Last 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 follow 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.
- Do 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.)
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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!