KATE SHAW’S ADVICE ON HOW TO FIND AND WORK WITH A LITERARY AGENT
Isabel : Kate, thank you for agreeing to share your insights. Firstly, perhaps you could tell our readers exactly what a literary agent can do for a writing client?
Kate: I think of myself as a combination of the following: a talent spotter, a literary midwife, a connector of people and their stories; a tough negotiator, a champion and nurturer of writers, a simultaneous translator between writer and publisher/producer, a strategist and most of all, a tireless and passionate advocate of my authors and their books.
Isabel: We’ve all heard that literary agents are inundated daily with new submissions, and unpublished writers live in fear of the dreaded slushpile! What chance does a new writer have of getting signed with an agent – and what can they do to improve those chances?
Kate: It’s true that I take on only a handful of new writers a year, and yet receive dozens of new submissions a week. I don’t get time to read these during my working week or even most evenings – my client’s business must take precedence. So, I advise: research, research, research. Make sure you know a bit about the agents you are submitting to from their websites, twitter feeds and articles like this and make sure you submit the material they are asking for in the way they ask for it. Bending the rules (e.g. sending emails when they ask for paper/post submissions, adding two extra chapters when they ask for three, chasing replies when they ask you not to) are more likely to irritate than to win you attention.
Next, make sure your cover letter is well written, interesting and concise – and relevant to the submission. This is your ‘hello’ so make it work! Have you any professional writing credits such as publication in magazines or plays read on radio? Have you won any prizes for your writing? Is there a pertinent and interesting reason you chose that subject e.g. were you a psychiatric nurse whose subject is mental illness? Put those things in the short cover letter. I have had lots of unexpected finds in my career. The slushpile is my friend (sometimes!)
Isabel: When you receive new submissions, how important is the accompanying synopsis? Any tips you can offer?
Kate: I never look at the synopsis first, I read the chapters. Afterwards, though, it can be useful, and I prefer them to be no longer than a page, showing where the story goes but not giving too much away. For plot driven genre fiction this is particularly important. Interestingly, I find them more useful than I used to, perhaps through experience: so many times I’ve liked something in the opening chapters but the synopsis didn’t sound interesting and when I ask to read the rest I discover that the novel realises exactly the weaknesses of the synopsis. That said, when I have completely fallen in love with an opening I may not even look at the synopsis before asking to see the rest. The opening three chapters of Holly Smale’s debut, which became the international bestseller, Geek Girl, hooked me immediately and I asked to see the rest in a heartbeat. I didn’t even notice there wasn’t much in the synopsis. The reason? Holly hadn’t written the whole novel yet.
Isabel: Of course, getting an agent isn’t the end of the line. Once they’ve secured a literary agent, what more can a writer do to strengthen their chances of getting published?
Kate: Make sure you choose your agent carefully. Some agents employ a splatter technique, taking on lots of new projects a year and dropping those that aren’t bought straight away. So do your research and don’t be afraid to ask them questions about what you can expect from them, what their success rate is etc before signing up.
The next thing to consider is your social presence and your social media presence. You’re officially a writer now, soon to be a published author. You are entering a new network and expanding your contacts within this community is vital. This might be through membership of organisations such as SCBWI (for children’s writers), attendance of writers’ festivals and book events, and also via good use of social media.
Social media is now pretty much vital for an author to engage in. If you are a relative newbie at this, don’t be afraid to ask your agent, your publishers (when you have them), fellow writers … everyone … for advice, encouragement, tips. Several agencies like ours will have sheets of handy tips about SEO and on-line platforms, and will make this topic part of their ongoing conversations with their authors. And it really is a conversation: I can learn as much from clients as I am teaching them. Perhaps most importantly of all, work incredibly hard at your writing and editing. Be patient and responsive to feedback; and flexible, while also of course being true to yourself and your creativity.
Isabel: What makes for a good agent/author relationship?
Kate: First, a passion for and commitment to the author’s writing. Next mutual respect, honesty and shared attitudes towards professionalism, promptness and hard work. Finally, on both sides: thoughtfulness, a good sense of humour and graciousness.
Isabel: So far, what have been the most memorable moments of your career?
Kate: Attending the Booker Prize dinner with Jim Crace who had been shortlisted for Quarantine and the Whitbread (now the Costa Prize) with Mark Haddon when he won with A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time were great nights. Also the phone call with the news one of my clients was a Richard & Judy Summer Read; celebrating with Holly Smale and her publishers when she won The Waterstone’s Best Book for Teens Prize, and when she sold her millionth copy; when James Nicol’s Apprentice Witch series was optioned for TV by Lime Pictures - indeed every time there’s wonderful, exciting news to share with authors, to reward their hard, hard work.
But perhaps most of all I love that feeling when the hairs on the back of my arm stand up as I am reading an unpublished, unsolicited novel I have fallen in love with. Often I am the first professional to read it: that is so exciting!
While it is terrific when clients enjoy critical and commercial success, what’s even more special to me is the moment when I recognise that they are the real deal. This often happens when I read a second draft of their book, perhaps after I’ve been in two minds about the first draft. Authors make me most proud, and move me most deeply, when they make courageous, difficult changes to their work and in doing so, understand what is required to uncover the brilliance within.
Isabel: What are you reading at the moment?
Kate: Always, always reading with a sense of awe and wonder, new material from my existing clients. And although I don’t get to do this as often as I like, I do still read published books for pleasure and have recently enjoyed Emma Kennedy’s painfully funny memoir, The Tent, The Bucket and Me; Old Baggage by Lissa Evans; Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney and Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout.
Isabel: Any final words of encouragement to aspiring writers who are reading this blog today?
Kate: Keep reading other books, keep writing your own. Be realistic about what you can achieve and how you can get there. Work hard. Research hard. Work even harder. Never stop doing these things and you will improve as a writer, whatever else happens. Good luck!