Literary Agents – What You Need To Know

Today I am pleased to bring you a guest post from my old friend (and sometime editor) Iain Maitland.

Iain is a highly experienced, UK-based freelance writer/editor, and now a novelist and playwright too!

In his post today, he reveals how finding an agent has helped him take his writing career to a new level..

Over to Iain then..


 

I’ve been a freelance writer for more than 30 years, writing all sorts of how-to books and articles. I earned a decent living but, as I moved into my 50’s, I really wanted to be a ‘proper’ writer with a literary agent.

Back in 2014, when I was 52, I started work on a memoir, Dear Michael, Love Dad, about my relationship with my eldest son, who’d suffered from depression for many years.

I wasn’t sure at that time if I wanted a literary agent or not. I’d knocked around publishing for a long time and was happy doing my own negotiations. I didn’t want to pay an agent 15 per cent either.

Then again, it would be nice to concentrate on writing – chasing and haggling is always stressful and time-consuming. And, getting ahead of myself, I had little knowledge of TV, films or stage plays.

So I pitched an outline and sample chapters from Dear Michael, Love Dad, to publisher after publisher. These days, with Twitter and Linkedin, it’s pretty easy to uncover commissioning editors and to email them.

Some – most actually – did not reply. A few sent me a standard, ‘thank you but no’ response. Not surprising really – they all receive hundreds of approaches every week. One or two engaged and encouraged but said it wasn’t for them. It wasn’t something they’d be able to market easily, they all said. But their words gave me hope. I tweaked the book and kept going.   

I tried agents too. The response was similar. One or two were encouraging. One seemed keen and we were going to meet. Then she was taken ill and the moment drifted away. A couple of others ummed and aahed and eventually said ‘no’. Again, I had enough encouragement to make changes to the book and have another go.   

And then – well, if I wrote this as a script, it would be rejected as being too unbelievable. An agent, Clare, expressed interest towards the end of 2015. We met in London for breakfast and she said she’d pitch it to publishers she knew. (A big plus of having an agent is that they act in a way as a screening service so commissioning editors know they’re going to be shown something that’s close to what they want).

The next morning, Clare phoned me at home. Hannah, a publisher at Hodder, had read my work on her way into the office and went straight to the MD to arrange an offer. Clare said we could auction the book but that Hannah was the best editor for it so we should stick with her. We did and, other than the paperwork, we had a deal that day. I was on my way.

Later, I looked at the contract in the cold light of day and, to be honest, Clare had got me a better deal than I could ever have negotiated. I wouldn’t have known where to start with half of it; overseas rights, and so on. She certainly earned more than the fees I’d be paying her.

After Dear Michael, I didn’t want to write the same type of book again. I wanted to go on and do all sorts of different books to prove to myself that I could write anything I fancied – a memoir, a thriller, a self-help book, and so on. And that’s what I have done since Dear Michael, Love Dad was published in mid-2016.

My thriller, Sweet William was published by Contraband in November 2017 and that’s the first of four dark literary thrillers I am doing. I have written a self-help book, Out Of The Madhouse, with my son Michael; that’s out this month. I also wrote a stage play of Dear Michael, Love Dad last year and am now in talks with a (small) London theatre to stage that next year.

The bottom line is that I’d like to think I could have done this on my own. The reality is I doubt I could have done it without my agent Clare – she helps me to plan ahead with a strategy (to write a commercial thriller in 2019). She matches my books with publishers. When my confidence wobbles, as it does from time to time, she encourages me onwards. And she takes all the negotiating and hassle away from me. I can just write, simple as that.  

With Sweet William for example, she sold Commonwealth rights to the publisher and retained other rights, including film and TV which she’s now selling. Thank goodness – where would I start with that!     

Tips for Getting an Agent

Here’s my ‘how-to’ advice on getting an agent, based on my own experience…

  • Be prepared to write the whole book. Non-fiction can be pitched with an outline and samples. With fiction, you need to have a complete script to show.     
  • Google for similar books – with Dear Michael, Love Dad it was Dear Lupin and Love Nina. Use Twitter and Linkedin to track authors and their agents. I found the actor who turned Dear Lupin into a stage play via Linkedin, contacted him and he worked with me on my play.      
  • Approach agents with a personal email that’s short and sweet. A bit about you. A little about the book. An outline and samples in attachment. Play it straight, don’t brag or beg.
  • Try every agent who works in your field. Blitz them all. Don’t sit and wait, one at a time, for a reply. It’s a numbers game. They get 100’s of requests every week. Just keep trying. Go back round again with something else six months later.
  • Take constructive criticism. Agents know their way around – if one suggests your book might work if you changed it this way or that, then do it. With Dear Michael, Love Dad, it was suggested I made it less funny and more bittersweet. I did and it got picked up soon after that.
  • Don’t automatically go with the first agent who offers to represent you. I did – like most authors I was desperate to succeed – and I was lucky. Clare’s very good. Some agents are not. If you can, talk to fellow authors to get a sense of how good the agent is. If your work is good, more than one agent will make an offer to you.          

I am happy to chat! You can email me at Imaitland@aol.com. You can also follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/iainmaitland


 

Many thanks to Iain for an inspiring and eye-opening post. As ever, if you have any comments or queries – for Iain or myself – please do post them below.

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