How to get noticed in a literary agent's slush pile

Friday, 11 December 2015

As a group of pen-clutching punters huddled together in a South London pub, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was the weekly quiz.

But the hopeful bunch were there to answer a question far more elusive than general knowledge -  how to get their manuscripts noticed by a literary agent.

If any of the aspiring novelists thought getting spotted would be easy, their illusions were about to be smashed to smithereens.

Anne Williams from Kate Hordern Literary Agents revealed that she typically asks just one out of every 200 writers in her 'slush pile' to submit their full manuscript - a dismaying statistic of just 0.5 per cent.

The magic number of clients she actually takes on is is far less at around one year, equating to a soul-destroyingly low chance of success.

More discouraging news came for those over 30, who were warned not to mention their age as youngsters were 'more marketable'. But those with pretty faces and attractive names could take heart, as apparently these are redeeming features. The world of publishing can be shallow, Anne explained with an apologetic shrug.

On the plus side, those struggling to place their work between commercial and literary fiction were excited to learn of 'reading group fiction', an in-between category highly sought after by agents since the popularity of book clubs such as Richard and Judy's.

Most attendees were already aware that a standard submission includes a brief cover letter, a synopsis and the first three chapters, but Anne added plenty of straight-talking advice on how to make the most professional approach possible:

  • If you've written several unpublished novels it's best to omit this from your cover letter or you risk turning the agent off.
  • Putting your submission letter in an attachment adds an extra step in and reduces the chance that it will ever be read. 
  • Conversely, putting your work in the body of the email is ill-advised and could try the agent's patience. 
  • Resist the temptation to relate your entire life story and the journey to your novel.
  • Avoid either over-hyping your work (are you really the next J.K. Rowling?) or being too humble. Instead aim for an intelligent approach with "business-like sanity."
  • Mentioning authors you admire helps the agent to place your work. However claiming you're akin to John Steinbeck may appear over-confident. 
  • Develop market awareness by looking at Best Seller lists, reading reviews and checking out what's on shop shelves. Domestic psychological thrillers are currently in high demand. 
  • A catchy title is a key selling tool and demonstrates your talent for words or to quote Anne that you've "got it". Titles with the word 'girl' are hot right now following the success of novels such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.
  • Include a decent hook in your pitch to grab the agent's attention. 
  • Keep your synopsis to a maximum of one page. 
  • If you've successfully self-published a previous novel then mentioning it demonstrates you're saleable. 

Anne emphasised that if your genre isn't on the agent's shopping list it's unlikely to get snapped up, however good it is. Therefore it's a good idea to check the agent's website prior to submitting and try to play to the market as much as possible. Ultimately you have to view your book as a product you're trying to sell and be willing to adapt. 

So if you're a pretty 25-year-old writing a psychological thriller with 'girl' in the title - success beckons. And as for the rest of us, hey there's always self-publishing...

This event was run by the Greenwich and Southeast London Writers Group. For more information see Meet-Up

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