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Mslexia Mad Monday Q&A Highlights

Literary agents

I didn’t blog last weekend. Sorry if you came and didn’t find an update, but the whole family caught a cold, including myself. I felt run down and I just didn’t have it in me. And when you have kids you can’t just lie around for a day, dying. I realised that I hadn’t had any real down time for months and so I took it as a sign to slow down for a bit.

However, I’m hoping that this week’s subject will make up for my absence. Last week I attended the Mslexia Mad Monday event in their members only forum where agents, authors and publishers were available for live on-line Q&As. This was a one-off free access to this forum, but at only £1 per month I’d say it’s well worth joining up as they plan more events such as this in the future, plus there’s lots of help and support from their regular members, too.

The whole process of finding an agent can be very frustrating – there’s a lot of ambiguity as to where you’re going wrong and what you could do right. The agents themselves can seem almost invisible when it comes to information on their personalities, which is an area writers are encouraged to research in order to 'find the right fit'. This was a golden opportunity to ask the more peculiar questions or those particular to your manuscript or long term goals.

Just as a note to those newbies of agent hunting, when an opportunity like this presents itself to you, maximise it. Asking rookie questions such as, 'should I finish my MS before looking for an agent' or what the submission process is are questions that can easily be answered in under five minutes by a Google search. Have some consideration and don’t do it.

I say this because each time I have attended such an event – on line or live – there’s always someone asking these basic questions and it’s actually wasting precious time for everyone else – time agents have already squeezed into their busy schedules. More than once I’ve flown especially for the opportunity to get in front of agents only to find that half the precious allocated time was used up explaining a submissions process that is easily accessed on the agent’s website. All that travel and money spent just to hear information I’d already read a million times on my computer at home.

But it’s not just about everyone else, it’s for your own service too. Do a little research beforehand and find out the basics, then you’ve got the chance to ask more pertinent questions according to your particular situation. Questions that you won’t find the answers to just by googling. Use your time wisely.

So, onwards…

I’m not going to disclose exactly which agent or publisher said what (you’ll have to join up to Mslexia’s members’ forum for that), but here’s the highlights of my notes. I’ve added in some of my own insights from my own research I’ve done on agents too, to give you more context and ideas on how to prepare your submissions packages, or just to question your MS a little harder. (Unfortunately, I didn’t get time to read through all the author Q&As too, but when I do, I’ll update this post.)

On Cover Letters…

Cover letters are extremely important, as we all know, but a few tips I didn't know or hadn't given enough importance to, or are just worth reiterating. - Good submissions REALLY stand out (that is verbatim from one agent) and will got to the top of the pile. She also said she wants a submission that stops her in her tracks. Can you say your story will do that? I fear this is what a lot of agents want and many stories, although well written, are perhaps just not ambitious enough. Or, looking at it another way, if you want the quality of the writing to sell itself, it’s got to be so arresting as to likely place it under the ‘literary’ category. Well written is one thing, but to stop an agent in her tracks it must be out of the normal stratosphere. -Show you know where your potential audience lies so the agent can identify if it's an area they know/work in, or how they will pitch it to the publisher/reader. THIS SEEMS MASSIVELY IMPORTANT. You don’t need a marketing degree for this, just borrow a content writing tactic and create a perfect reader profile. That will help you focus your efforts. And don’t worry if it’s a small or niche market - it’s the starting point. Fifty shades started within a small niche and look where that ended up! - Let them know you are more than just a one trick pony. If you are working on other projects, or have done, say so. Don't pitch those projects, and don't go into too much detail, but mentioning them indicates you are serious about your writing. Also, ANY other indicators that you are serious (events/retreats you've been to). Those kinds of details will show you are willing to invest in yourself and be a professional, not just a hobby writer or someone hoping to make big bucks with one hit.

- Don't attempt to put your novel into as many genres as possible, it will come across as messy/confused, like you don't know your own book. You’re book might well be ripe as cross-over fiction but start with one focus – two at the most. Choosing a genre seems secondary to knowing what audience might buy your book (that’s the impression I get, but I haven’t heard anyone outright say that).

-What about you/your circumstances/life history could be promotable? If there’s anything, esp. if it relates to your book, include it.

- If you’ve had any near successes then say so. It won’t guarantee a request for the full, but it shows the right indications. A few people across the forum were worried that too much time had elapsed since they were asked to rewrite and resubmit, or since their MS had a near miss, but the general consensus was not to be put off as the publishing industry is slow and memorable MSs are quite rare.

On Submissions…

- Agents expect submissions won't be perfect but as long as they can see you have taken care over making your MS as good as you can and they see its potential, most will be willing to work with you to polish/strengthen it (and if they’re not, or if they seem to have too many barriers regarding unsolicited submissions, they probably don’t want to hear from you).

- While you are submitting, move onto the next project. (Like I've got the time, I hear you say, with all the agents interviews I'm reading, googling, plus the novels I should be reading to see if I'll fit on their list, and the blogging, and social media stalking – ahem, who said that? – let alone work, family commitments or having, say, a life.

Incidentally, read a book recently by a long standing editor that you should read at least two novels each potential agent has sold. No wonder the process is so slow! And then you start to see why novel writing is seen as a rich man’s pastime. On the brighter side, as soon as you find an agent, that time-sucker will be done with and you’ll be free to get on with the next book quite quickly.)

- One agent mentioned how she ALWAYS reads her own slush pile because assistants can never know exactly what will grab her personal tastes. This stood out to me, and I am now forging ahead with agencies who only read their own submissions, which will be largely boutique agencies, I should think.But anywhere that has assistants/filter readers = no-no. Unless they are stepping over the threshold to junior agent and are building their own list.

On Writing…

- (From an editor at a publishing house) Narrative structure and line edits are editorial areas that can be worked on and improved but VOICE or lack of deep consideration for how characters think and act within a story is too tricky. Story structure and characterisation are the most important aspects to get right.

-Proofread your work. I don’t need to tell you this, I’m sure. I have every confidence that you take your work seriously, but most participants in this Q&A mentioned it and for those who are yet to enter into the agenting process… The reason this is so important is that agents and editors look over your work with a critical eye, not from a curl-up-in-the-corner and enjoy the read angle. Their natural instinct is to correct errors and too many will interrupt the reading flow, affecting your story’s chances of being appreciated for its finer elements. I can tell you from my own experience, story concept, style and voice have to be exceptionally strong and confident to hook an editor in and overlook the untidiness.

Odds n’ Sods…

- In response to one ME sufferer’s concerns that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with the marketing efforts a publisher might require, one editor stated that most marketing is taken care of by the marketing, publicity and sales team, so looks like that rumour that trad published authors have to do all their own marketing is not strictly true; it depends who you’re published with. Obviously, things like personal appearances and interviews could ONLY be carried out by you, no matter how you are published. Another thing I noticed in other 'research' I've been doing is that agents do not want to receive blanket queries (this was mentioned in Mad Monday). They want you to know WHY you'll fit in with them and their list, which is pretty hard to pinpoint, unless you read every novel every potential agency has sold. And we’ve already mentioned about time-suckers. But, to shortcut some of that process I try and do this:

I can look at the front covers of books on most agencies' websites and get a pretty solid idea if I will fit in with what they like -- flowery covers and 1950s skirts or faded photos of Victorians are a big no-no, for example. Agencies who have some pop culture music titles – even if they are non fiction – or crime/mystery titles go straight to the top of my list. If there are any particular books of interest to me I might mention it in the cover letter to show we have similar tastes. In fact, while we’re on the subject, I’ve found some brilliant titles from agent lists and blog recommendations and is now one of my main ways of finding quality fiction for my own reading pleasure. As only a reader (and not a writer) over a decade ago; who knew?!

One author recently told me she applied to 200 agents before she found hers, but that sounds to me like blanketing. Whichever approach you decide seems time consuming.

If you are not having any luck with agents, there's also the possibility that there just isn't a perceived sales market for your work yet, or maybe that boat sailed a long time ago and the ocean has dried up. Maybe this project could be revived in a few years, when the market picks up again and there’s a new generation of readers. Or, once you have become a famous author with a list of future bestsellers, it could be published as a collector’s piece for your fans.

Once you feel you can go no further with finding an agent, the smaller presses are the next course of action. Again, this requires research but if you did get some success with a small press, it might help to win you an agent for your next book.

The most important thing to remember is that book success takes time – from finding representation, to finding publication, to finding an audience. Many best selling authors are just so because they have a string of titles to their names, be they traditionally published or self-published. If you’re feeling the grind with your first book, crack on with the next, and the next. True successes stories rarely happen with a single book. Good luck!

If you have any other tips on this matter, please do share!

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