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  

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.