For me, step one has to be the writing. Step two to one hundred, making it good. Then start thinking about how to get it into the world.
For those of us not in the industry, there can be some confusion about the role of agents and publishers and what to do about attracting either or both. At the time of writing, I have neither, so I am not an expert, but what I have learnt is
- Agents help get your work ready to pitch to publishers, help navigate which publishers to pitch to, manage the pitch and broker the deal.
- Publishers will get your work ready for market, working with you through structural, line and copy edits, design the cover and do all the behind the scenes stuff required to print a beautifully typeset book, develop a marketing and sales strategy, do all of the promotion and get the book into the hands of booksellers and, count the money.
Jericho Writers have some good articles in their library on all things agents and publishers and the process that are worth looking at.
Why have an agent
Finding the right agent will open doors that anyone outside the industry will struggle to find. Particularly in the USA and UK, if they want to take you on, an agent will help you develop and finesse the manuscript to make sure it really is ready to be seen by publishers. And when the work is ready, they will develop a strategy to pitch your work to the right publishers, the ones who they know are likely to be interested in your work. And they will broker the best deal for you that they can.
In Australia, a lot of debut authors do get published without an agent. Particularly with boutique publishers, there are ways to get your work to them that means it will be looked at. But even here, agents know the publishers and editors and what sort of work they like and are looking for, so if the work is ready, they are likely to have a better success rate of having the work read by the right decision maker.
And, that decision maker is going to look at the work differently than an unsolicited manuscript, because it has already been filtered by an agent so there is an assumption of quality, and of it being suited to their interests.
Finding the right agent
Fundamentally, you need to find someone who cares about your work as much as you do, and who will champion it for you. So, consider who you are sending to. In the US and UK most agents are very clear about what sort of work they are looking for and will provide examples of the books they like alog with details of what they are interested in finding in a manuscript. It can also be worth seeing if there are any recent interviews or articles with the agent to get a vibe on what they are like and reaffirm what they are looking for to make sure your manuscript will be of interest, and to potentially help tailor your pitch.
In terms of where to even begin, I’ve been at several seminars that suggest going to a book store and looking up the acknowledgement pages of your favourite books and seeing who represents them as a way of finding agents. Way too tedious for me. Others suggest writers festivals, but from my experience very few agents speak at those. If you dig around, there are some databases online that allow you to search and filter agents by location and genre, but I’ve found the filters are not that helpful, and I’ve ended up at the agency website and found the agent has moved on.
My recommendation is to start with the Agency website, look through the agents, work out if any have interest in the type of work you have, and follow their submission guidelines.
List of Literary Agencies
To help this process, I am putting together a list of all the Literary Agencies I can find mention of in the UK, USA and Australia which you will be able to access here in the coming days.
I’ve kept it simple, Agency name, website, country. Some are sole-operators, some have multiple agents with assistants. However, because people move, and because you really need to work through the agents in any agency to select the right one, and read and comply to the submission guidelines, I think the list is more useful kept at this level.
There are a lot, which I’ve found perversely heartening to contemplate how many rejections I have to go!
In my own copy of this spreadsheet, I’ve added columns to make note of the individual agent that I think is the best fit, and to give them a rating of 1-5 so I can prioritise sending to the agents I think are most likely to consider my work first. Depending on what you are looking for in an agent, you might also rate the Agencies based on size or who they represent. Use it as will best work for you.
Oh, and it’s just me maintaining this, so if you notice an error or omission, please get in touch and I will update it for everyone.
Contacting publishers direct
It is possible to approach publishers direct. As I mentioned, this is more common in Australia, and from what I can gather with smaller publishers internationally. Most publishers have submission guidelines on their website. You need to follow these.
All publishers handle unsolicited submissions in their own way, but the collection of manuscripts they receive is commonly referred to as “the slush pile”. My hesitation is you never know who is reading the work and if the rejection is coming from an editor or publisher who might have had genuine interest, or someone who would never read your type of work. However, in discussion at festivals, publishers have given assurances that the cream does rise to the top. In real terms, an editor at Text Publishing told me they see several hundred unsolicited manuscripts a year, and some years none are published.
The submission guidelines generally include information on when to expect to hear back. As a general rule, if you haven’t heard in three months, assume they are not interested and move on.
Other ways to get noticed
The reality is, the only way to skip the legwork is to do different legwork.
There are all sorts of competitions for unpublished manuscripts and short-stories. Getting long-listed, short-listed and of course winning a competition can be a great way to gain attention, and in the very least adds weight to your bio. Different competitions hold different weight, for example, winning Grindstone internationally, or the Victorian Premiers Unpublished Manuscript Award in Australia will almost guarantee an agent.
Again, you need to be sure the competition is a fit for your work. And the work has to be absolutely ready.
Aerogramme Studios used to maintain a good list of competitions internationally (though they haven’t updated since the pandemic began). Writers Victoria maintains a good list for Australians, and there are other organisations out there that with a google search will help you find other opportunities.
The caveat is that each competition comes with an entry fee. If I were to add up the cost of this over the last couple of years, I would probably choose to invest it in the Curtis Brown Creative Edit & Pitch course instead to really be sure the work is submission ready.
There are also competitions specifically for pitching. I have generally seen this in conjunction with writers festivals and conferences. Jericho Writers Summer Festival having a pitching competition. I’ll add others that I come across, but it’s worth doing your own search.
#PitMad happens quarterly and lets you pitch in 160 characters via Twitter. I have heard success stories from this, chances seem to be increased if you spend the day on Twitter liking other peoples pitches and having them like yours to boost visibility. Litopia have a weekly YouTube pitching showcase.
Literary speed dating
As it sounds, this gives you three minutes in front of individual agents and publishers to pitch your work. If they like what they hear, they will ask for more. In Australia, the Australian Society of Authors run Literary Speed Dating twice a year. In the USA, Grub Street in Boston host a “Manuscript Mart” as part of their annual confernce that now has online options. I have heard of similar programs internationally as well and will update as I come across them.
Dealing with rejection
Through all of these opportunities, good work does get looked over. It is an unfortunate reality that if you want your work to be seen, it is going to face rejection. As rational as I try to be, I am dismayed every time. When I get over the punch of disappointment, I try to step back and assess if there a problem with the work, have I sent it out too early – and if so, go back and do the work before sending it out again.
There are articles and advice out there to celebrate every rejection, because it means that the work has been seen. Some writers set targets of a number of rejection letters each year. Most agree that a rejection letter is better than no letter. And a personalised letter of rejection offering some encouragement is to be celebrated.
I don’t really have any advice for how to deal with it, except to say be ready to deal with it. And, ice-cream is a legitimate answer.
Celebrate the wins
This is a long road. Honestly, if I had known what was involved, I might have questioned starting out on this journey. But more honestly, since I’ve started there is no longer anything else that I can consider doing. So I’ve buckled up and learnt to celebrate the wins. Each milestone in the writing is an achievement. Another draft. Another insight. Feeling brave enough to send the work to a friend. Then a more distant acquaintance. Being able to consider and interpret the feedback. It is all worth observing and celebrating along the way.