The Road to Publication: Finding a Literary Agent

I'm dusting down this blog, which I have neglected, and have decided to do a short series on my road to publication. This is the kind of thing that helped me enormously over the years of writing, re-writing, editing, submitting and finally finding a publisher for my book, so I thought I would share my experiences in the hope that it might be useful for other fledgling writers.

I am writing this as someone who has followed the traditional publishing route (agent and publisher) rather than self-publishing. For help with the latter you will have to look elsewhere I'm afraid. My book, Elisabeth's Lists, is coming out in March with Granta. It took me five years to write, and I squeezed my writing around looking after my four kids and doing part-time copywriting and teaching work. I spent a lot of time sitting in cafes nursing a decaf soya latte and hoping no-one would notice that I had been there for hours. Or escaping to my studio once everyone was tucked into bed. I also spent a lot of time feeling like I wasn't doing anything very well. 

But I knew I wanted my book to be published, and that I didn't have any choice but to keep working on it. Sometimes I was certain I was writing into a huge eternal void, and other times I had a quiet confidence in the story and material. Regardless, I just kept writing.

The first stage on the road to publication - and probably the hardest - is to find a literary agent. If, like me, you are impatient and impulsive this will be tough. You will be tempted to send it out before it's ready - or even finished. Often with non-fiction you can pitch a manuscript to agents with just the first three chapters and a detailed proposal (including a synopsis and chapter breakdown). But for fiction you really need to finish it first. So my advice is to draft and re-draft until your completed manuscript is shiny and polished and you can't bear to look at it any more. Then your writing work is done. For the moment.

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When you have polished as much as you possibly can, get someone to look at the finished draft. Whether a writing group, friend or a paid editor, this is crucial. Not just because they will be able to spot inconsistencies and problems that you can't see with your own work, but also because you need to be able to accept feedback and criticism as a writer. Start with someone who will tell it like it is, but in a kind way. You don't want your hopes to be crushed, but you do need useful, constructive advice. 

Once you are confident that your manuscript is as good as it can be, start looking for agents to approach. I recommend getting hold of the latest edition of Artist's and Writer's Handbook at this point (try your local library). This lists all professional literary agents, and most importantly outlines what genres they represent and what they are looking for. Be diligent about this research - you don't want to waste an agent's time submitting something they don't even represent.

Once you have a list of names, check out their Twitter pages, agency websites and anywhere else they hang out online so you can get an idea of what they are hoping to find and the kind of books they like. Whittle down your first list to names of agents you think are likely to fall in love with your book. Because ultimately that's what they need to do. They will have to read and re-read your drafts, then pitch it to editors with unbounded enthusiasm and also help you through the editing process. There is no room for neutral feelings. Give them every chance you can to fall for your words.

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I have to confess that at this stage I made a spreadsheet. Sorry (I blame Jessie Burton). But actually it was really useful. I listed all the names of likely agents, as well as what they require from a submission. This is crucial as different agencies will ask for different things: three chapters and a synopsis, is common but make sure you send them exactly what they ask for.

There are lots of online resources about writing a synopsis and submission. Read them. All of them. Write a cracking one of your own. This is your chance to make a first impression. Then send it off to agents in batches - I sent about 10 submissions in one go. Unless they specify otherwise agents will be expecting you to approach several people, but you still need to make your submission personal. Address it to the correct person and get their gender right. This might sound achingly obvious but you need to remember these people receive hundreds of submission each week and many of them will be instantly rejected because they don't get even the basics right.

Tell them in your cover letter why you think they will love your book; compare it to books they already represent; show them that you have considered the market and readership and think they are the best person to get your book on those bookshelves. Give your book the best chance to make it to the top of their slush pile. But don't tell them you are the next JK Rowling. This is like saying you are a stable genius. 

If my first round of submissions had been unsuccessful I was ready with another list of agents to approach. I recorded rejections and feedback on my spreadsheet so I could keep track of things and see if there were common issues with the book. Maybe there's a plot problem, or maybe you just get a generic 'Thanks but no thanks' - all of this is valuable. Be prepared for rejections and try not to take it personally. So much of the publishing world seems to work on serendipity and strange supernatural forces that mean the right book lands on the right person's desk just at the perfect time. It might just be that the Universe hasn't aligned that time. Keep trying.

If you repeatedly get the same feedback from agents, listen to it. Don't be precious about your manuscript. If everyone is saying the middle is flabby, or the ending is disappointing, go back and work on it. Then submit again. Ask these agents if they would re-read it now that you've addressed the issue and if they say yes, send it back. If not, try someone else. 

I really think the thing that separates me and most other published authors from unpublished ones is not necessarily talent (though you do need some) or even simply good luck. It's just that we kept going. In that round of submissions I had a few non-replies, two requests for the full manuscript (which I hadn't actually written. Don't do this) and then kind rejections saying they thought it wasn't right for them but to send them anything else I wrote. And then one request to meet.

This was a massive moment. When it happens try not to overthink everything. Try not to stalk the agent on social media or obsess about what to wear. They will want to talk about your work but also to see if they think you could work well together. You may feel nervous, ungainly and out of your depth. I was so jittery I got my cardigan stuck on the hook of my dress and was almost run over by Rupert Graves on a bike. 

 

 (not this bike)

(not this bike)

A face-to-face meeting with an agent is a bit like a blind date. You need to charm them but be yourself. Be open to their suggestions if you agree, but be prepared to say no if you don't like their vision for the book or think the dynamic isn't right. You are interviewing them too, so remember that you need to feel comfortable and confident that they can sell your book. 

I was lucky: my agent, Natalie Galustian of DHH Literary Agency, and I got on brilliantly. We met for lunch at The Ivy, which felt terribly swanky for a small-town gal like me. I took along some questions and had thought beforehand about what I wanted to get from the meeting, but then forgot all about that and just tried not to blabber incoherently or get food stuck between my teeth. I wasn't sure if she would offer me representation there and then so I was slightly skirting around the issue. But thankfully she did, and it was pretty much the highlight of my writing life. That moment felt like a door was about to open. I didn't know then where that door would take me but I was mighty happy to be going through it. 

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