Approaching an Agent

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.

TTFN.

Current progress on new novel ‘Flashback’:

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meterZokutou word meter
64,230 / 110,000
(57.0%)

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

9 thoughts on “Approaching an Agent”

  1. Interesting advice, especially the advice to have a webpage (point 4). I don’t think I’ve seen that advised before. How important do you think that is, and what do you think the webpage should include?

  2. ian
    you could touch up this entry in a flash and sell it as a how-to article on agents, etc. piece of cake. don’t know if that interests you or not.
    some of my blog is going to be published regionally next week (26,000 readers!) so i’m very excited. it’s different than my freelance essays, etc. and certainly not the book work i’ve got my heart set on, but it’s something. 🙂
    best
    katey
    http://www.thewritinglife2.blogspot.com

  3. One thing I wonder is, how beneficial might it be to use a more “informal” tone in a pitch? I’ve written more querey letters than I can remember, but the one and only hit I ever got was when I completely re-wrote the querey in a conversational tone, pitching to the agent as if we were sitting at a bar and having some drinks.

    It didn’t work out, on both our ends. However, it was interesting to note that I caught an agent’s attention after I switched away from an overly formal tone.

    The two short stories I’ve sold were using formal pitches. I’d be interested to try out a more informal approach.

    Anyway, I’m just getting into this blogging thing! But I’ve already found some helpful advice floating around. Anyone here know of any sites where people actually post some of their work? I’m giving it a shot:

    http://fictionline.blogspot.com/

    Best,

    Jon

  4. Thanks for your comment, Jon. I think it’s a good idea to mix and match a little; drop a few informal wild cards into the formal deck. One thing’s for sure – nobody quite seems to know what agents response to in a query letter on a given day.

  5. As with most of life, it’s a fine balance to find. I personally believe that agents/editors might receive so many formal pitches that one informal (but respectful!) pitch might catch their eye.

    One item I’m toying with is getting the agent/edtior to read the first line of the story/novel I’m pitching, right in the query letter itself. As we all know, getting the first portion of your story/novel read is the hardest part.

    Example, I’m working on a pitch now for the story I have posted in my own blog. Might seem a touch like cheating, but I feel it could work. What are your thoughts?

    * * *

    The origin of the barber pole is associated with the service of bloodletting. During medieval times, barbers also performed surgery on customers. The original pole had a brass basin at the top (representing the vessel in which leeches were kept) and bottom (representing the basin which received the blood). The pole itself represents the staff which the patient held onto during the procedure.

    The red and white stripes symbolize the bandages used during the procedure: red for the blood-stained and white for the clean bandages.

    I thank Wikipedia for that bit, and offer you my own take, which begins, “The red as arterial blood, white as a fresh bandage, and blue striped barber pole spins upward from nowhere to nowhere.” “Close Shave” is a 5,000 word story that features as protagonist an eighteen-year-old university student, who the reader finds out has ulterior motives for his extended trip to the U.S. He’s a “fighter” in the growing World War III, able to look and speak and think like a native, but who wishes, walking unnoticed, to bring terror to this land.

    “Brighton” has his odd blue eyes on the dorms, which he sees as cesspools of humanity.

    But before he can even begin to set his plans in motion, he feels compelled to “cleanse” himself with a visit to the barbershop. There he meets Franky Taglio, who might look like an Italian-American nightmare and sound dumb, but seems to have stumbled upon Brighton’s plans.

    An advertisement taped in Franky’s styling station lets the customer know he still offers old-style shaves. In addition to baby powder, hairspray, shampoo, and scissors, Franky wields a straight razor. The barber appears a tad troubled by life at home and the young man, in the seat, before him and the mirror.

    * * *

    That’s about a page in length. I’m curious for any input.

  6. Hi Jon

    I’ve given it a quick read through, and I think you need to work on that first sentence a bit; I have to read it a couple of times before the meaning sank in. Overall, the proposal, if I’m honest, didn’t quite make me want to read the story…it might be better to have a longer excerpt from the story, and more of an indication about where the story might be headed; also, the first para is a bit info-heavy, and could discourage a particularly busy agent.

    I hope I’m not being too critical. It sounds like a good story, and I wish you luck with it!

    Best
    Ian

  7. Hey Ian,

    Great post. I’ve been scouring around for this information from as many different people as possible, and yours is at the top of the list. Here’s my question:

    My manuscript is complete, and query is written (which in my opinion is pretty gripping, but of course I would think that). I’ve sent it out to about 10 agents and have recieved 4 form responses thus far.

    Where could I go to get some honest advice from an agent on the power of my query? I understand thet writing conferences are clutch, as well as writing groups, but do you have any other suggestions?

    Would you be willing to look it over? And if so, does this breach some sort of solictation/ copyright restriction?

    Thanks and look forward to hearing back!

    -Chris

  8. Hi Chris

    Thanks for your post. You could try http://misssnark.blogspot.com/, but I’m not sure about whether she’ll read for free. There are some paid services, too. I think The Friday Project (http://www.thefridayproject.co.uk/) do an editorial/pitching service. My advice, such as it is, is free, and I’d be happy to look at your query letter – though it’s probably best if I don’t look at your synopsis.

    Best
    Ian

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