Getting a literary agent

 11 January 2012

In the transaction between writer and publishing house, the hard truth is that the aspiring writer is likely to come off worse unless they have a literary agent in your corner.

Agents have a much more intimate knowledge of what commissioning editors will and won’t go for
Agents have a much more intimate knowledge of what commissioning editors will and won’t go for

Reasons to get a literary agent

Although digital publishing has opened up new avenues for aspiring writers, there are a number of ways in which a literary agent can help your career:

  1. Access
    The most straightforward reason is that many publishing houses will not accept submissions unless they come through literary agents.
  2. Knowledge
    Agents have an intimate knowledge of the industry. They should not only know which publishing houses will be interested in your work, but also which individual commissioning editors within those houses.
  3. Contacts
    They are already on first-name terms with the people who might just buy your work.
  4. Expert negotation
    They understand the legal minutiae of contract terms in all their complexity.
  5. Impartial advice
    Because they are paid to advocate work that is not their own, agents are in a much better position to be dispassionate about its commercial merit.

How to approach a literary agent

Fiction proposals

The first task is to present your proposal in a professional way. The majority of submissions to agents consist of completed novels, but it is hugely important not to send the entire work.

The first two or three chapters, together with a concise synopsis of the rest of the plot, will do. If they like it, they’ll ask you to send the rest.

Non-fiction proposals

Ask yourself, ‘If I were a publisher, would I be interested in this?’

Non-fiction proposals work differently. You don’t have to have started on the writing, only have the idea. But it’s absolutely vital that your idea looks to have been thoroughly researched:

  • What other work, if any, has been done in the field?
  • What original findings do you have?
  • Produce a fully detailed synopsis, with each chapter fully worked out, showing that the work, despite being only at drawing-board stage, is already rigorously thought through.

Preparing a submission

All submissions should be printed in double-space on A4, using one side of the paper only. Blotchy typescripts are as dissuasive these days as reams of longhand in ballpoint pen. Don’t clog the info email address with lengthy attachments. The posted submission really is still the best means of approach.

When you are satisfied with your proposal, ask yourself the question, ‘If I were a publisher, would I be interested in this?’ If you honest answer is 'yes', then it's time to approach an agent.

A useful publication for finding an agent is the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. An updated version is published annually in early summer, and will  furnish you with contact details, but also give a summary of the agency’s terms of trade, international operations, which media they work in, and so forth.

For an online resource, there is the Agent Hunter website. This is a searchable database of literary agents, including small and new agencies, and offers rich data on every agent (not just names and contact info, but biogs, photos, likes & dislikes, etc.). There an annual subscription to access the full database, though it is cheaper than the Yearbook.

Choosing a literary agency

It is crucially important to know what types of work an agency does, and doesn’t, deal in. For example, it’s very hard to find outlets for esoterically academic work or technical guides of any kind.

Short stories were once a no-no, but they are enjoying something of a literary revival at the moment, especially on digital formats. Children’s fiction used to be hard to sell until JK Rowling changed the world. Poetry is probably best sold directly to little poetry magazines, rather than bothering agents with.

Compare percentage rates. You haven’t got an agent yet, but there is no harm in deciding in advance what proportion of your earnings you are prepared to let them take.

The industry norm is around 12.5 -15 percent for UK rights. Expect to pay 15 percent on foreign rights in markets such as the United States, and 20 percent for translation rights.

You may want to see your work optioned for TV or film adaptations. Not all literary agencies deal in these media, so if this is important to you, don’t waste the time of those who don’t.

Waiting for a literary agent to respond

When you are ready to send in your proposal, always enclose a self-addressed envelope with pre-paid postage. You are unlikely to get a reply (still less have your work returned to you, if that’s important) if you don’t.

The old rule used to be: only approach one agent at a time. This can safely be ignored.

Remember that agencies are in receipt of hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts every month. Contrary to popular belief, they do all get looked at eventually, but you will have to exercise patience in awaiting a response.

The general rule is: if you haven’t heard anything in, say, two months, write again enquiring politely whether they have had chance to look at your proposal, and inviting them to use the return postage supplied.

Do not ring them while you are waiting for a reply. Virtually all an agency’s business is transacted over the phone, and you won’t make any friends pestering receptionists to take messages.

The old rule used to be: only approach one agent at a time. This can safely be ignored. In the happy event that you receive more than one offer to take you on, you can choose between them. There isn't time enough to wait two months with each individual agency before moving on to the next one.

How to deal with an agent’s response

The day comes when you at last hear back. It’s a 'no'. You thought you were prepared for this. It’s overwhelmingly the statistically likely outcome, but it still hurts. Alas, there is nothing for it but to accept the verdict and move on to the next agent.

In their letters of reply, a surprising number of agents will offer a short summary of their reasons for turning your work down. Occasionally they will offer editorial advice on how you might improve it, or how you might produce something better once you have scrapped this work.

Take this guidance on board in the spirit in which it is intended. Apply it to your next efforts. Don’t get mad, get even better.

If you are advised that you are probably not a writer, especially when the verdict comes from more than one agency, don't lose heart. If you want to be a writer, there are outlets other than book publishing, such as writing online.

Of course, it may happily be that you receive a 'yes', closely followed by one of those publisher’s offers that gets into the newspapers.  If you do, would you mind letting me in on the secret?

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