So, I receive a lot of submissions from authors – to the point that at the time of writing I’ve temporarily closed my submissions process so that I can catch up on reading everything I’ve been sent recently.
Reading these submissions is one of the best things about my job. Each one I receive is a unique slice of creativity; a labour of love that somebody has nurtured from an initial idea to a living piece of work that they’re proud enough of to show to a complete stranger. However, when submitting to a literary agent it’s really important to remember that the outcome isn’t only about your book.
With that in mind I thought I’d put together my seven tips for submitting to a literary agent. These are quite general guidelines, but if you’re getting ready to send your novel out into the big wide world, hopefully they’ll give you an idea of what us pesky agents are looking for.
1. DO decide what you want
This one seems kind of obvious, but it’s something I do think authors sometimes forget to ask themselves in their search for representation – what do I actually need from a literary agent?
Do you want someone to hold your hand and guide you through the process?
Do you want a hard-nosed, straight-talking businessperson who will negotiate hard to get you the best monetary deal for your work?
Do you want someone with a track record in selling books like yours, and who can give you advice to improve your book?
These things aren’t always mutually exclusive, but it’s crucial that you know from the outset what is most important to you.
There are hundreds of literary agents in the UK: some big name agents working for long-established agencies or others – like me – who are newer to the industry and working for smaller agencies.
Both approaches have their benefits and their downsides. You ultimately need to decide what you expect from your agent, and don’t be afraid to reject offers if they feel like the wrong ones for you – even if they’re the only ones on the table right then.
2. DO your research
Every literary agent has their preferences and comfort zones – and the type of books that they are looking for tend to be type of books they like to read.
Most will make it very clear on their website profile what they are looking for, and you should always check for this information before submitting to them. For example, if you’ve written an epic fantasy novel, sending it to an agent who states they are looking for serious non-fiction is a waste of both your time and theirs.
There’s an exception to every rule of course, but you’ll be more likely to get results from putting a round peg in a round hole, so do make the effort to check what the literary agent is looking for.
3. DO know your market
By this, I don’t mean that you should know everything there is to know about the publishing world – that’s what your literary agent and publishing house are for after all.
But I do mean that you should read widely in and know about the genre you have chosen to write in. What books are selling in that genre? What do those books do well that make them the one that everyone is reading? Is your book doing anything new? Why do you think it would appeal to fans of the current bestsellers?
When you get to the stage where you want an agent to sell your book to a publisher, having an awareness of what it already out there is very useful in those early exchanges.
Luckily it’s pretty easy to start building up your knowledge. Next time you’re near a Waterstones, pop in and just have a look at what they’re promoting in the section where you hope to see your book sitting one day. Or for a super quick research session you can do right now, head on over to Amazon to check out the current bestsellers in your category.
4. DO address the agent directly
From my perspective, it’s very much a negative to open a submission that begins ‘Dear Agent’ – or worse, ‘Dear Sir/Madam’.
It’s not the end of the world either of course (if your book is brilliant I’d be happy for you to call me Bruce Wayne for the duration of our partnership) but it isn’t a strong start in terms of showing me you’re diligent, dedicated and interested in working with me – apart from anything else my name is literally the address of the website you’re making your submission on!
I guess an impersonal greeting just smacks of limited or sloppy research, and that can work against you if the agent is on the fence about whether they want to invest time in calling in and reading your full manuscript.
Take an extra second to address each agent by name and it might just help open the door.
5. DO have something to say about yourself
One of the fields that you need to fill in when you are submitting to me is ‘A bit about you’. This might seem a bit strange to include when looking for a submission, but it is actually one of the first things I read, even before I even open the attachment.
You’d be amazed how much you can glean about the submission you are about to read just by reading what people say about themselves.
Are they funny or serious? Do they speak about writing like it’s a passion, a job or in much more pretentious terms? Have they published anything in the past? Have they won any prizes? Do I think I can work with them?
That last question is a key one. Getting a book published takes time and a lot of intensive communication between agent and author. I’ve rejected books I felt were good because I just didn’t believe I could work with their authors.
You don’t need to treat a submission like an online dating profile (although the two are oddly similar when I think about it), but do use it as a chance to get your personality, motivations and humour across.
6. DO make your book stand out
I am a small agency. I’m new. I (so far) have no huge authors signed to my list. And I get a minimum of ten submissions a day. Bigger agents receive in the hundreds per day.
Unless you know someone who knows someone, then you need to find a way to make your submission stand out.
Practice your pitch for your book – make it short and memorable. Agents want books that they can pitch to editors over a glass of warm white wine at of the dozens of events that publishing people attend in any given year. Make life easy on those swamped agents and write that pitch for them. Start selling your book before you even get a publishing deal.
7. DON’T pin your hopes on just one agent
One question that comes up a lot when I meet authors who are about to start seeking representation is “Should I submit to more than one agent at a time?”.
My answer to this is an unequivocal yes! As mentioned earlier, my submission box is filled to capacity and it can take me a couple of months to get back to you – a long time to wait twiddling your thumbs praying desperately that I will like it enough to call in the full manuscript.
So in essence, send your manuscript to anyone who you believe will be a good fit for it. You don’t need to tell each agent that you are doing that – I and most agents assume that we are not the only ones who you have sent it to.
All I ask is that if you have any interest from another agent you give me a little nudge – the sad fact is that literary agents (and editors) are like children or dogs: we always want what someone else has!
For all of the advice I’ve tried to offer in this blog, I should add that I firmly believe talent always finds a way to rise to the surface. If your book is good enough – and if you are willing to persevere through those moments of self-doubt, plot hole surgery and writer’s block to get it in the right shape – then the opportunity you’re looking for will present itself eventually. Good luck!