How To Get A Literary Agent Without Dying of Old Age
You think writing is tough?
Then try getting an agent. The secret of hooking a literary agent is as follows:
(1) Adopt a very professional approach
(2) Make multiple submissions, and
(3) Write a dazzlingly good book
If you haven't yet achieved (3), then you probably need our editorial help. But as for (1) and (2) - here's our Quick Guide to getting a literary agent before osteoporosis sets in.
Step 1. Write an absolutely excellent book
Bear in mind that you are competing against the very best in the business. If you are writing spy thrillers, your books will be competing directly against John Le Carre's - and at the same price, with less publicity and much less uptake from the bookstores. If you are not perfectionist about your work, you are very unlikely to succeed.
Existing WW clients
If you are an existing WW client, you will already have talked over your next steps with your editor. However, if your editor comes to us to say that your manuscript is strong enough to be marketed, then, using our contact with agents, we may be able help you with that. But of course, even if this is not the case, we are always happy to answer your questions, review your cover letter for free, plus we have our agent submission pack review service.
If you are not a client of ours, we are happy to offer you brief free advice on submitting your book to agents. In particular, we are happy to review your covering letter which is an essential part of your sales pitch. We do not charge for this service - just email it over to us.
If you would like one of our amazing editors to check over your agent submission package before you send it, we're happy to oblige. We'll scrutinise your work and give you detailed advice on what could still be improved before you take the plunge. More details here.
Step 2. Have realistic expectations
Literary agents spend most of their time handling their existing clients. A typical agent might take on just two new authors a year. At the same time, most agencies receive 1000 manuscripts a year. That means they reject the overwhelming majority of submissions.
If that sounds depressing, then you also need to realise that getting an agent is the only way to getting published. Very few publishers have any real interest in unsolicited contributions. Also remember that agents want good books. That's how they earn their money. The rejection rate is high, simply because most manuscripts aren't good enough. If your manuscript is strong, it WILL be taken on - and indeed, our clients have notched up countless successes.
What does all that mean for you? It means (1) You need to approach the whole business of finding an agent with the utmost professionalism; (2) You need to be realistic about the time it will take and the number of rejections you are likely to receive; and (3) you may want to take some of that chewable calcium just in case the bone decay gets to you first.
Step 3. Prepare your manuscript properly
Agents see hundreds of manuscripts. Don't rule yours out on the silly stuff. Eliminate spelling errors - and don't rely on a computer spell check 'too do this four ewe'. If your spelling is poor, then ask a friend to help. If your punctuation is bad, do the same.
And get the layout right. That means Times Roman font or similar. Font size of 12. Normal margins. Double-spaced, or 1.5 line spacing. Lay your manuscript out like a book, not a business document. That means no space between paragraphs and with the first line slightly indented. Every page should be numbered. Ideally, you should have the title and/or your name as header/footer. More on manuscript presentation.
Your title page should contain your title, your name and your contact details. Nothing else. You do not need to say 'copyright by Bloggs' - you already own the copyright by virtue of having written the darn thing. Making a hoo-hah about copyright is a sure way to mark yourself out as an amateur. (That's just what you are, of course, but don't rub it in.)
Step 4. Select your targets
In the good old days, when society was still deferential and English bobbies cycled to work whistling Nice One Cyril, it was thought right to submit your manuscript to just one publisher or (later on) agent at a time.
The trouble with that approach is that agents may take 6-8 weeks to read your book (or pretend to read it, anyway) and you may need to apply a fair few agents before you strike lucky. This is where the risk of osteoporosis sets in. We therefore strongly recommend that you make multiple submissions. Do this as follows.
You need to pick a list of about 6 agents, and you should be looking for people who are looking to take on clients, who are interested in your kind of material, and whose client lists and other interests suggest that they could be suitable targets. Don't worry too much about whether a given agent has 'clout' in the industry. Truth is, any agent can sell an excellent manuscript; no agent can sell a bad one.
Take a deep breath, before moving on to ...
- A complete list of literary agencies (including small ones and new ones)
- A complete list of literary agents
- the ability to search agents by genre, experience, client list status (eg: full, looking for new writers, etc), and much else
- Detailed info on every agent including (where available) photos, biographies, genre preferences, likes and dislikes, submission requirements, etc, etc
Step 5. Send out your book
Most agents want you to send the following:
- the first 3 chapters / 10,000 words / 50 pages of your manuscript
- a short covering letter
- a 500-800 word synopsis, which should not run to more than 2 pages
These days, most agencies will take submissions by email, but do check out each agency's guidelines and follow those scrupulously.
You can check out our detailed guide to covering letters
, and see guidelines on how to write a synopsis
. Neither thing is all that hard. Here, for example, is a perfectly decent covering letter:
Dear Mr Redintooth,
I am currently seeking an agent for my first novel, A Farewell to Legs. The novel (of about 70,000 words) tells a love story, set against the background of a busy amputation clinic in Bangalore. I have enclosed the first three chapters plus a brief synopsis with this submission. I am a thirty year old accountant.
The book was based on my own experiences during a recent trip to Bangalore. The book attempts to deal with themes of loss and suffering in an accessible, moving, and uplifting way.
I have submitted the book to a small handful of selected agents, but will of course inform you immediately if I get any interest elsewhere [you don't have to admit that you're making multiple submissions, by the way. It's good manners to do so, but manners don't always get the fastest results. Up to you.] I enclose a stamped addressed envelope for the return of my manuscript.
I look forward to hearing from you.
If you have completed a well-recognised creative writing course, such as the famous East Anglian one, then say so. If you are a professional writer in any other capacity (in journalism, TV, radio, etc), then say so. Ditto, if you've won any prize that has real merit. If you have a recommendation from ourselves or any other person or organisation likely to command respect, then you can say so too - but expect to be checked up on. Do not write a covering letter which looks anything like the following.
Dear Ms Redinclaw,
Allow me to present my first novel, an epic tale of love and cannibalism set against the sweeping backdrop of the Hackney Road Cleansing Services department. My style combines the sassy, street-smart writing of Martin Amis with the philosophical scope and ambition of a George Orwell / Ben Elton. I've attached a five page synopsis, blurb for the rear cover, a short three page bio and photograph, and a sketch marketing plan for the Hackney / Barnet / North American areas.
I have sent the book to a number of agents and expect to be ready to interview my shortlist in the last week of December. I have enclosed inadequate postage and I have chosen to print my novel in a flattering and distinctive green ink.
Yours in expectation
When you're ready send out your letters. Tie a black cat into a knot, light a candle to your favourite minor deity, and avoid ladders, mirrors and anything breakable. Then ...
Step 6. Prepare for heartbreak & rejection
It doesn't matter how good your book is, it'll be rejected. That's the nature of this business (always remember J.K. Rowling!) So don't take it personally.
We recommend approach about a dozen agents in total, and splitting that into two waves of submissions. But if you want to do everything in one assault, that's OK. If you want to approach as many as 15 agents, that too is OK. But don't go crazy. There aren't more than 8-10 publishers who matter in the UK right now, so if you can't impress about 1 in 10 agents, then your chances of impressing a publisher (who are still harder to sway than agents) are fairly small.
If you have sent the book to Mr Jones at XYZ agency, then it is OK to send the book to Ms Smith at the same agency - and unless you're very purist you won't feel the need to mention your earlier rejection. (By the way, this tip was given to us by an agent, so you don't need to feel especially naughty doing it).But truth is, there are plenty of agents out there, so you shouldn't have too much difficulty in finding possible targets.
Step 7. Review progress
If you've received fewer than 10 rejections, then keep going. If you've had 12 or more, then there's something wrong with your book. If you're a Writers' Workshop client, then you won't be in this situation - we won't let you send out a book that's below standard; and if you still get rejections, we'll be on hand to sort the problem out.
Remember that there are only two reasons why manuscripts fail:
- They're not good enough! This is overwhelmingly the most common reason.
- You've made a mess of approaching agents.
If you follow the advice on this page, then you won't have made a mess of approaching agents ... in which case, your manuscript is not yet strong enough to sell. However much positive feedback you get from your mother / your mate / your mate's mate's window-cleaner, that feedback is not the same as getting a tough, honest & expert critical evaluation from grizzled old professionals.
Giving you that feedback is what we do. You can read about our services here. We are excellent at our jobs and have a remarkable string of successes to our name. So do make use of our skills.
Step 8. Meet agents
Finally, if you want to physically meet agents and get feedback from them directly - then do! We run a number of events which bring good committed writers like yourself face to face with agents.You'll get direct feedback on your work and, just as useful, you'll hear agents talk about the realities of their industry, what they're looking for and any tips and advice they can give.
These events are exhilarating in part because agents are nice people who love books - and it can be amazingly uplifting for writers to realise that the industry is warm, welcoming and open to writers. For more info on these events, click here.