Literary agents - A mysterious art. Choice, Chase, Chance.
Bombarded by requests (probably because mine was an unusual story!) of the “Agenting process.” This is my view, my journey, nothing more. The advice is my personal opinion based on nothing more than experience.
The gate-keepers to traditional publishing.
An elusive brand of professional.
I’ve signed with two agencies, met with four and liaised with several more.
So – how to get one?
These are just my views – there are lots of articles on how to get an agent.
There is no “how”.
There are only the basics which authors can and must do to stand the best chance.
And it is chance.
In 2014 I left my first agent (which I will refer herein as Agent-X) after she turned down the latest novel I had written called, “Fields of Blood”. Oh, the drama and sleepless nights of what to do. Stay? Leave? My research had led me to believe that landing a literary agent was damn-near impossible – so to leave one, and a bloody marquee one?
Sleepless, sleepless nights.
However, objectively, the agency had rejected my novel after reading three chapters and a (terrible) synopsis. I couldn’t live with that. Had they read it all and rejected it – I probably would have stayed.
Some reasoning as to why?
But as it stood – I was no better off having an agent as all I had was a signature on a contract which meant all “first dibs” could be given to that agency. But when they said, “no” I had no place else to go. Usually, authors might send their manuscript out to twenty or thirty agents. They wouldn’t quit after getting one rejection. But once signed – it was literally one rejection – all rejection.
So I left.
Huge leap of faith.
And it was…faith.
Would other agencies think I was a moron for leaving such an esteemed agency? Might they think I was a no-hoper? If Agency-X didn’t believe in the book – why should they?
But – and this is the most important but…major faith – in the book.
The faith came from a competition win at www.crimeandpublishment.co.uk and fellow published authors – some of them internationally saying – “This story has me hooked!”
There was also a lovely publisher of an independent press who expressed an interest.
These conversations and meetings made up my mind. I needed more than one rejection to leave the book alone. I needed forty.
So – contract terminated.
Know what? I was excited. I had gotten one rejection, albeit a bloody painful one – and now I had the entire Writers and Artists book to aim at.
Before I did so, I attended a weekend workshop at the Faber Academy which was specifically for writers looking to attract an agent. What did an agent want in a covering letter? What about those first three chapters? The course was great and really specific to what the industry wanted. What follows is a brief of those two days.
Agents all ultimately want the same thing.
A commercially viable novel.
Something that in their view will make money.
I feel that agents should actually be called “brokers” or something else which reflects the business side of “Agenting”.
Sure – they must believe in you as an author but only to the extent that they need to feel their investment in time (and money) will ultimately pay off.
That the hours spent honing the writing and polishing the manuscript will pay dividends.
This is their primary role.
Their role isn’t (in my view) to help you write. Help with the storyline. Be your best writing buddy – and to be honest for years, I thought it was.
More fool me.
You learn – well I learned.
Traditional publishing is a risk assessment of whether their faith in your novel will pay off financially.
And this isn’t said enough.
It is business. Business. Business.
With that said – they are always looking for new business.
But – it’s got to be bloody perfect or as near to perfect as it can be.
For me – it took seven years and 1.1 million words to realise this.
What does the author need to do?
Primarily – make sure the novel is as good as it can be. Make sure it is polished so that it shines off the page. So that it screams – “I’ve been worked on – I’ve been edited – I need to be read!”
First drafts are for your eyes only. To be sealed away for eight weeks before you edit.
Second drafts are for your eyes only – to be read, re-read and then left alone for another four weeks.
Third drafts are reading, polishing, re-polishing and then finally; it’s ready.
(For an in-depth teaching session – buy “On Writing” by Stephen King. I still read it every quarter).
So now what?
The usual stuff is out there – Writers and Artists handbook – find and agent that represents what you write.
But the covering letter is key.
Short. Sharp. Almost like a must read blurb of your life and your writing.
Three at the most.
Introduce yourself, your book, who might like the book (as in what kind of book is it and if possible compare it to a well-known author).
Anything interesting about you – achievements (literary relevant), publications, any following you have.
And clearly a courteous sign-off.
The letter needs to be humble, concise and lead perfectly into those first three chapters – almost like a prologue.
Think of this – the majority of submissions won’t do this. I think the number touted was 80% of submissions ramble on, have spelling errors and die at the first stage.
Put yourself in the other 20% and out of that 20% you stand a chance. You are already better than the other 80!
Which brings us to the first three chapters.
More importantly the first page.
I’ve spoken to many agents who say that the majority of the time, they know by the first page.
They often know by the first line.
Isn’t that exciting?
To be able to come up with a cracking first line / first sentence / first page.
We live in a world of immediate gratification. Instant messages. Instant photos. Instant downloads. We, as a society are no longer able to wait – we are not used to it anymore.
Everything is becoming instant which on one hand is a little depressing but we cannot change how society has evolved in this new-digital age. Think of all the things which are “instant” – texts / emails / photos / movies / TV / purchasing anything / even publishing.
Therefore – will readers (who subconsciously are not as patient as they used to be – they don’t even realise it sometimes) be able to wait three chapters before making a decision? My research says no.
The first three chapters are used for the agency to see how well you write, once that first line / sentence / paragraph / page has hooked them (I’m talking specifically about crime and thrillers here).
For me this is exciting – because coming up with a great first line (hopefully) sets the tone for the book. It doesn’t need to be shocking – just make you want to read the next line.
First three chapters – very important.
After that it’s a waiting game.
I had a spreadsheet with the twenty agencies I submitted to. Most of them rejected me within four weeks and a few I chased after four to six weeks.
The three which asked for the manuscript came back to me within three weeks.
Clearly an agency wanting to request the full manuscript is great news – your first three chapters were a hit!
I was asked to give them “an exclusive” whilst they considered the manuscript and I said no all three times. I said (quite truthfully) that I had submitted to twenty agencies and that should another agency request the full, I would inform said-agency at that point.
It isn’t fair to give “exclusives” in this ultra-competitive age and also it takes such a long time to hear anything.
I will admit that second time round I was harder to the process and dare-I-say doing it how I wanted – others might well give exclusives if an agency requested it.
If your script is “hot” I feel creating some urgency and competition is no bad thing (trust me your agent will do the same thing when touting to publishers).
If the call comes that they want to meet you – great sign! These guys don’t waste their time on “maybe we’ll offer”. If they call, you should have a great shout of being offered a contract.
They will want to know – what next?
Agents want “career writers” – and whilst they will always sign a commercially viable project, they don’t want to hear – “this is my one and only book” (even if it is!).
Now the big thing.
Trust me I learned this the hard-way.
Don’t sign immediately.
Go home. Think about everything that was said.
How you felt.
How you feel.
And then, make a decision.
I admit that almost 100% of the time, signing is a no-brainer – it is so difficult to get an agent, but if they raved about your book and you feel another agency which has not got back to you is one you want to speak-with – give them a call.
Believe me, with an offer of representation on the table – an agent will respond quickly.
(Take it from someone who has been there).
I chased my current agent (after four weeks) following up on an initial enquiry (because I had some interest). Let me quote his response,
“SEND IT OVER NOW!”
Capitals and everything.
Now there was urgency. Now we were "dating".
Different agencies have different working practises. My first agency was heavily into editing manuscripts and making them as good and as sharp as they could be. This could mean re-writes / edits / changes etc. These could be minor or major (these days I feel that major re-writes would be done before they offered to sign you).
Other agencies (such as my current one and this is just my view – other authors with the agency may well get editorial input) were happy to send out the book because they thought the commercial pull would outweigh any minor changes that were needed.
They were right.
So if you do get interest from multiple agencies, look at how they work and what might suit you.
Agents usually have interviews published online. Read them – especially if an agent shows interest. From their interviews, you can get a feeling of how you might work with them.
It’s a date. An opportunity to test the chemistry.
That is the basics.
So – two agents, two very different outcomes. I’ve been asked many times – what about agency-X.
I believe (because I am inclined to thinking this way) that agency-X was an experience I needed to toughen my ability to deal with difficult situations, of which I am sure there will be many more. I learned a lot from agency-X and genuinely wish it had worked out. I wrote “Fields of Blood” for my old agent – I read an interview she did where she said I like stories about, “an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances…”
That was the first step for me. A sentence from her. A piece of inspiration which I tried to repay.
But ultimately, if there is no faith in a project based on only three chapters, then in my mind – I needed to try elsewhere. I needed forty rejections and then trust me, I would have slept easier. Being judged by your peers is far easier than being judged by one peer.
One opinion is simply that – an opinion.
Forty opinions, generally are fact.
I had fabulous editorial sessions with agency-X, which I still use today. They gave me an education I could not have received anywhere else and also that first belief that my stories were credible. Maybe not publishable (at that stage) but there was some spark of creativity. They were always right about my initial novel – it wasn’t good enough. I left because I wanted confirmation my new novel wasn’t good enough, not for any other reason. Agency-X is a stellar brand, it was just that this author didn’t quite convince them his book was for them. Should our paths cross again, I will be buying the drinks in the hope they are accepted in a bitter-sweet moment of reflection.
The next agent I signed with (Simon Trewin) says on his website, ‘I like anything game-changing and a challenge…”
That is my kind of language.
Agents are always looking.
Every day, every single day an author gets that phone call.
Every day, every single day, an agent offers a debut author a contract.
Every day, every single day, hard work pays off.
Make tomorrow – your day J.
“If you love writing – you’ll never do a days’ work…”
Next blog – writing crime…