I have just signed with an agent, and what I have to say about the process might contradict other advice out there, but I think it’s worth considering.
Those who did not know me BC (before children) might find it surprising to know that I used to sell life insurance for a living. In fact I was pretty good at it – not only did I earn a heap of money, I even won prizes. I only stayed in ‘the field’ for about three years before I was promoted to sales manager, but the principles of how to sell stuff have stayed with me, and I’ve often found these principles can apply to other walks of life. I even wrote an article for Mslexia about using sales techniques to sell articles:
Selling can be a numbers game; see enough people and you’ll make a living. But the scattergun approach can be exhausting and demoralising.
I used to cold call people because I couldn’t bear the idea of selling to friends and family, but the purpose of that initial phone-call was simply to get an appointment to meet the person face to face. If you approach people in the right way, then that’s not so difficult – in fact my conversion rate was between one in two and one in three. Unbelievable? No, it’s true, but it worked because I spent a LOT of time pre-selecting who to cold call. No scattergun approach for me. I knew that if I was rejected too often, I’d lose heart and give up.
And this is the first suggestion I have to offer in hooking an agent. Many writers will approach dozens and dozens, if not hundreds of agents. I think that is a waste of time. Your conversion rate is going to be so poor that it’s probably not even worth starting, and you will be demoralised by the lack of feedback and most agents won’t even bother to reply to what is effectively a ‘cold call’.
Instead really, really focus in on just a few hand picked agents. You could go begin by going through something like the Writers and Artists Yearbook, but even then you are still cold calling and your submission will be one among hundreds, It’s still pot luck and you are still going to get demoralised by the lack of response. If you have something totally new and unique and it happens to land on the desk of someone who recognises it for what it is, on a day when they’re not harassed and busy by everything else they’ve got on, then – yeah it could work. But wouldn’t you rather rely on something other than luck?
I suggest you use the yearbook as a back-up or maybe for initial research but then try to really hone in on just a few agents. Set yourself a target of five or six to be selected out of say twenty or thirty. Then – try to get yourself out there, so that the agents you are approaching are ‘warm’. I went to events where agents were appearing and listened to what they had to say – what books they liked, how they’d found particular authors etc. Some I rejected because their taste in books was not mine. Others I rejected because they looked wrong or sounded wrong. I tried when possible to meet agents, to interact with them and find out more about them. You can do this at book festivals or writers conferences, but there are also things like twitter events, podcasts, book blogs – keep your eyes and ears open. Of course you’ll follow them on twitter and if keep an eye out for tweets about what they’re up to, what they want in terms of submissions and when they want it.
Back to the sales metaphor. After that pre-selection and the cold call, I got to meet my ‘prospect’ (short for prospective client’) face to face. What did I do next? Well what I DIDN’T do was to try to sell them life insurance. No, what I did was LISTENED. Asking open questions to find out what they wanted. Then, and only then did I produce the product that would fulfil their need. It’s a waste of time trying to flog people stuff without hearing whether it’s something they’re going to be interested in.
But.. I hear you say… I’ve written one book, and I’ve written it in a particular way, how is this going to help? Admittedly if you’ve written a gritty realistic thriller and the agent wants fluffy romance, it’s hard to see where you’re going to find common ground- but hopefully this won’t happen, given that you already did your research. What I mean is, when the agent tells you what they want, take note. Make sure you are at least most of the way there with what you give them to read. If you aren’t there yet, don’t send your stuff to them. And when you do finally get them to read something, pay attention to ANY feedback they give you. That feedback is gold. (If it’s feedback you don’t like or disagree with, firstly.. wait! Think about it! Digest it. Do nothing, If in three months time at a very minimum you still don’t like it or disagree with it, then fine. Move onto the next agent).
My agent finally signed me after I’d re-written my work three times following her invaluable feedback. This took two years. I felt like a bit of a stalker at times, and there were also times when I wondered if I should be just punting my stuff around to lots and lots of agencies, like everyone else seemed to be doing. But I’m glad I stuck to what I knew. It paid off.