Last week I went to a talk hosted by the Society of Young Publishers (SYP) called How To Get Published. There are endless internet resources on this, including this post on their blog by Claire Askew, but I’ve collected some notes for you anyway because it was interesting.
The panelists were
- Author Helen McClory, whose debut collection of stories, On The Edges of Vision, won the Saltire Society’s First Book of the Year Award in 2015
- Publisher, editor and author James Crawford, who worked as a literary agent in London from 2001 – 2008, and now publishes books for Historic Environment Scotland as well as writing non-fiction (last year’s Fallen Glory explores 20 important buildings throughout history)
- Literary agent Jenny Brown, who represents Alasdair Gray, Lin Anderson, Robin Pilcher and many others
Ask an Agent
Before approaching an agent, a publisher, or even submitting a story, Helen McClory says, you really need to do your research. Because she writes flash fiction, she submits a lot to journals in the USA, where there is a bit more interest than in the UK – but this means being aware of the differences in language and grammar (did you know that America doesn’t use the word ‘outwith’? I didn’t!)
Jenny Brown opens submissions a couple of months a year, and during that time she’ll get 1000 – 2000 manuscripts emailed to her. That’s 32 – 64 novels per day. Hardly surprising, then, that when she receives a poorly written query letter, or one where the writer hasn’t done their research (sending her sci-fi, for instance, when her submission guidelines clearly state she doesn’t represent SF) that manuscript doesn’t get looked at.
She advises that you need to find an agent who loves the sort of thing you write. One way of doing this is by looking at writer acknowledgements from authors you love or think you write a bit like, and looking up their contact information in the Writers and Artists Yearbook. I personally did some research recently by googling ‘who is the literary agent for xx’
Helen reckons it can take two months to research and write the perfect pitch. In it, you’ll need to make it clear to the agent that you’ve done said research (for instance ‘I am writing to you because I read xx that you represent, and mine has similarities’).
It’s also acceptable (recommended, even) to approach more than one agent at a time. The panel suggest that up to five is a good number, and if you get interest from one, it’s OK to chase the others just letting them know what you’ve had this, as it can give them a bit of a push to take a look at your submission. Jenny also suggests that you try to meet the agent in person – if they take you on, you’ll be working very closely together, so you need to know that you’ll get on.
James Crawford adds that having an agent makes the whole process easier, because they know what they’re doing and who you should approach with your work. “Agents are looking for talent,” he adds, “there is no secret agenda.
“Sometimes you might reject something if the story, message or voice isn’t strong enough, but the truth is 95% of people can’t write. If the innate talent is there, it will be discovered – but you can help yourself by putting your work under the right noses.”
He goes on to say that when he worked as an agent, he would discard a lot of manuscripts after the first paragraph.
Where is all the non-fiction?
A question posed by Jenny is, why does everybody want to write fiction? 95% of submissions she gets are novels, yet UK publishers are putting out 40 – 60% non-fiction. But there are perks to writing non-fiction which I’ve certainly never considered. Chief amongst these is the fact you don’t have to finish the book before submitting, as you do with fiction – you just need a few sample chapters, a proposal explaining why you’re the best person to write the book, and chapter headings to outline what the rest will look like. Well-written, narrative non fiction is incredibly popular – if you’re interested in taking this route she suggests reading Gavin Francis and Mallachy Tallack.
Do you need formal training?
Not necessarily, but all writing benefits from editing, and constructive feedback – whether this is from an agent, editor or paid service. Anyone who thinks they don’t need editing probably can’t write, James says.
Helen wrote her first (as yet unpublished) novel as part of a PhD, and explains that her supervisor told her the first 8 drafts were shit. Horrible though that was, she found that the pressure helped her to keep working on the piece until it come together.
Feedback is crucial, she says, to make your story work. We are fortunate in Scotland that there are a lot of resources for writers you can use before you even submit to an agent: some of the names that come up include Emergents, the New Writers Awards, and Story Shop which both Helen and I participated in last summer.
Not Just Any Agent
If you’re going to try and find an agent (which the panel recommends, but recognise that in Scotland a lot of writers don’t, and if you’re a poet or short story writer it can be a hindrance), you need to make sure they will help you take your story where it needs to go. Helen suggests looking for someone with a proven track record, and strong contacts with a big publishing centre like London or New York because otherwise your book may not get the support it needs.
She also points out that you are not powerless without an agent – all the tools you need are available online. “Writers have procrastinated since the beginning of time,” she says, but you can use that urge to your advantage – whether it’s by networking with other writers on Twitter or doing research online. Thanks to building up a network of readers and writers on Twitter, in 2015 Helen was able to crowdsource a tour of her book in the USA. This gave her control over where she read and who with (for example she could stipulate no events with purely cis white panels). There’s no need to hand your work over to an agent and sit on your hands.
Helen interned with a New York publisher and edits Necessary Fiction, and has been horrified by some of the query letters she’s seen from new writers. She advises that you keep it professional, like a job application. Don’t be flowery, don’t try to be clever, never try to be funny (you don’t know what their sense of humour is) – let the work speak for itself. Jenny too has a few horror stories about query letters that struck just the wrong tone.
What agents and editors do want is professional query letters and good writing. It’s worth mentioning competitions won or any publications you may have, but the writing is the thing.
The questions an agent will want to know the answer to, says Helen, are ‘where would we put this in a book shop?’ and ‘How do I explain it to someone?’ You need to have a strong sense of what your book is and who it’s for if you want to sell it, and ultimately that’s what you want. Publishers are just businesses just trying to keep afloat in a competitive and not very lucrative industry, so they’re only going to take on your book if they think it will sell.
This covers off most of the points at the event, so I’ll leave you with some pro tips from the panel.
- Have a reader in mind
- Do your research
- Be professional
- Don’t be offended by rejection, it’s not personal
- Compare notes with other writers on Twitter – you are not alone
- Work with people who know their stuff
- Get someone else to read your work before you submit
- Develop situation appropriate pitches. For example, if you meet an agent, fellow writer or other interested party at a networking event or in the pub, have a 3 line summary ready to get them interested, and a couple of paragraphs of follow up memorised if they want to know more. Never again will you have to awkwardly mumble that you’re ‘working on a story about a couple of kids who do a thing and it’s hard to explain…’
- Put yourself out there. You don’t know until you try.