How to publish a book: Finding an agent

Publishing a book can feel like a minefield. There are so many ways to go about it – from the traditional agent and publisher route, to entering writing competitions to self publishing.

Before my first book, Five Steps To Happy came out last year, I was pretty much clueless as to the process. I took a 3 month novel writing course with Curtis Brown Creative, which offered a valuable insight into how the industry works.

A couple of years (and a lot of rejections) later, I signed with literary agent Richard Pike, at C&W, Curtis Brown’s sister agency. My novel was bought by Trapeze, an imprint of Orion – and my dream came true.

Going through the process first-hand, I’ve gained a lot of useful knowledge. Burning questions about where an agent fits in with publishing a book? Read on!

Should I finish my book completely before approaching agents?

“With a novel, it’s best to finish the book, edit and polish it and then send it out once you’ve got it in great shape,” advises Juliet Mushens, literary agent and director at Caskie Mushens.

Susan Armstrong, an agent at C&W agency agrees. “Ideally, you will have finished the book, unless you have a good reason to start submitting before the manuscript is finished. If I’m excited by someone’s opening chapters, I’ll be eager to carry on reading and know the book in its entirety so I can discuss all aspects of the book with the author.

It’s important to be able to sit down with a new writer and ensure you can both feel confident that you share the same vision and editorial direction for the book.”

How do I find an agent?

“My suggestion is using the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook as a jumping off point,” says Juliet. “It lists every agency in the UK and the genres they represent. Then get online and research them via their websites.”

“I would look at who represents books that you’ve recently read and admired, (the agent will often be named in the acknowledgements at the back of books),” suggests Susan. “I’d also look up interviews online and on social media to see who is actively taking on and championing new writers.”

Unsolicited manuscripts – that is, those which are sent in cold, without being attached to an agent – are referred to in the industry as the ‘slush pile.’

“There can be a feeling that the ‘slush pile’ is a black hole but the key is to be in the right slush pile i.e. with an agent/agency who has a record for signing new writers in this way,” says Susan. “Around half my list is from unsolicited submissions so I pay very close attention to material that comes to me this way.”

How many agents should I approach at once?

“Because of the volume of submissions, it can take several weeks to hear back from agents,” says Susan. “I receive over 100 submissions a week, so I would suggest submitting to your top five agents first, and then expanding out if you start to receive declines.”

“Receiving declines,” she adds, “is a rite of passage – so view them as such and keep going.”

Juliet agrees. “I’d recommend approaching 5-10 agents. If you get an offer of representation, be sure to let everyone else know.”

What should I include in my cover letter to an agent?

“The elevator pitch for the novel [summing up the concept in a sentence or two], the genre, and a blurb like you find on the back of a published book,” says Juliet. “You want to whet their appetite to dive into the book and find out more.”

“I’d keep it short and clear,” adds Susan. “Note what sort of book you’ve written – historical crime, literary love story, contemporary coming-of-age, speculative thriller – with a line or two on the central premise highlighting what makes your book different.

Add anything interesting about yourself and it’s always a good idea to note why you are submitting to that particular agent – did you read an interview by them or do you love certain writers on their list? Show you’ve done your research and take finding the right agent for your work seriously.”

Three stacks of paperwork on white background
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How do I know if an agent is right for me?

“The author-agent relationship is a very close one based on mutual respect and trust (and hopefully fun too) so it’s good to chat with an agent before signing with them to get a sense of whether you have a connection and would work well together,” says Susan.

“The aim is to have a long-term, working relationship, building your career from book to book so make sure an agent has the same vision you have for your writing, that they are communicative and collaborative.

Ask them how they work and what their agency can offer (for instance, do they have their own in-house translation rights department, legal team, book-to-film department, editorial input etc?). Ultimately, is your gut telling you that you’ve found your literary home?”

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