Secrets of Agents: or how to get in with the Smiley People

On Tuesday, I went to two talks – one by literary agent, one by an author – and I was delighted to spend several hours learning very little. I wouldn’t often say that was time well spent, but this was an exception.

I don’t mean the speakers were bad; quite the reverse.

Agent Louise Burns

First Louise Burns, from Andrew Mann Literary Agents, and then fiction writer Jane Wenham-Jones, were lucid and interesting (and in Jane’s case very funny too), with a great deal of useful information to pass on to aspiring writers. After listening to them both, I think any novice writer would have had a very good idea of how to make it into print and into a sustained writing career. (I am talking here and for the rest of this blog post about fiction; poetry publishing is a different beast).

I was pleased because they confirmed what I hoped I already knew about the fiction market. I know about the poetry market by being involved in it; for fiction, I have to pick up my knowledge second-hand, since I’m not publishing fiction, at least for the moment. Getting it right matters to me, because as a teacher I advise plenty of wannabe writers on what they should be doing; and Tuesday’s talks confirmed for me that I am giving accurate advice. Phew!

For the benefit of those who haven’t been to similar talks, here is a very digested summary of what I thought was most important in the advice the two women gave.

  • First, you need an agent. Publishers just don’t read unsolicited submissions any more; they only read what agents send them. Having said that, Jane Wenham-Jones managed to work her way around that; her guide to creative ways to get published is in her book, Wannabe a Writer? But let’s have her be the exception that proves the rule.
  • Second, you need to be good. Louise Burns gets between 10 and 40 books sent to her every day. So, your writing has got to stand out, and fast: often Louise will reject a book after one sentence. Your work has to be perfectly presented, and the writing must have quality that shines.
  • Third, you’ve got to be professional. Publishers don’t take risks: they want books that will sell, and sell quickly. Agents have to work with that.  So, given the choice, write a book that can have ‘an immediate, wide commercial appeal’, in Louise’s words, rather than ‘a pet project with no money-making audience’. And don’t just write one book: publisher and agents want to create a lasting relationship with a writer, so they want to know you can manage more than the one book you’ve sent. If you haven’t already started work on a second novel, you should at least have a serious idea for one. One of the first questions publishers and agents will ask about a new author is, ‘What else is he/she working on?’
  • Fourth, be persistent. Jane Wenham-Jones described herself as ‘a tenacious cow’ for never, ever giving up on a single short story. If a rejection came back, she simply sent the writing out again to someone else – that day. In the end, she got everything published. She spent nearly two years sending her first novel out, trying just about all possible routes until finally one worked.
  • Fifth, go where agents go. Jane recommended the Winchester Writers’ Conference; every year several people get agents there, including, as it happens, herself.

And lastly: why did I make that very bad pun on le Carré’s Smiley’s People in the title of this post? Well, smileyness seemed to me to be a theme of the evening. Jane made everyone at the Hampshire Writers laugh; while Louise – and this was one of the few things that was new to me – made me realise just how lovely it might be to have an agent. She was so friendly, concerned to help, and all-round nice that she made me wish I did need an agent: how great would it be to have someone like that in your corner of the writing world? Bucking you up when writing projects are stuck, helping you improve and finalise drafts, doing the tricky negotiations with publishers? I’d go for it in a second.

So I guess that was the last thing I learned from the evening: don’t fear agents, even though they seem to be the dread gatekeepers to the promised land: they want to help, and when you get a good one, it might be a life-long friendship too.

Image from Wadem on Flickr; used under Creative Commons licence