9 ways to persuade an agent to take you on (the only ones that matter)

notice-slushpileI recently came across a useful article by Rachelle Gardner, an American agent, about how to get literary agents to represent you. She advertised 13 sure fire ways to get representation … but I have to say that not all of them struck me as realistic and some struck me as just plain wrong. So here’s my edited version of her list, with some comments.

The good news: there are only 9 things to worry about, not the 13 Rachelle mentions. And if 9 is still too many for you, I’ve edited the whole list down to just one single bullet point, right at the end of this piece. Good luck!

So, here’s how to get that agent:

1. A fresh idea
This matters a lot, no matter what genre or market you are writing for. I was at a crime festival at the weekend where panelists complained about the glut of serial killers, weird murders and by-the-book procedurals that came out a few years ago. For sure, there are still top ten bestsellers writing exactly those kind of books. But they rose to the top, when that kind of writing still felt fresh and new. If you were a debut novelist, writing the exact same material, you would struggle to sell it today. Is that unfair? No! They wrote fresh work for the market as it was at the time. You need to do the same today.

2. Get your submission right
Yep, this matters too. Look at what an agent asks for on their website and submit that exact material in the exact way specified. Even if that doesn’t seem to suit your plan or your book, you need to comply anyway. For now, you have to realise there is absolutely nothing special about your manuscript and you just have to get in line like everyone else.

Oh, and don’t balls up the covering letter or your synopsis. These things are easy to get right. We’ve got a simple guide to writing your query letter here, we’ve got a sample query letter here, and we’ve got a guide to writing your novel synopsis here. Simple!

3. Know your audience
If you are writing fantasy fiction, you have to be a student of the genre. You have to know the classics. You have to know the modern twists on the classics. You have to know the market the way readers do – by reading masses and masses.

The same goes for any other genre, including non-fiction. If you are writing a book about quantum theory, let’s say, you just have to know what other people have done, what approaches they took – and ensure that yours is different, new and compelling. All that starts with knowing your area.

4. Have some social media presence

Not true! Just not true!

This blog and this website have approximately 100,000 visitors each month. That scale of traffic certainly supported me in getting Getting Published and How To Write picked up by Bloomsbury. (The advance for each book: £4000.) It wouldn’t make any difference at all to my novels. No publisher has ever asked about my Twitter followers. My Facebook page is deader than a Pythonian parrot. And no one cares!

Here’s all you need to know about social media presence:

  • If you have blog traffic in the 100,000s and Twitter followers in the 10,000s, and if your book is directly related to that traffic/following. (eg: if you’re a motorsport guru and your book is on motorsport), then your social media presence WILL help sell your book.
  • If your traffic is not on that scale, then publishers won’t really care about it. Nor will they expect you to have traffic on that scale – most authors just don’t.
  • And if you’re writing a novel, then who cares? I mean, who the bloody hell cares? Publishers don’t. Agents don’t. I just don’t know how that myth gets propounded.

notice-agent-mood5. Have an impressive platform
This is true for some non-fiction authors, but that’s it. I wrote a history book for 4th Estate (a book that sold for a lot of money) without having any platform at all. No blog, no followers, no mailing list – no academic credentials in the field, not even a history A-level. That proves that, even with a serious subject, a good idea allied to good writing is all you need.

That said, if you do have a strong platform (blog/mailing list/etc), it will help. Even so, this point only applies to non-fictioneers, and usually then only if the topic is of relatively focused interest, rather than broad popular appeal.

6. Include links to videos where agents can see you speaking
Sorry, but no! This just doesn’t matter. No agent or publisher has ever asked me for this. I do, as it happens, speak confidently in public – but so what? I’ve done a few festival gigs and the like, but the total book sales from those events probably numbers in the mere dozens of copies. Of course, publishers and agents would prefer a confident public performer to a stuttering, sweating wreck – but it’s just not a significant factor in anyone’s acquisition decision. The only exception: books where significant TV/radio PR is expected. And that’s not many books at all these days.

7. Show some familiarity with today’s marketing requirements for authors
Nope, again, just not a real issue this. I’ve recently published crime novels in the UK and the US. Neither publisher has asked me to tweet about the books, to do anything to support the books on Facebook, to promote them via blogs or mailing lists. I have, in fact, done a few things on those fronts, but they don’t make a big heap of difference and publishers just don’t care. It’s not what sells books.

And how could it? Let’s say you have a Twitter following of 100,000 people (and you don’t; of course you don’t.) Let’s say you tweet about your new novel several times to those 100,000. You can’t do it more often than that because you’d look like a pushy moron.

Most of your followers won’t even see your tweets, because following someone means dipping in now and again; it doesn’t mean reading every single tweet. I doubt if you would get more than 1-5,000 eyeballs maximum looking at your please-read-my-book tweet, but let’s say 10,000 to be generous.

Of those 10,000, you would do very well to convert even 1% into an actual buy decision. (And that 1% is a lot higher than the average ad-conversion rate online. It’s higher by about 1-2 orders of magnitude.) So 1% of 10,000 views is 100 book sales.

Great. No one says no to selling 100 books. But from a publisher’s perspective, that’s a mere dop in the ocean of what they need to achieve. So they don’t care about your Twitter following.

They. Just. Don’t. Care.

8. Show a cursory acquaintance with the agent you’re pitching to
Yes, kind of. It certainly helps if there’s a little personal something in your covering letter, but only a bit. And if you’re struggling to say anything, then don’t worry about it. My literary agent, Bill Hamilton, represents Hilary Mantel, and I’ll bet that a large fraction of letters addressed to him say, ‘Dear Mr Hamilton, As you’re a fan of historical fiction, such as that written by Hilary Mantel, I’m hoping that you’ll be interested in my book ….’

And what does that mean, really? It means that you’ve picked one starry name from a much longer client list and that you’ve done so because someone told you that you had to find some way to personalise your letter.

Well, you don’t. If there’s an angle which feels natural and authentic, then mention it. Otherwise don’t. It’s that simple.

9. Visit the agent’s blog
Yep, well, very, very few agents in the UK have a blog, so good luck with that. Obviously, if they do, then visit it. But see my comment above: natural and authentic is good. Anything else is not.

10. Take the craft of writing seriously
I’m surprised this is at number 10! I mean, duh – of course you have to be serious about the craft. That means copyediting and presentation have to be very good (but not, at this stage, perfect). It also means that you need to have structurally edited your manuscript so it is in very good shape indeed.

11. Know your competition
Yes – but this is the same as 3 above.

12. Present yourself professionally
Yes, for sure. On the whole, gimmickry or forced humour in your opening approach to agents won’t feel great in the cold light of a Monday morning. Keep it professional.

notice-inspiration13. Have a great book
The only thing that really, really matters. If you have a truly dazzling book you could:

  • have no social media profile at all
  • be all but mute in the presence of other people
  • have terrible spelling
  • look like a scarecrow living in a dumpster
  • be ignorant of your market
  • know nothing about your agent
  • ignore everything that agent has told you about how they want you to submit material …

and still get taken on and do very well indeed

But your book had better be really, really, really good.

This entry was posted in Literary agents. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Barb

    Great article, Harry.

    I’m so glad you commented on the need, or lack of, to have a social media presence. I want to be busy writing manuscripts not blog posts about writing manuscripts.

  • Harry

    Agents want the same thing! They couldn’t give a damn about your Twitter feed.

  • Stephen Mark

    Thank The Lord – dark or otherwise – for this good sense.

  • Pingback: When you feel like taking your author platform into the woods and losing it | Jane Dougherty Writes()

  • A concise summary. My small first book is somewhat different but really I have kept my expectations within bounds. Social media continues to interest me but I will also keep that in check, write the occasional blog post and keep my focus on life and writing.