Illustration of writer and agent meeting and shaking hands
Illustration of writer and agent meeting and shaking hands

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?

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 just 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 synopses.

What are you looking for in a writer?

I’m always looking for the same 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.

What are the common pitfalls?

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. 

Cathryn's top tips for a covering letter

  1. The key thing when approaching agents is research, research and more research. It helps your submission when you make each agent you approach feel like they have been specially selected because of authors they represent, projects they are committed to, or even hobbies they love.

     Check the acknowledgements pages of books you love which are in a similar genre to yours. Often they will thank their literary agent - this could be a good place to start.
  2. Don't make basic mistakes. Spell the agent's name and the name of the agency they work for right. I’m afraid little things loom large on the slush pile – treat this as a job application.
  3. Pitch 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. 
  4. Nail your one line pitch – is it Star Wars meets Bridget Jones?  
  5. Have a nuanced 200 words that really crystallises what the book is about. A smart, to the point submission letter, that gives a clear overview of the material that is being submitted, is vital to capture an agent's interest.
  6. A sense of where your book would sit on the shelves if it were to be published today. Is it literary or commercial? Fantasy or sci-fi? Is it a memoir or a book examining a social issue?
  7. Make sure your first page is killer so that you have the agent hooked straight away. 
  8. Only put relevant details about yourself in your letter - things like prizes won, your qualifications, where you were born, are fine, but be brief. 
  9. If you have a big social media presence, you can include your handles - but be prepared for the agent to look at your content. 
  10. 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

Read about a day-in-the-life of a Literary Agent in How To Get Published.

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