Let's talk about literary agents

Author, Joshua WInning

What are they and why does every author want one so badly?

I've been on an agent-seeking quest ever since I wrote Sentinel, and I've had more rejections than Pret coffees. Why do I want one? Well, an agent is a kind of multi-tasking octopus (but a friendly one) who acts not only as an author's representative within the book world, but who also helps secure book deals, schedules event appearances and sells things like film, TV and overseas rights. In return, they take a cut of your earnings (usually around 15%).

More than that, though, and the real reason I'd love to have an agent, is that they help you perfect a project, from first draft to published novel. I'm a collaborator at heart. I love discussing themes and narrative arcs and characters. I like to get into the guts of a story and poke around to really find what makes it special and different. It's fun doing that on your own, but it's doubly fun if you can do it with somebody who loves stories as much as you do. So the idea of collaborating with somebody who knows their stuff, and can objectively help to make a book the best it can be, is a very attractive one.

Securing an agent, though, can seem like an impossible task. They are incredibly selective, often have a very specific criteria of what they're looking for, and that criteria can change at any time. But take heart: Agatha Christie was repeatedly rejected before she landed a publishing deal, as were John Le Carré, Stephen King and, yes, JK Rowling.

I've been trying for years to get an agent with little success. I've come close a few times. I've met with agents (who are often lovely), been rejected via standard form emails and, most frustratingly, had agents go radio silent even when they were the ones who contacted me to ask to read my stuff.

It's an often fickle and frustrating business. This year, though, something magical happened: I started getting requests rather than rejections. At the time of writing this newsletter, four agents are currently looking over my new YA fantasy mystery, two in the UK and two in the US, which is very exciting and mind-blowing and I'm refreshing my email every five minutes waiting for their response.

Of course, not everybody needs or wants an agent. There are plenty of self-published sensations who are unrepresented – take Michael G. Manning, a hugely successful self-published author who's done it all on his own. I asked him how he's managed it, and he said, "For newcomers, my advice is usually this: Finish your book. Make sure you pay a competent editor. Get a good cover, and then just publish it yourself. If it's good, and you have a little luck, something extraordinary might happen."

He added, "In my opinion, self-publishing has replaced literary agents and acquisition editors as the gatekeepers of the market. Always try self-publishing first, and don't assume that a traditional publisher will lead to better sales."

Of course, self-publishing is a wilderness. I've definitely found it intimidating, which is why I decided to go the traditional route of trying to secure an agent.

If you're looking to get an agent, here are a few tips from somebody who has been at this game for a while, has learned a ton, and is using those lessons to start breaking through...

Is your project ready? This seems to be one of the main issues agents come up against – manuscripts that still need a lot of work. I certainly understand the excitement of finishing a project and immediately wanting people to read it. However, the frustrating truth is that you should probably sit on it for at least a couple of months, and then reread it, rewrite it, and give it a scrub so that it's the shiniest it can possibly be. Agents know a first draft when they see it, and no matter how revolutionary your idea is, if the writing isn't good enough, you're going to get rejected.

Rejection is part of the process. It sucks, but there are a hundred reasons an agent might reject you. Among them is the fact that agents have limited space on their roster for new clients, so even if they like your idea and writing, they may still be unable to take you on. It's one of those "right place right time" things that is difficult to deal with, but persistence is key.

Take part in Twitter pitching events. Three of the four agents who are reading my MS found me through Twitter pitching events. If these are new to you, check out #SFFPit and #PitMad, which are often annual events in which you literally pitch an idea via tweet, and if an agent "likes" that tweet, they want you to submit your project to them via email. Hello, modern!

Approach the right agents. Take time to research exactly who will realistically want to look at your dinosaurs versus gerbils action epic, and tailor your cover letter to them. Oh, and make sure you follow each agent's specific submission guidelines. This can be labour intensive as agents often request different material (either the first 10k words of your novel, or the first three chapters, or the first 50 pages), but it's so important to follow their guidelines. If you don't, you risk having your submission binned before a single word of your MS has been read.

Write a concise but engaging cover letter or 'query'. There are loads of examples of 'successful' query letters, just head over here to take a look. In my experience, you should be personable but professional, and very concise – three paragraphs max, including a brief synopsis.

Be polite and modest. You may think you've written the next Lord of the Rings, and while that may be true, don't oversell yourself. Let the material speak for itself.

That's about it! Of course, all of this is merely what I have observed in my years of trying to secure an agent. There are loads of resources out there, so I'd really recommend reading around before you start querying.

Are you trying to secure an agent? Are you striking out on your own? Let's talk on Twitter @JoshWinning!

About Joshua Winning

Critically acclaimed author of The Sentinel Trilogy, the only young-adult dark fantasy series set in Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge. His thriller Vicious Rumer was published by Unbound in 2018. As well as writing books, Joshua is contributing editor at Total Film magazine, and regularly writes for Radio Times, SFX and Den of Geek. He also co-hosts the movie podcast Torn Stubs.