Approaching Literary Agents – Round 2

My supernatural mystery novel, The Redmaid Witch, has been poked and prodded and trimmed and tweaked, and while I’ve no doubt it’ll need more editing before being ready for readers, I think it’s getting there.

In 2021, I had a great experience publishing my YA Contemporary novel Other People’s Butterflies with the small press Art Over Chaos. But while small presses have many advantages, the one thing they generally can’t offer is reach. To put it bluntly, a small press means a small number of sales. And with the cost-of-living crisis hitting hard, I’m once again drawn to mainstream publishing. 

I say ‘once again’ because in my twenties, I wrote my first novel and tried to get a deal with a mainstream publishing house. In the UK, this meant presses like HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin Random House. These presses won’t accept manuscripts directly from writers, so I had to get myself an agent.

I did eventually manage to get one, and then it turned out that an agent isn’t a magical key to the kingdom of publishing but just, y’know, a human doing their job. My agent did her job of submitting my manuscript to the big publishing houses, and the big publishing houses said No.

Things I Know

At least the journey of querying agents, finding one to represent me and working with her gave me an insight into the process that will hopefully be useful now that I’m ready to give it another go. I’m sure there are plenty of other writers on this journey, or planning for it at a later date, so here is what I’ve learnt about approaching agents.

Don’t be discouraged by a slow start. Agents will generally request a synopsis of your book, along with the first three chapters or 10,000 words. If they love what you send them, they may ask for a “full request”, i.e. the whole manuscript. If they love that, they may make an offer of representation.

Usually, none of this happens. I submitted to lots of agents and waited a long time before getting a full request. But apparently agents are like buses because after that long wait, two came along at once.

I won’t pretend they were fighting over me (one was significantly more enthusiastic about my manuscript than the other) but they both wanted to meet and discuss things, which was pretty awesome.

This seems to be the way with most things in writing. You spend a small eternity waiting for something – a flash of inspiration, an acceptance from a journal, a person who actually wants to buy your book – and then the writing gods smile upon you and everything goes right all at once.

So I’m not going to give up after being ignored by a handful of agents. I’ll carefully consider their feedback (assuming they give me any) and I’ll keep beavering away.

Expect to be asked to make big changes. My agent wasted no time in asking me to add 10,000 words to my novel, change the age of one of the characters and tweak the ending to something a little more upbeat.

Traditional publishing is notoriously conservative, so agents often ask authors for changes that will boost a novel’s mainstream appeal and increase the chances of a Yes from a big publishing house.

You may be asked to change the length of your story – not because it feels rushed or flabby, but simply because it’s not the right length to be marketed as a novel. Or you may be asked to alter an aspect of the story so that it fits neatly into a category – Adult vs YA, Sci-Fi vs Fantasy, etc.

In my twenties, I wasn’t precious about my writing and was happy to make changes if they increased the possibility of a book deal. Now, I feel like I may be a little spoiled by the creative freedom afforded by publishing my debut novel with a small press.

If I do manage to get an agent, I’ll do my best to keep a balance. I’ll cheerfully change the length and shape of my novel, but I won’t sacrifice anything that changes the heart of it. I know The Redmaid Witch has some aspects that don’t exactly scream “mainstream appeal”, but if I’m putting a book out into the world, I want it to still feel like it’s mine.

Think long-term. When I met my agent, all I was interested in was what she could do for my first novel and I didn’t think much about any future books. Understandable, perhaps, since I’d only written one, but it turned out to be a mistake.

I didn’t get a clear picture of what categories of book she was willing to represent, and when my first novel failed to attract a publisher and my second novel was decidedly YA, her lack of interest in representing YA became an issue and we just sort of drifted apart.

Since I’m still happily genre-hopping, I’m going to consciously seek out an agent who represents a range of genres, and is interested in both Adult and YA fiction. If I can find one who also represents poetry it’ll be a dream come true!

Things I don’t know

There are many, many more things I don’t know about finding and working with a literary agent. I last queried agents almost a decade ago, and there could have been huge changes in the mainstream publishing industry that I’m still blissfully unaware of.

There are bound to be new trends and new ways of doing things that I’m not up to speed with. For the most part, I’m ignorant of Booktok and Booktube and all that scary “influencer” stuff, but there’s no doubt it has affected the publishing landscape hugely over the last several years.

What are your thoughts on literary agents? Are you hoping to snag one soon, or in the future? Or would you prefer to bypass them entirely and go for small presses or self-publishing? Are you one of those blessed creatures who has a happy, long-term relationship with an agent? If so, please share your secrets in the comments!