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After a 13-year hiatus, I am back on the agent trail, looking for representation for a new book.

To say that things have changed since the first time I started touting books in the 1980s would be an understatement. Back then, there was no affordable alternative to sealing that mainstream deal. It was either vanity publishing, which cost an arm and a leg, or endlessly contemplating a growing pile of dusty paper that had no home to go to.

But now there is the miracle of self-publishing, and writers do not have to suffer the ignominy of writing an endless stream of letters justifying the existence of our manuscripts, and receiving an endless stream of rejections in response.

That doesn’t stop us doing it, however.

Thirty years ago, I played the game assiduously enough, my bashed-up copy of Writers & Artists covered in asterisks marking likely destinations, and savage lines scored through addresses that had failed to deliver. By mail, this was an excruciatingly slow process and I determined not to let it beat me. I was lucky enough to receive early encouragement from my first submission – this book wasn’t good enough, but the next one might be. I sent her the next book. That wasn’t right, either, but she believed that one day, I’d hit the mark. That kept me going for years.

But where was the mark? Trying to find an agent or publisher might be part science, but there are too many variable factors. Your book has to land on the right desk on the right day, and be opened by a person who is in the right frame of mind to be receptive to your work. How often does that happen? Not very.

Picture the poor literary agent, or publisher’s equivalent, contemplating a stack of envelopes on the desk, or a trail of email submissions – one agency reckons around 30 new manuscripts arrive a week, expecting proper attention. They have to be looked at, because there might be a gem, as us hopeful unpublished writers are always told, and we never fail to clutch at the dangling carrot.

Is it a job everyone in the agency eagerly anticipates, or is it the equivalent of the clown taking the custard pie in the face? I guess that it’s the job everyone scrambles to avoid, in the same way a soldier throws himself clear of an approaching bullet. Imagine having to wade through that pile of paper, with its derogatory tag, the slush pile – looking for the shining needle in a stack of shit-stained hay? How motivated is the reader by 11 o’ clock in the morning, much less by Friday afternoon? How soon before we find a despairing drunk behind the stack of paper, swigging at a bottle in a desperate attempt to rise above all the slush?

Nah. I don’t really think it happens like that. I think they share it around so it’s fair.

OK. So, we swallow our pride and accept that we are part of a slush pile. We are told to wait anything up to two months. This is our first hint that not even one agency employee dedicates him or herself to the slush pile Monday to Friday, 9-5. It takes, say, around 18 months to two years to produce a book, whatever its quality. We stand in line waiting for the ministrations of an agent who is probably harassed by other concerns and has a short attention span. A really bad book can probably be discarded within five minutes. Even at 30 manuscripts a week, and given that most agents only take on two or three new clients every year, a diligent reader could bash through the lot in a day.

So, we console ourselves with the thought that George R. R. Martin was once a hopeful envelope squashed somewhere in the slush pile. He made it. And no wonder. I haven’t read any of his earlier stuff, but I think A Song of Ice and Fire is remarkable. A lot of people agree.

I suspect that a lot of slush pile writers look at a work like that and don’t have to ask the resentful question: How the hell did that get into print? We know how. It got into print because it’s really good. There are two problems facing the brotherhood of slush – we don’t know how good we are, and even if we do, getting into print isn’t always about being good.

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