Literary agent Louise Buckley, from Zeno Agency, answers a few questions about the submission process and the advantages of writers working with agents.
Briefly, my role involves selling to publishers, working with authors and acting as an advocate for them, but day-to-day the role is incredibly varied! I can spend my time undertaking any of the following tasks: editing an author’s manuscript, liaising with publishers over an offer or the nitty gritty of a publishing contract, updating sub-agents with cover news and review quotes, pitching authors to editors on the phone, pitching authors to editors over coffee, meeting one of my authors, or attending a presentation by a publisher. As with a lot of agents, reading submissions tends to happen in my spare time.
Currently, I represent a mix of prize-winning literary fiction, and commercial fiction. On the commercial side I have three women’s fiction authors, a thriller author and a fantasy author. I also represent a cookbook author.
But I am particularly keen to represent more literary fiction, crime fiction, and historical fiction – so send these my way!
Primarily, an agent acts as a bridge between authors and publishers. Most publishers do not accept direct submissions from authors, only from agents, and so authors need an agent to provide that connection. Additionally, it is part of an agent’s role to know what each editor is looking to acquire, so they can match their author’s book with what the editor is (hopefully!) looking for and excited by. This is knowledge that the average un-agented author just won’t have.
A literary agent can also act as a useful advocate on behalf of the author. An agent will have experience negotiating publishing contracts and therefore also understands what are acceptable terms and what aren’t – they can therefore make sure the author is given the best terms possible.
An agent is also expected to know the market for their author and have some idea of how they should be published. This means the agent can step in and advocate for the author when they need to, in a way that the publisher is likely to take seriously.
Finally, an agent can also act as a mentor. They can provide editorial feedback, reassurance when needed and set expectations. They are more than just a sales person!
For me, the covering letter is the most important document. It is the document (or email) that I read first. I like to know what I am about to start reading, how long the finished submission is and how the author has pitched the novel. If the pitch is great it can make me excited before I’ve even started reading! Generally, if the author has followed the guidelines on the Zeno website and has the basic information about the book succinctly covered in the cover/query letter then I will be happy to consider the submission.
I look at a synopsis if I am enjoying the sample and I want to see how the book ends or if I want a sense of how the character arcs progress. However, I personally don’t find it as useful as the covering letter. Other agents may disagree. It’s still useful, and shows due diligence when supplied, but it is not where I feel authors need to put the bulk of their efforts.
I am looking for a submission that grabs me from the first page – if an author can’t grab me on their first page then I worry the book won’t grab a publisher or a reader on the first page either. Defining what ‘grabs me’ though is much harder. I am drawn to books with a strong or unique voice and books that have a lot of energy and emotion in the first chapter. There are certainly occasions when I have been undecided and sometimes I can sit on something and come back to it a second or third time before I decide whether to request the full manuscript. Usually though, if I come to something a third time I know it hasn’t captured my attention in the way that I wanted it to. Sometimes authors have a brilliant voice but need a lot of editorial work and in these cases I would weigh up how confident I feel about selling the book, and if the pitch is clear to me then I would request the full manuscript.
Once the book is ready for submission, generally after some editorial work, I will compile a list of editors that I feel the book is most suited to. I usually have a first and second tier or people and publishing companies to try. This is because if I don’t secure a deal from a publisher in the first tier, I can then adjust my pitch and approach the second tier.
I will then either ring each editor, or meet them in person, and pitch the book to them. Then I will follow-up my pitch with the submission and my pitch letter over email.
Agents usually have good relationships with editors and vice versa – agents want editors to pay attention to their submissions and editors want to receive the best submissions from agents, so it works in both their favours to have a convivial relationship. Sometimes editors and agents are friends (I have many friends who are editors, because I used to be one myself) but ultimately the agent represents the author’s best interests and sometimes agents and editors will need to have difficult conversations with each other, which is another reason it is easier to have a third party – an agent – involved.
Knowledge is key here, so do as much research as you can to learn about the industry first. Read interviews with editors, publicists, rights managers, and literary agents. Read The Bookseller each day (you can view a small number of articles for free each day). Look at the bestseller charts, find out what is selling well.
Many people assume that the only route to their chosen job in publishing is through work-experience (which is often not an option to those without much money and living outside of London). But there are other ways you can get an ‘in’. For example, working in a bookshop was incredibly valuable to me as it gave me an overview of what was selling and what wasn’t and encouraged me to read books I would never have been interested in before. Also, keep open-minded about what job you want. If you want to be a literary agent, don’t just apply for literary agent positions, also apply for entry-level rights, sales, contracts, or editorial positions at publishers – being a literary agent involves skills and knowledge in all these areas, so securing a related job could give you an advantage over other candidates when you do apply for the job you want. Similarly, if you want to work in editorial, apply for entry-level jobs in marketing and publicity or production – all experience is good experience and you may then find it easier to move across.
That we spend most of our time reading submissions – sadly, we can often only devote a small fraction of our time to this, and it is usually on the evenings and weekends!
I’ve met a few people who have also assumed that agents are only in the business to make money and that couldn’t be further from the truth! Firstly, on a practical level, agents only work on commission (they should never charge the author for a fee upfront) and so an agent is only paid once they have sold the book. Secondly, as expressed above, there’s so much more to the job than just the selling – primarily an agent represents the best interests of the author, but author’s careers fluctuate over the years and agents need to be able to guide authors through both the highs and the lows. And it can be hard for agents too if their author doesn’t sell as well as hoped. Most agents are in this business because they love supporting writers – there are other careers for those who want to make a quick buck!