Most of you know that I write non-fiction: articles and books. But I also dabble in fiction. Unlike the hundreds and hundreds of articles I’ve had published I’ve only had a handful of short stories published. When it comes to fiction my confidence is somewhat lacking.
Last week it got a serious boost. I met, had lunch, and signed with an agent: someone who likes my novel and thinks she can sell it. While this is a boost to my confidence, I also know that there is still a long road ahead.
Being taken on by an agent doesn’t guarantee that a publisher will want to publish my novel. But it does mean that my novel will be exposed to more publishers than I could ever approach. (Many publishers - including the big five - only accept agented submissions.)
But throughout this process of finding an agent (I began my search on 2009 and have written three novels in total now) I’ve learnt many things along the way:
- Agents have personal likes and dislikes. (They’re human!) When an agent rejects your work it might not be because they think it’s unpublishable. They might not like the genre, setting or era of your story. Half the battle is finding an agent with the same taste in style that you write.
- If you’re writing humour (and my novel makes an attempt at it at times) you need to find an agent who shares your sense of humour (I feel so sorry for my agent), and also one who thinks they know editors at publishers who also share your sense of humour.
- An agent only takes on a writer whose work they think they can sell. Reputable agents don’t charge writers upfront. So they don’t earn any money until they’ve sold your book. Therefore, they have to love your book and believe they can sell it, in order to take you on.
- If an agent likes a writer, but they don’t feel they can sell their book, they won’t take the writer on. They might encourage them to write another book, but it’s the book they have to sell to a publisher first.
- You can approach several agents simultaneously (usually with three chapters and a synopsis, although this does vary from agency to agency), but if an agent asks to read the whole novel, it is common practise to let them do so on an exclusive basis.
- Some agents’ websites say something like: if you’ve not heard from us after three months you can assume we’re not interested in taking your project further. Don’t take that as gospel. Two agents contacted me asking to see more of my work over seven months after my initial submission (and four after I’d ‘assumed they were not interested in taking my project further’).
- Agents’ systems have glitches too. Don’t take it personally when you get a rejection from an agent by email, and then two more rejection emails from the same agent ten minutes later! (It happened to me twice. It’s not nice being rejected, but being rejected three times by the same agent in ten minutes kinda hurts!)
- Always follow an agent’s guidelines. If they want the first two chapters in Times New Roman, font size 12, on pink paper, folder once and submitted in an A5 envelope, postmarked on a Tuesday … then do it. Agents get inundated with submissions, so many are looking for any excuse to reject. And those writers who take time to read guidelines and then abide by them are setting themselves up as people who are prepared to listen and follow advice.
It’s not necessary to have an agent for non-fiction books. Indeed, I’ve had over a dozen published without the need for an agent (although I can recommend the Society of Author’s contract vetting service for members). But when it comes to fiction, an agent is increasingly necessary these days. Many publishers won’t deal with unagented authors.
So, if you find yourself looking for an agent, be prepared to play the long game. Never give up. Always submit what the agent/agency ask for, and keep going until you’ve approached every agent in the country. And if that doesn’t work, write another novel and start again.