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March 4, 2024

Behind the book: submitting to an agent

This is the first article in a new series, Behind the Book, demystifying the book industry and delving behind the scenes to bring you insights from leading industry professionals. This week we are unpacking literary agents – what does a literary agent do? What happens to their slush pile? What are they looking for, and what are some of the common mistakes they see? We include insights from Caitlan Cooper-Trent, Curtis Brown Australia, and Alex Adsett, Alex Adsett Literary.

What is a literary agent? What do they do?

A literary agent is someone with knowledge, skills, and experience in the publishing industry, who will represent you as an author or illustrator to the publisher. They will act as the go-between between you and the publisher and, ideally, will have:

  • Knowledge of the local publishers, along with the ability to target the right company and the right editor/publisher within that company, for your work
  • The skill to put together a compelling publishing submission
  • A good understanding of publishing contracts and the ability to negotiate strongly on your behalf to get the best deal possible
  • A thorough working knowledge of the publishing process to help guide you through the book production
  • A range of international contacts to help secure interest from overseas publishers
  • The capacity and ability to receive income on your behalf, check royalty statements, chase late payments and manage all licences in relation to your work.

How do I know whether I need an agent?

In some markets, such as the UK or US, many publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, so you must have an agent to have a chance at publication there. This is not the case in Australia, where many publishers accept unsolicited submissions.

If you have experience in publishing, know which publishers suit your work best, are confident in negotiating on your own behalf, have the time and resources to put yourself out there, or have direct access to publishers, then you may manage well without an agent. If not, then it can be difficult for you to secure a publisher without the help of an agent. Slush piles (manuscripts which have just been sent in by the author) can be huge, and unwieldy, so sometimes nothing can beat a solid recommendation directly from an agent.

How do I prepare a good submission? What are agents looking for?

Caitlan Cooper-Trent from Curtis Brown Australia says, “Every agency’s ‘unsolicited’ submissions process is different, with different guidelines, so I’d be careful to read and follow these carefully.

“Just like every reader is different, so is every agent and assistant. We all have different tastes and reading genres, as well as different capacity for new projects and gaps in our lists. This means if your manuscript isn’t successful in a slush pile, it’s not necessarily a reflection on how ‘good’ the manuscript is.

“That said, things that we’re looking for generally are a manuscript that knows where it sits in the market – the plot, characters and prose is written for a particular genre and audience. We’re always looking for self-assured, clean and simple writing which gets to the point. And in the cover email, it’s important that an author can clearly and concisely sum up what the story is about in a couple of sentences. If you don’t know, the manuscript won’t know; and if you need many paragraphs to ‘explain’ the story, chances are the idea isn’t refined enough.”

Alex Adsett of Alex Adsett Literary says, “The first thing I’m absolutely looking for is an amazing manuscript, but this is closely followed by working out if the author is someone I am going to want to work with in the long term.

“In a perfect world, I want an author who understands that publishing is business, – and although it is a business driven by a love of stories and big ideas, we do need to approach it professionally. It is a tough industry to get ahead in and writing a brilliant book is just the first step. You only get one shot to make a good first impression with a manuscript, so it is vital that you submit when it is as perfect as it can be.

“A cover letter needs to be professional, and you need to have checked and followed the submission guidelines of everyone you are querying (yes, the guidelines are often arbitrary, but they are a test you need to pass to get to the next step). If you are going to break the rules, at least be aware of them, and make sure you are breaking them for a good reason.

“Authors who stand out for me are the ones who are connected within the industry. If I have met you at writing conferences, or book launches, read tweets about books you have loved, or seen you interact within a network of other authors, I know you are committed to building a vibrant and sustainable writing community for us all, and are probably going to be a lovely person to work with.”

What happens when an agent receives a submission?

Caitlan says, “At Curtis Brown, we have a dedicated inbox and intake periods after which agents and assistants sit down as a team and review the submissions. This means reading the email and/or cover letter, discussing, and then reading the sample material and getting a feel for the writing. Manuscripts which appeal to one or more of the agents will be taken away for a closer read, and authors are contacted by the interested agent. 

“The submissions that don’t fit our guidelines or aren’t appealing to any of the agents are sent an email advising them that we weren’t interested in offering representation this time around.

 “If authors aren’t sure where they sit with an agent, check in. If the agent reads the full manuscript and still loves the manuscript, they might offer representation to an author. If they see potential, but think changes are needed, they might suggest to the author to make these changes, and then they will revisit the manuscript. Often an agent will ‘sign’ a manuscript and an author, and then do revisions with the author to prepare the manuscript for submission to publishers.”

What are some of the common mistakes agents see from authors?

Caitlan says, “Common pitfalls are usually those that you’d be warned against in any other type of cold approach. Think of a submission like your application for a job – your resume or cover letter wouldn’t use outlandish fonts or stream-of-consciousness, it wouldn’t start with a biography. 

The most common pitfalls we see in submissions are those that don’t give the important information quickly or clearly in the submission email, and include a first chapter which is dense or slow. Agents are often time poor and have seen many submissions that day, so it’s important to get to the point. The agent should know the pitch or the hook for the novel in the first paragraph of a cover email, and the manuscript sample should introduce some kind of question, or action, that keeps the reader engaged.”

Alex says, “Don’t get frustrated at the first rejection (and definitely don’t rant about it on social media). Sometimes a good first no is the start of a great relationship with an agent, publisher or group of writers. The more you build connections within the writing community, the closer you’ll get to publication, and the more fun you’ll have while getting there.”

Where can I find out more about submissions?

If you want more information on how to give yourself the best chance of success with your submission, be sure to enrol in our next Pitch perfect course, designed to teach you about both written submissions and in-person pitching techniques. You can also learn more about the do’s and don’ts of submissions in the Frequently Asked Questions section of our Information Hub, and in our Selling Your Manuscript resource.