A Pocket Guide to Approaching a Literary Agent

Pocket Guides

So you’ve written your novel – what next? In this Pocket Guide, Nelle Andrew – literary agent at Rachel Mills Agency shares a valuable insight into the role of a literary agent and the process of finding one. 

What does a literary agent do?

I remember reading a biography of Nina Simone, which stated that on her first album, she sold the rights completely for $3000 USD. The album went on to make $1million USD in royalties, which she never saw one penny of. And I remember thinking, she really should have had a decent agent.

In their most basic roles, an agent is the protector and promoter of an author’s interests. They have to be because an agent’s interests is utterly aligned with that of the author. Their job is to find the talent, curate it, sell it to publishers and manage the rights effectively so that the author will have both creative success and the financial benefits they deserve, while also navigating the alien and coded rules of this industry. In short, to prevent the very thing, that happened to Nina Simone.

Who is the right agent for YOU?

While the basic elements of the job is the same, the way each agent differs from each other is style. The key word here is alignment – finding that person whose approach in business and relation with the client is sympatico with the author’s needs as well as their wants. Every agent is different with specific lists and criteria that they are looking for – few agents represent all genres. Instead they will have a clear curated list of authors and specifications based on what they believe is their wheelhouse of expertise.

The first thing to do in finding the right agent for you, is to look at the lists and specifications and see if you fit that criteria. Then do your research (via Twitter, social media, interviews etc) and see whether their approach fits well with the individual criteria you have. Another good tip is to look at authors you admire who you feel you are similar to and look up their agents to give you a good steer on who to include in your submission list. Remember it is about securing a long and productive relationship for your overall career – not just that individual project.

How should you approach a literary agent?

 Never ever send your work to overall book departments – in the age of the internet it is perfectly normal and better for you, to submit direct. The first thing to do is read the submissions guidelines on a website and stick to the guidelines for how to submit and what to submit to that agent. Here are some pointers on getting your submission spot on:

  • The tone of any submission letter should be friendly but formal;

  • Place your submission letter in the body of an email rather than as a separate attachment and keep it clear: a short pitch of the book, the genre, title, word count and comparative titles or readership it might have similarities with;

  • It is always helpful to explain why you are targeting that agent specifically – what it is about their list you admire and why you are approaching them;

  • Always include a short relevant biography of yourself including any relevant courses/prizes etc you may have that relates to your writing;

  • The synopsis should be no more than 2x sides of A4 and the first 50 pages or 3x chapters of your work should be appropriately spaced and easy to read with numbered pages.

All agents are online and will have a strong website and presence over the internet although the Writers and Artists Year Book lists all the agents across the UK. Do your research and do not send to more than one agent at an agency, unless specified otherwise. This is because Agents do not like to fight amongst themselves for books – they have enough competition out of house so to speak. It isn’t wholly official, but it is certainly frowned upon. Also if they state they do not represent your genre, do not feel you can change their mind. In the same way you would be specific when applying for a job, bring that same level of research to a submission.

What happens next?

If an agent likes your work, they will call in the rest of the manuscript. If they like that they will request a meeting. This is as much about you deciding whether this is a good fit as a working relationship as much as it is for them to do the same. If that all goes well, then they will offer you a formal contract of representation.

Do note that any agent who pressures you to sign a contract without explaining it properly is someone to be wary of. Things to look for are termination clauses, expenses and commission rates. Commission rates in the UK are 15% on book deals done in the UK and 20% abroad. This means that if they do a deal for £10,000, they will receive 15% off of the gross of £10K. But this doesn’t just apply to advances – it also includes any future revenue off that contract. So if you leave the agency, they will still receive commission regardless of where you go. For that reason alone, you should be careful of who you sign with. You should ask about film and TV and how this is handled. Any agent who demands money upfront or payment outside of these commissions for deals actually done, is a charlatan and should be strung up. DO NOT SIGN WITH THEM.

If an agent does not want to represent your work they may email to say so with a standard rejection. You can only expect to receive feedback if they call the work in and then reject it. Due to the volume of submissions they receive they will only do this for manuscripts they ask to see the rest of. Some agents may not respond at all – but see that as a lucky escape. If they aren’t courteous to you at this stage, they clearly are not for you.

If you are widely rejected, don’t give up. Take it as a learning experience – what could you do differently next time? This is a subjective business and full of rejections and hardships. Every author goes through it whether on their first book or their fortieth – rejections are a guarantee for every author at some stage in their career. Do not be so easily dissuaded – give yourself permission to fail, because only in taking that risk can you find future success.

Nelle Andrew is an agent at RML. She was nominated for Agent of the Year in 2018 and is a Bookseller Rising Star (2016). She represents an array of award winning authors and bestsellers such as Sara Collins, Elizabeth Day, Beth Underdown, Heidi Perks and Bryony Gordon.

Published 5 October 2020