How to get a literary agent to read your submission

27 May 2016

Finding a good literary agent is vital if you want to go down the conventional publishing route. But it can be really hard to get noticed. When I was starting out the literary agent world seemed deeply intimidating. To save you from going through such paranoia and stress, my literary agent Judith Murray of Greene & Heaton and I put together some myths and tips to help you approach the agent of your dreams.

First, the MYTHS….

judith murraypic Judith Murray


Myth 1: ‘I don’t need a literary agent, I’ll just go straight to the editor/publisher’. Reality: You could, but your chances of getting an editor to actually read your book let alone buy it are teeny (unless they are a small publisher actively seeking submissions, which is rare, or unless you are planning to self-publish in which case you’re free of all this trauma).  Agents save overburdened editors time. Editors trust good agents – they take their submissions seriously: ie. they actually read them.

Myth 2: ‘Agents get too many submissions, they don’t want mine too’. Reality: Agents are indeed inundated. Judith gets 30 submissions a day – but they do WANT to hear from you.  They are always looking for the next talented, marketable writer.

Myth 3: ‘Even if I do send it to an agent it’ll probably go on a slush pile’. Reality: Judith looks at every single one of those 30 daily submissions.  

Myth 4: ‘Only people with literary connections get published, there’s no hope for an unknown like me even though my book is a work of genius’. Reality: Agents take on unknown writers all the time. It’s their job to spot talent. The key is not to put them off with an inept first approach (see below).

Judith says: ‘We’re looking for a reason to stop reading…’

Don’t give them that reason!


knodd-bin-with-lid__57402_PE162985_S4Five quickest ways to make Judith stop reading your emailed submission:

1. Make spelling or grammatical errors

2. Write more than a paragraph or two in a waffly or clumsy style.

3. Use emoticons, different fonts, colours or any other silly gimmicks in your email.

4. Make inflated comparisons ‘I’m the next JK Rowling/Proust/Salman Rushdie’ or diss other successful writers (‘I’ve always felt JK Rowling’s prose is flabby. My own, in contrast…’)

5. Send a ten page synopsis or otherwise ignore the guidelines for submissions set out clearly on the agency website.


And…five ways to make her read on:

1. Avoid all the pitfalls above

2. Be succinct, polite, clear and articulate in your covering email

3. Mention any professional writing you’ve done – journalism, screenplays, documentary film making (that piece in the Church Gazette in 1998 doesn’t count)

4. Mention any prizes, awards, or competitions you have won or been shortlisted for (again, the Parish council short story comp, no; the Bridport or another big short story prize, yes.)

5. Briefly – one sentence – give the ‘elevator pitch’ of your novel (ie. convey its genius). You can if you want to mention where you think it might fit the market, but don’t be inflated or mad (for instance, just say something like ‘my influences include…’)


Literary agents WANT to hear from you. You are not inconveniencing them by sending them your work. But they are extremely busy. So approach them professionally and stick to their submissions guidelines or you could lose out, however good you are.

FullSizeRender With Judith in a copper tunnel last month













And…if you can get to London tomorrow (Sat 28th May), come to the Greenwich Book Festival for a masterclass on How to Get Published  


  1. Barbara Lorna Hudson
    March 20, 2014

    Thanks to both for a sobering but helpful presentation. Enjoyable, too. About to read Lucy’s novel – on Kindle, I’m afraid.

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    September 10, 2014

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  3. Lynne Connolly
    November 3, 2014

    I hate to be contentious, but I have to say something. This post would have been great and right to the point ten or even five years ago, but things have changed drastically in the publishing world.
    I don’t think that an agent is neccessary these days, apart from the big five publishers, and sometimes not even then. A literary attorney can be employed for a one-off fee, instead of taking 15% of income forever.
    I’m not saying that the agent doesn’t earn it, just that a writer should think for herself and decide what she wants from the industry and her books.
    For authors, I’d say never, ever, let someone else run your career for you, whether it’s an agent, publisher or anyone else. I’m sure most great agents and editors would agree. Take advice, but make up your own mind.

  4. lucyatkins
    November 17, 2014

    this is an interesting point of view – but if people want to go down the conventional publishing route: ie. submitting a novel manuscript to a mainstream publisher, an agent is pretty essential. There are exceptions. And self-publishing is a really vibrant, viable option these days (if you sell high numbers, agents and editors may well approach YOU). However, I don’t think my post is out of date quite yet.

  5. Rosalind Rendle
    November 3, 2014

    This a positive and encouraging article. Thank you for giving confidence to persevere and clear advice to ‘keep at it’ in a meaningful way.

  6. lucyatkins
    November 17, 2014

    thanks Rosalind – I have just done an event on this at the Gibraltar Literary Festival and the thing that struck me is how hard it is to know if you’re doing the ‘right thing’. And also, the feeling that if you get some rejections you’ve failed – which you haven’t. Rejections are part of the game, sadly.

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