More on Literary Agents

I was prompted by a feature by Catherine Heaney in today’s The Gloss (The Irish Times magazine) to write about agents. The piece is mainly about Irish agents and I’ve often been asked why I don’t have an Irish agent. I’m represented by Lucas Alexander Whitley, LAW, and in particular Philippa Milnes-Smith and Peta Nightingale. They are based in central London.

Catherine’s piece mentions the Irish agents Faith O’Grady, Marianne Gunn O’Connor and Jonathan Williams who was the first agent in Ireland (he set up in 1986) and last year received over 2,800 submissions. He says ‘the standard hasn’t necessarily improved. I think the sad fact is that there are more people writing than reading.’

Claire Kilroy is also interviewed. She said she went to London to meet with several agents before deciding on Simon Trewin at United Agents. She says ‘I went with the one I felt I could speak most openly to, and who spoke most openly back.’ Simon also represents John Boyne.

Also mentioned are agents Peter Straus (who represents Colm Toibin and Hugo Hamilton), Ivan Mulcahy (Hugo Arnold and Domini Kemp), Ed Victor (Edna O’Brien and John Banville) and Derek Johns (Sebastian Barry and Paul Murray), all based in London.

So why, like many other Irish authors, did I chose an agent based in London?

1/ They represent authors who write for children and for adults (and who write for both). As I write across the age groups, this was important to me.

2/ They have an amazing stable of authors – Sophie Kinsella on the adult side, Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart on the children’s. Not to mention Justin Somper, Linda Chapman, Steve Cole and . . . you get the drift.

3/ Philippa used to be the MD of Puffin Books, London. She knows her stuff. As does Peta.

4/ They were recommended to be by an author I know well and trust. And he very kindly gave me an email intro to Philippa.

5/ They are based in London. My publishers are based in London. A lot of launches, meetings, and book fairs take place in London. It makes sense to have an agent also based in London if you want to make writing your career.

6/ I met Philippa and Peta in person before signing with them and really liked them both. And they keep me on my toes writing-wise. I’m working harder on my writing than I’ve ever worked before. Which is great.

What you need in an agent:

1/ Someone who knows what they are doing in Ireland, the UK and internationally.

2/ Someone who does not gush about your work and your ideas (unless they really are brilliant of course!). You need honesty. You need to be able to rely on their opinion and their opinion needs to be consistent.

3/ Someone you can trust. They will be dealing with your financial affairs after all.

4/ Someone who is in London a lot for business or is based in London. Or if your main market is New York, is based New York. Or someone who is willing to travel to all the major book fairs to sell your work and keep in touch with the larger publishing world.

5/ Someone with a track record of getting good deals for authors. Ask an agent who they represent. This will tell you a lot.

6/ Someone with proven experience in contract law – book contract law – this is a must.

But here’s the thing – it’s very, very hard to find a good agent. They already have a lot of writers on their books. They only take on people they know they can work with and are serious about writing as a career.

The good new is this – if you book is good enough and if you are dedicated to writing in the long term, and if an agent thinks there is a market for your book/books - you will find a good agent. And agents do take on writers who show great potential but haven’t quite got to the publishable stage yet.

So take heart – there is someone out there to represent you.

How to find a good agent:

1/ Ask any authors you know for a recommendation. A caveat – never use their name on a letter to an agent unless they have given you the go ahead to do so.

2/ If you write popular fiction, there are generally acknowledgements at the front or back of the book. This will tell you who the writer’s agent is – as most people thank their agent. Make a list of these agents, find out where they work - what agency - and approach them.

3/ Any up to date Writers and Artists’ Handbook will list agents – check out the websites and they will tell you how to submit. Only submit to agents who deal with your genre/age group. Otherwise you are wasting your time.

4/ Go to How to Get Published talks that agents are speaking at and approach them. Politely of course. Introduce yourself. Ask can you send them your manuscript. If you join Irish Pen (google it), they hold twice yearly getting published events for writers.

5/ Try some newer or up and coming agents. Find this info in The Bookseller magazine – you can find it in your local library - or google it – it has a website and news pages. If you write for children join Children’s Books Ireland and go to some of their events. Ditto Irish Pen. Talk to other writers – find out a little about the publishing world and new agents that way. (As always, the writers who do their homework win in the end!)

And do meet an agent in person if possible before you sign with them. And don’t be afraid to ask them questions. Be yourself but your best self when you meet them! (And yes, it’s nerve wracking - I was very nervous when I met Philippa and Peta for the first time – it’s natural to be nervous!). You need to know you can work together. You don’t have to be best friends, but you do have to get on and like each other!

15% is the standard rate agents charge. And yes, it is worth it. I often hear quibbles about this from (funnily enough) unpublished writers. Good agents earn their money many times over – believe me.

Best of luck finding a good agent!

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX