Novel writing isn’t for the impatient (or wise, for that matter). I’ve been writing mine since end 2011, and this year, I’ve finally found a literary agent for it, and for my writing. An insightful editor, an entertaining conversationalist and email-writer who doesn’t mince his words, and a wry tweeter of cat pictures: Ed Wilson from Johnson & Alcock is definitely the right person to represent me, though I’m a dog person, myself.
You see, those are the sort of differences with your agent you can live with. (Plus, I do like kitty pictures, if not kitties.)
I started off my agent hunt in London with a slew of workshops of all stripes, and immediately discovered an important fact: the Publishing world is People. Now, that might sound like an idiotic conclusion to draw, one that I could have reached at home. But the difference between theory and practice is that between teaching and performance.
It was wonderful to meet extremely helpful authors, writing coaches, consultants, publishers, poets, and yes, agents. You read about them, and you go, oh, stars, celebrities. Then you chat with them, and you find that the best of them are some of the most real, down-to earth people you’ve met, who either love the word, or love the word and make money out of it. (Let’s not kid ourselves, it can be fairly insular–I was the only person of colour in almost all the classrooms and salons, and that wasn’t lost on me. But that’s a different conversation.) By and large, I met very approachable, decent folk, complete with the very British (and largely reasonable, imo) moaning about the English summer (that saw two perfect sunny days followed by a pandemic of clouds, rain, hail, even.)
Things I quickly realised about finding representation for that novel you’re writing:
- Agents get pitched all the time. Most writers have no clue how to pitch: that one sentence elevator pitch is really it. Agents are looking for a new voice most of the time, but they hear a Lot of gobbledygook (I did my share of that with the first agent I met). Unless you’re writing literary, you should be able to boil your novel premise down to a sentence.
- Pitch them in person or through someone whose opinion they trust, and they get back to you fairly quickly. It seems unfair, but agents are regular people, and regular people pay more attention to people they’ve met or know. I met eight agents, pitched to five of them and received offers from two. The other two offers and two full requests came from agents who’d heard about me from other authors or coaches. (Just one interest came from a brilliant agent I had no connect with, who wanted to see the full after I informed her I had offers. She eventually passed.)
- The pitch in the query letter? That’s really the best way to get a-hold of an agent. In a week filled with taking care of their current clients who earn for them, of attending events and meeting editors, and the truck of paperwork they have to go through, they barely have enough time to look at query letters. They do their best, but really, that pitch paragraph must knock them for six.
- Novel writing is hard work, but finding representation can be equally hard. Don’t pitch anything you can’t stand behind.
- I had agents to choose from, and while that sounds like an enviable situation, it didn’t feel like it at the time. I had sterling advice from agented author-friends, but in the end, it was a case of finding an agent with matching viewpoints.
- I found it was important to figure out what the agent’s take would be on decisions like advances and editors, on how long the relationship should last, on what they saw my book becoming, how they saw me and my writing. I finally had a choice of four very good agents, each with their set of undeniable plus points, but in the end, I had to remember that there was no Perfect Agent. Only an agent Perfect for Me.
This is not a definitive ‘how to find a literary agent’ article by any means: just one writer’s take on the process. Another writer who wants to get published will have a completely different story to tell. In the writing world as in the real one, individual stories differ. Luck and timing, more than anything else, led me to the right agent. I’m very, very aware of my privilege (including awesome friends who let me stay in their homes during my agent-hunt), and grateful for it.
As I dive into further edits, I have no clue where my novel would end up. To me though, finding an agent has been more important than finding a publisher. The publishing landscape is changing fast, tastes are subjective and transient and all bets are off– but with a strong agent on my team, I’ll take my chances. At the very least, I’ll keep novel-writing!
What about you? If you’re a writer, are you agented, seeking representation, or self-published? What are the pros and cons of each? What advice do you have for a writer starting out, a writer-newly-agented, or a self-published writer? Any advice on how to find a Literary Agent? Want to share your agent-query-quest story? If you’re a reader, does it affect your choice, especially in e-books, whether a writer is self or traditionally published?
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