In this extract from Writers' & Artists' Guide To How To Hook an Agent — a quick-fire introduction to the process of gaining literary agent representation — James Rennoldson considers how getting to know your area of the marketplace can not just have an impact on your writing, but on how you approach the submission process too.
As much as your manuscript might contain a good idea and be tight structurally (both big ticks for a prospective agent), if your writing isn’t appropriate for the market (language, style, etc.) in which you're hoping to compete, then consider your chances hampered.
Getting to know your corner of the marketplace comes down to reading as much as possible. Be an expert in your field and place your work against that of others to see where it fits in. Does your book offer a slightly different twist on what’s been successful for Debut Author X, for example? Take it as a given that any agent you query with your work is an avid reader, so these are exactly the same sorts of questions they will be asking in relation to your manuscript. Why not give yourself a head-start and start asking them yourself beforehand?
A solid appreciation of the market doesn’t just have a significant bearing on which agents you query, but on the writing process itself. Don’t just read for pleasure but start to treat emerging novelists in your section of the bookshop as contemporaries and read analytically. What are the things that do (or don’t!) make a book work? Does your book follow a similar structure? Or if not, why not? Why are you emotionally invested in their characters? If you’ve deliberately moved away from something readers might come to expect, is this something that sets your book apart or the reason that it’s faltering? An exhaustive knowledge of the type of book you’re writing means you’re more likely to confront, iron out and/or own the quirks of your own writing. It’s a mirror to hold up to your work and help assess what your manuscript does well, differently, or where it needs improvement; having this awareness is vital if you’re to make progress and either rewrite or submit.
Besides reading as much as possible to try to match the expert knowledge of your genre possessed by the agents you’re approaching, another useful way to get to know the contemporary marketplace is by reading industry publications. Subscribing to The Bookseller or signing up to other industry newsletter bulletins can help you find out what’s happening in the wider publishing world. Literary agents and commissioning editors spend a lot of their time reading manuscripts that end up taking two years to reach the public. As a result, there’s every chance that they are a couple of steps ahead of current trends (which they helped shape in the first place), so paying attention to industry news means you’re more on the inside track in terms of what’s being bought. New hires are also reported on, as agents are recruited or move between companies etc. It’s fair to assume they’ll be looking to grow their list of authors, and the sort of writing they’re interested in will be mentioned as part of this. Could it be an opportunity for your manuscript?
Finally, the best way to get an idea of whether your writing hits the mark and you have a book that will appeal to your intended readership is to simply give it to readers. If you’re going to be a writer then you need your writing to be read, and if you can make those first readers people that form part of your target audience, so much the better. As a children’s writer, have those in the age bracket you're hoping to appeal to given you their thoughts? If you’re writing historical fiction, have you asked a couple of people who regularly read in the genre (and perhaps more importantly, people with a good knowledge of the specific historical period your book covers) for their opinion? It is scary and you’ll need to be sure they’ll neither sugarcoat nor destroy all confidence with the feedback they offer, but chances are your manuscript will emerge stronger once you’ve digested what they’ve had to say. Has their objective take pointed out something you’d previously been blind to? Are you able to find solutions to a criticism they had? Did they like something you feel you could go away and make more of? And are there consistencies in the feedback you’ve received from a couple of people? Not only will this prove a useful exercise in assessing whether your writing is on the money for your target market, it also identifies things to rework ahead of sending your book out on submission to agents: a group of readers who will definitely cut to the chase in terms of what works and what doesn’t in your writing.
Written in Q&A format, the Writers' & Artists' Guide To How To Hook an Agent is an introduction to the process of submitting a manuscript to literary agents, and is directly inspired by popular questions asked by writers that have attended our long-running series of events of the same name. If you're looking for a literary agent to represent your manuscript order your copy here, or to find out about our latest events click here.