Agents are the middle-(wo)men between an author and a publisher – an important filter in a day and age when everyone has something to say and thinks they can write a book. (I appreciate the irony that I am one of that crowd).
Although I’m not at the point of submitting to agents yet, I went to a highly informative and enlightening Writers and Artists event last weekend on the Agent Submission Process.
Here’s what I learnt.
1. Agents take on a tiny minority of submissions
All three agents on the panel receive up to 100 unsolicited manuscripts a week. Oli Munson has taken on one new client in the last year. Julia Churchill has signed two new clients in the last two weeks, but before that hadn’t taken anyone on for 18 months. Jo Unwin has taken on several clients in the last year but that’s because she set up her own agency. I don’t even want to begin to work out that miniscule percentage of how many people get taken on from the slushpile.
2. Agents have precious little time
Here’s another piece of difficult news. An agent’s 9-5 work (metaphorically rather than literally – I’m sure they’d love to think their working hours were so constrained) is looking after their existing clients. These are the people who pay their wages after all, to whom they’ve already made a commitment and established a relationship. You’d want your agent to be more dedicated to you than to the slushpile, wouldn’t you?
That means that instead of my cute mental image of agents sitting at their armchair desks all day working their way through a pile of manuscripts, slushpile reading takes place in evenings and weekends – technically on their own time.
Consequently, you probably have seconds to catch their attention, like a book would have to if you dived into a bookshop to grab something to read on holiday.
This might seem unfair, especially given the time, love and energy you’ve put into writing your masterpiece. If you want to increase your chances of publication you’re just going to have to get over that, accept the parameters that exist and learn to play within them.
3. Agents need to be hooked in the covering letter
With so little time to catch an agent’s attention, your covering letter is crucial to your chances of success. It’s imperative that it grabs them immediately, piquing their interest and forcing them to go “oooh, that’s exciting/intriguing”.
Everyone hates writing covering letters though. And if you look on the internet then no one seems to be sure exactly what to write in them. I read somewhere that the synopsis and first chapters should sell your story, but your covering letter is where you sell yourself, i.e. you should talk more about yourself in it than your book.
Uh-uh. Recently an agent on Twitter said “don’t give too much background to your career. Sell the book (honestly!) more than yourself” and the agents at the W&A event would agree. The essential objective for a covering letter is to pitch your book effectively – one paragraph that provides important architecture and the concept/hook of your story.
Don’t weep at the impossibility of the task set before you. Jo Unwin gave some invaluable advice about how to write great covering letters:
- be brief, with a nice tone but business-like
- only mention CV type information that’s relevant to your writing
- sum up the nugget/essence/heart of the book in a single line, like you’d do if you were trying to remember the title of a book in conversation with a friend. “You know, that story about a woman who’s pretends she’s dead and tries to frame her husband for her murder” or “You know, that story where an oppressive government throws young people into an arena on an annual basis to fight to the death” (answers at bottom)
- make it a pithy summary – more back of the book blurb rather than a synopsis (which you’re sending as a separate document anyway so why repeat it?)
- create a sense of tone – is it heart-breaking, hilarious or horrifying?
A particularly illuminating consequence of attending an event like this was to really understand that agents are people. They have lives, like you and me, full of work and washing and shopping and socialising and family commitments. They have preferences and passions too. In a very tough publishing industry they are going to have to be the No.1 advocate for your book and in order to champion it they have to love it.
That’s why they can reject a book just because it’s not their cup of tea, despite it potentially being well written or a great idea.
Agents understand how much rejection hurts and that a brief “no thank you” doesn’t feel in proportion to the amount of time and effort you’ve put into your MS, but what else can they do? With the best will in the world, there isn’t time for them to provide more detailed feedback.
“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.” Barbara Kingsolver
Finding the agent/editor who loves your work is absolutely key. But in trying to do that you can feel like you’re blundering around in the dark and wasting a lot of time submitting to the wrong people. There are ways to maximise your chances of hitting on the right person sooner rather than later. More on that next time…
[Answers, in case you need them!: Gone Girl and The Hunger Games]