- By Harry Bingham
- Published 04/10/2013
In the old days, literary agents were chosen more or less by chance. I knew nothing at all about my first agent when I sent my first work of fiction to her: I was just lucky that she turned out to be excellent at what she did. Indeed, the same thing is true of rather more successful authors. JK Rowling sent her first piece of fiction to a literary agent named Christopher Little, simply because she thought his name sounded very sweet. (Which indeed it does.) These days, however, things have improved. Tools and resources now exist to help writers locate their literary agents in a far less random way than hitherto. Those tools and resources are (no surprise here) located online, and the best of them are simple to use. The first criterion is the simplest of all. What genre do you write? It’s not that literary agents specialise in particular genres. That’s seldom the case. My own agent, for example, is perfectly typical in that while he has a bias to literary fiction and serious non-fiction, he also happily (and very successfully) represents crime authors, like myself, not to mention writers of chick lit, of popular non-fiction, or indeed any manuscript that he happens to love and that he thinks he can sell. Nevertheless, some agents do specialise. Others don’t specialise exactly, but they do ask writers not to send certain genres of fiction. (Science fiction and fantasy writers are the ones most often targeted by these exclusions: a pointless snobbery, if you ask me. You also need to be careful if you write non-fiction as some agents specialise only in this, others deal exclusively with fiction.) You need to locate agents who handle your genre, exclude the rest. If you write in multiple genres, then make sure your agent will handle all that you do. I write fiction and non-fiction for example, and my agent handles both.
Secondly, for nearly all new authors, it makes sense to target agents who are actively seeking to take on new clients, typically because those agents are more recently established and are still working to build their list. Getting a new agent makes sense in almost every dimension. You’ll have a higher likelihood of being taken on. You’re likely to get more ed
itorial input. You’ll get more time lavished on your career. You will simply matter more than you would do with a more established agent. Some writers think, yes, but they want the heft the sheer authority, of a well known agent pushing their manuscript. But that, really, is something of a misconception. I think that no editor has ever admitted that their instinct about a book is affected by the name of the agent sending it. The fact is that there’s so much randomness in this game that the next huge selling book could come from almost anywhere: in fiction, just look at the stories of JK Rowling, Stieg Larsson and EL James if you need any proof. In non-fiction, it’s the same thing: just look at the out-of-nowhere success of Dava Sobel’s Longitude or de Waal’s Hare With The Amber Eyes. Editors know this. They know that really well-known agents won’t be sending them rubbish, but that’s true of the newbies too. The simple truth is that each manuscript – fiction or non-fiction – needs to be taken on its own merits. Which in turn means that those editors have no shortcuts, but simply have to begin reading on page one and let the manuscript itself be its own best salesperson. And then third, I think there’s a real place for a good splash of randomness. If you love Alan Garner and you find an agent who declares the Owl Service to be their favourite ever book … well, just maybe the two of you have more than that in common. Of if you find a literary agent who happens to represent two or three authors you have long admired … well, that coincidence surely suggests that your taste and theirs has some important meeting point. You can get less literary about these things too. If you are a huge Twitter fan and you love a particular agent’s Twitter feed, that too suggests a certain type of commonality. Or you find an agent sounding really engaging and funny in an interview somewhere. Or you like the look of someone’s face … I don’t want to suggest that these things count for more than they really do, but we’re humans. Silly things do matter and may indeed signify things of slightly more importance.
So: genre, appetite and a good splash of the random. That sounds like a good recipe for finding the right agent to represent you. Looking back, I think I used exactly that formula to find my current agent and it worked wonderfully for me. I hope it does the same for you.