Loads of new writers will be frustrated by the impersonal quality of the typical agent submission procedure. You send off your stuff – spend up to eight weeks waiting to hear something – then get back a preprinted, slightly cold rejection letter. It feels so dispiriting, so unconstructive.
Naturally, you can’t really blame agents. They handle a heck of a lot of submissions. They simply don’t have the time to respond personally to each one. What’s more, in the end, only one thing really, truly, absolutely matters – namely, how good your manuscript is. If your manuscript is fantastic, it will be taken on. If it isn’t, then no amount of networking will make the difference.
So the first comment is a really simple one. Make sure your manuscript is as strong as it can possibly be. If that means using outside help (as for example the sort that we offer), use outside help. There’s no reason not to. Remember in particular that agents are not there to offer editorial advice (or at least, not until the manuscript is very close to the right quality already). If what you want is professional editorial feedback, then go to people who offer that as their core service. You will need to pay but you can get excellent, detailed, honest advice. It’s what you need.
But assuming that you’ve done all that, making a personal connection with a literary agent can make a huge difference. But there are ways to do it and ways not to do it. Certainly, for example, you should not simple call an agent at work to request a meeting. These are busy people and you’re not a client. The agent will say no, and be annoyed at you for asking.
Pouncing on an agent at some non-literary event. If you happen to have a friend who knows a literary agent, then by all means introduce yourself when the opportunity arises. But be sensitive. Say, ‘I’m writing a book, I wonder if it might be possible to talk to you about it?’ That way, you are making it easy for the agent to say yes or not. They won’t feel trapped or pounced on. You’re giving yourself a chance, precisely by not being too pushy.
But the best ways of connecting with agents is to go through the proper channels. If, for example, you are attending an event where an agent is a guest speaker, then you should certainly feel free to go up to the agent after the event and make their acquaintance. Again, be sensitive to what they want, but if they have come to this event in their capacity as an agent, they won’t be at all miffed to be approached. If you can offer to buy the agent a drink, you should do so – the nicer you are, the more they’ll warm to your ideas about your book.
Better still, you should book up for an event which is all about writing and publishing – a writers’ conference, in fact. We run plenty of these events and they have been amazingly good at generating book deals. They work because agents are there to talk to writers and locate talent. If you can, make sure you go to a conference which is full board / residential. That way, there’ll be entire days for you to meet agents, talk to them, buy them drinks, sit with them at lunch, and so on. If your book is strong, and you are charming, you have every chance that those contacts will flower into success. I hope so.