It’s easy to think that because you’re writing a crime novel or thriller, you need an agent who represents crime thrillers. And that’s logical enough … except that isn’t, as it happens, how the industry really works.
I write crime thrillers myself, yet my agent represents posh Hilary Mantel, dead-but-posh George Orwell, and many other esteemed literary authors. So you’d think he wouldn’t be the right person to represent a gritty crime thriller – and yet he and his team have just sold my gritty crime thriller to every major market in Europe and North America.
So, first big point: don’t get too hung up on genre. A large majority of all agents are quite eclectic. They like some balance and variety in their lists. That can actually mean that if you go to a ‘leading’ crime agent, you may get shorter shrift than if you go to a classy agent whose list happens to be a bit underweight in that area.
Nevertheless, it does make sense to target your submissions to some extent. It’s normally fine to call up an agency, and say, ‘I’ve written a book about [whatever], which of your agents would be most appropriate for this?’ You should keep your enquiry brief, businesslike and polite, but you may well get useful information. (I did. My first novel was rejected by CurtisBrown. Then a receptionist told me that the MD there loved my kind of book, and I resubmitted it to him … and the book was accepted almost straight away.)
So a little targeting is fine, just don’t overdo it. Other good tips include:
- checking out your favourite authors and seeing who represents them. (Use author websites or ackowledgements pages to get the info). This is worth doing even if your favourite author happens to write in a different genre from you. If you and the relevant agent happen to share a taste for a certain kind of writing in one field, it’s a fair bet that you have some overlap in others. Try it out. Those connections are often weirdly accurate.
- checking out who represents good but lesser known authors in your category. If you are writing a conspiracy thriller and you write to Dan Brown’s agent, you’re almost certainly wasting your time. For one thing, you can bet that that agent’s desk is awash with conspiracy thrillers. For another thing, the guy who represents DB is likely to set his bar quite high. If you find good quality authors who have not yet made the big breakthrough, those agents are probably far better targets for your submission letters.
If you still think that you’re somehow going to be disadvantaged if you don’t have some Very Well Known Thriller Agent on your side … well, think about this:
- The Very Well Known Thriller Agents have long client lists (often 120+ clients) and you will be the least important person on it. Is that what you want?
- The Very Well Known Thriller Agent is probably hardly looking for new writers at all. Most of the additions to their list will be already established writers who are moving home for some reason. Lots of ‘big’ agents take on very few genuine debut authors.
- Selling a book ain’t rocket science. If an agent is competent enough to sell (say) a literary novel aggressively and well, then they’re competent enough to sell pretty much any other sort of novel too. It’s just not that technical. To the extent that an agent’s contacts are weak in a particular area, a couple of phone calls is all it will take to make the required connections. It truly isn’t that hard for a well-connected agent to locate the people they need to approach. (Two exceptions: fantasy/sci fi and children’s/young adult – those two markets are reasonably specialist.)
- Publishers know damn well that the next wonderful book could come from anyone. When Bill Massey, my editor from Orion, opened a manuscript from Bill Hamilton (my agent), it just didn’t make a difference to him whether Bill H had an amazing track record in crime fiction. Why would it? Only two things matter at that point: (1) the editor loves the book, (2) enough other people in the company love it too. That’s it. That’s all that ever matters. The name of the agent making the submission matters for maybe half a minute. Then the editor starts reading the manuscript – and the agent becomes irrelevant. All that matters is your writing.