a literary agent
unless a writer is well established, he or she rarely picks
a literary agent. What usually happens is that a literary agent
agrees to represent a manuscript—an
opportunity that the writer, having been rejected X number of
times, generally jumps at.
But at some point in the manuscript submission process a
selection of agents needs to be made.
Not all agents will handle whatever it is you're submitting,
which means that you're best advised to make a very careful
selection, usually through the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook
or through the internet or other trade reference books.
You can usually get the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook at
your public library, but it's often in hot demand and/or out
of date by a year or so. Even when it is in date it's
often out of date. The reason for this is that much of the publishing
trade appears to live in a revolving door. Agents form partnerships
that seem to vanish overnight. Sometimes agents radically cut
or change their lists. Publishers merge, or (occasionally) divide.
The entire industry is in a permanent state of flux.
To maintain any kind of grip on it, you need to actively
trawl the net and/or read the literary columns of the newspapers,
and/or attend book trade fairs.
Look at who's representing who and what and then research
your literary agent as best you can. Find out something
about them, however trivial. It can make a lot of difference
Query Letter approach if
you demonstrate that you're targeting an agent intelligently
and have taken the trouble to find out their likes and dislikes.
Next, remember that agents pick books for a variety of reasons
and, like the publishing world in general, they follow
trends rather than set them.
Mr or Ms Literary Agent?
want to keep in mind that most literary agents are women. Some
say this has ruined the market (for men at least). Others feel
that female literary agents have simply expanded the
market and have introduced ideas and genres that didn't exist
10 years or so ago.
Either way, whether you're a male or female writer, you'll
want to know as much as possible about who is likely to want
to represent you, and why.
I'd suggest that you be very methodical about who you approach.
Keep a list of some sort. Keep a note of any telephone calls
you make—along with brief details. Cross-reference agents with other
agencies they've moved from, or to. And keep an up to date record,
where possible, of their clients.
Don't assume that only male literary agents want thrillers
whilst female literary agents want chicklit. It doesn't work
like that. And even though there probably are certain
divisions and demarcations, you're best advised to treat all
agents as equal, even though clearly that isn't the case, not
in terms of professionalism or energy or connections.
And don't assume that just because an agency represents
a writer with a similar style to your own, they'll want you
on board too. It may well be that they want something different
now. Sometimes you can use this to your advantage if you find
evidence of agencies in competition, or agencies that have recently
Think about it.
Want to read more?
There are over 25,000 words of
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give you fresh insight into your work, and
will improve the chances of a literary agent or publisher
accepting your manuscript.
Meanwhile, here are
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Hope you enjoy them.
Mr Edit. Let's talk about dialogue
Mr Edit. Pitching fiction to a literary
Mr Edit. 5 Minute Fiction Fix.
Mr Edit. Let's talk about tautology.
Links for writers
& Editors. Here's where you can check out the credentials
of literary agents and publishers. A must for any writer.
Helpful resource for the creative community. Articles, links
Writing Blog. Lots of useful posts on all aspects of writing,
both for print and online, plus a guest post for anyone who
wants to make a contribution. Check it out.
Plotting a novel
Finding a literary agent
Choosing a literary agent
Agent query letters
Inspiration for writers
5 minute fiction fix
How to get published
Active & passive voice
top UK literary
agent, on books,
publishing and success
Charlie Fox series of books
New York literary agent,
Crème de la Crime:
managing editor of a smaller—but
Make sure you spell check whatever you
send. Every error will put a black mark on your card, and if
you get more than a handful of those, you'll be handed a red
card. Above all else, check the spelling of the agent's name.
If there's doubt about the sex of the
agent, do some careful research. I know of one or two agents,
and publishers, whose sex isn't obvious from their names
(I can't think of any reason why they don't make it clear. But
that's how it is).
Email queries were once a non-starter.
But today, agents are more obliging.
If you are emailing, I suggest you send a simple, clear, polite
email with a brief synopsis introducing your project. But don't
send an attachment until it's been specifically requested. It
can't hurt, however, to add a sample of your writing in the
body of the email. Not more than a chapter, and preferably less.
It might be your only chance to impress, so seize that chance.
Don't submit to more than one agent at
a given agency. It undermines your project by building in mistrust,
and will almost certainly get you a rejection if spotted.
Think carefully before revising a manuscript
on a literary agent's suggestion unless there's a clear intent
by that agent to represent you (albeit a conditional one). You
can spend a lot of time rewriting to suit individual whims and
never really advance your project. By all means listen to advice
and suggestions, but follow your own instincts.
If you've had a manuscript rejected, in
theory you can't resubmit it. But if it's been substantially
revised, you can ask an agent to take a second look. Some writers,
note, routinely re-send their rejected and re-titled manuscripts
on the principle that agents have short memories, or that a
different agent at the same agency may discover it. Beyond that,
you may have written an horrendous query letter, or committed
some other faux pas and need, or just want, a second chance.
Or you may have since realised that you should have started
at chapter four or something similar. Or you may have found
a new way to 'spin' a previously submitted story giving it fresh
impetus. Agents, perhaps through no fault of their own, commonly
misunderstand projects. That “second chance” submission may
help address this. But make it a genuinely significant improvement
Don't staple your manuscript pages. Don't
clip them in a folder. Don't hole-punch them. Don't dress them
in any way. Just send them loose in a small, easily opened,
easily closed box with the title on each page and page numbers
(folios). Leave some margin around the copy. Make it as presentable
as possible. Use a straightforward typeface (font) such as Times,
Garamond, or a similar serif face (if you're not sure what a
serif is, you know what to do). Avoid fonts such as Courier
or Helvetica or anything fancy. Be plain. Be straightforward.
Should you double space? In the old days
this was vital. I'd argue that it's less so now. Double spacing
was intended to give editors and proofreaders room to make corrections
and notes. With modern word processors, this is less important.
That said, don't make the copy too tight. It can make your manuscript
look like too much of a chore to read. So ease up (see
for examples of how a manuscript might look).
Always include return postage if you want
your manuscript back - but it may be better to reprint each
time you send it out. It's bad for the environment, etc. But
a creased and crumpled manuscript landing on an agent’s desk
won't do you any favours. In view of the high cost of postage,
it may, in any case, also save money in the long term.
If you're dealing with an overseas agent,
you can forward the manuscript by email. Or offer to pay for
running off a copy on their printer if you want. Just make sure
it doesn't sound like a bribe.
Spell check rigorously.
Be patient. You can follow up your submission
with a polite email or telephone call. But give it 12 weeks
Try not to cosy up to a literary agent,
no matter how desperate you are. Just state your submissions
offer clearly and, importantly, concisely. Hooking a literary
agent is like picking up a girl/guy at a party; if you come
across as desperate, people will instinctively recoil. It's
success that breeds success, so try and sound successful - but
without going overboard.
Remember to state who your target reader
is. Don't be vague about it. Don't simply say "women" or "men".
Tell the agent that you're aiming at, say, readers of modern
crime fiction, or young adults between the ages of sixteen and
nineteen, or male and female readers of gothic horror, or whatever
fits the bill.
No, it may not be entirely clear who the
target reader is, especially with fiction projects. Writing,
like other arts, isn't always demographically focussed. Ideally,
you're writing for yourself. For the love of literature, etc.
But in the publishing world, agents and
editors want to see direction and focus. They want to put every
pigeon in a well defined pigeon hole. So try and narrow your
intended reading audience to a genre and age group, but don't
make it too narrow. If you say that you're aiming at young adult
readers of 19th century gothic nursing romances, you could be
reducing your potential market (on paper at least) to an unfeasibly
And keep this in mind too; you may aim
at a particular target readership, only to have an agent tell
you that you're shooting at the wrong bullseye and that you’re
probably better suited to a younger or older market.
If that happens, listen carefully to what
the agent advises. They've been known to be right before.
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