Attracting an agent can be the start of a long business relationship. Simon Whaley flirts with two agents to learn more about the wooing process.
At this time of year many literary agents are talking Frankfurt. The Frankfurt Book Fair is one of the biggest gatherings of publishing professionals in the world. Over 600 agents from more than 300 agencies from over 30 countries will get together around tables at its Literary Agent and Scout Fair to negotiate rights and deals. As Jonny Geller, literary agent and joint CEO of agency Curtis Brown, says on the Frankfurt Book Fair website, ‘The Frankfurt Book Fair can transform the hopes and dreams of an author. A place where a book can go from a local idea to a global phenomenon.’
That doesn’t mean that every writer who secures an agent will find their book becoming the next global phenomenon, but when it comes to the business of writing, having an agent can open more doors for you. Most mainstream publishing houses only accept submissions via agents, so attracting an agent means your writing can be put in front of people you don’t have access to on your own. And then, of course, comes the negotiating skills that an agent can bring to the table when a publisher falls in love with your book.
But there’s more to managing a writer’s business than trying to sell the author’s work to the best publisher, and then negotiating the best deal possible. Kate Nash set up her literary agency in 2009 (http://www.katenashliterary.co.uk), and she’s also the author of six romance novels, so she understands exactly what an agent can bring to a writer’s business. ‘The best agents are career managers for their authors,’ she says, ‘guiding and providing strategic advice how an author can achieve a successful author career. We are advocates and champions for the author’s interests. Before even the contract is signed we are talking to publishers about sales and marketing support, book titles and jackets and their author positioning, the things that make the critical difference to a book’s success.’
Imogen Howson, an associate agent at Kate’s agency, is also a published author of young adult books. Having seen both sides of the fence, she also sees agents as career managers. This often means investing a lot of time and effort in an author, long before a book contract has been secured. ‘Before a manuscript goes out on submission, we work editorially with the author to make the manuscript as strong as it can be before it hits an editor’s desk – not fixing typos, but big picture stuff: working with the author to strengthen characterisation or tighten up plots. And we watch genres and trends like hawks – hawks with smartphones, obviously – so we can advise our authors on not just one book, but throughout their careers.’
Attracting an agent isn’t easy. There’s a lot of competition out there, but that’s the business of writing all over. Websites like the Writers and Artists or Agent Hunter (see Business Directory) are good starting places when searching for agents who might be interested in your work. Be specific. Don’t carpet-bomb every agent with your material. We know what it’s like when we get junk mail through the post at home, and we all know what we do with it. Whereas a letter that comes addressed to us by name gains a little more attention. Remember, you’re trying to engage with people who are already extremely busy.
‘I think writers seeking representation sometimes forget that an agent’s main job is not to read submissions, but to look after their current clients,’ says Imogen. ‘I’ve seen writers complaining about agents who send out form rejections rather than providing feedback on submissions, with no apparent awareness that if an agent did that for every submission, they’d have no time to actually represent their clients!’
Agents work on a percentage basis, so they don’t earn any money reading submissions. They only earn when they successfully sell one of their clients’ projects.
The best way to attract their attention is to deliver what they are looking for. Do some research. Visit their website. Find out about the different agents. What are their personal preferences? There’s no point sending your non-fiction book proposal to an agent who loves romantic fiction. Nor should you send your young adult fantasy novel to an agent who states they specialise in cosy crimes set in 1930s England.
Agents are human beings (yes, it’s true!), who have their own likes and dislikes. For an agent to take us on they have to love our work, because they’re the ones going into battle for us, selling our manuscripts to publishers. Spend some time identifying agents who enjoy reading the genre you enjoy writing, and seek out those with similar interests. This might seem time consuming, but consider the business case: it’s your writing career. The right agent can boost your writing business.
When you’ve identified a shortlist, look for what they want when it comes to submissions. Some agencies have a system all their agents adhere to, while others allow individual agents to determine what they wish to see in an initial submission.
This is another reason for not carpet-bombing every agent you can find. Some prefer three chapters and a synopsis, others want two chapters and a one-page synopsis, while some want three chapters with a two-page synopsis and a paragraph description of the six main characters. Send something different to what they’ve asked for and you mark yourself out as a writer who doesn’t do their research properly. Would you go into business with someone who couldn’t be bothered?
When it comes to submitting, it’s not just about the writing, but your whole business-like approach. ‘A great submission offers a clear, simple vision of the book and, of course, a gripping opening chapter,’ says Kate. ‘Also a telephone number – I like to ring writers I’m interested in working with.’
There’s a reason why agents are specific about what they want to see in a submission. ‘We ask for sample chapters and a synopsis,’ Imogen explains, ‘ because the chapters tell us what the writing is like and the synopsis tells us what the story is like. It’s very difficult to judge the quality of a submission if we don’t get both those things. A good submission provides the correct materials, together with a query email that has all the necessary information – title, author name, genre, word count – is clearly worded and doesn’t go on for too long. A great submission provides all those things together with sample chapters that hook us immediately and that make us want to see the whole book.’
Don’t email your manuscript to agencies that only accept postal submissions. They won’t get read. Agents read submissions at times and in places convenient to them.
There are other ways to attract an agent, such as meeting them face to face. This does not mean camping outside their offices, but attending writers’ conferences and festivals where agents are also invited. Indeed, some allow you to pitch your book to agents in a ten minute face-to-face interview. (Its like speed-dating, but a thousand times more nerve-wracking.)
There is a cost to attending such festivals, but remember the business-side of things. It’s an investment in your future. A chance encounter in the queue at lunch time, or a face-to-face chat at a dedicated Meet-The-Agent session, could be the start of a long, career-building relationship. (The cost of the festival event may also qualify as a tax-deductible business expense.)
‘We go to a number of conferences and writers’ festivals,’ says Imogen. ‘It’s important for us to keep up with what’s happening in the publishing industry, and it’s nice to meet writers, editors, and other agents in person.’
Although these are the main ways agents secure their clients, authors sometimes find themselves agents through more unusual routes. ‘Some clients come via personal recommendation,’ says Kate. ‘I’ve just taken on a memoir via a lady my mother met when on holiday!’
It’s considered acceptable to send initial submissions to several agents at the same time, because waiting for a response can take weeks, if not months. Always remember though that if an agent asks to read your entire manuscript they’re investing a lot of time in you, so respect their wishes if they ask for exclusivity while they read it all. If you find yourself in the position where two agents ask to read your whole manuscript at the same time, be professional and business-like. Explain the situation to the first agent and see what they say. It’s only fair the first agent gets the opportunity to make a decision on your work first.
There are several busy periods in an agent’s year when reading submissions is not a high priority. ‘Dealing with all the monies and checking royalty statements, which all come at once,’ says Kate, is one, ‘the two busiest periods being the start of April and the start of October.’
And large publishing events, such as the London Book Fair in April and the Frankfurt Book fair in October divert agents’ attentions from their submission piles for a while. But don’t let all this put you off. Agents do want to see your work. ‘The best thing in the world is finding a fabulous book,’ says Imogen, ‘and then working with the author to make it better.’
And who knows? Perhaps this time next year an agent will be at Frankfurt for you, trying to turn your local idea into a global phenomenon.
While attracting an agent isn’t like Internet dating, the Internet can make a great starting point. The following websites offer limited information for free, but more detailed information to subscribers.
Agent Hunter: http://www.agenthunter.co.uk
Subscription rates: £5 for one month’s full access, £12 for six months, £18 for a year. Other benefits, such as cover letter and synopsis review, are included in the longer-term subscriptions.
Writers and Artists: https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/listings
A 12-month subscription: £19.99, gives you the ability to search by genre, location or agent name, and search results can be saved.
© Simon Whaley