Charlie Brotherstone, agent at A.M. Heath, gives you advice on how to approach an agent and what to avoid with your submission. He is always on the lookout for exciting new voices.
I have had a wonderful five years working at A.M. Heath, where we are hugely passionate about the writers we represent. One of the aspects of the job I’ve most enjoyed is working with debut writers. It’s a long journey from that first submission to publication, and nothing beats calling someone up to tell them they’re going to be a published author. The replies range from shocked silence to unbridled, expletive-ridden joy!So much toil and emotional investment goes into producing a complete manuscript and I sympathise with authors when they are at the point of submitting to an agent. After all the hard work there’s yet another large hurdle.
Luckily, the world of agenting has become less opaque in recent years. Type in #askagent on twitter and you will find agents answering questions about any aspect of the book business. I think it’s important to give writers as much of an idea as possible about what an agent is looking for and I often speak at writers’ conferences or creative writing schools, or blog about what I’m looking for. I even used the hashtag #agentwishlist a fortnight ago to give a sense of the types of books I would love to find. They aren’t meant to be prescriptive, but should give an indication of my tastes.
The best cover letters are short and to the point.
Addressing your cover letter to a specific agent and personalising your approach does help to make it stand out (it’s not just vanity on the part of that agent, honest). Displaying knowledge of the market is also impressive. It shows that you are serious about writing as a career and have clear ambitions.
The best cover letters are short and to the point. Some things to avoid are hyperbolic claims like ‘This is the best book you will ever read’ or ‘I am the next J.K. Rowling’. Add some aggression into that mix and you’ve discovered the formula for immediate rejection: ‘This is the best book you will ever read and if you don’t think so; you’re a fool’.
Agents are not devoid of a sense of humour but it is difficult to be funny in a cover letter. Out of context one-liners don’t tend to work and quirky details about the author’s life or their pets’ sex lives (yes, this happened) tend to come across as plain weird.
An original, intriguing title and concept will grab an agent’s attention. Commercial though it sounds we are all in the business of selling: authors to agents; agents to editors; editors to publishing sales teams; sales teams to booksellers; booksellers to readers: a catchy title and pitch are invaluable, especially for debut authors entering a difficult market. It is not an easy skill and it’s worth looking at jacket blurbs on similar books to get a sense of how publishers try to attract readers.
A short synopsis which cuts to the core of the book can also help make your submission stand out from the rest. Do not be afraid of giving away the ending; it’s certainly useful for us to know if there’s a killer twist!
The number of submissions we receive means that unfortunately we look for reasons to reject manuscripts. Try to resist the temptation to send your work the moment you have typed the last word; some objective distance will help you decide whether it is ready. It is frustrating when a manuscript arrives and the author has made a list of potential problems with the plot or central characters.
Simple grammar or spelling mistakes in a submission letter get magnified when you are being judged on your ability to write. Double and triple-check and make sure you follow the submissions guidelines for the agency to whom you’re submitting. (View A.M Heath’s submission guidelines.)
It’s a daunting process but avoiding the major pitfalls outlined above and making the approach as professional as possible will increase your chances of getting noticed. Agents are always on the lookout for new voices, and the fewer barriers between me and your work the better. I am very keen to find new talent and a focused approach will help lead me to it. The tingly feeling when you know you’re onto something exciting is what makes every agent tick…
I have been at A.M. Heath since 2008 and am always on the lookout for exciting new voices. Working with debut writers and launching their careers has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job. I love writers whose powerful prose, brilliant storytelling, or unique vision can totally immerse the reader. I would particularly love to receive commercial and literary fiction, reading group fiction, upmarket crime and psychological thrillers. On the non-fiction side my main interests are in politics, history, music and sport.
Follow Charlie on Twitter @CharlieBroAgent
Follow A.M. Heath on Twitter @AMHeathLtd