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.
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.
- 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.