Six Tips on finding a Literary Agent, from Bestselling Author Jo Furniss #WriteTip

Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the ongoing guest post series, it is my absolute pleasure today to welcome to this site author Jo Furniss, who speaks about her writing journey — how she found an agent, and publication success, with her fantastic debut, an amazon-bestselling apocalyptic thriller, All the Little Children.

Take it away, Jo!

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Jo Furniss Amazon bestselling All the Little ChildrenOnce upon a time, if you’d asked me about Fate, I would have scoffed. Destiny, Luck, Serendipity: opiate of the masses. But when I met my literary agent—in an extraordinary moment of Twitter-based chance—it felt like Providence herself had intervened.

Back in 2012, when I was at home with my two young children, I decided to take my flailing career in hand and study a Masters in Professional Writing. As a former BBC journalist, I planned to write non-fiction books, but during the narrative modules two things happened: I discovered that I really love writing fiction, and I wrote a short piece that had the potential to be more. My recently-published novel, All the Little Children, emerged from that early exercise.

As well as the nuts and bolts of writing, I learned one pragmatic lesson during the course: writing is work. If you wait around for the Muse or the perfect writing desk or for the kids to graduate, you’ll never get it done. If there’s one piece of advice I have to offer fellow writers on getting the first draft done it’s this: don’t be precious, just write something and worry later about what happens next.

Scroll ahead to 2015. With lots of baby steps – interrupted by one big leap during which I relocated the family from Switzerland to Singapore – the novel was finished. By which, I mean, it had been workshopped, critiqued and edited. It wasn’t finished finished, but it was as good as I could make it and ready to go out.

I’m British and the novel is set in England. So I drew up a shortlist of literary agencies in London. I made my submissions personal to each agent. Where possible, I got an introduction – tapping up former tutors, workshop leaders, people I’d chatted to in the coffee queue at conferences. I got creative in bigging up those slim connections…

After a few rejections, I stopped to re-edit my opening chapters in response to feedback. And then I went back to submitting and waiting. I also went for regular coffee and counselling sessions with an American writer friend who was submitting her novel in the US.

One day she sent me an urgent message: Have you seen this #mswl on Twitter? (I had to look up mswl: it means Manuscript Wish List.) The tweet was from an agent in Chicago looking for a novel exactly like mine. I mean exactly like mine. Her tweet could be my elevator pitch. It was weird… almost, a less cynical person than myself might claim, Fated.

I sent my manuscript to Danielle Egan-Miller and within a few days I was represented by her agency. Her #mswl had been inspired by a conversion with an editor at a publishing house: that editor later gave me a two-book deal.

Over the years, I’ve read a lot about getting an agent, but less about what happens next. Agents have different approaches, of course. My agent was hands-on and, even though she felt the novel was in relatively good shape, we did two rounds of edits, plus a copy edit before it went out.

Danielle also started taking an interest in my second novel at this stage, requesting a synopsis in order to pitch it alongside All the Little Children. A two-book deal is attractive to publishers, so if you have a well-developed second project, emphasise this fact to a prospective agent. Bear in mind, though, that it’s quite a pressure to finish the second novel to deadline – a very different experience to writing the first with all the time in the world! My agent emphasised that the two-book deal is not every writer’s preference.

After we signed with Lake Union Publishing, there were further developmental edits, a copy edit and a line edit. Because the book would be published across Amazon’s platforms in the US and Australia as well as the UK, we had to give the title more international resonance. ‘All the Little Children’ was top of my shortlist, so I was pleased that the publisher – and their marketing team – came out in favour.

For the cover design, I sent notes on everything from significant imagery to preferred colour schemes, and the designer came up with cover concepts. The final choice was one that the publisher knew would work well on their online platform; a bold image, not too much detail that would be lost in a thumbnail-size image.

Finally, I got an early morning call one day from my agent: All the Little Children had been selected for Kindle First, a major promotion on Amazon. After such a long journey to publication – and that intervention from Fate – it was a special feeling to know my book was in the hands of a team who would champion it.

Jo’s tips on finding an agent:

  • make sure your manuscript is ready before it goes out: competition is fierce and it has to be in the best shape possible
  • make a shortlist of agents: research in the Writers and Artists Yearbook
  • personalise your submission: many agents give interviews to blogs about their reading preferences
  • use your network: don’t be shy at asking tutors or other writers for agent recommendations
  • get on Twitter: #mswl!
  • speak to a prospective agent before you sign: check out the personal factor, can you communicate easily, do they get you as well as the book? You will work closely with this person and turn to them for advice for years to come!

Jo Furniss Amazon bestselling author Agent advice Jo Furniss is the author of the Amazon Best-seller All the Little Children (Lake Union Publishing, September 2017). Originally from the UK, Jo is a former BBC journalist who has lived in Cameroon and Switzerland, and now resides with her family in Singapore. You can visit Jo Furniss on her Facebook page.
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Have you gone the indie or trad route? Would you consider submitting to one of Amazon Publishing’s fifteen imprints? Do you prefer the independence of self-publishing? Or maybe publication by the Big Five or a small press is the only way for you? Share your thoughts and if you have questions on writing or publication for Jo Furniss, ask them in the comments! She’s giving away a copy of her bestselling book to one of the commenters!

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I love comments, and I always visit back. Blogging is all about being a part of a community, and communities are about communication! Tweet me up @damyantig !

50 comments

Add Yours
  1. LucciaGray

    Congratulations Jo on finding an agent and your publishing deal. Your novel sounds intriguing and it’s now on my kindle!
    I was wondering about the challenges of living in Singapore and having an agent in Chicago. I live in Spain and I’m looking for a UK agent because I thought it would be too complicated to have a US agent. What are your thoughts?
    I’ll be checking out #mswl on 12th September!

  2. franklparker

    The concern I have – and this should worry all independent authors/publishers – is that Amazon are bound to promote books from their imprints ahead of books in the same genre that are not published by them.

  3. Vidya Sury

    Very interesting, Jo! I am glad you pursued your writing passion. What are your thoughts on self-publishing?

    Nice to meet you!

    Thank you Damyanti

    • jofurniss

      Hi Vidya, thanks for your message. I’m afraid I don’t know too much about self-publishing, although I have many writer friends who have done so successfully and enjoy the independence. If it’s something you’re interested in doing, I know there is a good organisation called the Alliance of Independent Authors who offer much expertise. Best, Jo

  4. jpcallenwrites

    I like the last piece of advice about finding an agent. Writers so desperately want agents that we might take anyone. But like Ms. Furniss says, it has to be someone you can work closely with. The selection process works both ways.

  5. Christy B

    I had no idea about the #mswl hashtag! It DOES sound like fate! Congratulations Jo and all the best on this book 🙂 Great to see this guest post, Damyanti

  6. macjam47

    An interesting and useful post. It is so easy to procrastinate with so many demands on a person’s life – children, aging parents, jobs, school, everything. I’m glad to hear your determination won out, Jo. Congratulations on your book.

    • jofurniss

      Thank you! I was also enormously fortunate to be able to stay home with my kids and carve out time here and there to work, but whatever your circumstances – as you say – you do have to fight that urge to procrastinate! My weakness is making endless cups of tea 🙂

  7. Misha

    Interesting method to approach agents. It does make sense to narrow your agents down to a short list and then focus on making each of those letters personal.

    If I ever decide to query again, I’ll take that approach. 🙂

  8. Robert Raymer

    Enjoyed this especially with her being based in our neck of the woods, Southeast Asia. Was just in Singapore over the weekend. Always great to hear of a writer based in Malaysia/Singapore breaking out in a big way. Also curious why agent chose the Amazon route as another had already posted. A follow up on that would be good so we are in a better position to decide if given a similar option…Congrats!

    • jofurniss

      Hi Robert, thanks for your question and it’s always good to meet another Singo-phile! I love it here.

      Why Amazon Publishing? Well, my agent put my manuscript on submission to several editors at publishing houses – the traditional Big Five and also Lake Union Publishing at Amazon. In the end, Lake Union came back with the best offer – a two-book deal.

      At that point, we talked about it in depth – I’m a very cautious person and like to mull over all the ramifications! But it seemed to me a no-brainer – Amazon Publishing would offer me the full editorial support of a traditional publisher, while also offering that marketing clout we all know about. For a debut novelist with no network of my own to tap into, the exposure they offered seemed like gold dust.

      • Robert Raymer

        Thanks. Have published books in Singapore and Malaysia over the years. Have five novels entered into 2017 Faulkner-Wisdom contest, four have been finalists or short-list finalist before. Have held off publishing two novels set in Penang in Malaysia/Singapore because they rarely get out of this region, though my collection of short stories did get translated into French. Have an agent reading the full manuscript of one of the Penang novels right now. Had close calls before. One agent flatly told me that my living in Borneo doesn’t help! So whenever a writer breaks out from Southeast Asia it gives me hope. Congrats again and thanks for the advice about being careful who you choose to represent you– it’s a two way street.

        • jofurniss

          Good luck, Robert! I’m quite surprised that your being in Borneo was considered an obstacle – my location hasn’t been an issue at all, although my Chicago-based agent has been incredibly accommodating at doing early / late calls to manage the time difference!

  9. Suneetha Balakrishnan

    Very useful post indeed. Especially for someone who has been prioritizing everything else but finishing that novel. I would have loved to know your writing routine as well. And thank you for that check list. I know each of them but it helps when someone who is riding along the same road flashes that card at you and says take care and remember!

    • jofurniss

      Hi Suneetha! My routine changes depending on what’s happening with my kids, to be honest. During school terms, I put them on the bus at 7.50am, try to go for a run, and then write like crazy until they come home. Sometimes, I find that getting out of the house helps me to concentrate, so I might take my laptop to a cafe or library. Then after the kids go to bed, I very often do the peripheral work – like social media etc. Outside of school terms, it’s much more chaotic, but if I’m working on a draft – as I was this summer – I try to get at least a couple of hours a day with my head in the manuscript – even if I just pick away at editing or polish a few paragraphs – otherwise I find that I start to lose confidence in it! Good luck with your writing!

      • Suneetha Balakrishnan

        Thank you Jo, that sounds a very practical routine. As a mom with two grown up children, one of them in fact stays with me and also works from home on another writing ‘job’, I guess I can see a point or two to take out from that. I guess, but, what matters most is showing up, rain or sunshine, ill or well and chip away at that block.

  10. Sharon Bonin-Pratt

    This insiteful article gives useful advice about getting published, and is hopeful as well. But it’s worth noting that not only was Jo Furniss lucky – she is obviously a very capable writer.

  11. ChrysFey

    That really was fated. If only it could go as smoothly and be like that for us all, but I enjoyed your story tremendously.

    Hi, Damyanti!

  12. lesleysky

    My comment after reading this will have to be the short form, as to give full expression to it would warrant a blog post of my own… I am glad for Jo that she’s had such an easy ride of it (yes, you heard correctly – EASY) but I’m concerned this may leave other writers with high rather than realistic expectations. You know the kind of literary fiction I write, Damyanti, so I won’t belabour the point, only to say that in 2012, I went exactly the route described to find an agent, after a year finally realising that going indie was my only hope. With my current novel (having published 5 now myself on Amazon) I am once again trying to find an agent, hoping again to go mainstream. Again, no luck. And I do mean LUCK. Sorry about the shouting, but I think aspiring writers should realise the reality of what’s possible. Agents on the whole don’t get past the letter you write, never mind the synopsis or the actual book. They mostly only take on one new client a year. This is no reflection on the quality of the writing. It’s all about the money. Will your book sell? I am cynical and quite jaded these days, and will probably go back to drowning in the wild and choppy seas of indie publishing. Sorry even this short form reply is so long but I’ve been writing (and being published back in the day when things were very different) since 1965. It is indeed a craft and a dedicated mission of hard work and perseverance. And please don’t do it with the expectations of making money from it. Only a very few do, and they aren’t necessarily the best writers. Just the ones that met the right agent or publisher at the right time. The breaks in life are random. Don’t chase too many dreams, is my advice. Just write, and learn how to do it as well as you can, and learn how to edit your own work… without the Rose-tinted spectacles.

    • jofurniss

      Hi Lesley, thanks for taking the time to write such a heart-felt reply. I hear you – the odds are stacked against writers, especially of literary fiction, which is undoubtedly harder to sell than genre fiction. I know this myself, because All the Little Children is not my first novel. Maybe I should have taken my timeline back further to the works I wrote and didn’t sell – I had some of those too – I wrote my first novel in 2002 and that’s in a drawer (where it belongs because it wasn’t good!). There was certainly a point where I made a calculated decision to write something commercial… luckily, that intersected with a topic I felt passionately about – the way mothers are treated in our society – and so the writing was coming from the heart too. You’re right, there’s a huge element of luck and you need timing on your side. But I also think it’s worth saying that there’s nothing special about me – I hope other writers will take away from this a glimmer of hope that it can happen – goodness knows, at many times over the years that glimmer seemed very far away on my horizon.

  13. cleemckenzie

    You’ve had quite a journey, and I like how you took the steps to make a new career. No whining, either. You understand that writing is a big, tough job that requires work and dedication. I’m so glad you’ve succeeded, and I look forward to reading your book.

  14. susanfaw

    Interesting post. I was wondering why Jo’s agent went direct to Amazon and didn’t query any of the big 5 publishers? I am also wondering what kind of a deal she received with the Amazon imprint, and how that compares to traditional deals elsewhere, seeing as her books would only be published on Amazon (or do they break their own rules for authors that are in their stables, and put the books out wide?) It really doesn’t matter anymore as according to Data Guy, 50% of print books world wide are sold by Amazon. I imagine a deal like this will be very lucarative for Jo, so congratulations!

    • jofurniss

      Hi Susan, as I mentioned in the response to Robert above, my agent went out to several editors, including some from the big 5. You’re correct to note that my novel won’t be available in high street or indie bookstores – although I believe that is the choice of the store, not Amazon – but it is sold through rival online sites, for example B&N and Book Depository. Here in Singapore, my novel will be stocked in physical stores (Kinokuniya) who have simply ordered it from the distributor in the normal way.

  15. Lucinda E Clarke

    I wasn’t aware that you could – or rather an agent – could approach the Big A. I thought we had to do everything through Kindle Scout – which means rounding up every person you’ve ever met and bludgeoning them into voting for you and I read some horrific feedback stories from indie authors who have tried. It took them hours and hours of work and it’s hard enough keeping up with the day to day promoting and interaction on various platforms.

  16. Chantelle Atkins

    This book looks great and I’m about to check it out. I find writing a synopsis very hard- do you have any tips on writing a killer synopsis?

    • jofurniss

      Thanks, Chantelle. I write a synopsis before the book is finished as it helps me to see where the story is going (story, not plot). Killer tips – argh, that’s hard. Focus on the character(s) – show why we’re going to care about this person, what the stakes are for them, what they stand to lose/gain, how they change. And also try to inject some voice into it – so it’s not just “this happens.. and then.. and then..” but rather reflects the emotional tone of novel. Does that help?? Hope so… good luck!