Essays & Opinion

How to find a literary agent

literary agent

After embarking on an MA in Writing (/misguided attempt to avoid work), I wrote a story about a girl who is sent to live on an island surrounded by sea monsters. I had over-elaborate visions of mystery and madness and double- and triple-twists. It was the story I’d been trying to write and had wanted to read for years but had never managed to pull off.

Like all dedicated bookworms, I’ve wanted to be a published author for years. When I finished my sea creature story for the millionth time, and I didn’t know what else I could do with it, the only next step was look for an agent, those terrifying guardians of the gates of publishing. They’re like ghosts. Everyone thinks they might have seen one once, or knows someone who swears they exist, but they’re pretty hard to actually get hold of.

I’d sent stuff out before, really bad stuff, and felt immediately embarrassed by every rejection, but madness/fear of oblivion made me try again anyway. Three manuscript requests, a lot of rejections, and even more silences later, I was offered representation by DGA. I haven’t grown any wiser in the meantime, but if there’s anything I can say to other writers looking for an agent, it’s this:

Going sideways won’t necessarily work

Before submitting to agents in the traditional way, I threw myself at every conceivable opportunity to get my writing seen by someone. I wondered if I could sidle, like a literary crab, into the unsuspecting pocket of an agent relaxing at the metaphorical beach. I signed up for meet-an-agent events (there’s one at the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green, and it demonstrates the soul and potential of independent sellers over online behemoths – you should go!). I went to snobby literary festivals and turned up whenever an agent came to campus. I entered competitions and threw stuff at magazines and read at launches in case there was an interested party in the audience.

Each opportunity gave me optimism, sometimes in the form of an actual business card, followed by the gradually dawning realisation that mostly people were just being polite.

But it’s worthwhile anyway. The more chances you get to meet other writers, the better. You’re doing something, practising for disillusionment, and collecting anecdotes (hard currency for when you’re swapping stories with other writers). And in any case, the approach might just work.

In my case, I clenched my teeth together and redrafted. Again.

It pays to be a lean, mean submitting machine

Later, when I couldn’t work on my manuscript any more without wanting to bang my head against the wall, I started a real campaign of submitting through agents’ slush piles.

Most advice about submitting to agents, written or verbal, is a variation on: choose who you submit to carefully. Research every agent and think hard about if they’re the right person for you.

Like a wayward teenager in angst mode, I immediately did the opposite. I callously worked A-Z through The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. I made a spreadsheet of agents and submission deadlines. I had full-on affairs with colour coding and date ranges.

It’s undoubtedly true that you should only sign up with an agent if it feels right, but I figured the chances of finding one were so astronomically slim I might as well ask everyone. In the end I found someone brilliant, so I’m glad I gave myself the best chance of that meeting. It’s not pretty, but I wouldn’t have dragged myself through the process without the bright lights of Excel and a fear-driven, one-a-day regime of submitting stuff.

Small aside: a creative writing course doesn’t help anyone get an agent

I loved my degree and MA. I met some fantastic people, took some great classes, and got to write, drink, and eat nothing but tinned soup for years. I learned plenty about self-improvement, but at no point did anyone other than my tutors seek out anything I’d written, and there were no connections to the world of representation or publishing (something that originally sold it to me when I was in sixth form, to be honest).

Creative writing students have more opportunities than most to get face-to-face with authors, agents and publishers, but my agent found me in the slush pile, and I don’t know anyone who has benefitted otherwise. Take a course if you want to be workshopped and spend years pinning poems to trees, but if not, save your money for booze and strip clubs.

A hodgepodge of tips

  • That thing they say about being careful with copy and paste in your cover letter is true. (Despite what I assumed was my unimpeachable professionalism, I went to that dark place.)
  • Rejections can be photo frame-worthy. If it looks like an agent has read past the first page, something’s gone a bit right. I was seriously proud when I was turned down for being ‘too dark for children’. (And you start being able to tell the difference between personal and form rejections very quickly, a great trick to get out at parties.)
  • Replies to unsolicited letters/extracts usually take months, except for when they only take hours, sending you into a sweaty panic because your full MS isn’t actually ready. Be prepared.
  • Consequently, it will become shield-your-eyes painful to open your email inbox. Professionals recommend that for the next year, a friend/pet should do it for you.
  • If an agent wants to meet/speak to you, there’s very little you can do to prepare. Try not to appear mad and you’ll be fine. It doesn’t actually matter what you wear, so it’s fine to put away those intellectual non-prescription specs.
  • Luck plays a huge part in the whole process, but if you open yourself up to as many opportunities as possible, you’ll get luckier. Go forth!


This isn’t it

I thought that once I’d signed on the agent’s dotted line I’d feel like a ‘real writer’. I thought I’d know what I was doing, and I would suddenly have the bravery to strike out on my own, sit down, and write. But if someone asks me what I do, despite the fact that I’m up at 6 AM to edit a new chapter in time for publication day, I say I’m a digital copywriter with a specialism in cat food. I still don’t feel like I have official permission to write (I suspect it’s a clandestine operation for everyone) and it hasn’t become any easier.

But if you can’t stop writing and you’re stubborn enough to keep trying, it’s the best sort-of job in the world. And on the whole, it’s great to know that someone else likes your demons (/sea monsters).

About the author of this post

Charlotte Salter is a digital copywriter by day, YA author by night. Her first middle-grade novel, Catacomb Hill, is due to be published in the US by Dial Books in Spring 2017. She likes sea monsters, mushroom identification, and sword fighting (but not all at once).

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