Category Archives: Agents

Throwback Thursday: Tales of York, Volume One – Slushpile hell to Slushpile heaven

(First published on my old blog, 12th October 2013)


Right, after my lazy attempt last night, I feel I should deliver some substance today so here is the next installment in my York FoW13 chronicles.
This seminar was run by the lovely Julia Churchill and Penny Holroyde (both well known agents). It focused on what you can do to make your manuscript stand out of the slush pile, giving you the best chance of being picked up by an agent. As I said in an earlier post, agents are serious book lovers (and don’t have horns) so don’t go in with the attitude that they are your enemy, out to prevent your book from connecting with its audience.

It was extremely interesting and heartening to get the take of two agents on this. They didn’t talk about specific genres – why would they? It’s not their job to write the book. That’s our job! But there are special annoyances to avoid when submitting your manuscript to an agent. I’m going to list what I gleaned from this seminar but I will mention Nicola Morgan at this point. She is a published author and self-styled ‘crabbit old bat’, who writes brilliant, helpful posts on how to get published on her blog. I strongly recommend checking this out before you submit anything, I found her advice really helpful in preparing for York.

Ok then, hints, tips and other gleanings;

– Finish the book! Do not submit your manuscript until it is finished. I heard a lot of agents say this over the course of the weekend. Nothing is more annoying to them than reading the first three chapters of something, loving it, calling up the author asking to see the rest – only to have the author say ‘ oh, but I haven’t written that yet. Can you wait?’ Well yes they might wait and they might still want to see the rest of the manuscript when you’re done but the chances that they are still going to be as excited about it, as they were when they first read it are very slim. If you write non fiction, sample chapters, an outline, synopsis and CV are fine. If it’s fiction then finish it first! Remember, though publishing moves slowly, agents and publishers actually move very fast; they have to in order to be a step ahead of various literary fairs and book lists.

One at a time.   Perhaps you’re massively prolific in your writing or the planets have aligned and filled you with strange energies so you have finished off half a dozen novels that have been lying around in various states of undress for some time. Pick one and submit. The others have to wait their turn. You might be really good and highly marketable but if you bombard an agent with submissions you’re likely to get a no, just so you’ll leave them alone.

Do your homework. Make a list of possible agents, checking into them a bit to see if you think you’d like to work with them. These agents should be people you want to work with and they should handle books in your genre. The ‘pray and spray’ approach to submissions, rarely works. If you send your historical romance to an agent who only deals with  yachting biographies then the answer will be ‘no’ and everyone has wasted time.

Formatting. Most agents have a list of formatting guidelines with their submissions policy. Read them. If you don’t, you are going to appear either lazy, as if you haven’t checked out the agent (which by the way the agent expects) or that you don’t bother to read. None of that is attractive to an agent. Most agents nowadays use Kindles to read submissions. So don’t send PDFs as they are illegible on kindle. Title your files clearly – if an agent has two dozen files on a kindle and eighteen of them are titled ‘sample chapters’, she is going to read the one titled with the books name first. Remember, when the files are loaded onto a kindle, only a certain amount of the title appears in the list. So if you title something ‘sample chapters; [title of your book]’ then the only bit that appears is ‘sample chapters’.

Submitting you MS. Have a great title; they’ve seen a lot of it before. A great title makes them more likely to pick up your book first. In the covering letter, use a reasonable sized one paragraph pitch. Include a bit about yourself. Agents are interested in building careers not just one book, if they are thinking about representing you, you will probably be asked what you’re working on now. Agents don’t really care about previous publishing credits. They don’t need a CV of published short stories. Ultimately they want good debut authors.

Resubmissions and Replies. Yes you might get a rejection. Everyone does at some point. What you never ever ever do under any circumstances, is write a rude reply to the agent. We saw some in the seminar and I felt horrified and embarrassed for the people who sent them. Publishing is actually a fairly small world and they DO all talk to each other. On the other hand if you’ve done significant work on your MS and really feel you’ve improved it (especially if you got a ‘no thanks but think about looking at this’ sort of reply) then it’s encouraged to resubmit to the same agent. Agents usually only leave feedback if they are interested in your book – they are not a critiquing service. So don’t expect some in a reply. And don’t be a pest. Your MS is getting read. They can’t take the chance that a gold nugget is getting swept away in the pile of rocks. Four weeks is about the right time to send a friendly inquiry about your sample chapters. Six weeks, if they’ve asked to see the whole MS.

Finally, here are the Submission Bootcamp Dos and Don’ts;

– ‘I have submitted this to a handful of carefully selected agents but will of course inform you…’ Big don’t. In reality agents know that you can’t submit to them one at a time but highlighting it at the sample chapter stage is foolish. At worst it smacks of trying to force their hand.

– Don’t use silly email addresses; agents want to know they are dealing with someone professional.

– Do drop the names of authors on their lists that you admire. This doesn’t mean saying that you are the next Philip Pullman, but you can say ‘would appeal to fans of Philip Pullman’ about your work. Also showing that you know who an agent represents proves you’ve done your homework about them.

– Don’t include copyright pages. What you’re saying when you do this, is that you don’t expect an agent to act professionally. And of course your MS is copyright protected. The minute you write it and send it (even if you only email it to yourself) it’s under copyright.

– Do re-submit

– Don’t submit unfinished manuscripts.

– Don’t request a receipt on your email. Agents hate this kind of trickery!

– Don’t direct an agent o dropbox, Yousendit, a link or amazon.

– Don’t lie. Ever. They will find out. They are spooky like that.

– Do mention if you’ve met the agent before.

– Do highlight if it’s a resubmission, but this isn’t essential.

– Do submit your next book, even if the first is rejected. They still want to see what you write.

And there you have it. Much of it is business courtesy but these are all important  points. Remember. it’s just as big a deal for the agent to call an author and offer to represent them, as it is for the author to receive that call!

Tales of York, Volume one: A Distinct lack of Brimstone

(First published on my old blog, 4th October 2013)

From the title, I’m sure you can guess I’m continuing my York memoirs 😉 In this instance I want to talk about agents.

If you read my earlier York post, you’ll know that I was very nervous about going due to my ineptitude at talking about my writing. Since I’d booked two one-to-one sessions with agents to find out how marketable my book is, I was definitely jittery about the whole thing.
In my naivity, I booked both ten minute sessions back to back. A bit of description for anyone who hasn’t tried this; there are small tables with two chairs facing each other across them, set up slightly like a prison visiting area as seen on many TV shows. There are lots of these little capsules of literary intrigue within a single open room. There are also lots of one-to-ones taking place at the same time.
Timing is strict. You have ten minutes from the buzzer; a one minute warning at nine minutes; then you have to clear off when the buzzer sounds again. It is insane, manic speed dating with far more riding on it than the conventional kind. You’ve already picked who you’ll see and you want them to be invested in your work.
To backtrack a bit, six weeks in advance, you send 3000 words of your manuscript, a synopsis and a covering letter. The agent (or publisher or book doctor) will read this and make notes prior to the event.
Scary stuff, huh?
On how many other occasions are you asked to pitch straight in, talking about something really personal and close to your heart and make a connection?
Of course the aim isn’t necessarily to acquire an agent that day – though some do ask to see the full manuscript. The aim is to make a connection as a basis for future contact and to find out if what you write is marketable. If so, what do you need to improve.
So, first proper day at York, 10.30am Saturday morning, with my courage grasped tight in both sweat-slick hands and my heart, lungs and stomach clinging to each other in my throat, I went to meet the Kraken.
This is a very unfair description but that is what it feels like. Happily for me, both of my appointed agents were lovely. It was incredibly hard to pitch my book, despite all the preparation I had done. I had one horrible moment with the first agent, where I opened my mouth and nothing came out. She had asked me what my book was about. I sat there for thirty endless seconds thinking ‘I can’t remember!’ Then my brain clunked into gear and my ongoing love for the story took over. She even said my pitch was good!
Both agents said that they thought my idea was highly marketable and would appeal to a wide readership. They then preceded to explain what I needed to work on. All in all it wasn’t that bad at all. I’d caught a glimmer of interest.
It’s incredibly heartening as well as useful to have feedback from an agent. They do know what will sell after all. I would say that if you are not good with taking critique or feedback you won’t get so much out if it. These are professional book lovers who know the market. If they tell you that you’re over writing, you probably are! As with all criticism though, it should be divided in to ‘accept’, ‘adapt’ or ‘reject’ categories. Agents have preferences too and aren’t right about everything. ( though I have to say they were bang on the money about me and what I needed to do.)
Curiously light headed and seriously high on adrenaline I toddled off to a seminar and let it all sink in.
It was weird. All those agents and not a whiff of brimstone. Could it be that they were book lovers plus ten? I’m a rabid reader (I’d say avid but it just isn’t strong enough) but I’d never pushed myself into the arena of trying to make literature appear (unless you count writing.) for a moment I had a glimmer of what being an agent must be like. If you love books, it must seem like being Indiana Jones in a slush pile; the greatest treasure hunt ever. Exciting but I don’t believe I could ever do it. Just that mad speed dating once a year must take it out of you. All those hopeful authors, most of home you will have bad or indifferent news for…emotionally exhausting in the extreme. Add to that the fact that some writers can be so precious about their work that they only want to hear ‘Yes’. So it might be close to good but they don’t want to hear about improving it. That’s go to be maddening too.
I was to find out later in the day that some writers send unpleasant even abusive emails when their work is rejected. I read some of them in a seminar I went to that afternoon (personal details removed of course). My jaw hit the desk. Who in their right mind thought sending these was going to make an agent reconsider? I won’t repeat them but rude was an understatement.
And in case anyone wasn’t clear, nasty letters to an agent are a big no-no. And they do remember you. Also, all agents talk. It’s a small world, publishing. I’m just saying…
At the gala dinner that evening, fortified with half a glass of champagne, I screwed up my courage again and went to speak to another agent casually.
I did not do this to pitch my book. I had no intention of bringing it up at all. I wanted to have a chat as Id followed this person on twitter for a while and thought they were witty and clever. I’m not saying that I hadn’t considered submitting to them. I had. But my purpose was to scope them out in person. I was beginning to get an inkling of how important an agent you like and get on with is.
Which is what we talked about among other things. (For the record either I hid my nerves better than I thought or this person was just too lovely to comment on it. My hands were shaking.) It was a good chat. Even though the third thing U said was ” turns out agents don’t have horns!” Luckily this person had a sense of humour and got where I was coming from.
What I learned;
-Agents don’t have horns.
-They’re in it for the long haul. It’s not a case if them representing one book, they are looking to represent your developing career.
– An agent will turn down a perfectly sellable book if they don’t feel excited about it. This is not a reflection on the writing. It’s a case of them not feeling passionate enough about it to want to take it on. Isn’t that a good thing? If someone takes me on, I want to know they’re as excited about the journey as me.
– Agents are book lovers with market knowledge and contacts. It may seem like they have the power of life and death over an author’s career but actually that power never leaves a writer’s hands. We’re the ones who have to write good books after all.
– Agents are happy to see resubmissions of the same book if work has been done in it, especially if they left feedback when they rejected it the first time.
– Agents aren’t trying to be a barrier to your writing career. They need books to sell. In effect they need us as much as we need them.
– Agents do not care if you have previous writing credits or not. They want debut authors, they want careers they can help grow from the ground up. As one agent said, we’re always looking for the next JK Rowling or Dan Brown.
– an agent is usually being kind if they tell you something is unsellable. As horrible as that is to hear, it’s crueler to encourage false hope and have everyone waste time.
-Agents are human too. They don’t always get it right. If you believe in your book stick with it.
– Agents absolutely hate the idea of the one that got away. They do read your submissions. As professionals they may only need to read two paragraphs before they know that it’s not up to scratch or not for them. Take on the chin and move on.
All that from one 10min conversation. Worth screwing up my courage for methinks!
Perhaps I was lucky. I have heard other people say that they had a less positive or even negative experience with their one-to-ones. Since I wasn’t there I can’t comment. All I can say is that all the agents I met, were lovely, intelligent, discerning people who love books.
I’m feeling better about submitting my novel now. And I no longer expect to see horns 😉