asked. But right from the beginning the odds are stacked against them. An agent has many writers to look after - of course, how could an agency be profitable otherwise? - but a writer has only one career. So for a writer to be with the wrong agent can be lethal, while the agent has not much to lose, apart from a few wasted phone calls and stamps, and maybe a minor dent in his or her reputation. But like a bad marriage, a poor match between an author and agent can result in a lifetime of disappointment - for the author, at least.