Lessons from the Agents 1: Don’t mess it up

  • Thirty writers met two agents and learned a great deal.
  • A submission package consists of a cover letter, a synopsis and the first three chapters.
  • A large number of people make basic errors with the cover letter.
  • The agent is our way into the business of publishing, so treat it as a business.


(Midhras [CC / Flickr])

What happens when you put two literary agents in a room with thirty unagented writers? No, the agents don’t get torn to pieces by the writers. Nor do the writers do any damage to one another in a scramble for the agents’ attention.

Both of which came as a relief to me when I organised that event in January. What actually happened was that the writers learned a great deal about how to approach an agent, and what happens if the agent takes them on. As one of the writers, I came away with the distinct impression that forewarned is forearmed, so I’ll be sharing what I learned in the next few posts.

If you’ve read my other writing articles, you’ll know I try to put the emphasis on what to do rather than what not to do. So why is my first post on the subject subtitled ‘don’t mess it up’?


(Jane Rahman [CC / Flickr])

The reason is the number of people who get the basics wrong is either disturbing or heartening, depending on whether you sympathise with the agent dealing with it or regard the other authors as your competition for her attention.

Many thanks to Jessie Botterill and Hellie Ogden

The agents who gave up their Saturday afternoon to field a barrage of questions were Hellie Ogden and Jessie Botterill of Janklow & Nesbit, and we all left the event very grateful for their time and patience with us, as well as much wiser on the arcana of what to do with a novel when we’d published it.

The next couple of posts will be a summary of what I learned, with certain caveats. It’s from two individuals working for one agency, and that agency is in the UK. There may be differences in approach between the UK and other countries. The other is that agents are the way into publishing deals with the major publishers. They are not involved with self-publishing, or with small publishers that deal with the authors directly and their advice reflects that.


(BRICK 101 [CC / Flickr])

We go to agents because we want to sell our book to a major publisher. Gone are the days when we could submit manuscripts to them directly. Neil Gaiman is often quoted as saying he didn’t even have an agent until he’d published a few books and as recently as 2005, the advice to debut novelists was to get an offer from the publisher first and then find an agent to negotiate for us. While some publishers still have the occasional open submission window, most publishers most of the time will only accept submissions that come from an agent.

Cover letters and synopses

That means we’re going to be submitting to agents much more than we’re going to be submitting to publishers. So how do we go about it?

The submissions package consists of three documents:

– A cover letter.

– A synopsis.

– The first three chapters of the novel.

Because Hellie and Jessie are very kind people, they offered to look at our cover letters and synopses before the event and give us some written feedback. Because I was organising the event and screened all the submissions, I learned my first lesson a week before the event: a hell of a lot of people slip up on the basics.


(Marianne Madden [CC / Flickr])

The internet hosts almost as many articles on how to get published as funny cats, and many of them mention green ink. That is, they say something like, ‘don’t try to make your submission stand out by submitting it in green ink’, or rather green font now that most submissions are electronic. I can’t imagine many people are that silly, though I’m sure the ones that do stick agents’ minds for all the wrong reasons. I’ve always assumed these articles emphasise basic errors so we can think, ‘well I’d never do anything like that’ and feel smug, and by extension feel warm and fuzzy about the article and return to the same site for more. I was wrong. I now know it’s because so many people make basic errors.

Don’t be the green ink guy

In fairness, none of the thirty writers used bizarre fonts, but they did make some fairly basic mistakes. More than a third fell flat on at least one of the following:

File format: Use an easily readable format, either Word or PDF. The agent is not going to mess around with file converters because you couldn’t be bothered to do it yourself.

Get the name right: Address the letter to the agent by name. Not ‘Dear agent’ and above all, not the wrong agent (yes, two people did that). If you don’t do that, you look like someone who hasn’t done their homework and looked up what sort of novel they’re interested in. Different agents specialise in different genres and if you don’t use their name, you look like someone blanket bombing every agent you can find without looking at the guidelines. Apparently they get a lot of that.


(Drew McLellan [CC / Flickr])

Email: If you don’t put your email address on the letter, you won’t get a reply. That was the most common omission by far.

Spelling: Proof read the cover letter. You’re trying to sell your ability as a writer, and this is the first sample of your writing the agent will see. Mis-spellings and poor grammar will not start you off on the right foot.

Phone number: Include your phone number on both the letter and the email you send it in. That one was news to me, but apparently they often give good news by phone.

Hellie and Jessie each receive around 100 submissions a week and when you’re up against that sort of competition, first impressions count. The cover letter is the first impression. Make it count.

They put it succinctly: Publishing is a business and the aim submission package is to start a business relationship. Separate the processes of writing and publishing in your mind. The aim of writing is to indulge your muse to the full, to write the best prose you can and to translate the story in your mind into something beautiful on the page.

The aim of publishing is to shift product.

When you ask an agent to represent you, she needs to know you’re someone she can work


(June Yarham [CC / Flickr])

with. Even in the big agencies, the agents work on commission rather than salary. They can’t make a living out of your artistic sensibilities.

Don’t get lost in the slush

While we’re on the subject of how things look to the agent, it’s a good time to mention some other insights from the agent’s end of the process.

As well as putting effort into what you submit, it’s also worth thinking about when you submit it. Both Jessie and Hellie receive several submissions on Christmas Day. While they can understand that some people want to hide from the annual family row behind the computer, those submissions are simply not going to get the attention of something that arrives during the working week. Other dates to avoid are the week of the London Bookfair every April and the week of the Frankfurt Bookfair every October. During those weeks, agents will be focusing on selling rather than buying, and you won’t do your submission any favours by shoving into the middle of the backlog that builds up in the meantime.

In spite of the volume of submissions, Jessie and Hellie try to respond to all of them, and said they don’t mind a query after six weeks if they haven’t.

The wrong reputation

British publishing is a small industry, with only a few agencies and a few publishers. That means that everybody in the industry knows each other and talks to each other. With the


(IICD [CC / Flickr])

volume of submissions they receive, we can deduce that they won’t remember many of them, but the ones they will remember will fall into one of two categories. There are the really good ones, that they take on and talk about in the context of trying to sell them. That’s the category we want to be in.

The other is the one that has made itself memorable for the wrong reasons. That’s the category we don’t want to be in.

Don’t badger them a week after you submitted or send an irate response if you get rejected. While we’d all like our names to be known in the industry, we’d rather they weren’t associated with the word ‘nutjob’.

A more prosaic but probably more common beef is that you should let the agent know immediately if you’re accepted elsewhere. They’ll expect you to send the submission package to several agents at once, but they won’t be impressed if they spend a long time reading something only to find you knew it was already taken.

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Posted in Wednesday Pontification, Writing

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