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Submitting to Literary Agents: Gill McLay

Gill McLay, of Bath Literary Agency, discusses how she became a literary agent and shares her top tips for authors submitting their work...

How did you become a literary agent?

I think I was last person to work out that I would become an agent. Even when I called publishers to tell them my decision, it was more a case of we wondered when rather than why!

After doing my degree in publishing and working in London, my career was always focused on the books, their authors and telling the world about them. From publicity and marketing onto sales and marketing I never ventured far from promoting books and letting readers know about my favourites. 

After a couple of decades working in publishing I decided to set up the Bath Kids Lit Fest with my husband, John McLay. This on top of our day jobs meant that we were spending more and more time with authors. We would often be asked questions and for advice and it didn't take long before writers would thank me for the help and advice on getting an agent but would I ask if I would consider doing it myself? 

One of things I knew about working as an agent was that it’s not a 9 to 5 job! If I was going to do it I would have to be full time and so as soon as my son was at school full time I took the plunge. 

Four years later and the agency is going from strength to strength. I have a lovely portfolio of authors who are all hugely different and write different styles of books. All of them are inspiring to work with and aware and open minded to what the industry needs of them. For me, it’s about great story but it’s also about being the author that people want to work with. It sounds straightforward but it takes practice, hard work and patience. 

For all these reasons that’s why you need a good team and I love being on an author’s team.

Talk us through a typical working day:

I’d love to say I go straight to my desk but that would be a lie and I'm all about honesty and having open and frank dialogue so let’s start as we mean to go on! 

After walking my son the half hour to school a clear head ready for the day. I always start by switching on the computer and opening my diary. Every day is different so I've got into the habit of checking if I have meetings or scheduled calls each day. Some days it will be a meeting with an author to catch up on news, which is always really nice. Just as authors spend a lot of time on their own so do agents so it’s good to meet up with colleagues or authors. Most weeks I try to keep at least one day completely clear but ideally two. Every meeting results in follow up so time at your desk is essential to follow up speedily and efficiently. 

After reading through all my emails, I respond to anything urgent and forward anything that is dealt with by anyone else. At this stage I check my notebook and identify any emails I needed to send. I often have a list of a dozen people to contact about something that happened somewhere etc. You never know what will lead to something so these can be just as important as finalising a deal.  I also take this chance to look through my physical in tray as hard copy contracts will have arrived that need a final check and copy contracts for scanning etc.  

My in tray will also include any submissions that are being brought to my attention. If something stands out it come to the top of the pile and that way I know if I need to take a look sooner rather than later. Sometimes there’s a reason it won’t work but if the potential is there without any hurdles it goes straight on my reading pile for later. 

And now it’s time escape for coffee or lunch and if I do have a meeting I will try and do it now so that I only need to break once. 

After a meeting and my break it will be straight back to the ‘to do list’ and that could be a submission, getting notes back to an author, requesting a manuscript or something less exciting. Every agent has to do admin and a lot of it!

Once this is all complete, I will take my late afternoon mind away from my desk and read. I have a reading pile of materials at all times and I prefer to read away from my computer. So the rest of the day is spent reading . . .at this time of year in front of the fire with my cat! 

It may sound lovely and it is but it’s also because I like to put myself in the best frame of mind to read and for me that isn't at my desk. 

By six o’clock by day is either put to a halt by the arrival of my son home for the day or I’ll be off to one last commitment of an author launch or talk before signing off for the day.

Roughly how many submissions land in your inbox each week?

I'm still a new agency but on average we’re currently getting between 70/100 a week. Big agencies get much more than this and I can see this number creeping up. Even with this many it means you have to be focused and in many ways ruthless. That’s why it’s so important to get that first point of contact right . . . it’s your first impression and essential you shine!   

How should an author-illustrator approach the submission process?

With care and patience. Sounds silly but it’s so important. Your first contact with an agent tells them if you did any research on agencies or did you just send out a standard letter to us all. It tells me if you know anything about me. I represent children’s authors but I receive a lot of submissions that say after looking at my website “I think we’re going to be perfect together. I’ve written an adult violent crime novel!” Don’t laugh it’s true. . .

Take care and have patience. You should be immensely proud of writing a picture book text or an 80,000 word novel. When you have given that much time to something, why rush it now?

 When happy with your submission then send it but make sure it is in line with each agency’s submission procedure. 

In terms of submitting as a pair, author and illustrator, this very rarely happens. On the whole the teaming up happens in the publishing house. If however you do both or indeed think you have that dream combination of an author and illustrator, then you can send them together. Often one will be chosen without the other or indeed words may be selected without pictures however. The most important thing is to be open minded to feedback and be prepared.  

A covering letter should…

Grab an agent’s attention in a good way! 

Care and attention must be put into it. Names spelt correctly, writing flawless and ideally sprinkled with your personality. Often too much focus is put on the book when actually a covering letter is as much about you! Sometimes when I read on it’s as much about how someone has said something as it is about what they said.

A synopsis should…

Be a hard working document that gives a matter of fact outline of the plot. Ideally keep it short to one page and it’s always worth trying to condense it into a shorter version. When you have written a book it’s important to have an elevator pitch. So called because it should last the length of the ride in said elevator. You never know when you will meet someone who may help or know someone who can and you need to be able to inspire and leave an impression without it turning into a bad one! 

People will warm to your respect of their space and you’ll already be one step closer to being remember for all the right reasons.  

The opening chapters of a manuscript should…

Hook your reader in, set the scene and introduce your main character. 

In the first introduction you need to connect with your reader emotionally and make them want more. 

Try not to start with the weather.  That’s just my opinion but do be bold and don’t be scared. 

Your first chapter isn’t a place to be timid!

A picture book submission should…

Usually be just the text unless you are one of the very small percentage of people who can amazingly do both! 

One killer piece of advice for authors and illustrators looking to get published?

Practical: Plough your own field . . .know what you do and work on doing it well!

Less Practical: Dream big and aim for the stars . . .it is essential to have hope and belief and essential to nurture your inner optimist! 

After graduating with a Publishing and Marketing degree from Oxford Brookes University in 1996, Gill has worked in the world of children’s publishing ever since. Working with small independent publishers, Barefoot Books, to large global publishers, Egmont, Gill has a huge amount of industry knowledge. From product development to co-ordinating marketing campaigns with UK retailers, Gill’s experience offers an understanding of all the different roles and sectors within the world of children’s books that together take author’s stories from idea to reader. 

The Bath Literary Agency was set up by Gill and John McLay, and is now run by Gill.