Writers Conference 2014: everything you’ve ever wanted to ask an agent

Agents are the bridge between writers and publishers, and are among the most influential people in the publishing industry.

Books, Ruth LivingstoneFollowing on from The Truth and Lies About Self-Publishing, I thought I’d better go and check out what agents really do to earn their pound of writer’s flesh.

According to the Conference Programme booklet: “Agents are the bridge between writers and publishers, and are among the most influential people in the publishing industry.”

This panel was chaired by Henderson Mullin, the chief executive of Writing East Midlands. Three agents – Carole Blake (Blake Friedmann), Sheila Crowley (Curtis Brown) and John Jarrold, who runs his own literary agency – gave us their view of the world of publishing. The three seemed remarkably likeable, and passionate about good authors and great literature.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the things they said:

  • Supermarkets: are taking control of the publishing business. I learnt, to my surprise, that new books are usually released on a Thursday in order to meet the timetable demanded by supermarkets.
  • The author has become more distant from the business.
  • An agent has to believe in the author and their story, whilst remaining very honest.
  • Your agent must love your work, and you must both be working toward the same thing.
  • Agents help writers to earn more money by carefully selling the “rights” to their work, and by cutting these rights into slices.

This is what the agents are looking for:

“I wake up every morning hoping to find something that makes me tingle with excitement.”

And wise words for any writer trying to plug their book:

“If it’s not working, put it away.”

pawns-question-mark Ruth LivingstoneWhen it comes to choosing your agent, this was the advice they gave:

  1. Speak to the agent, either face-to-face or on the phone, and make sure you can work with them.
  2. Ask them what they are going to do with your work. Which publishers? What rights will they aim to sell?
  3. Check out the Writer Beware sites, where dodgy agents are listed.

Sadly, few of us have the luxury of choice. It remains tough to get an agent. John Jarrold, who specialises in science fiction and horror, says he receives around 6,000 submissions a year and takes on only 5 new authors. So it is very important to get your pitch right. This is what agents expect you to do:

  • Select an agent who deals with your chosen genre.
  • Send a short and concise covering letter.
  • Address the agent by their name.
  • Give the agent exactly what they ask for, and you will find this out by…
  • …checking their website.

And a final word from John Jarrold:

If you write, you write. Getting published is the jam on the bread.

Author: Ruth Livingstone

Walker, writer, photographer, blogger, doctor, woman, etc.

9 thoughts on “Writers Conference 2014: everything you’ve ever wanted to ask an agent”

  1. John Jarrold is epic! ^_^
    In fact, he’s the reason I laid off submitting to ages for a bit. When I heard about how many authors he takes on (I think I caught him at the last Alt Fiction before it got canned) I realised that my pitch and novel sooooooooooo weren’t ready.

    I didn’t want to blow it by sending off something too soon, so I held back.

    Hehee, I still have the drafted email though. It’s floating in my email account somewhere. I took out the address though – wouldn’t want to send the bugger by accident! 😉


  2. Have enjoyed following your reflections of the conference, Ruth. It looks as if we were at exactly the same sessions! I also had to smile when one of the agents (I think SC) mentioned the importance of choosing the right one: of course she’s right, it’s supposed to be a long-term relationship, but there have to be a number of offers before we have the luxury of choice


  3. I’m nowhere near ready to look for agents, but I’ve bookmarked this post for the indefinite future. (I mean I didn’t even know that there was a site like Writer Beware.) I tend to gravitate towards agents of my favourite authors/books, so I figure a lot of them are professionals and not scam artists.

    Thanks Ruth!


  4. I think we’re actually more involved in the business right now. Or at least I’m highly involved. If I’m doing the bulk of the marketing, I need to know what kind of support I’m getting, what’s going on in the market place, and how I’m going to be rewarded for all this.


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