Advice on Agents

For what it’s worth, I think finding an agent is a bit like dating – you want to find people you click with… in writing, it’s about finding people who believe in your work, and that when that happens it’s worth the flirtations (or rejections) you’ve had before you meet the ‘real thing.’ To help you find your literary soul mate, I’ve put together some advice.

Do your research

• Look at books that are similar in style or genre to yours, or at the books of authors you admire. Their websites or acknowledgements pages will often name their agents, so that’s one source of names or details.
• Most agencies now have websites giving full details of their exact submission requirements and client lists, helping you to choose which agent might be right for you.
• Attend or research writers’ conferences, where agents often offer one-to-one appointments. Even if you can’t attend the conferences, you can usually find out the names of the agents attending by reading the programmes -agents who turn up at conferences are generally actively seeking clients, so they’re worth targeting.
• Weigh up pros and cons: an experienced agent will have a large list and lots of knowledge, but may not have much time -a newer agent may have more time for you, but fewer contacts.

Get your packaging right!

• To submit work, you need a ‘submission package’ -an excerpt from the book, a covering letter, plus some form of synopsis of the entire book (agents often ask for different lengths of synopses so check their websites or the Writers’ Handbook for the exact specification.
• Make sure each element is perfectly formatted, has no spelling or grammatical mistakes, and reads elegantly and well. The more professional you are, the more seriously your agent will take you. Fundamentally, this is like applying for a job, so avoid gimmicks or gifts, for example.
• Your covering letter should be addressed to a specific person -NOT Sir/Madam -and will include the title and genre of your book, a short blurb, and perhaps a note on where your book fits into the marketplace e.g. Jaws meets The Time Traveller’s Wife, or a note of the genre. One of most common reasons for rejection of an otherwise good book is ‘I don’t know where we’d place it.’
• Don’t mention in pitch letter other novels you have written and not had published –agents want focus.
• Add in a short biographical note about yourself, but keep it relevant -only mention your hobbies or your career if the book touches on them. Do include details of any prizes won if they are well-known but don’t boast in your letter –keep it factual. If you have an endorsement from anyone famous/successful/known to the agent, do mention it -but saying your mum or kids love it does not count!
• For the manuscript itself, double space it and include page numbers, wide margins and a cover page with your name and title. Use a simple font e.g. Times New Roman or Arial, and only print on one side of the paper.
• Some agents will accept email submissions -if so, follow the instructions on their website to the letter! Many will not read attachments so want the material pasted into the body of the email.
• There is a huge debate around whether you should only submit to one agent at a time. I would suggest submitting to four or five in batches, and not mentioning the other agents in your letter UNLESS an agent asks to be notified if it’s a multiple submission.

A word on the importance of the right title!

These days, titles are more important than ever -I know of books being sold almost on the title alone. So do give lots of thought to it -brainstorm with friends or other readers, until you have the right one. And accept that even if you sell your project, the publisher may want to change the title again.

After the submission…

• Don’t hassle for an answer. If you’ve not heard anything within 3 months, it’s OK to call and enquire. It can take up to 6 months for your work to be read!
• Have a list of more agents to submit to if your latest batch come back with rejections.
• If you are rejected, remember that most authors have been through it -and if your rejection letter is personalised, it means you almost got there -so see that as encouraging.
• Join online groups of writers, to help you deal with any rejections but also celebrate your achievements.
• If you’ve submitted to more than 20 agents with nothing but form rejections, it may be time to review your book. You can also pay for advice from literary consultancies, though such advice doesn’t come cheap. Do check them out before paying for a reading, and NEVER pay an agent for representation.

And finally…

Most important of all, start on your NEXT project: if you’re signed up, they will want you to write more than one book. Plus it takes your mind off waiting for the responses.