As many of you who read my blog will know, I went on the very informative Writing Women’s Commercial Fiction held by Cornerstones Literary Consultancy last week. As I’ve already mentioned the entire course was invaluable but the highlight for me was Agent Speaker Caroline Hardman (Christopher Little Agency) who came down for the evening from London to share her knowledge and experiences with us.
I have to confess I’m a novice novelist. It’s been a bit like having a baby for me; I conceived the idea, read up loads on how to go about writing a novel, nurtured the story as it grew, focussed on completing my manuscript…now it’s fully-formed I haven’t a clue what to do with it. The publishing world is a minefield to me. I love reading books, I have my favourite authors but I’ve never really taken much interest in which authors are published by which publishing house AND – this is probably a good time to ‘fess up – I used to work for a publisher! But they were an educational publisher. I didn’t get involved with the publishing process. I worked in Human Resources… just responsible for employing commissioning editors. *blushes at own ignorance*
So the opportunity to have an exchange for over an hour with a real-life agent was like a dream come true. And Caroline didn’t disappoint. She talked us through a typical day for her (Christopher Little Agency get on average 25 submissions per day!), the role of an agent in the publishing process, what she’s looking for when sifting through submissions and the future of the publishing industry. She gave such a wonderful insight and there’s so much I could tell you but some you might already know. Instead I’ve summarised the aspects which stood out to me:
- A good agent will endeavour to do their best by the author – they need to have the author’s interest at heart. Not the publisher’s.
- Some agents religiously look at submissions every day, others do a block for a few hours per week. In Caroline’s case it probably equates to half-an-hour per day.
- Caroline advises treating the submission of your novel like applying for a job. First impressions are critical so you want to ensure you come across as professional and intelligent. Caroline begins with reading the covering letter and likes to have a brief summary about the plot and the author. You want to come across as interesting but not too quirky.
- When submitting to an agent ensure you have perfectly understood what the agent is asking for. Most will ask for a covering letter, synopsis and first three chapters but each agency differs. It’s advisable to find out whom within the agency you should address your submission to – showing you’ve taken the time to find out about the agency you hope might represent you, may prevent you from falling at the first furlong.
- Your submission will go into the agency ‘slush pile’ – a term I’m beginning to hear frequently – where it will have to jostle to the forefront of many (possibly hundreds) of submissions received that week. The reality is that time is money and an agent might only have up to three minutes to spend on each submission. Therefore it’s essential that yours stands out. The first few paragraphs of your covering letter, synopsis and manuscript need to really grab the agent. You want to make the agent read on. Not bore them on page one so they don’t bother reading onto page six where all the action takes place.
- If you are lucky enough to sign with an agent it’s good to bear in mind that although an agent is making a personal and emotional investment in you – and therefore you want them to take an interest in you – they have a life too! Reading an entire manuscript is time consuming and often the agent will do this out of working hours. There’s a balance between wanting some of your agent’s time and irritating them. It’s like those early days in a new relationship: Shall I ring him? Perhaps I should wait for him to ring me…
What came across to me most is how busy an agent’s life must be. From a wannabe-author perspective I had just imagined an agent in their office, tirelessly reading through manuscripts, waiting for the phone to ring with the new JK Rowling to come up with the next blockbuster idea. In reality precious little time can be afforded to reading submissions. Instead there’s a greater amount of time invested in liaising with publishers and lawyers, drawing up contracts and planning for international book fairs where international rights of books can be sold.
What also stood out is the need for an agent to keep themselves on their toes. With the ever changing face of technology, the pace of publishing has to keep up and embrace a different generation of readers. Market predictions indicate that approximately fifty percent of publishing sales will be eBooks in 10 years time. Caroline viewed this as a positive change; eBooks are encouraging more people to read. She also suspects that sales will become more polarised – those favouring eBooks and those followers who will never give up a hard copy. There was talk of elaborate, embossed covers, limited editions…at which point I have to confess I was switching-off and dreaming about seeing my name on the cover of my novel, all luxurious and tempting…
So my big thank you goes to Caroline for taking the time to come and talk to us and agreeing for me to reference her in this blog. Who knows if I will ever get an agent – I certainly hope so – but for the moment I have been spurred on by her passion and vivacity for publishing. It was good to know that not all agents are big, scary people and can be quite friendly and approachable. And very glamorous. I’m still dying to know where she got her shoes?!