How literary agents work – from Conville & Walsh

We’ve had a bit to do with Conville & Walsh over the years – all good things, of course – and it’s a pleasure to reprint the following piece by David Llewelyn, their chief talent scout. We’ve somewhat abridged the piece, but it can be found in full here.

One comment from us before you tuck in: namely, David’s piece proves once again that literary agents really, really do want new clients and they really, really do think hard and intelligently about how to find and recruit them. The rejectionist mentality of traditional publishing is basically just a myth. Yes, loads of books get rejected – most books do – but that’s simply because only so many novels get published each year, forcing agents to hunt down the best of the best. So, if you are a writer who’s encountered rejections over the years, don’t worry about it. (A) we’ve all encountered rejections, and (B) you get better at this game the more you play it. Just trust that, at the end of the road, there is an industry that really wants your material. OK. End of lecture. Over to David:


It’s been the usual busy and successful year, with a number of new authors achieving publishing contracts through the agency, and various debut novels receiving some of the highest industry accolades upon publication in 2011.

In 2011 we received just under 4,800 part manuscripts via the Submissions Department. As I’ve said in earlier accounts, these are what we consider our “talent pool”, which others – wrongly, in my opinion – insist upon calling “the slush pile”. Out of that total, I was able to recommend that 144 typescripts were worth further scrutiny by our agents.

Those recommendations came from right across the spectrum:  from non fiction, childrens’ and young adult, to commercial and literary fiction.  Of the 4,800 or so received, most manuscripts were of middling quality, and in these very competitive times we have to concentrate on those manuscripts that are felt to be exceptional in terms of writing, and very near the finished article. We endeavour to be as positive as possible about those that don’t meet our criteria, and I hope that we’ve been able to provide some useful guidance and technical advice to enable a number of authors to improve their manuscripts. We are always open to receive fresh drafts of previously seen work. The door is never shut. We sincerely regret that we are not able to offer more in the way of guidance to even more authors, but we simply don’t have the resources to deal with more manuscripts on a personal level. In the coming year, however, we are pledged to improve our communication and advice to unsuccessful authors, as we are obviously anxious not to lose contact with authors who fall only just short of industry standards.

A number of authors are still under active consideration, but of the debut authors recommended by me last year, three have achieved publishing deals, and will be published in the spring of 2012.

It may be interesting to authors to know that those three recommendations came nearly 12 months ago. So why the long delay between being accepted for representation by the agency and eventual publication?

Well, firstly there is the careful work undertaken between agent and author further to shape the final draft so that both are as confident as they can be. When the book is as good as it can be, it’s ready to submit to editors.  Things can move very quickly if more than one publisher is interested and a buzz of excitement starts to build. But this can also be a slow process, involving both author and agent doing the rounds of publishers until a book finds an appreciative home. The publishing house then takes over, with further editorial work, involvement with the marketing and publicity departments and finally arriving at proof copies for final scrutiny. It is pretty rare that a book is published within a year of submission to editors.

Later this year we’re planning to provide a case study of a book from the moment of submission to us all the way through to the appearance of a book in the shops, to give a fuller picture of how the whole process works.

In the meantime, what were the three talent pool first novels that will be published in 2012? It gives me great pleasure to report that they are:

  • THE SEA ON FIRE by Howard Cunnell (agent, Patrick Walsh). Publication by Picador on 15th March 2012
  • THE OTHER HALF OF ME by Morgan McCarthy (agent, Jo Unwin). Publication by Headline on 24th May 2012
  • THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS by M.L.Stedman (agent, Susan Armstrong). Publication by Doubleday UK on 26th April 2012.

These three wonderful debut novels – each so strong, yet each so very different – maintain my annual average. For in my five years running this department, I am happy to say that fifteen debut novels have passed through my hands and on into those of willing buyers around the world.

Over the years, I’ve tried to work out if there are any common factors to the successes via the Submissions Department at Conville and Walsh. What’s the magic? Is a good plot an imperative, or dialogue, atmosphere, structure, voice, or genre?

In the books that have passed through my hands to publication, there seem to be two stand-out elements: what I would term narrative flow (which is closely allied to narrative pace) and memorable characters. For me, the narrative has to have a large presence, and although there have to be digressions from that narrative throughout, if an author digresses too much a novel will start to fall apart. Balancing narrative flow whilst maintaining narrative pace is far from easy to achieve.

As for characters I can, without having to think too hard, immediately recall a host of people who have entered my life through first novels in the last few years, and who are now firmly embedded in my psyche.

So send me your books, and I promise to pan them for gold. In closing, I can only thank these authors, and the equally talented others not mentioned in this note, for enhancing the quality of my reading experience and for allowing me to enter the worlds of their imaginations.

David Llewelyn, Reader at Conville & Walsh, January 2012

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  • It’s a pleasure to find such rtaionality in an answer. Welcome to the debate.

  • Angela Christopher

    Thank you for that helpful summary. I am completely new to this game and feeling a bit overwhelmed with the business of pitching my book to agents. But it’s really good to hear such balanced advice. I will be e mailing Susan Armstrong shortly.