Many thanks to Harry from Agent Hunter for today’s guest post – some absolute submissions GOLD here, not just for novelists but screenwriters too. Enjoy – and pass on to all your writery friends!
Since super-agent Carole Blake recently advised on how not to get an agent, I thought it might be helpful to suggest some good ways to secure one. Truth is, only the first few of these tips really matter, so readers with attention deficit issues can just read the opening items, then move swiftly on to playing computer games or swallowing food additives, or whatever else helps pass the time …
1. Write a good book
Yes, yes: easier said than done, but it’s still the only thing that really matters. Only forget good. Your book must be dazzling. I know one literary agent who represents a lot of crime authors. He never takes someone on now unless they’re better than people on his existing list. So: be wonderful.
2. Write a saleable book
Good and saleable: two slightly different things. If you wrote a Patricia Cornwell style book now, it wouldn’t sell. Why not? Because Patricia Cornwell was new twenty years ago. Feel out the market’s leading edge and make sure you’re writing there.
3. Edit your book
Most books – 99.9% of them – are rejected by agents. Some of those manuscripts might really have had a chance, but their authors sent the book out before it was properly ready. So write and re-write. Edit and re-edit. It’s what the pros do.
4. Know your pitch
Before you even start on a synopsis, you need to know what your story is. Not the 100,000 word version. Not the 500-750 word synopsis version. But the 20-30 word version that would make an agent say, ‘Interesting …’. Really strong books may not even need 30 words. ‘A school for wizards’. ‘Ordinary teenager falls in love with vampire.’ An agent is already half-hooked.
5. Draft your covering letter
All you need is (a) a two-line para that gives the title, word count and approximate territory of your novel, (b) a longer, fuller one para summary of the book. This would be a good place to lay out the basic pitch of the novel. And (c) a sentence or two about yourself. Simple.
6. No one cares about you
Your mum does; literary agents don’t. If you are a novelist, it really doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, beautiful or plain. So don’t say much about who you are; it’s the manuscript that matters. If you’re writing the kind of non-fiction where being an authority matters, then the advice changes. One, you need to be an authority on your subject. Two, you need to say so.
7. Remember you want to be a pro author
You are seeking to sell your skill with a pen. So, no typos in your covering letter. No “its” when you mean “it’s”. No mispunctuation. No ugly, clunky or ill-formed sentences. Just good, clear, well-presented writing.
8. Add a little grace or wit, if you fancy
Your letter to an agent is a business letter and is not the place for heavy-handed attempts at humour or stupid gimmicks. But if you write well enough to salt your prose with a little wit or literary deftness, then feel free.
9. Shut up
When your letter nears the bottom of the first page, you need to write ‘Yours sincerely’ and get out. No one cares about your website, your passion for writing, your first prize in the parish writing competition, or anything else. Businesslike, remember?
Your synopsis is a 500-750 word summary of what happens in the novel. You can throw a cloak over the very ending, if you have to, but in essence you are just reporting the plot line of your novel in neutral, non-salesy tones. Put the names of the main characters in CAPS so agents have an easy reference.
11. Add a little dazzle if you like
A bland synopsis is a good one, but if you want to include your two line elevator pitch at the start, then that’s fine. But don’t fret too much. A lot of literary agents don’t even read synopses: they just like torturing authors.
12. Re-read your opening chapters
Before you package up your material, re-read your opening material. The commonest problem with openings is that authors use them to write their way into a story. If that applies to you, then just delete the surplus material. It feels surprisingly good, you know.
13. Get a list of literary agents who work in your genre
In the old days, writers just bought the Writers’ & Artists Yearbook, gazed at a list of names and addresses … and picked a dozen names at random. These days, you can do better than that. Our new literary agents database, Agent Hunter, for example, allows you to sift by genre. So if you write women’s fiction, you can instantly eliminate all the agents that have no interest in the area. Makes sense, no?
14. Define what level of experience you want
How experienced do you want your literary agent to be? Do you want a newish agent, who is keen to build up their client list? Or a grizzled old pro, whose recommendation might carry more heft with editors? Personally, I’d recommend the former. Editors don’t in fact go all wobbly-kneed just because some well-known agent sends them a manuscript. It’s the manuscript itself which defines the degree of knee-wobble – and you’ll likely get more time, care and attention from a newer agent than from one who already has a long roster of successful clients. But it’s your call. The old-fashioned way of picking literary agents from a directory didn’t allow you to make that selection at all easily. Online search tools such as Agent Hunter make it as easy as a few clicks of a mouse.
15. What else matters to you?
If you’re Twitter-holic, then perhaps you’ll want an agent who tweets, as that can be a fine way to get a sense of who they are. Or you might want to browse likes and dislikes. Or do a ‘who represents who?’ search for the agents of your favourite authors. Agent Hunter makes these things easily possible, but if you prefer to spend hours in a library and on the web, then that’s a perfectly sound alternative too.
16. Produce a longlist of fifteen or twenty agents
Once you’ve refined your list of agents down to a manageable length, you need to research those names the old-fashioned way: by hard graft. Our Agent Hunter tool is regularly updated and contains rich data on every agent (bios, photos, submission info and the like) but which agents you approach is a massive decision and you need to do the last mile by yourself. Check everything you can. See if you respect someone. If your literary tastes overlap. And if you might like them.
17. Then prune
Writers should approach about 8-12 agents. There aren’t more publishers than that (for most books anyway) and editors are more picky than agents. That means if you can’t convince one in ten appropriately selected agents, you will not be likely to convince a publisher.
18. Go for it
I suggest you approach your Dazzling Dozen in two waves of submissions about six weeks apart, but it’s your call. Remember to check direct from an agent’s website their exact submission criteria and follow their rules.
Do something to take your mind off the waiting. Climb a mountain. Learn a language. Have an affair. Six weeks is a fair waiting time. After that, don’t pester. Silence means no.
20. Evaluate your responses
A no means no. It might mean ‘your work was rubbish and we hate you’ or it might mean ‘Yes, this came pretty close, but not quite close enough.’ If an agent gives you more personal feedback – ‘I really liked the concept of this and loved your writing but wasn’t quite convinced by Amy, one of your two central characters’ – then you can take that feedback at face value.
21. Stay true to yourself
Every now and then an agent may get back to you with one of those tantalising nos that seems to dangle a yes. ‘I loved so much about this book, but felt that your handling of X, Y or Z let it down.’ If you get a response like this, the golden rule is to determine whether you agree with the agent’s editorial reservations or not. If you do, then make the changes and resubmit. If you really don’t, then that agent is not the right one for you and your manuscript will never prosper in their hands.
22. If an agent asks to meet you
… then that’s pretty much sure to be an ‘I’d love to represent you’ meeting. So, put your I’m-gonna-meet-my-agent shoes on. Try a variety of hi-lovely-to-meet-you smiles in the mirror. But don’t fret too much. At this stage, you’re interviewing them more than the other way round. You’re winning.
23. Know what to ask an agent
Since you’re meeting someone who is actually, really, maybe going to be your literary agent, you should probably have some idea of what to ask. I talk about this at some length in my book, Getting Published, but simply having a decent idea of what an agent does is a good start. Ask about how your putative agent expects to sell your book, how she intends to pitch it, wshat editorial tweaks might be needed first, how foreign rights and film sales are handled, how an agent likes to work with future books and over the course of a career. It’s fine to take a list of questions and notes into your meeting. This is a business meeting. Notes are businesslike.
24. If an agent offers you a contract
Sign it. I’ve never seen a contract from a vaguely reputable agent which isn’t completely fine. If there are things you want to tweak or clarify, then ask.
25. If multiple agents are interested in your work
Milk it. Be professional and appropriate about keeping agents informed, but look after your own interests first. They’ll look after theirs.
26. If you’ve done all this, and got nothing
Your work isn’t yet good enough. Figure out the problem and address it. There is no other way.
27. Get help
Yes, I run a company, the Writers’ Workshop, which offers editorial advice, so in that sense my advice is biased – but even so, I can’t understand why more new writers don’t get professional feedback on their work. I’m an author with four works of non-fiction published; I’m currently working on my eighth novel; I have multiple foreign sales and a yummy TV deal; and I rely absolutely on my editor. You have less experience, so why would you get less help? And the fact is that tough, honest feedback from an experienced pro makes a huge difference. You may not like the messages you’ll get, but by golly you’ll need them.
28. Try again
Once you’ve revisited your book, then get it out there again. There are zillions of agents. Pick a fresh set. See what they think.
29. Write a different book
If you still have no joy – well, shucks, who cares? RJ Ellory, the best-selling, multi award-winning crime writer, wrote about ten unpublished books before he got published. Jo-Jo Moyes, the best-selling, award-winning women’s fiction writer, wrote three. I know countless more successful authors who did not achieve publication in a single bound. The more you write, the better you get – and the more fun writing becomes.
Twenty-nine rules, which compress into just two. Write a wonderful book. And don’t be an idiot when it comes to seeking representation. Do those two things (especially the first of those things) and getting a book deal as as easy as la. Good luck!
BIO: Harry Bingham is the author of Talking to the Dead. He runs the Writers’ Workshop, which offers creative writing courses and editorial advice. The Writers’ Workshop recently launched Agent Hunter, a completely searchable database of UK literary agents, agencies and publishers.
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