• Phil Parker

7 Tips to remember when submitting to an agent

Your novel is finished. Finally. You're as happy with it as you're ever going to get. Now is the time to get it published. So, with your heart in your mouth, you submit your story to agents in the hope one of them will pick it up and realise they've found The Next Big Thing. Finally, after all that hard work, the years of bloodshed and tears, will be rewarded. I mock. Sorry. But that is how we start out. Social media is full of these sentiments.

The submission process is like that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indie must pass a series of seemingly-impossible challenges, using his Dad's notebook to help him. Knowledge is everything, faith too. And luck is more important than both of them.

Gleaned from articles and interviews, courses I've attended, feedback from agents I've met and some personal experience, here are some tips to help you navigate your route through the challenges needed to reach your Holy Grail. But remember this, each agent is different, so are their demands. What works with one doesn't mean it will work with any more. These points are generic for that reason.


1. The First Page is Everything

Agents and their readers are deluged with reading matter. Unsurprisingly, efficiency demands they make snap judgements. That is done in the first page. You need to capture their interest in the first 250 words. The first paragraph even. Make your words sing! Make characters come alive. Provide a hook (but not one that will only confuse!). Needless to say, make sure it is perfectly written. Get an editor to check it. (Not you. Or your spouse or that friends who always spots mistakes). An editor because they will see things you won't. If a first page doesn't grab us we pass on the book. Agents do too.


2. Wrestle with your synopsis

Writers hate them! They are almost impossible to write. How can you distil your story into one page and ensure its magic is sustained? Not only that but agents vary in their value of such a thing. Some agents will only look at the synopsis after they've read the sample. It's their way of ensuring the promise of the opening chapters is maintained. The solution lies in turning your story into a journey. Show how the protagonist gets from the start to the end PLUS convey the impact of that journey. There will be consequences to show, changes made, characters morphed. Often these get overlooked but they're the crux of the story, those key moments of change are why we read it. If you get travel from London to Edinburgh and nothing happens - who cares?


3. Identify your Elevator Pitch and your USP

Agents are commercial animals. Sure, they love books but they are sales people first and last. For this reason they need material to sell your book to editors and publishers. Don't expect them to find the virtues of your book, tell them what it is. Begin by identifying your USP - your Unique Selling Point. What makes it different to others in your genre? (Because you've chosen the agent based on that genre, haven't you!). Is there an unusual premise? A clever plot structure? Original take on a character? Make this clear in your synopsis and your cover letter ("Without saying my USP is...").

Now establish the USP in your elevator pitch (which goes into your cover letter). This should be concise and punchy. A couple of sentences ideally. This is what the agent will use to hook publishers. BUT - it's not the blurb for the book cover! This is a sales pitch, it explains why the book will sell well.


4. Agents' Lists

A common rejection statement from agents is, "It's not right for my list." Their list is the directory of authors they represent. I've just said that agents are sales people. Think of them as the opposite to new car dealers. They wouldn't survive if they only sold BMW or Ford cars. Good agents need a wide variety of authors, covering different genres for one major reason. Genres (and authors for that matter) go in and out of style so a varied list acts as a buffer to fashion. It's tempting to approach an agent who already deals with authors who reflect your type of novel. Stay clear. The point about variety applies once again - they probably won't want a duplicate!

Debut authors are expensive in terms of investment, it takes time and energy to get them ready to sell to a publisher. Agents won't take on too many at a time for that reason and will balance them against the tried and trusted talent they've already signed up.

The critical point to take away from this topic is this: it depends on luck and timing to find an author. If your manuscipt arrives on their desk at the precise moment they're looking for something like your work, bingo! The bad news is when that moment was a month ago and they've moved on! Luck. Timing!


5. Agents are People

A shocking revelation! I hope you were sitting down for that disclosure. You only have to look at reactions to rejections on social media to see how many people overlook this fact. I've referenced this point already but there is another side to the Agent's List. Subjectivity. The majority of agents will emphasize it in their profiles and websites. They have preferences, opinions and prejudices because they are human. They will react to your mistakes, your faux pas and your oversights as humans do. They are also looking out for their own business. Don't complain about these things, be aware and respond to them professionally.

Some points to remember:

  • Submit to an agent who shares common interests and priorities - your relationship with them will be crucial and hopefully last for your whole writing career. Make sure you will get on with them and their values and attitudes reflect yours

  • Check to see how interested they are in your type of novel. As I've said, agents cover different genres but how passionate are they about yours? You need someone who is going to sell you and your book to publishers, can you see them doing that?

  • The height of bad manners is to make an approach without enough knowledge about your intended business partner. Worse, get their name wrong! Or it's spelled wrong. Would you like people to do that to you?

6. Timing Matters

A lesson I learned from talking to agents is to make sure you submit at the right time of year. Agents have busy calendars where, for certain weeks in the year, they will be too busy to look at submissions. An example are the large, international book fairs. These are meeting places for publishers and agents to discuss deals, stay abreast of the market place and generally schmooze. (Dates may vary - London in March, Frankfurt in October, Abu Dhabi in May). Check when they are, submit in the gaps.

Don't forget to take into account the holiday periods, in the summer and around Christmas and Easter. I'll come back to my previous section, agents are sales people and they will have other commitments to honour. Don't expect fast turnarounds and be aware of their schedules.


7. Self Publishing Alternatives

When Amazon introduced Kindle Direct Publishing in 2007, it started a revoltion which is still happening. It suddenly became incredibly easy to miss out the submit-to-agent phase completely. For many authors, this has become a huge benefit. It is common for a book to spend two years going through the publishing process, with a very small amount of money reaching the author in that time (and equally small after it!) What is more, publishing costs being what they are, things like marketing are often left up to the author now.

Self publishing bypasses these delays and drawbacks. Without an agent, 100% of income goes directly to the author. But, the business acumen possessed by the agent is passed back to the author. For some people this is a step too far!

However, for the benefits of this post, there is one crucial factor to keep in mind when submitting to an agent. If you've already self-published, you've likely learned quite a bit about the business and honed some of the commercial skills needed. Agents will be mightily impressed if you can show impressive sales from your own enterprise, do you have a following? A solid collection of 5 star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads? This tells them you are less of a debut author, less of a risk and potentially valuable to them.

It is worth considering this route in the early stages of your career, get established, learn the business. That way you become an asset and you have identified your USP as an author.


I hope you've found these tips helpful. If you have, please share them on social media so others can find them. Last but not least - good luck with your submission!

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