When I was searching for a literary agent, I used to scour the internet for something, anything, that made the process a little clearer. Now that I am represented by the phenomenal Bent Agency, I thought I would add my own story.
I searched for a literary agent for over two years with previous books, and about a year with Shame on You. In the process there are several things I wish I had known.
1. Don't rush to send off your manuscript
In the case of my first two novels, I had a great concept and some good passages of writing, but the structure was all over the place. I was so proud to have finished writing the novels, and so excited to have someone read them, that I sent them off to agents long before they were ready. THERE IS TIME. Even with Shame on You, which is a novel that deals with current trends and technology, there was still time to pitch to agents, publishers and get it published, with it still being relevant and timely.
2. Don't apply to too many agents at once
It may be tempting to batch-send your manuscript to a whole lot of agents at once, but this defeats the whole purpose of finding the right agent. The best thing I ever did in the pitching process was pick a handful of agents, pitch to them and then continue to apply in waves. This meant that if an agent gave me helpful feedback on something I could change in the manuscript to make it better, then I could give it one more edit before submitting to another agent.
3. Listen to what agents say in their rejection slips, no matter how uncomfortable it is
There are two kinds of rejection slips, the generic 'this manuscript isn't for us,' and then the more detailed one, where the agent lists the reasons they don't feel this is the right project for them. Sometimes it's a case of personal taste, or the fact that that the agent's list is full, but sometimes an agent will take the time to give actual feedback on your story.
The first agent I submitted to said she didn't want to read the whole novel, based on the fact that the opening chapters lacked some important details. I changed it, and got many requests after that to read the whole book.
The second agent I submitted to read the whole book and said a certain storyline in the novel didn't feel right for her. To be absolutely frank, I couldn't get my head around how to fix this, so I didn't make the changes she hoped for. It was only after I got the same feedback from a few other agents that I stepped away from the submission process and gave myself a few months to rework the novel. Once I had truly listened to what the agents were saying, and edited my work carefully, I found representation.
4. Agents are lovely people
They love books and they would love to find an exciting debut in their slush pile. I was so scared at the beginning, and felt awful with my first initial rejections, but it helps if you remember that the person behind the computer screen is simply doing their job. If they took on a project that was not ready to be sold, or that they didn't have the network to sell, they wouldn't be doing anyone any favours!
5. Research how to write your query letter
I spent a lot of time writing and editing my query letter so that it was short, informative and represented Shame on You in an exciting way. This guide on my agent's website is really informative, and gives some great tips on what not to do as well!
6. Know where your book fits in the market
One of my favourite pastimes is to go into a bookstore and go to the new releases section. I gather a pile of all the top selling books in my genre (thriller) and read their first chapter and their back cover blurb. This really helps me see what kind of books are being published, and how they are being marketed to readers. I knew I had something special with Shame on You, when I could imagine who would read my book, and what other books they would read too.
7. Accept that the process takes a while, and keep writing
When I submitted a manuscript the first time, I refreshed my email constantly, but this wasn't good for my mental health. Apart from editing in response to feedback, it's far healthier to let your submission follow its own path and focus on what you can control: your skill as a writer. I've met so many people who want to get published quickly, and give up far too soon.
8. Remember to look after yourself
Without fail, my rejections always came in batches. Some days I would need to have a little cry and feel sorry for myself, but the next day, I would read each email again and keep going. You have to grow a really thick skin to be a commercial writer, and I promise that with every rejection you start to get a little bit stronger. The first rejection I ever had saw me sobbing in a toilet at work, while the last one I had, I actually did a little toast to because they gave me really positive feedback.
The day that Sarah Manning emailed me to offer me representation, I couldn't understand what was going on. Where was the usual phrase 'we regret to inform you,' or 'we cannot offer representation at this time?' It took a while for everything to sink in. But the truth is, while I had almost stopped believing in myself, it IS possible to get an agent, it IS possible to get your book published. You just have to keep working, be honest with yourself, continue to interrogate your writing skills, and be patient.