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What you need to know about literary agents

Lady writerLiterary agents have many roles, but their central job is simply that they sell manuscripts to publishers. In efect, they're salesmen or (more often) saleswomen. In addition to that core job of making the sale, an agent will need to:

(A) know which editors at which publishing houses are suitable for your project.

(B) be able to recommend a course of action if you are in a position to choose (it isn't always about the money.)

(C) run an auction and negotiate a contract.

(D) organise the sale of other rights (US, foreign language, TV & film, etc).

(E) oversee the publication process and advise you throughout.

(F) Offer editorial advice prior to editor submissions. (But note that agents only offer this service if they are already very excited about your manuscript. They're there to perfect something that is already excellent, not mend something that is broken.)

(G) Think about your career - a role which almost always is assumed by an author's agent, not his or her publisher.

If your book is academic / professional / educational or otherwise of niche interest, you probably don't need an agent. Otherwise you almost certainly do - few large publishers take submissions seriously unless they come via a literary agent. (More about what agents do and who needs one.)

Hmm. It's good news, bad news time. The good part is that agents charge nothing upfront: they simply take a slice of any money they make on your behalf (typically 15-20%). The bad news is that because agents only make money on saleable work, they are intensively selective about what they do take on. As a rough guide, agents only take 1 in every 1000 manuscripts that come their way. Younger or less experienced agents will tend to have shorter client lists and therefore be more hungry for new clients. Older and more senior agents will already be pretty busy with their existing clients and are likely to offer representation only to clients whose work has, in their view, exceptional promise.

If 1 in 1000 seems like a tough rejection rate, remember that most people who get rejected by agents are sending their work out way too early - ie: before it has reached the necessary quality standard. Agents aren't looking for writers with potential: they're looking for excellence. They're looking to be dazzled.

Don't let your manuscript be rejected because you simply haven't put the work in. The Writers' Workshop can offer professional editorial feedback on either your agent submission package or your entire manuscript. (Learn more about manuscript feedback options.)

But if you want a comprehensive and searchable list of not just agencies but individual agents (complete with photos, biographies, genre preferences etc) you can get one at Agent Hunter, our sister site - we think it's the best agent-search facility anywhere on the web. You can filter the data in numerous ways, to make it as easy as possible  to get a shortlist of agents that suit your and your particular project. Subscriptions start at just £5 and represent an excellent investment in your writing future.

If you prefer to pay nothing at all, you can get a basic list of most (but not all) agencies via the Association of Authors Agents. Do note, however, that all you get there is a list of members; you don't get the names of individual agents, or their genre preferences, or indeed anything else.

For much the same sort of thing in printed form, try the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook. Wikipedia also has a page of agents, though it too is neither up to date nor comprehensive.

(Oh, and literary agents are also correctly known as authors agents - but you'll also find people talking about book agents, publishing agents, fiction agents, writers agents or even writing agents. The best term to use, though, is certainly just "literary agents".)

The normal practice is to send, by post or email, depending on the agent: (i) the first three chapters or approx 10,000 words of your manuscript, (ii) a synopsis of the whole thing, and (iii) a covering letter which is a very short introduction to you and your book.

On the first three chapters, be aware that an agent will never make a final decision on the first three chapters alone. They are basically just asking to see a sample of your work, so they can make a quick decision about who to reject. If your first three chapters are strong, an agent will get back to you and ask for the full manuscript ... which does obviously mean that you need to have finished writing the darn thing! It's no use going to agents unless your novel is 100% written and wonderful. (Slightly diferent rules apply to non-fiction, where it is often OK to approach agents on the basis of three chapters + an outline of everything else.)

If your chapters are unusually long or short, then it's normally fine to send about 8-10,000 words in total, ending the chunk at a natural break in the text.

In terms of the synopsis, you should aim to summarise the plot of your novel in around 500-1000 words, no more. You're not pitching the book, or writing a blurb for the back cover. Your job is simply to relate the story of your book in simple, clear and relatively neutral language. (The manuscript itself should be atmospheric, of course, but the synopsis is a working document and should be relatively businesslike in its approach.)

The covering letter should introduce the book (title, genre, word count) in a line or two. Then offer a more detailed paragraph or two about the book - that's the place to introduce the book's USP; a few lines that indicate why the book is special. You should also write a line or two about yourself, but you truly don't need to go into much detail. It's the manuscript that matters; you are just a transmission device.

Most of the time, agents are busy with their regular business: sorting out the business afffairs of existing clients. Nevertheless, many agents do like to get out and about in order to meet writers and (hopefully) pick up strong prospects. Most agencies will have a 'news' section on their websites which can be a good place to look for any talks / workshops / seminars in your area.

Better still, you can attend one of the large annual writers conferences in the UK. The best of these (because we run it!) is the Festival of Writing, which takes place each year in September. To learn more about our upcoming events, either click here ... or watch the video.

 

WOWFOWCUT3 from video jon on Vimeo.

JK Rowling was a nobody. So was EL James. So are nearly all new authors when they write their first manuscript. It obviously doesn't hurt your authorial career if you're the first supermodel to win a Nobel Prize and have your own TV show ... but those things are mostly irrelevant. Agents are well aware that the very best new authors tend to come out of nowhere - and they entered the business precisely because they back themselves to find (and then promote) those hidden jewels.
In short: the only thing that really, truly matters is that you have a wonderful manuscript. Which is where we come in: our feedback services are designed to help your manuscript be the very best it can possibly be. And all our editors have sold work to major publishers themselves, so they know what it takes to succeed.
Yes - but with a catch.

First, the good news. We are very, very well-connected to literary agents and publishers. We run the country's biggest writing event, which hosts dozens of agents every year. Every single major London agency has been involved at one time or another, and many of them send staff every year. In addition, because we have notched up countless publishing successes, agents like us. If we recommend a manuscript, they take notice.

In addition, if we think a manuscript is strong enough, we always seek an agent for it, using our massive range of connections. What's more, we never charge a penny for that service. We do it, because you've deserved it. It's all part of the service.

The bad news, however, is that connections alone are never enough to place a book, let alone persuade publishers to acquire it. All that really, really matters is a relentless emphasis on excellence. That means the main responsibility is yours: to make sure your manuscript is as strong as it can possibly be. (Hint: you might want to think about getting feedback on your book or signing up to one of our courses.)
If you're about to send your manuscript out to agents, we recommend following something like the procedure below.

(A) Write a dazzlingly good book. Anything less won't do. (Need help? Then get it.)

(B) Develop a shortlist of 8-12 agents. (We suggest you use this.)

(C) Write an excellent covering letter. (Like this one, following these guidelines.)

(D) Write a fine synopsis. (Read our tips.)

(E) Make sure that your manuscipt is properly presented. (It's quite easy.)

(F) Then get your stuff out there. You can send your stuff out in one big wave, or divide your submissions into two waves, about 6 weeks apart. Don't approach agents one at a time - life is a lot too short for that.

Alternatively, it can be very useful to meet agents face to face and pitch your work directly. You can do this at one of our inspiring events, in particular our amazing annual Festival of Writing. But even here, it's not the wonderfulness of your pitch that matters - it's the quality of your manuscript.

(G) See what happens. Good agencies typically aim to respond in 2-8 weeks. At busy times of year (Christmas, and the London & Frankfurt Book Fairs; + the Bologna Book Fair for children's agents) you might want to allow an extra week or so. It's OK to nudge after 8 weeks. If you've heard nothing after 10 weeks, assume that agent doesn't want your book.

(H) Don't get too emotional. All writers get rejected. It's no biggie. The length of time an agent takes to respond means nothing about you or your book - it's just a question of what else they have on.

(I) If an agent wants your book - send it to them. If an agent wants to meet you, you certainly want to meet them: they will probably want to offer you representation.

(J) If you do all that, and no agent offers representation, then you have almost certainly failed to complete Item A above. In which case, are you sure you don't want to get that help?
Can you offer me any tips on how to maximise my chances of getting an agent?
Yes. The main thing by far is to write a dazzling manuscript. In a way, that's all that really matters. It's much, much better to write a wonderful manuscript and be clumsy and cack-handed in approaching agents, than to be amazingly professional in approaching the industry but fail to have a manuscript good enough for them to sell.
But let's assume that you have a wonderful manuscript. In that case, there are some tips that are well worth following - notably this very comprehensive guide over on the Agent Hunter blog. If you follow those rules, you can more or less guarantee that your approach will be professional - and then it all comes down to the strength of your manuscript. (And, of course, if you want help with that, then you're in the right place.)
Do I need an agent who specialises in my genre?
No. As a matter of fact, there are very few agents who are genuine specialists. The reason is that most genres aren't large enough to supply a given agent with enough authors to sustain a career. Additionally, most agents (like most people) are eclectic readers and are, for example, perfectly able to enjoy a literary novel or a crime novel or a stimulating piece of non-fiction. An agent's client list is therefore highly likely to reflect those broad preferences. All you need to do is make sure that your agent does indeed like your particular genre - he or she does not need to specialise.
Do I need an agency who also handles TV & film rights?
Most authors dream that their work will, at some stage, make it to screen. In practice, this almost never happens - but any half-decent agency will be able to make the most of any opportunities that do arise. The largest agencies (outfits such as United Agents or Curtis Brown or PFD) will have in-house dramatic rights deparments, but most agencies do not operate on that scale. Instead, a typical small or mid-sized agency will work closely with a specialist film & TV agency. The actual difference from the author's point of view is often vanishingly small ... and we would reiterate that a film deal is not all that likely. It's much better to concentrate on getting the book right!
How about American rights? Do I need a US agent? (and what if my book is set in the US?)
Every British agent will be able to sell work in the US, usually via a US agency with whom they have a reciprocal relationship. If you live in Britain or Ireland, or elsewhere in Europe, you are almost certainly better off having your primary agent be in your "home" territory (ie: London). Your agent will be very used to making overseas sales and you will not lose opportunities in the US.

Oh - and if your book is set in the US, that's often not in fact very helpful. After all, US agents have plenty of US clients capable of writing perfectly well about the US. If they choose to sell the work of a British author, that's as often as not because the author in question is excellent at bringing some aspect of British culture alive for an American reader.
Why are nearly all agents based in London? Don't I need an agent who is local to me?
Agents are generally based in London because you can't be any good at your job unless you know publishers very well - and every single major publishing house is based in London. That means it's much easier for London-based agents to know editors - not merely on a professional basis, but on a social one too. It is the strength of those connections and the knowledge that lies behind them which makes your agent able to represent your interests effectively. Don't make the mistake of restricting yourself only to agents who live close to you. Apart from anything else, outside Edinburgh and Oxford, it's hard finding any agents who aren't in London or in the commuter belt surrounding it.