How to get a literary agent

Literary agent Madeleine Milburn of the eponymous agency gave an excellent talk at the London Writer’s Café on Monday 18th of March – her second appearance at the meetup in a year. Prior to setting up her own agency she worked for A P Watt and Darley Anderson. In a very short space of time she’s spotted – and nurtured – some great talent. Her advice is worth heeding.

She said she receives in the region of fifty proposals a day, and that she reads every one herself. She did employ external readers at one point, but stopped doing so when she realised that they didn’t have the same tastes as her. Her belief in this phenomenal commitment to reading the slush pile is based on the fact that this is where Darley Anderson found all of their talent. Larger agencies are only interested in established, big-grossing writers, rather than nurturing new talent. She’s in the business of nurturing new talent.

How to submit to an agent

Generally, most agents will ask for three sample chapters and a synopsis – but do research what they request, and comply with their submission criteria. The covering letter is crucial. Madeleine says that, in every instance she’s taken on a new client, she’s known it from the moment she read the covering letter. She reads the first three chapters – which should be free of spelling mistakes – and only then reads the synopsis. The latter is there to prove you have a viable plot, and know how to carry your character(s) through the arc of a story.

How to write a query letter to an agent

Your covering letter comes in three or four parts:

  • The opening sentence, which must be a concise hook
  • A brief summary of the story
  • A little bit about yourself, possibly containing a few reasons why you’re the ideal person to have written this work – e.g. publications, relevant experience in the subject matter
  • A single sentence about what you’re writing next. Given that it can take three or four novels to become established, agents want to see that you have investment potential

The overall tone of the letter should be conversational. If at all possible, it should be addressed to a specific person in the agency who handles that genre. It’s also helpful to mention your influences, or favourite writers. Avoid the temptation to say that you’re ‘the next [Famous Name]’.

The pitch, or hook

Again, that hook is of critical importance. Just think about it – Madeleine is looking at fifty proposals a day. How are you going to grab her attention? What will make your story stand out from the slush pile? By the way, she says she takes on perhaps one new client every three months. Think about the maths: your proposal has to beat 3,249 others. Don’t be daunted by that fact – use it to fire your imagination.

How to write a pitch to a literary agent

It’s worth borrowing some best-practice from the movie industry on this, where it’s called a logline. In scriptwriting there are endless books on honing your logline, and you’re encouraged to have a single-sentence pitch, a fifteen-second pitch, a short synopsis and a long synopsis. The entire industry is based around strong hooks and trailers – and it seems literature is heading in that direction. That hook, or a version of it, will probably be used in the pitch to a publisher, the publisher’s pitch to the trade, on the dust-jacket, and then ultimately by your fans to hook other potential readers. The best book I’ve read on the subject is Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds by Michael Hauge. (Get it from Amazon US
or Amazon UK. It’s really worth taking the time to look at the dust jackets of books in your genre. Which work, and which don’t? Why?

The synopsis

Madeleine favours synopses that are no more than a single page. She does not like the capitalisation of characters’ names in the synopsis. (This is a preferred format in movie script synopses, at least in the US.)

Summary

Madeleine read out some great covering letters, and some awful covering letters. The shocking truth is that the quality of the awful ones should have been self-evident to their authors. If in doubt, why not read your covering letter to a few people?

The fundamental advice for a proposal would be:

  • Do your research – don’t waste your time (or an agent’s) with inappropriate submissions: match agent and genre
  • Have the courtesy to address the agent properly and politely
  • Be professional, just as you would be a job application, but be conversational in tone
  • Read and obey the agent’s submission guidelines
  • Have a great pitch that will make them want to read the rest of your proposal
  • Submit a proposal without spelling mistakes
  • Only submit a proposal if you’ve finished your novel
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