Monday, April 11, 2011

Agents ... And Their Secrets

Continuing my feedback from the Festival of Writing at York, I thought I'd share some secrets that a couple of literary agents gave us during a packed Q&A discussion. On the panel were agents from the following agencies:

  • United Agents
  • Ampersand Agency
  • Greene & Heaton
Here's what they had to say:

  1. Agents handle a variety of genres, they don't specialise. This may come as a shock to some of you, after all, we're often told that we should submit our historical novels to an agent who likes historical novels, rather than one who represents a lot of authors who write about romantic cosy crime. What the agents on the panel said was that they are generalists, not specialists. The important rule was to read their submission guidelines on their websites. If these state that they don't like historical novels, or children's fiction, then don't send it. However, just because they represent a lot of chick-lit, it doesn't mean to say that they wouldn't be interested in an historical novel. Which leads me onto my next point.
  2. Agents don't know what they do want to see, but they know what they don't want to see. Get it? In other words, if an agent says they don't want to read children's fiction, then they don't want to read it! But, if you were to ask an agent what sort of novel they are currently looking for, they wouldn't be able to tell you because they won't know until they start reading it!
  3. Despite the fact that many agents are generalists, they do like to see a cover letter that demonstrates some research has gone into an author's submission. When approaching an agent, name them in your cover letter. Don't submit your novel or non-fiction book to an 'agency' - send it to a specific person. Explain why you've picked them.
  4. It's common practise for a potential author to submit 3 chapters and a synopsis of a novel to an agent. Most agents on the panel said that they read the chapters first and then, if they liked them, they then read the synopsis.
  5. If you have a curriculum vitae of your writing achievements, include it. Agents said that they did find this useful. But don't think that agents are only interested in writers who've had something (articles, short stories, etc) published before. Agents are interested in anyone with a good novel or non-fiction book!
  6. All agents agreed that at the moment, their pet hate is initials in names! They want to know the full name of whoever is sending their work to them. So, no more JK Rowling, VS Pritchett or PD James! Tell agents your Christian name!
  7. More and more agents are accepting submissions by email now. Check their websites for guidance.
  8. Agents expect potential authors to be tweeters and bloggers!
  9. Don't say that your novel is in the style of [insert favourite author's name], instead, state which genre your novel is in, and then name some of your favourite authors.
  10. An author won't know it, but when an agent begins reading a submission and they find themselves thinking, "Fred Bloggs at HarperCollins, might like this, Freda Bloggs at Transworld would definitely be interested in this, and Ivor Bigchequebook at Hodder likes this sort of thing," that's when an agent becomes interested. In other words, agents really know the editors at the publishers. Really know them. They know their likes and dislikes. So, when they read something, the more editor names that pop into their head who they think might like your text, the more excited the agent becomes. 
Good luck.

PS - It's currently the London Book Fair, where agents and publishers are busy trading and negotiating deals. Agents are working (even) longer hours than usual, so if you have a submission with an agent at the moment DO NOT contact them to find out how things are going. They are not in the office. And when they get back into the office they'll have all of the paperwork to deal with from the work generated by the fair. In other words, avoid getting in touch with them until mid-May at the earliest!

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