Updated: Apr 26, 2021
Last week, my days were full of various online events, consultations and meet-ups. It hasn't left me with much time to write. There was a huge amount to unpack from the Prowritingaid event, which didn't finish until Friday and, unfortunately, I was hit with a huge migraine that lasted until yesterday evening. So, I've picked out what I think probably serves most readers of this blog, rather than the more crime-specific sessions. Also, I chose this because I have had many conversations during all these events around this very subject: the process of getting traditionally published.
Once again, in order to publish this post in a timely manner, I threw proofing completely out the window - this is RAW!
Katherine Armstrong, Simon and Schuster Publishing.
Can take some authors 10 years to get published and happen quicker for others. Some authors can make a full-time living, but many have to balance it with work – Val McDermid worked as a journalist until her book series took off.
Writing is a tough business, but rewarding when you connect with readers across the world, but also can be incredibly frustrating, requires a lot of perseverance, patience and a thick skin.
Not everyone will get your work and it can be gut-wrenching when a critic doesn’t like it, but the readers and the reviewers who do love your work help to assuage that pain.
Trad – agent
SP-ing – royalty rates are higher but authors have to do more of the marketing and sales and manipulating the meta-data to get sales. Invest in a decent copy edit and proofreader (but I’d advise getting a decent developmental editor, tbh. Having a dog's dinner of a story with perfect punctuation and grammar is like putting a sticking plaster on the stump of an amputated foot.)
Agents are there to get the best deal for you and they are helpful if you have an issue with the publisher, like the cover, payment not received, etc. You don’t want to have to deal with contentious issues with your publisher, so the agent is the buffer zone for that.
Agents will deconstruct the contract for you and understand the complications.
Never pay an agent in advance of selling your book – they take a commission on your advance from the pub,ishing house.
Agents are well-connected in the industry. They will know who’s who in accordance to genre, etc. They go for coffee with the publishers and discuss what gaps they have in their list and do they have an author that might fill that gap and fit the list. Agents are the taste test for publishers/editors – there are some agents Katherine will drop everything for because she is confident they know her tastes.
The editor is looking to deal with agents and authors who are compatible with their vision. The relationship between agent and author is hugely important, that they are both working towards the same vision.
It’s fine to change agents further down the line – it does happen – but try and get it right the first time because agents invest their time in an author’s career.
Getting an agent:
Writers and artists (but I don’t think it’s worth the money, considering the online options these days. Aside from a directory at the back of the book, it's mostly filled with writing advice you can obtain online! Alternative resources with a directory of agents:
Do online research to find out who do you approach – don’t send blanket approach – identify small group to begin with, let them know you are familiar with their work, what books/authors they have worked with. If an agent has a lot of people with the same type of story as yours, they might not want to take on more of that type. No agent wants to lose out to another, so let them know you’re sending it to five agents. You can go back to them if you receive an offer from another agent. It’s a competitive business.
No need to be funny or tell personal stories. If you have an unusual background that is relevant to the book or why you wrote it, mention it. If you have any writing courses you’ve completed or anything published before or writing awards, mention it. Don’t mention you came runner-up in the egg and spoon race!
Start with a few lines about your book, an acknowledgement that you know who the agent is, what books they’ve been involved in, etc.
Check out this blog post on how to write your query letter. With a full deconstruction of an example.
End your letter with an upbeat line, but be wary of flattery (can come across as being false/brown-nosing).
Not every agent has the time to respond to every author – 70+ MSs per week – so they don’t have time to get back to everyone.
Don’t anticipate a rejection i.e. I don’t think this is all that good and you probably won’t like it anyway… etc.,etc. (If you don’t believe in your work, why should they?)
Don’t mention another agent recommended them to you as you don’t know what the politics might be there. Okay to say an editor sent you, though.
Don’t say your family and friends love your novel.
Don’t send weird gifts or photos of yourself.
Choosing an agent
One you feel most comfortable with. Trust is imperative.
Some like to edit the book before negotiating, some are all about the deal.
What do you want your agent to do? Work with you on the MS? Then don’t settle for an agent who won’t do that.
Speak to them on the phone more than once before deciding. You are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. Ask whatever questions you want. (prepare questions in advance)
Don’t be afraid to change if you find the partnership isn’t working for you.
Agents filter for editors and they do socialise a lot and discuss what’s on offer. Publishers know that if an agent has taken you on, the MS is good. Some agents get priority over others. Their submissions tend to go quickly and can become an auction.
Another way of reaching publishers: some places have opened up to unagented authors. S&S have done this for women’s fiction sporadically. Check out the S&S editorial on Twitter.
Entering competitions can get an agent or editor’s attention.
Also consider assistant agents – they are up and coming, hungry to make their mark and building their list. They work with more senior agents but are looking to be them in twenty years. Same as assistant editors – they work on a lot of books and eventually begin to take on their own, moving towards becoming senior editors.
Follow the agent’s/publisher guidelines. Follow to the letter.
Most submission packages consist of:
- First three chapters (footer/header with your surname, the title or a key word or two from the title of your book, page number i.e: Tolkian/Lord Rings/1)
- Cover letter.
- Full plot synopsis.
Double check website in case they are not taking on clients.
To find agents you can check the acknowledgments page in novels you like or think your work aligns with in taste as they are always mentioned there.
Details on response times are usually on the website or might be in an automatic receipt email.
Agents can sell MSs on first 30k words and full plot synopsis, but editors tend to prefer seeing the full manuscript. Shows what the writing style is and sometimes the beginning can be fantastic but it loses its way later on or becomes something else.
Hard to write well, many authors struggle with this, but don’t worry too much about that. Katherine tends not to read them, but agents like to have them.
The synopsis is a full exposition of the plot, including major twists, turning points, ending and the character’s journey. It is NOT a book blurb. Agents need a full overview of the story.
Must be written in more or less the same order as the novel is written and in the same tone.
Mustn’t be written in sales speak. Its job is to sell the book to someone who wants to take it on and work on it, not to sell it to readers. It should demonstrate the emotional development of the novel, too.
Max two pages – you don’t need to reveal every single detail of the plot, just the major plot events, the main motivation, the character’s journey and overall narrative. If you’re not sure how it should end, say so and provide possible options of where you’re thinking of taking it.
Later on an agent might ask for a full breakdown of the plot, chapter-by-chapter, which is termed a ‘treatment’.
The synopsis helps to clarify what the book is about - to the author, even.
Receptionists and assistants tend to run agencies, so get them onside when communicating with them and never be rude (it’s highly likely they don’t know what’s going on with your particular MS).
Agents have their current clients to look after as well as a huge pile of MSs to read. Avoid sending at busy times of year (Xmas/big book fairs).
Agents only call authors if they are seriously interested.
If you get a call, contact other agencies you have submitted to and let them know.
Katherine says it’s not hard to get an agent!! (Ha!! Maybe not, if you have submitted to absolutely the right one every time.)
Ultimately, you want someone who will love your work.
Agents are looking for writing that speaks to them. If they say they don’t love it, don’t take it to heart. They are doing you a favour in allowing you to find an agent that does.
SP novels – will an agent still take it on? If it’s had success or SP awards, yes.
Can you get an agent outside of your country? Yes, you can.
Will publishers/agents take on flawed work with potential? Yes, but the writer must have demonstrated good skills in storytelling.
How do publishers and agents work through submissions? Katherine looks at what the agent says about the MS and will read at least the first 20% and the last fifty pages and dip into the middle, too. Will read the whole thing if she’s really enjoying it.
What’s the main thing you want authors to consider before submitting? Authors knowing what their book is doing. Wants to be gripped, she wants to know where she is, wants to turn the page.
Approaching more than one agent in an agency? Courtesy to inform the agent you are also sending to their colleague.
If writing a trilogy or series should you include it in the synopsis? If you know the plots of the others, then, yes, write synopses for each one and let them know it is part of a potential series, then they are better positioned to negotiate a multi-book deal.
Should you get awards/win comps before sending to agents? Up to authors. You could try both.
Age of authors? Age doesn’t matter. It’s all about the writing.
If you have any more questions, fire away in the comments and I'll answer with what I know.