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: 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’:

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meterZokutou word meter
64,230 / 110,000

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Author: 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. 🙂

  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:



  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!


  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!


  8. Hi Chris

    Thanks for your post. You could try, but I’m not sure about wheth­er she’ll read for free. There are some paid ser­vices, too. I think The Friday Project ( 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.


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