How do you approach an agent? Carefully? In gum-soled shoes, holding a net and carrying an Indian pith helmet?
I’ve had one or two enquiries on this topic over the past week, and, since I know that many of my readers (yeah, both of them, not counting Dad; Hi, Dad!) are aspiring writers, I thought I’d post my thoughts. Let it be said that I do not have an agent myself (yet). I did speak to an agent only this week — a friendly chap who sounds interested in representing me, unless he’s just being friendly — but I can’t say the advice below has been successful for me in the strict sense of the word: you know, the sense that means ‘successful’.
(1) Make sure you’ve edited your manuscript to death. Edit until the manuscript is deceased, defunct, has joined the choir invisible. You should pay particular attention to the first three chapters, because these are the chapters often requested by agents and publishers. The rest of your book won’t have an impact on your publishing chances if nobody elects to read it. You might want to employ the services of a freelance editor. They’re not cheap, though, and you should ask yourself whether the money might be better spent elsewhere, like the pub.
(2) When submitting, start with the biggest agents first, and work your way down. I’d suggest you submit exclusively to the top few agencies in the UK (PFD, Darley Anderson, Curtis Brown, etc.) and, if/when they turn you down, send simultaneous submissions (in groups of about five) to the rest. The agents may not care for this approach, but it isn’t terribly realistic to give each agency an exclusive submission unless you want to hear news of your last rejection via a séance. It’s usually a good idea to email the agency (the actual agent, if possible) with a quick-fire, two-line email saying something like “My name is Graham and I’d like to submit a manuscript to your agency. Can you please tell me if you are currently taking on new authors?” The agent will probably reply with “Sure, send me the first three chapters.” Then — and here’s the important bit — you can then write ‘AS REQUESTED’ in large, friendly letters on your envelope. This should give the submission an advantage over the other submissions. You might need that, because some agencies (e.g. Darley Anderson) claim to receive more than 300 submissions a week.
(3) Get up-to-date information about agencies and publishers from a trusted source. Currently, there are only two I’m aware of: http://everyonewhosanyone.com/ is one, the other is ‘The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’. You’ll find the latter in your library, but if you’re serious about sending out lots of copies of your MS, you’ll probably need to buy a copy, which you can find in Waterstone’s and Smith’s. (Similar is the Writer’s Handbook and, no, I can’t add up.)
(4) An agent will probably want to know a bit more about you, and it would be an advantage to have a webpage.
(5) Keep your query letter to one side of A4. Pitch your book in the first line or two, then tell the agent something about yourself (try to pick the interesting bits), then tell the agent about your writing career aspirations. The agent will want to know that you’re in the game for the long run, since your first book is likely to lose money for everyone concerned, even if it gets picked up by a large publisher.
(6) If there is anything about you whatsoever that might increase the sales of your book, include it in the letter. Are you an expert in this field? Have you given radio interviews before? Do you have an interesting biographical story related to your book?
(7) Be lucky. Sure, this sounds trite. Let me specify this: The publishing industry is not designed to provide a harbour for talent. It’s designed to make money and it knows that first-time authors tend to lose money. That means that you will have difficulty getting your fiction under the eyes of those who count. However, you can load the dice: (i) Don’t make spelling, grammatical or style errors; (ii) Be polite; (iii) Be helpful, spread a bit of help around to your fellow writers, because they can help you out (plus, it’s nice to have some writer buddies; few other people appreciate the particular situation you’re in); (iv) Play the game repeatedly. While the probability of success is low, the probability of being successful will increase the longer you stay in the game. So stay in the game and when you get lucky, be prepared. Respond quickly if an agent wishes to see your manuscript; have ideas for future books if he/she calls out of the blue; remember that publishing time is geological time, and be cool about waiting.
That’s about all I can come up with off the top of my head. Some people will find it all commonsensical, and that’s fine. Others — including me, a few years ago — might find it useful.
Current progress on new novel ‘Flashback’:
64,230 / 110,000