We are very lucky to have a huge number of industry professionals attending the RNA conference in Leeds this year – agents, publishers and editors – and over the past few weeks, we have been hearing from them about what they do and what they are looking for from their one-to-one sessions with RNA members over the weekend of the conference in July.
Today, we welcome literary agent, Julia Silk, with her take on what agents are looking for in a submission.
What Are Agents Looking For? (clue: it’s not just a particular type of book)
Agents are frequently asked what they are looking for, and sometimes we might have a very particular want: an upmarket multi-voice, multi-generation, multicultural love story is, for example, always on my wishlist, as is a gripping, textured historical novel based on factual events and characters.
Obviously you should do your research, and there’s no point in sending a commercial romance novel to an agent who doesn’t handle clients in this area; often, though, the honest answer is, in its most concise, form, ‘I’ll know when I see it,’ which is not all that useful for an author who wants to know whether their work in general, or a specific novel in particular, is going to be a good fit. What it’s saying, though is worth hearing, in the sense that there is no one-size-fits-all agent, just as there’s no one size fits all book or author.
Writers are often advised to write what they want to, what feels right, and not to try to ‘write to the market’. And this is both good and bad advice (helpful, right?). It’s good advice in the sense that there’s never any point in forcing it – if it doesn’t feel right to you, it won’t feel right to a reader. There are few guarantees in publishing, but that is one of them! BUT if you’re looking for a traditional publishing deal (I’m talking broadly about the more commercial/reading group end of the market, rather than literary/experimental fiction), it’s not such good advice, because there are certain expectations that you’ll need to fulfil for an editor to feel confident in your understanding of what you’re writing and who it’s for.
This isn’t about ticking boxes – it’s about knowing the rules so that if and when you do want to break them, your reader (whether that’s an agent, editor or end reader) still feels that they are in safe storytelling hands, that they are colluding in your subversion of the rules and can say that they ‘see what you did there’ (see for example in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine). As readers we all want the story to take us on a journey, but no one wants to be taken for a ride. By which I mean when you write a commercial novel there is an unspoken pact with a reader about how you set up and fulfil our expectations.
All agents have slightly different criteria; sometimes they will be looking for a particular kind of writer/novel to fill a perceived gap in their list, or will turn a book down because, even though they like it, they have another client who is doing something too similar; having said that, some agents actively look for clients within a fairly narrow range genre-wise because it’s an area in which they consistently have great success and feel most confident representing.
First and foremost, though, it’s about connecting with the writing, and there’s no formula for that. But what draws me in to reading a submission in the first place is a clear, concise pitch in the cover letter, and a strong confident voice in a well-structured novel, where there’s plenty happening from the outset. Some writers instinctively achieve this from the moment they put pencil to paper/finger to keyboard, but for most it’s a combination of trial and error and studying the craft, whether that’s within a real life or online writing community or by reading books on writing in order to get tips and advice on structure and form – whatever best suits your circumstances.
Personally I am drawn to writers with a track record not necessarily in publishing, but in honing their craft and seeking out beta readers and writing mentors/partners. Then once you’ve reached a point where you feel you can’t take it any further without the help of an industry professional, that’s where an agent most likely comes in.
And when you’re ready to submit, the most important thing is to keep an open mind to feedback. If you are getting more than just standard turn-downs then you can be confident that you are heading in the right direction, and it’s a question of taking comments on board and possibly doing some reworking before submitting to the next round of agents, or resubmitting if an agent has asked to see your work again. But in the end publishing is often alchemy: the right book to the right agent at the right time.
And ultimately what I’m looking for in a writer/agent collaboration, apart from talent, are the other attributes shared by all the writers I’ve ever worked with: doggedness, resilience and a love of writing (or at least a need to write) as an end in itself, rather than just a means to an end.
Julia Silk is an Associate Agent with MBA Literary Agents. Julia was an editor for 15 years, most recently with Orion, before becoming an agent in 2016, working in association with MBA. She likes to read stories that expose universal truths in new ways and welcomes submissions of accessible literary and commercial fiction, crime and thriller from new and established writers. At the moment she is actively seeking high-quality reading-group fiction; top of her wish list is a sweeping multi-voice, multi generation love story, preferably with an international feel, and she also loves stories featuring unpredictable characters making unexpected choices. You can follow her on Twitter @juliasreading