The majority of authors we publish, especially fiction books, will be represented by a literary agent. To get a literary agent to represent you as a new writer, you’ll need to pitch your book to them, usually in the form of a covering letter or email.
Cathryn Summerhayes, a literary agent at Curtis Brown, talks to us about what she looks for in a pitch from a new writer.
When should a writer approach an agent – should they finish their book first?
For fiction, whether you’re writing for adults or for children, it always makes sense not only to finish your book, but to revise it, get some readers (not your mum and dad), and redraft and redraft until you feel you have got it to absolutely the best point you can without help from an agent and/or publisher.
No author’s first draft ever gets published – and an agent wants to really get the sense that you are hard-working, have spent a lot of time with your manuscript and you are determined to get it right.
For non-fiction, you need a proposal that gives an overview of the project, a breakdown of the chapters you plan to write and at least one complete chapter to give a sense of your voice and direction.
For all writers I would work on your ‘back of the book’ pitch – a couple of hundred words that really crystallises what the book is about. I far prefer these to long ‘then this happened, and then he said this’ synopses.
What are you looking for in a writer to represent?
I’m looking for three things:
- Authenticity – why are you so well placed to tell this particular story?
- Uniqueness of voice – don’t tell me you are the next JK Rowling, instead be the best NEW thing.
- Intricacy of plotting – a good story cannot stand up if an author hasn’t thought about what every page will add to the telling of that story.
How should a writer pitch their book to a literary agent?
- With confidence! But not arrogance. If you feel this book is the best thing you have written and that it is ready to share with agents, then communicate that with enthusiasm.
- Have a really good sense of where your book will sit on the shelves. Is it literary, reading group, commercial, Young Adult, middle grade, or sci-fi for example? Give some examples of comparative authors.
- Know the agent you are submitting to and do your research, for example by saying ‘I thought you might like my work because I see that you represent X author’.
- Nail your one line pitch – is it Star Wars meets Bridget Jones? And really polish up your ‘back of the book’ description of a few hundred words to include in your submission letter. Only put in details about yourself that are relevant – prizes, qualifications, where you were born, for example, but be brief. If you are big on social media, send your handles, but ONLY if you are happy for us to read your tweets and see your pics.
- Make sure your first page is KILLER so that you have the agent hooked straight away.
- Be honest about how many agents you are submitting to – and SPELL the agent’s name correctly and the name of the agency they work for. I’m afraid little things loom large on the slush pile.
What are the common pitfalls?
See above – typos, accidentally cc-ing every other agent you’ve sent to, submitting to the wrong agent – I often see material I wouldn’t consider on my list, even though my online profile and the agency’s website make it very clear what I do and don’t like. We understand that you will want to submit to more than one agent, but just make sure if you are copying and pasting material over, that you make the necessary changes.
You’d be amazed how many times I see things like ‘I would LOVE to be represented by United Agents’ (I work for Curtis Brown). Sloppiness suggests your work will be lazy and that you might not be a good self-editor, and ultimately that you might not be the best author for me to represent.
This is your audition, your biggest job interview ever, so do put the work in! If you have written something brilliant, you don’t want to fall at the final hurdle by messing up the covering letter.
What do you like to see in a covering letter?
I like to get a very clear sense that the writer is in this because they love writing, not because they see pound signs flashing up. So, if you are working on a second book, say that. We like to see that you are not a one-trick pony and are in this for the long haul. Tell me that you have entered short story competitions, been published in magazines, attended a creative writing course, festivals, etc. Just show me that you are PASSIONATE about the business of writing.
Know your own novel – tell us the basics in a few lines that make us unable to leave the office without putting it on our Kindle. Show an understanding of the publishing business. Reference authors you admire. Reference books the agent you are submitting to has represented.
Write a letter that sings off the page – in the same way that you hope your book will. DO NOT BE BORING. DO NOT SEND ME PICTURES OF YOUR PETS. DO NOT TRY TO BE CLEVER (‘I’m sending this to you already torn up so you don’t have to bother’…).
Sell yourself, and sell your work. You are your own best advocate.
You can send your manuscript to Curtis Brown through their submissions portal here.
The best place to find a full list of literary agents in the UK is the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook.
See more from Cathyrn in How To Get Published – our online resource into the world of publishing.