Writing a novel is pretty darn impressive. Lots of people have the big dream but never actually type 'The End'. If you've managed to do that, then you've achieved a lot already. Well done!
So what's next? If you want to see your book on library and bookstore shelves, your best bet is to get a literary agent to represent your work. Many publishing houses don't accept what they call 'unsolicited submissions' – manuscripts that haven't arrived via a literary agent.
Below, one of those literary agents, Joanna Swainson from Hardman & Swainson, shares her top five tips for snagging an agent.
1. Finish the novel to a high standard
There are no shortcuts to being a published author. Don’t underestimate the amount of work and refinement that will be needed to get a manuscript ready to send to agents. Depending on genre, a good word count to aim for is 70k or 80k words plus.
Never send out a first draft. Revise and edit. Put it away for a month or more. Come back to it, read it with fresh eyes and revise it further, if necessary.
Don’t be in a rush - if you get published, the book is going to be out there a lot longer than you are, so take the time to get it right and to make it stand out.
‘Stand out’ here is key - we read hundreds and hundreds of submissions over the course of a year, many of which are competent. But competent doesn’t cut it. They need to have that extra sprinkling of magic.
2. Be receptive and resilient to feedback.
Some writers work alone, and that’s great if it works for you. Others like to seek feedback from trusted others, especially when they’re starting out, and this can be very useful prior to sending your work out to agents.
If this is the case, you have to be the judge of your own work, while at the same time being receptive to others’ opinions. Does the feedback resonate with you and what you’re trying to achieve?
All writers come in for criticism at some point. After investing so much of yourself in a novel, it can be hard not to take it personally, but be resilient and sensible about it as it can be a vital part of improving as a writer.
3. Know your genre / your market.
When you begin writing you may not think particularly about genre or about who you are writing for other than yourself. But by the end of the process, before you send your finished manuscript out to literary agents, these things need to be clear and you need to be able to communicate this to the agent.
Where would your book sit on the bookshelf in a bookshop? What kind of person would enjoy your story? What other books might they have read and enjoyed?
Often writers write the sort of book they like reading themselves and that can help you identify the literary genre in which your novel fits. This will enable you to target the right agents and show them that you have a degree of awareness about the business you’re hoping to enter.
4. Research agencies and make a targeted approach.
Some agents have areas of expertise – they only represent children’s fiction, for example, or non-fiction. Some agents might have a broader remit but exclude certain genres such as, for example, science fiction.
It’s obviously no good sending your epic fantasy trilogy to an agent who doesn’t represent science fiction and fantasy. Yet this happens a lot.
A good starting point to find out about agencies is The Writers and Artists Year Book. Or there is a wealth of information online. Most agencies have websites which have profiles of their individual agents and detail what they’re looking for. You can also see which other authors they represent.
If you want to go further, you can check out agents on Twitter, Facebook or even attend writers’ events (although a lot of this activity might be seen as distraction from the main task in hand: writing!).
While you’re researching agents, check out each individual agency’s submission guidelines. Generally, agents ask for a covering letter, synopsis and the first three chapters. But this may vary. And it’s good to send your submission to an agent by name, not just the agency.
5. Be professional in your approach.
Gimmicky approaches (queries that include boxes of chocolates, booze or the promise to make us all millionaires) tend to set alarm bells ringing.
You don’t need to come across as a zany personality, just be yourself. The covering letter should show that you’ve thought it through, be businesslike, clear, friendly and concise.
Ultimately it’s the chapters we read that are going to be the main factor in whether we take on an author or not, but how you come across in your approach can make a difference.
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Good luck to those of you who decide to write and submit their story(ies) to an agent, though keep in mind there are other avenues to try, such as KDP and draft2digital, amongst others.
The Writers and Artists Year Book is a must, though again there are other sources.
And finally, if you'd like semi-professional help with your work, the Internet is awash with help and advice. One you could look at is reedsy learning: it's free!
Good sensible advice and a good guide through the minefield of choosing the correct literary agent for you.