Get out there and network and don’t rely on being found from the slushpile, was the main thread that I picked up from a talk with local Oxford-based agent Catherine Clarke – recently MD of the Felicity Bryan Agency.
She gave a really insightful talk about how the agency started, how they specialise and parcel up other agency bits and bobs to other specialists (eg they have their own movie agent in-house, but if she doesn’t want to take on even their own authors, then they work with other agencies, yet do all television themselves as this is straightforward).
She took plenty of questions (some of which are detailed below), from whether you actually need an agent and what they will do for you, to whether having self-published books is a positive or a negative.
But the main core of the talk was as she described the many different routes authors get signed up by them. Most notably was the shift to the amount of weight given to the now 150 creative writing courses in the UK. If you can find the time and the money this seems like it is a route in - which is probably why they are so popular.
She is, of course, frightening good at her job. Certainly her children’s list reads like a who’s who of all the top people and recent prizewinners. Yet she came across as very friendly and approachable, which is fantastic seeing as they are our local agency.
At one point she even said they are actively looking for authors and encouraged us to submit – which is a pretty different story to most feedback I’ve heard from these kinds of 'meet-the-agent' things. (Sometimes it sounds like the whole point of agents turning up to speak is to be utterly discouraging and thereby ensure their inbox is lighter, not heavier.)
But, saying that, she did say that most people they take on come through personal recommendations. So get out there and network!
She did stress that she would never discourage anyone from submitting via the slushpile and saying that every single submission does get looked at.
So – a few details.
They are actively looking for authors. They take mostly non-fiction. They receive 2,500 – 3,000 submissions a year, but a large majority of these are personal memoirs (which they don’t actually even take because there are no publishers publishing them so there is no market), so perhaps the sums aren’t quite so grim as they first appear.
So how do you submit? A synopsis should be short as it’s not really representative of the writing in a book, but they like lots of detail in a letter, particular previous writing experience.
What are they looking for? A strong debut voice. A fresh voice. The beginning of the book is crucial and must capture the imagination. The story must hit the ground running and have a clear concept.
Get the basics right. You can check the website and see the sort of author each agent has and their tastes. All submissions should be in hard copy.
So what will an agent do for you? Get you the best possible deal and make sure that all the publishers likely to be interested in your work will see it. Many publishers no longer deal with individuals, but prefer to negotiate with someone who knows the business. Agents are often a much longer relationship, whereas a relationship with a publisher is often at arm’s length.
A really positive meeting all in all.