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Some surprising tips on pitching to an agent (and some not so surprising)

andrew lownie, helena fairfaxLast week I was at the Ilkley Literature Festival – a series of writing-related workshops and talks held every year here in the north of England. One of the talks was given by Andrew Lownie, who deals with non-fiction at the literary agency of the same name.  Andrew Lownie’s agency has been running for nearly thirty years, and he’s been shortlisted for ‘Agent of the Year’ at the British Bookseller Awards for the last three years running.

Here are some of the things he talked to us about:

  • If you’re writing a series, you stand a better chance of getting published. (I’ve heard quite a few industry experts say this now, and to be honest, it’s a little disheartening. Think of all the authors who had one great novel: Margaret Mitchell with Gone with the Wind, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. If they’d been trying to get published today, would agents and publishers be asking them “Where’s the sequel?”)
  • You stand a much better chance of getting published if you already have a social platform – ie, if you’re already active on FB, Twitter, blogging, etc. This is no surprise. Authors just have to accept these days that they are at least partly responsible for marketing their own work, or – in the case of many publishers nowadays – wholly responsible.
  • Books of 200,000 words are hard to sell. Cut them down to between 80,000 – 120,000 max
  • Before you even think of submitting, try and have an idea of how your book fits into the market. Get a feel for the market by visiting bookshops and discovering what’s selling. Read, read and read.
  • Try to distil the premise of your novel into one great hook. It will be easier to sell. (It’s also quite a good discipline to do this, for its own sake. You should be able to sum up in a few words what your book’s about.)
  • A lot of selling books is about category and association with other books. According to Andrew Lownie, publishers are like lemmings in that they all helena fairfax, andrew lownie, the girl in the red coatfollow a trend. For example, books with the work “Girl” in the title sell well at the moment (!) eg The Girl in the Red Coat, The Girl on the Train, and Gone Girl. (This was one of the surprising facts to me. I hadn’t considered the popularity of certain words in titles – although by the time anyone submits now, “Girl” will be old hat.)
  • Think of a great title. A really good title is half the battle. (Another surprising fact to me. I thought publishers didn’t really care about the title, and would change it themselves to something they thought marketable. This tip has made me focus more on the title when submitting. It’s a little depressing again, but it seems googling the top selling titles on Amazon and picking out the keywords can help you get your book published.)
  • If you read a book you enjoy, check out the acknowledgements page. Authors often thank their agents. Try approaching an agent with your ms, and mention how much you enjoyed the book written by an author they represent. Agents like to feel they’ve been particularly singled out (although don’t go overboard and start creeping.)

Some more general tips (and none of these should be surprising):

  • Address your submission correctly. Take time to check the spelling of the agent’s name!
  • Make sure the agent you’re submitting to actually deals with books in the genre you’re writing.
  • Don’t phone an agent with your query. They don’t appreciate being disturbed.
  • Follow the instructions on the agent’s website to the letter. If it says three chapters and a synopsis, double-line spaced, that’s what you should send.
  • If you get a rejection, don’t tell the agent they’ve made a mistake. Just move on to the next agent on your list.
  • andrew lownie, agent query, helena fairfaxDo multiple submissions (but don’t tell the agent that’s what you’re doing. Most of them expect it, anyway, but they like to feel flattered). Submit to three agents at a time. If you don’t hear within a month, look again at your submission, see if you can improve it, and move on to the next three agents. Also, if you don’t hear within a month, perhaps this isn’t the sort of agency you want to be dealing with.
  • Try newer agents, ie people who’ve just started out, as they’ll be trying to expand their list. The better known agents will already have a large list of authors they are representing.
  • If you are going to work with an agent, it’s vital the agent is someone you can get on with. Try and find an agent of a similar age to yourself, and someone who shares the same interests.
  • Before submitting your work, it’s well worth sending it to a literary consultancy service for advice.
  • It goes without saying (or it ought) that your query and ms should be meticulously presented and be grammatically correct.
  • Don’t boast in your query letter. Make the best case you can without showing off.
  • Self-publishing is perfectly acceptable these days as an alternative route. Many publishers give low royalty rates, so going your own way can be for the best. If you do self-publish, get your manuscript professionally edited and get a professional cover.

I asked Andrew Lownie what he thought of agencies who accept pitches via Twitter. Curtis Brown, for example, accept tweeted pitches one day per month. Andrew Lownie thought this was a gimmick, and that it’s impossible to pitch a book in 140 characters. (Personally I wouldn’t go down this route of querying, either. Why tell the whole world you’re pitching to a particular agent? Won’t this scupper your chances with other agents if you’re not selected? I don’t really understand what’s in this for the author.)

* * *

So, that was Andrew Lownie’s talk.  I hope you found it as useful as I did. Have you ever queried an agent? How did you get on? Have you heard any other tips from other agents or publishers that you found useful? If you have any comments or questions at all, please let me know. I’d love to hear your view!

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26 thoughts on “Some surprising tips on pitching to an agent (and some not so surprising)

  1. Very interesting and helpful words from an expert. I was particularly interested what he had to say about series. My WIP is becoming far too long and I am thinking of turning it into a series as I think that would work well. This advice gives me more confidence to go ahead. Thank you for sharing. How was Ilkley? I went to school there and lived nearby, still miss it and its beautiful moors.

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    1. Hi Annika, I’ve never written a series, so I’m not sure how it works. Andrew Lownie mentioned Ian Rankin’s series of detective novels as an example of what works well. I suppose the Harry Potter series is a prime example! If you can split your book up and get it to work in this way, that sounds perfect.
      Ilkley is a lovely town! So much going on, and the moors just on the doorstep. It’s no wonder you miss it. I hope you get to go back to visit.
      Thanks very much for dropping in. I’m glad the tips were useful. Good luck with your ms!

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    1. I’m so glad it was useful. I don’t really like the idea of all books having to fit within a certain genre, but selling books is all about positioning yourself, as Andrew Lownie said. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing these excellent tips on subbing to an agent. I have two author friends who are beginning their search as I speak, so I’ll pass this link along to them. I’m not familiar with a literary consulting agency. What is that? Really appreciate you sharing all you learn at your writer festivals.

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    1. Hi JQ, a literary consultant will offer you advice on your manuscript before you submit. Hilary Johnson’s consultancy in the UK is an example. You can check out her site here: http://www.hilaryjohnson.com/
      It’s such a time-consuming process querying agents. I wish your author friends every success. Do let me know how they get on.
      Thanks so much for dropping in!

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  3. All great advice, Helena. Thank you for the information.

    I think the title is so important. I love the title of my first book, The Ginseng Conspiracy, but I’m not sure that it made sense to use for a cozy mystery. It’s not a cozy sounding book title…conspiracy. Conspiracy fits more with thrillers.

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    1. I love your title, too, Susan. To be honest it hadn’t occurred to me that it didn’t suit a cosy mystery. That’s interesting. I feel as though you’ve made the title your own now.
      I find choosing titles such hard work, even for a short story. Thanks so much for your comment.

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  4. They love a franchise… And I’ve just been pleased to publish a novel running at exactly 75,000 words. To be a grumpy old man about it, there may also be a few kids who might be surprised (after years of free expression and no rules of grammar at school) that their submission must be meticulously presented and grammatically correct…

    Their submission must be meticulously presented and grammatically correct.

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    1. It’s a surprise to me that people who’d like to be writers can submit queries with errors in them. Their book could actually be a great story, and it’s a shame they let themselves down at the first hurdle.
      Congratulations again on release of your novel, James. I’m looking forward to reading it!

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  5. Thanks for listing these, Helena – I don’t think any came as a surprise to me but it’s good to be reminded of them! It does annoy me that many agents/publishers look for ‘trends’ – what happened to being original! And new stand alone books still sell just as well as far as I can see (thinking of The Miniaturist) – or perhaps he wants authors to have more than one book in them. That particular author was lucky in finding the perfect agent for her and who loved the period in which the story is set.

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    1. The Miniaturist is a great example, Rosemary. I’d forgotten about that! It has an unusual premise. I’m not surprised it caught an agent’s eye.
      It’s hard work trying to guess what’s going to be trending next. I wonder if psychological thrillers will have their day soon, or if they’ll keep going for years more. Interesting to find out.
      Thanks for your interesting comment!

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  6. Great post. Great advice. Thanks. One thing I was told was the importance of being timely with your subject matter. This, however, means you sometimes must move quickly as interests can change at a surprising speed. I am so happy to see you are doing so well my friend. Keep it up!

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      1. I’m sorry you are feeling that way. Sometimes someone looking in from the outside sees a much different picture than the person actually living it. Wish we weren’t 3000+ miles apart, on apposite sides of the ocean. Guess I will have to send you a long distance hug only to cheer you on :)

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Brilliant tips! Some I had heard of, others I hadn’t even considered. Just at the start of the process now. Funnily enough, my novel has the word ‘girl’ in it. Hope I’m onto a winner and not too late!

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