Tag Archives: advice

Part 1: What does a literary agent do?

A lot of people ask me what a literary agent does.  There is a huge amount involved in the day-to-day running of a literary agency, and indeed being an agent, but I believe the three main aspects of an agent’s job are talent spotting, author care and deal making.  I will explain each of these over the upcoming week.

Talent spotting – an agent has to find new talent to sell.  This is their bread and butter and will keep an Agency growing and expanding.  I do everything I can each day to grow my slush pile (which I call my ‘potential’ pot).  To ensure that the quality remains high, I attend writing events and give talks to writing groups around the UK and Ireland.  I’m also involved in panel discussions organised for writers wanting to get published.  I go to creative writing courses at universities and I keep this blog to promote my authors and ensure that writers know what my personal taste is and what I am looking for.  I want writers to ‘know’ me before they submit their work.  I think it is extremely important that writers know how to present their work to agents and that they look for an agent who is interested in reading their manuscript.  A writer wants to have a sort of affinity with their agent.  A lot of writers feel very despondent when they get rejected, but most of the time it is because they haven’t targeted the right agent for their book.

Day in day out, my passion is finding outstanding voices in both adult and children’s fiction and non-fiction, and negotiating top deals.  I have a very strong women’s fiction list and I am now looking to expand into crime, thrillers and mystery.  I am always on the lookout for fantastic Young Adult novels too and the kind of books people like to discuss in bookclubs, the so called ‘Richard & Judy’ reads – these are novels that are accessible yet have really interesting themes.  My main criteria is this though: no matter what genre, if I simply cannot book your book down, I will want to be your agent.

In my next posts I will address author care and deal making, particularly appropriate given that the London Book Fair runs next week from 16th – 18th April.


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My two top Literary Consultants

Some literary consultants are fantastic at improving the standard of a manuscript before submitting to agents and publishers.  Two literary consultants I hugely recommend are as follows:

The Shelley Instone Literary Consultancy, established in 2011 in order to give writers the very best advice and critiques in the business. Focussing entirely on children’s books, Shelley has the huge advantage of editing and reading for many agents and really does know how high the bar is to make it as a writer. She has an MA in Children’s Literature and has also worked as a journalist for online publications interviewing and reviewing many of the UK’s best known authors. Shelley is committed to assisting writers of all abilities.

Smart Quill Editorial run by Philippa Donovan, currently commissioning children’s fiction for a major UK publishing house. Previously she worked with authors of literary and commercial fiction and non-fiction at an agency in London. She has been in the industry for 10 years and has contacts with agencies, scouts and publishers worldwide.  The special thing about this consultancy is that they do both adults and children’s books, and with a focus on digital too.  She’s the only consultant I am aware of offering to discuss and advise authors on trade publishing and digital options.

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Covering Letters

I was recently asked to be on a panel at the How To Get Published conference in the Wellcome Collection giving advice about submitting work to agents.   The panel was chaired by Jeremy Lewis and included myself,  Carole Blake, James Gill and Patrick Walsh. We were each given a batch of covering letters in advance, sent in by the audience.  This is a summary of my advice.

  • Neat structure and format – don’t make it look like a CV. It needs to look like a personal letter, three or four paragraphs on one page, 1.5 spacing.  3 consecutive chapters.  I like short chapters.  Present one book, not a collection.
  • Conversational and personal – read out loud to make sure it flows and has a conversational tone.  I like to imagine that you are speaking to me in person.
  • Title – have a gripping title.  A title that stands out from the rest.  One that immediately makes me want to read.  Striking titles are always memorable.  Think Rosamund Lupton’s SISTER, S.J Watson’s BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP.
  • Pitch – make sure you build your letter around a strong one line pitch to hook the reader in. It is invaluable to get to the ‘core’ of your book when you are discussing your work with friends, writing groups and potential agents. Agents use them when pitching to editors, editors use them when pitching to sales teams, sales teams use them when pitching to booksellers, readers use them when pitching to other potential readers.   Word of mouth is the biggest publicity tool for books and your book has to have a strong and exciting pitch.
  • Blurb – keep this simple yet exciting.  I want to know that it’s going to be a good story.
  • Background info and qualifications – if I like your book idea I’ll want to read more about you so put this towards the end of the letter.
  • Book 2 – are you submitting a stand alone novel or is it part of a series?
  • Exclusive material – have you chosen me specifically and why? Have you researched my list? Would I be the right agent for you?

Below are some useful questions that came out of the discussion which I have answered, specifically with the Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency in mind:

  1. I lack some of the experience an agent might wish for such as previous publication and formal creative writing training.  Should I plainly state these as a list of ‘do not haves’ (my honesty is inclined this way), or simply not mention them, and leave the agent wondering?  Always be positive!  There is no point in stating what you have not got.  I always look at the story first and foremost – this is the most important thing.
  2. My first draft cover letter read much more like a formal job application, but on the advice of the Writers and Artists website I wrote and submitted a far more personal letter.  What do the panel think about the merits  of a personal approach? I love to read a personal letter which has a conversational tone but I like the structure to be very neat and clear.  I don’t like waffle.
  3. Should the first timer submit a CV, even though that CV will shout their lack of relevant training and publication?  No, keep it personal.
  4. I’ve heard that with creative non-fiction it’s possible to approach an agent with some sample chapters and a synopsis, rather than a completed manuscript. Is the same also true with fiction?  I will consider non-fiction on proposal but for fiction editors much prefer to see a full length manuscript so I’d rather wait until it is finished.  We will then be in a much better position to negotiate top deals around the world.  It is surprising how some novels start so well but flop in the middle.
  5. Should a synopsis be included with a completed novel manuscript?  Yes, we want to see that you understand plotting.
  6. With so many agents out there, how does a writer go about finding the right one? What should we look for and what questions should we ask?  Look for an agent who you feel is on the same wavelength as you, who likes similar books to you.  An agent-author relationship is longterm and you need to be as ambitious as your agent and be able to relate to them.  You want to find the perfect match which is much easier nowadays with all the online information out there.

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The editor – author relationship

 C.J Daugherty first submitted her manuscript, NIGHT SCHOOL, back in January 2011.  We worked on it editorially for the first few months before I submitted exclusively to Stephenie Meyer’s UK editor, Sam Smith at Atom / Little Brown.  From the moment I read the manuscript I knew she would be the right editor and that Christi and Sam would be a match made in heaven.  Never underestimate the importance of the editor – author relationship.  In terms of long-term success it is just as important than the advance, if not more so.  The editor has to be as passionate as you and the author as they will champion the author for years to come within their publishing company winning over all key support and battle their author to the top for years to come.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair 2011, foreign rights in NIGHT SCHOOL were acquired by 14 different foreign publishers from around the world.  The US rights were acquired by Katherine Tegen at HarperCollins in a high six figure deal at auction.

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