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Advice from literary agents
Who needs a literary agent?
…in reality agents are only interested in representing authors they can make money out of.
Most writers would love to have someone to talk up their work and haggle on their behalf over fees, advances and royalties. But in reality agents are only interested in representing authors they can make money out of. This isn’t because agents are venal vultures; it’s because they need to make a living out of what they do. So, do you need an agent?
YES - look for an agent
- novelists – editors are unlikely to consider a fiction manuscript unless it’s submitted by a reputable literary agent
- non-fiction book authors – non-fiction manuscripts can be submitted directly, but most editors prefer them to come via an agent
NO - not worth trying
- poets – a best-selling poetry book sells just 4,000 copies, not worth an agent’s time and effort
- short-story writers – it’s rare for a collection by an unknown author to be taken on by a mainstream publisher, rarer still for it to sell more than a few hundred copies
- playwrights – a play seldom earns enough to make it worth an agent’s time, but an established playwright may attract an agent
- journalists – journalistic commissions are too small and short-term to merit third-party negotiations
What does an agent do?
In the current competitive climate, the agent’s role has expanded to include the editing of manuscripts prior to submission, to give their clients a better chance of publication. The typical agent’s role includes the following:
- commenting on manuscripts and rewrites
- monitoring publishing trends
- keeping in touch with editors
- talking up and sending out manuscripts to selected editors
- commiseration and encouragement following rejection
- negotiating publishing contracts
- supporting and advising the author through the publishing process (cover, publicity, touring etc.)
- seeking out and negotiating overseas contracts, and contracts for film, radio, stage adaptations etc., sometimes via partner agencies
- critical feedback and cheerleading for future manuscripts
How much does an agent charge?
It is quite normal for agents to ask you to pay for photocopying and posting out your manuscript, but avoid unscrupulous agents who charge a fee in addition to this.
Any payment an agent negotiates on your behalf will be paid into the agent’s account, then transferred to your account less an agreed percentage. The percentage varies, but is normally 10-15 per cent. The percentage is more for overseas contracts because these are usually for lesser sums and may involve intermediaries, who also take a cut. It is quite normal for agents to ask you to pay for photocopying and posting out your manuscript, but avoid unscrupulous agents who charge a fee in addition to this. Reputable agents will normally be members of the Association of Authors' Agents.
How do I find an agent?
The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (A&C Black) publishes an up-to-date list of UK agents, along with the types of book they are interested in. There is a separate publication for children’s authors. The Writer’s Handbook (Palgrave) also contains this information. There are also several websites you can consult - for a fee. All you need do is peruse the list of agents, develop a shortlist of around 20 who handle your kind of book, then visit their websites, one by one, to whittle your selection down to your three favourites.
How many submissions?
…don’t give up, or consider a rewrite, until you’ve received rejections from every one of your 20 shortlisted agents.
Agents and editors will tell you not to submit to more than one person at a time. That’s to make their lives easier, not yours! After all, if an agent likes your work, s/he doesn’t want to fight someone else for the privilege of representing you. But if you submit to three agents at once, and they all show an interest, what have you got to lose? Your stock will rise when they realise that others rate your book too, and you’ll get the opportunity to pick someone you can trust and get along with. So I’d recommend sending out several submissions at a time – but don’t announce what you’re doing!
Limit your submissions to the number of rejections you think you can cope with at any one time - because it is unlikely that your book will appeal to everyone you send it to. But don’t give up, or consider a rewrite, until you’ve received rejections from every one of your 20 shortlisted agents.
Introducing the agents
I don’t like it when people pitch their books in their letters. I want a summary of the plot, not a back-cover blurb
JUDITH MURRAY of the agency Greene and Heaton represents Sarah Waters and specialises in historical and literary fiction. Judith studied English Literature at Oxford then went straight into publishing, working at W H Allen and the Women’s Press in various roles before becoming a talent scout for literary agents. She is a partner at Greene and Heaton where she has worked for 15 years. Her list reflects her catholic tastes, including commercial and literary authors as well as writers of fiction and non-fiction. Among the many authors Judith represents are: Poppy Adams, Matthew Carr, Sarah LeFanu, Debbie Taylor and Sarah Waters.
The first paragraph is vital. Everything is there: setting, story, voice, tone, who it’s aimed at
PETER ROBINSON of the agency Rogers, Coleridge & White represents best-selling general fiction author Joanne Harris. He has been involved in publishing for 24 years, starting as a junior editor at Michael Joseph. He was then recruited by literary agents Curtis Brown; by 1992 he was a Director and was involved in a management buyout ten years later. He left Curtis Brown in 2005 to found his own agency, which merged recently with RCW. He represents mainly commercial fiction authors and non-fiction writers. His clients include Steve Jones, Joanne Harris, Denise Mina, Ian Rankin and David Starkey. He also handles TV rights for many of his clients.
Stephenie Meyer’s books have been so successful, publishers are desperate for something in the same genre
VERONIQUE BAXTER of the agency David Higham Associates specialises in fiction for children. The agency represents Anne Fine and is the leading children’s writing agency in the UK. Veronique studied law and worked at a small publishing company before moving to the agency as an assistant to Jacqueline Korn ten years ago. She was then invited to start her own list and, when Jacqueline retired, took on most of her authors too. Among the many authors she now represents are both new and established authors, including Nicola Davies, Jamila Gavia, Saci Lloyd, Geraldine McCaughrean, Michael Mopurgo and Jenny Valentine.
Don’t be afraid to use any contacts you have and mention the names of people who support your work
SARAH BALLARD of the agency United Agents represents Nicci French (and Nicci Gerrard) and has a particular interest in psychological thrillers. Sarah studied English at Oxford, then Publishing at Oxford Brookes University, before working at Sceptre, the literary imprint of Hodder & Stoughton, from 1998 to 2000. From there she went to the literary agency Peters, Fraser and Dunlop, where she was employed as an editor, developing material before submission or delivery to publishers. She now has her own list of authors whom she represents at United Agents, including: Julian Barnes, Lucy Dawson, Nicci French, Nicci Gerrard, Ben Goldacre and Blake Morrison.
You should never start a novel with someone waking up to the sound of an alarm clock, or with an extended description
BILL HAMILTON of the agency A M Heath represents Man Booker prize-winning Hilary Mantel and specialises in literary fiction. Bill studied English at Oxford, which he feels was a very misleading way of approaching the business of publishing. He started at Secker and Warburg before joining A M Heath in 1982, so he has been in the agenting business for nearly 30 years. He represents both literary fiction and commercial fiction and a wide spectrum of non-fiction, particularly history and current affairs. Among the many authors Bill represents are: Anita Brookner, Andrew Crumey, Lesley Glaister, Marina Lewycka and Hilary Mantel.
If you suggest changes to the typescript a good author immediately starts thinking of ways to solve a problem
JANE GREGORY of the authors’ agents Gregory and Company represents best-selling crime writer Val McDermid and specialises in crime fiction and up-market commercial fiction. Before setting up as an agent Jane was a Rights and Contracts Director for various publishers. She is the co-founder of the Orange Prize and co-founded the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate. In the past, Jane has been on the Virago advisory panel, co-founded Women in Publishing and has produced and directed several publishers' pantomimes. Among the many authors Jane represents are: Adele Geras, Mo Hayder, Val McDermid, Chris Simms, Martin Waites and Minette Walters.
HOW TO GET PUBLISHED
The interviews in this section were conducted by Mslexia Founder Debbie Taylor for the Roadshow.
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