The impossible task? Finding an agent.

When I was writing my novel, all my energies were focused on getting the plot right, the structure in place, the historical facts as accurate as research allowed. In the years it had taken to finally put The Perfect Pure Virgin into satisfactory form, I hadn’t given any thought at all about how to find an agent.  This was not due to any complacency on my part that it would be easy to get the novel published.  It was more that the story needed to be told and putting it together was my overwhelming driver.

It is an amazing tale of piety, sacrifice and single-mindedness set in 16th century England.  When I first came across this story, I was determined to get it published. Everyone knows of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot but they don’t know the real events behind it and the people who led perilous lives, wanting only to practice their faith in peace.

And so, when finally I had finished the last edit, I researched the best way of getting the book published.  To say that this is a difficult feat these days is a laughable understatement. A published author friend of mine told me to invest in a good supply of gin to help overcome the disappointment of rejection. Thousands of books every year are sent to publishers and agents which end up on the ‘slush pile’.  Many agents have no time to read these efforts while those who do are usually young agents starting out and looking to represent new and exciting authors.  Each year agents typically receive 2000 unsolicited manuscripts.  Out of all these they may take on 2-3 authors. They then have to pitch to their chosen publishers and may manage to sell two-thirds of those books they pitch. It is not an exact science and even if the agent is wildly enthusiastic about a book, this doesn’t guarantee it will be placed with a publisher.

There are many tales of well-known writers such as James Patterson and J.K. Rowling who endeavoured to find representation only to be rejected out of hand. Patterson’s first novel The Thomas Berryman Number was rejected by 31 publishers before he finally received a contract.  To date he has sold over 220 million books.   J.K . Rowling received 12 publishing rejections in a row for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  Eventually the eight year old child of an editor at Bloomsbury Publishing  begged to be allowed to read the rest of the manuscript and the rest, as the well-worn cliché goes, is history. Yet despite landing a contract, Rowling was told to get a day job as there was no money in children’s books!

It is these and countless stories like them that keep so many hopeful writers going.  Apart from a requirement for talent, staying power and good English, today’s writers need to develop a very thick skin.  One friend of mine who did get his novel published received a review that stated, “For this novel, the trees died in vain.”

There are few, if any, publishing houses today that will accept unsolicited manuscripts. Getting representation by an agent is almost the only way to stand any chance of being published in the conventional way.  Of course, many people self-publish these days and for some, writers like E.L. James, author of the 50 Shades of Grey series, this has proved very lucrative.  Unfortunately, it also means that there are countless books out there, available as e-books or in paperback form that are desperately in need of a thick red editing pen.  Having said that, there are, of course, many people who do self-publish and find the experience hugely rewarding.

But if the aim is to try for mainstream publishing houses, how then to go about finding an agent?

I attended an event last week at Waterstones in Piccadilly organised by The Writers’ Workshop. This organisation run extremely popular courses and a writers’ festival in York (September) where writers can meet agents and editors on a one-to-one basis.  I completed one of their Self-Editing courses in January and found it very full-on but extremely useful.

Harry Bingham, who hosted the event at Waterstones is a well-known published writer of police procedural novels.  He also knows his market.  The evening was split into two parts; the first where Harry gave useful information about finding an agent and the best submission procedure to adopt.  The second part of the evening was attended by three literary agents and the audience were invited to ask them questions.  Listening to these extremely savvy and enthusiastic women talking about their search for the ‘next big thing’ was very instructive.

What I took away from the evening was:

Make your novel as good as it can be: well-written, well edited, proof read and marketable.  That might seem obvious but listening to some of the horror stories agents tell, it clearly is not.

Although the covering letter and synopsis that accompany any submission are important, if the sample chapters are not good enough, no-one will publish your work.

One of the most useful tools given to the audience was a website: www.agenthunter.co.uk.

This lists every UK literary agent and most importantly, provides photos, biographies, contact information, literary preferences and submission requirements.  There is no point whatsoever submitting an historical novel to an agent who represents crime writers or an agent who is not currently looking for new authors.

The cost of subscribing is extremely reasonable and, apart from saving loads of time, emails and phone calls, it contains all the information required to refine your agent search.  Once you have logged on, you are presented with a series of menus.  There are options for an agent, agency and publisher search.  If, for example, you wanted to find an agent who welcomes historical novels, you could click on the ‘agent search’ and then filter down by genre, agent experience, client list status, size of agency, number of clients and who represents who?

As soon as I clicked on agents who are open to handling historical novels, a long list of names appeared with their photographs and a short biography.  Most have specified what kind of books they are looking for.  This, of course, is priceless information.  In pre-internet days, an author’s most useful resource was a copy of The Writers and Artists Yearbook (who incidentally also have an excellent website now) and involved trawling through page after page of what was, probably, information that was a year out of date. The agenthunter.com  website is very logical and user friendly and although it won’t be able to sell my book to an agent and then a publisher, I now feel that at least I have a good chance of sending my novel off in the right direction.

All that remains now is for me to ensure my novel is as good as it can possibly be, develop a thicker skin and get the gin bottle out!

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The impossible task? Finding an agent.

  1. Excellent blog Jennie. Thank you for sharing your experience. Agent Hunter here I come. Or is that a character from a spy novel?!!

  2. Ann Alexander

    Put me down for a copy! See you after the election?

  3. Comprehensive and helpful. Also nice to see an article that seems to understand the difficulties faced by agents as well as authors!

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