Not all publishers accept ‘unsolicited’ manuscripts, meaning that your work might only come to them via a literary agent. Thus, literary agents are a fact of life for even first-time and aspiring authors. How do you go about getting yourself a literary agent? Well…
1. Every literary agent is different. I know, it’s annoying and means you have to take a slightly different approach with each one, but there’s no standard job description for agents, I’m afraid. They don’t even offer a standard service to the author. Some agents will only want to talk to you if you have two publishers making you an offer and you need someone to hold an auction and create a bidding war. Such agents will take their 15% cut of whatever deal is agreed and then you’ll never hear from them again. Other agents, by contrast, will look at your work and, if they take you on, proactively look to place and sell your work to a publisher.
2. Where to start then? Well, you can do worse than start with the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (see the link called ‘UK publishers and agents’ in the right-hand column of this site), which lists all the literary agents in the UK and details which genres they represent. It will also tell you the best way in which to approach these agents, but I’d always recommend going to the agent’s website to check their submission guidelines.
3. Let me make things simpler for you if you’re an aspiring scifi/fantasy author. There are only a hanful of literary agents in the UK for scifi/fantasy, so if you don’t get anywhere with them, things are going to be difficult. For what it’s worth, here they are:
i) Sheil Land (always reply), http://www.sheilland.co.uk
ii) United Agents (rarely bother to reply), http://unitedagents.co.uk/
iii) Zeno Agency (only open for submissions once in a while), http://zenoagency.com/
iv) London Independent Books, contact Carolyn Whitaker (nice lady)
v) Artellus Limited, http://www.artellusltd.co.uk/
vi) Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency (matter of taste), http://www.carolinesheldon.co.uk/
vii) Mic Cheetham, http://www.miccheetham.com/
viii) Marjacq Scripts (allow you to submit online, and they always reply), http://www.marjacq.com/home/home.htm
ix) MBA Literary Agency, http://www.mbalit.co.uk/
x) John Jarrold (agent to the late, great Robert Jordan), http://www.johnjarrold.co.uk/
xi) Darley Anderson (good reputation), www.darleyanderson.com
xii) Hanbury Agency (agent to yours truly, and J G Ballard back in the day, so they can’t be bad, eh?), www.hanburyagency.co.uk
xiii) Conville & Walsh (check their staff list to see who represents what genre), www.convilleandwalsh.com
4. This list will become shorter as you check their websites (if they have them) and discover that some of them are ‘closed’ for new submissions because they have no more room for new clients.
5. But let’s say you’ve found a few that look approachable and are now going to send material. Remember, these agents get about 100 new manuscripts a week (far more than they have time to read), so how are you going to make sure your material gets to the top of their slush pile or stands out?
6. Just having a great manuscript isn’t good enough! If your submission doesn’t stand out enough, the agent isn’t even going to sit down and read your manuscript in order to discover it’s great, now are they? Basically, your cover letter and synopsis need to be killers. They need to be masterpieces of sales and marketing. Oops, you think to yourself. We creative author-types don’t often know too much about marketing.
7. Your cover letter needs to detail your USPs (‘unique selling-points’). You need to tell the agent: if you’ve won any writing competitions (or been shortlisted), if you have any ISBNs or other publications to your name (magazine articles, etc), if you’ve posted your material online and got a massive online readership, if you’ve self-published at all and got good sales figures, that an established author allows you to quote them as endorsing your writing, whether you have a degree in literature, whether you are semi-famous for anything other than writing, etc.
8. More than that, as well as a one-page synopsis, you need a great 30-word synopsis of your book. Why 30 words? Well, it’s often requested when you enter a writing competition, and it’s a standard requirement of the film and tv script-writing industry. Sometimes, the 30-word ‘pitch’ is known as the ‘lift test’. Imagine you met someone famous or important in a lift and only had a handful of seconds to sales pitch to them. What would your 30-word speech be? The standard one I use for Necromancer’s Gambit is: “It’s about a soldier raised from the dead by a desperate magician who needs his help. The soldier doesn’t remember who he was when he was alive, so it’s a reverse murder mystery as he finds out who he was, who killed him and what he can do about the fact he’s dead. All with a load of gods and demons thrown in for good measure!”
9. As suggested from the point above, if an existing well-known author gives you a quote you can use by way of reference or endorsement, then things are easier. In fact, well-known authors are often more approachable than agents and publishers. So find some on facebook or their own website and see if you can strike up a relationship of sorts with them. Buy and read their book or something to get them talking to you first, and then ask if you can send them something. I’m a sucker when people do that with me.
10. And if you get nowhere with the UK agents, don’t forget the US. The agency called JABerwocky is worth a look: http://awfulagent.com/.
11. Failing that, don’t just give up. Where there’s a will, there’s a way! There are other publishing options (see my other pages under ‘author advice’).
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