Today I'm pleased to bring you a guest post by successful UK-based author and consultant Harry Bingham.
In it, Harry sets out a practical, step-by-step strategy for getting a literary agent to represent you.
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Getting an agent is easy. Follow the rules below and you WILL get an agent. It's even better news than that, in fact, because of the seven steps that follow, only one of them is a tiny bit difficult. So, without more ado, here's how it works.
Write an amazing book. If you write a good one – one that your friends family, and writing group think is really good – then that's not enough. Publishers are cutting their lists, perhaps by as much as 40% over the past few years. And those publishers aren't ditching existing bestsellers, which means that the space available for debut writers is shrinking even more markedly. So 'good' is not good enough. Your book has to be amazing. A fantastic concept, brilliantly executed. Nothing less will do.
If you've completed step one properly, everything else is simple. Your next challenge is simply to determine which agents to approach. You're looking to compile list of no more than a dozen names. There aren't, realistically, more than a dozen or so possible publishers for your book, and editors are inevitably more selective than literary agents. So if you can't convince roughly one-in-ten agents that your book is worthwhile, you won't convince the publishers either.
In terms of finding your agents, you can use static directories (like the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook or Writer's Market) or online ones that allow you to set your own search filters. What you're looking for is agents who are enthusiastic about your genre, who are keen to build their client lists, and ideally where you sense some kind of fellow-feeling: perhaps they represent authors you love, or perhaps they've expressed interest in the themes you write about.
Next, you need to draft your covering letter. On the one hand, you need to remember that it's the manuscript that matters, not the letter. On the other hand, your letter is the first thing the agent's eyes are going to fall on, so for heaven's sake make sure that it's a reasonable advertisement for your writing. No horrible typos. No clumsily phrased sentences. No mention of a 'fiction novel' or confusion between 'its' and 'it's'.
But if you're a half-competent writer, these things shouldn't alarm you. Just keep your letter short, simple and businesslike. Nearly always, your letter will be no more than a page. Perhaps more literary writers may extend to a second page. But really, all you need to do is introduce the book and yourself in two or three short, clean paragraphs. Easy, huh?
Yikes! You need to write a synopsis. This is a good news / bad news issue. The bad news is that most writers find writing synopses only marginally pleasanter than cleaning the oven. The good news is that most agents don't really care about the synopsis. Just write about 500 words that relates, in neutral non-salesy language, the basic plot of your book. If you don't want to give away the very ending, then don't. Otherwise, just say what happens. It really isn't difficult.
Revise your manuscript! Most writers send their work out long before it's ready. Professional authors revise and rewrite obsessively. They hold their own work to an exceptionally high editorial standard. If you don't mimic those standards, you won't get published and frankly don't deserve to. It is not an agent's job to edit your work for you. It's yours. So go back to your book. Read, and re-read it. Change what you need to.
Get your work out to your list of agents. The normal submission package is covering letter, synopsis and three opening chapters (or roughly 10,000 words, if your chapters are of unusual length.) But do remember to check on each agent's precise submission requirements, and do adapt your package to meet them. Do tweak your letter, if appropriate, for each agent, but don't do this in a mechanical way. I know one agent who represents one notably starry author among a long list of fine quality ones. He tells me that at least one in three letters he receives tells him, 'I am writing to you because I love [Author X] whom you represent...'
Mostly, though, your job is simply to get your material out. Then wait without going crazy. Allow about six weeks, perhaps eight at busy times.
Respond intelligently to the feedback you get. If after eight weeks you have heard nothing from some agents and some straightforward rejections from the rest, then (perhaps after allowing another couple of weeks for the non-responders to get back to you) you need to accept that there is something not yet right about the material you are submitting. If, on the contrary, you are getting requests for the full manuscript, or getting back personal, warm and regretful rejections, then you may well be encouraged to resubmit elsewhere.
But getting an agent is not a numbers game. It's all about quality. Step one is hard; the rest is easy. Work hard, write beautifully – and good luck!
Harry Bingham is a novelist and non-fiction author, currently writing crime fiction for Orion. He also runs an editorial consultancy for new writers. You can find the Writers’ Workshop’s literary agent advice library here and try using Agent Hunter – an online database of UK literary agents – here.
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Thank you to Harry for a useful and encouraging article. If you're looking for an agent, following this step-by-step advice should definitely shorten the odds in your favour. Though Step 1 is by far the biggest challenge, of course!
If you're looking for an agent (or publisher) in the UK, I also strongly recommend checking out Harry's Agent Hunter website. The cost is a modest 12 UK pounds a year, but you can try it free for seven days to see if it meets your needs.
If you have any comments about the article, or questions for Harry (or for me), please do post them below.
Wordcloud by courtesy of Wordle.