How to get a literary agent

18 Dec 2013

film cameraIt’s almost exactly a year since my literary agent, Judith Murray of Greene & Heaton, called to say she’d got me a two book deal with Quercus. Judith has been an incredible source of support, information and skill (both practical and editorial). I’m very lucky I found her. Finding a good agent is really vital for any writer.  So, this week, we filmed an interview together, aiming to demystify the process – and with luck, save people some time and anguish.

When you’re starting out, with no contacts, getting an agent can seem like a hopeless quest.  People often ask whether they really need one anyway. Well, yes, you do.  Without an agent it’s extremely hard to get your book published (basically, you’d have to self-publish it first, then somehow sell a ton of copies to get a mainstream publisher interested). A good agent like Judith has strong relationships with editors at publishing houses. They trust her judgement. If she sends them a novel, they will definitely read it. Your agent, then, is your hotline to the editor who will offer you a publishing deal. Editors don’t have time to read unsolicited manuscripts – but they do have time for good agents.

There’s the small matter of writing a really good novel, of course, but even good novels can get overlooked by agents. So, how do you make sure yours isn’t? Do you carpet-bomb fifty agents with your unfinished manuscript? Do you send them the whole book or just a ‘teaser’? Do you find out where they live and stalk them? Here are short versions of Judith’s answers to some key questions.

Q: How do I choose which agents to approach?

A: Look in the acknowledgements pages of the novels you love or admire, especially ones that appeal to the kind of readers you would like for your own book. If authors think their agents have done a good job for them, they often thank those agents in the acknowledgements pages – and from this you can draw up a shortlist of agents you want to approach.

Q: What sort of novels do you want?

A: I want a combination of powerful writing and story-telling that grabs my attention and holds it. I want a book that makes me miss my tube stop (The Missing One did that, and that’s how I knew it was for me).

Q: How do I get you to read mine though? Should I phone to tell you about it first, or do something else to make you read it?

A: Phoning doesn’t help. Nor do gimmicks like coloured paper or funny fonts. It’s all about the writing. I get up to 30 submissions every week, but I look at every one of them.  If you are a journalist or someone else who writes or tells stories in other media (eg documentary or film maker) and/or if you have done a creative writing course, do mention that in the first paragraph of the covering email you send with your submission – that will make your submission stand out for me.

Q: So do I just stick my novel in the post then?

A: No, don’t send the whole thing and do send the submission via email if possible (most agents have websites on which you can find our submissions guidelines). Lucy sent me a short email introducing herself, attaching the first three chapters of The Missing One, and a one page synopsis. This is exactly the right approach. If I am interested, I ask to see the rest of the book.

You’ll able to watch the full video interview online here in January.  Judith and I are also doing some talks in the New Year (see Events) where we’ll expand on these questions, and talk more about the process of editing and revising your novel for publication.  You may think that as an artist you should be above this sort of thing but the truth is that there are a lot of unpublished books out there. Knowing the basics can make all the difference.

Comments

  1. Carlie Lee
    September 2, 2014

    Oo, good post, thank you. I know I probably shouldn’t ask, but if you get a rubbishy cover letter, does that sometimes put you off reading the MS?
    Looking forward to seeing you guys sometime – I definitely need all the editing lessons I can Hoover up…

  2. lucyatkins
    September 10, 2014

    I’m a writer not an agent of course, but I happen to know that my own agent would definitely be put off by a poor cover letter ie. one that contains spelling mistakes, errors, weird fonts, bad writing. If you can’t write a cover letter it doesn’t bode well for the writing in general I guess!

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