How I Got a Literary Agent
This was perhaps the biggest achievement of 2019 for me, and one I had to keep schtum about for a good couple of months. But the news is now out and I am over the moon.
As a writer, both as a freelance journalist and as a novelist, getting a literary agent is a massive step into getting work published by major corporations. Being a self-published author is also a massive achievement, but one that I would not be able to maintain as someone who works full-time and has multiple side-hustles.
I decided at the age of 19 that getting a literary agent was what I needed to do, to become the writer I wanted to be. And it took until I was 24 years old for me to achieve that.
When and why I started submitting to agents
I actually first sent my work to literary agents when I was sixteen years old. I wrote a book, that was honestly not very good, but I wanted to get feedback on, and some literary agents were lovely enough to reply with their thoughts. Of course, they were all rejections.
At the time that was disheartening, but it was also completely the right decision as that first book was rubbish. But it was still my first completed novel.
My second book had more promise, but the writing wasn’t strong enough. However, my third book – My Mr Keats – was in much better condition.
The book that almost came to be…
By the time I wrote My Mr Keats I was studying creative writing at university and had a mentor in a published author, as well as constant feedback from my peers and fellow writers.
This book had a very promising journey throughout the publishing world, but ultimately was not destined to succeed.
This was the first book that was requested by three agents in order to read the full manuscript. Sadly, none of them chose to take it on, but to get three agents interested proved to me that I had a pitch worth working on.
Later I got an offer from Unbound to crowdfund its publication, a process I wrote quite a lot about at the time. But I chose to cancel the project after only reaching 17% of my crowdfunding goal in 18 months.
That was an experience that was hard to swallow, as I had spent the better part of three years working on this book and getting so close to publication yet never quite making it.
However, during the time that I was crowdfunding and emailing back and forth with agents, I was also writing a fourth book…
Writing the book that got me a literary agent
At the time I was working in publishing recruitment, a job I enjoyed but also found creatively frustrating as I was helping others succeed in the industry I wanted to be in.
To off-set my frustration at working on the sidelines of publishing, I channeled my stifled creativity into a book about the industry, via my lunch breaks in Starbucks in just under three months.
I wrote a book I called God Help the Girl, entirely by hand in three Cath Kidston notebooks. It was a literary, dark women’s fiction when I first wrote it, but it was much more commercial and comedic when it later came to my now-agent.
After completing the book I actually moved into the publishing industry and my days were so busy learning a new job that I put the book to one side and decided to focus purely on my career. However, when creativity sparked again a few months later I began to type up my new novel and edit it as I went, changing out the details of the publishing industry I could only imagine at the time I wrote it with the real-life equivalents I had learned now that I was working in the role that I had envisioned for my main character.
After the rejections and the last-minute turnarounds on my My Mr Keats, my previous book, I was in no rush to send the book out until I was absolutely happy with it. Having worked with editors who regularly received agent submissions, I knew exactly what kind of scrutiny a book got and I knew it wasn’t ready yet. So I waited, and I edited, and I waited some more and I edited it some more.
Then, nearly three years after writing it, I decided to take the plunge.
Submitting to literary agents: round one
I chose to start submitting to agents after I began to get a bit of pick-up in my writing career as a blogger and journalist. My social media was growing, people in the industry began to know who I was and I felt that the book was as good as it was going to be, without external help.
So, I chose a psuedonym, wrote a synopsis and got to work choosing my top six literary agents to send the manuscript too.
Having learned the hard way that you really need to send out your manuscript in dribs and drabs, and to particularly chosen agents rather than every agent going, I was very selective in my process. Mostly because I was scared of getting rejected again, after three years of pouring my heart and soul into the book.
However, the first reply I got from a submission was a rejection, although a very nice one:
You’re clearly very talented and have created a wonderfully vivid and diverse set of characters here. However, having considered it, I’m afraid that I don’t feel it’s right for my list. It would sit a little too closely to another book I already represent so I wouldn’t be the best person to handle it.
The second and third emails were also rejections. But then I had three requests for the full manuscript. A promising beginning bearing in mind 50% of the agents I sent it to wanted to read it. And two out of the three others sent personalised rejections, which is not as common as you think.
However, out of the three agents that requested the full manuscript only one ever got back to me and it was a no.
Submitting to literary agents: round two
To say I was disheartened again was a bit of an understatement. I actually decided to shelve this project and start another book. My writing style was improving with each story I wrote and the feedback was getting better and better. I just wasn’t quite there yet it seemed.
During this time I changed jobs. I moved to HarperCollins and I also started to focus quite intently on my journalism career where I was seeing a lot of success. My need to be creative was being fulfilled and I wasn’t so fussed about my own book. However, I decided to chance it one more time and send out the book to an additional few agents.
This time I heard back from two out of five agents, asking for the full MS. Both of whom, again, turned it down. But, importantly, one of them who turned it down directed me to the #OneDay submissions at Simon & Schuster.
#OneDay is what it says on the tin. It’s one day a year that Simon & Schuster open their submissions for their imprint Books and the City.
The agent suggested that I submit to that, as it was only three days away at the time. She could see the book fitting well within that audience. I took her advice, and I got a request for the full MS from the One Day team. Then I got a request to come into the S&S office and meet with an editor and the Sales Director.
That was very exciting, as you can imagine. This was the first time I was getting proper one-on-one feedback from an editor. They were both lovely and very complimentary, giving me feedback on what they felt did and didn’t work. Honestly I agreed with them whole-heartedly. Some of the chapters I had written were no longer necessary with fresh edits I had made. There were about two characters too many and I hadn’t quite pinned down my theme for the book.
They gave me some structural edits, and lots to think about. And then left me to it with a deadline. I love a good deadline.
I had three months to make the structural edits, if I wanted to as it was entirely optional. And to send the MS back to them for a full review. At which point they said they would make their decision about whether or not to acquire it.
But how did you get a literary agent?
During this time I was sharing all of this with my co-workers and fellow writer friends. All of whom suggested that now would be the perfect time to go back to some agents and say that I have a potential deal in the works.
Me, being me, I put it off. I wasn’t so sure that there was a deal on the table since I was just doing further edits. However, I had met a literary agent at a party shortly before moving to HarperCollins. She seemed really nice and was interested in the genre of books that I wrote.
I emailed her on the off-chance that she might be interested. Sending her an initial pitch and then the MS later that day when she said she would be happy to look at it. It was the first time I submitted something under my own name. Everything else I had submitted under a pseudonym purely so I could be judged on the merit of my writing, rather than my career.
I sent Hannah Weatherill at Northbank my MS at 10am. At 3pm I had an offer. She had read it that day and had decided it was exactly what she was looking for, for her list.
Signing the deal
I met with Hannah and the Northbank team, all of whom are lovely, and discussed the book and the agency’s plans. It was beyond thrilling. I was an excitable mess.
Of course, I was welcome to contact other agents before I signed with Hannah at Northbank. But honestly, Northbank had been one of the first I submitted the manuscript to about a year beforehand. And I specifically chose Hannah to send the MS to first, as I thought she would be the best fit.
On that note, I signed the contract.
There we have it, that’s my literary agent story
I am so pleased to have signed with Northbank. They’re a brilliant agency; and I should know, as I have been the marketing manager for several of their other authors! And Hannah is fabulous, patient and brilliantly kind.
Who know’s what will happen with the book, no longer entitled God Help the Girl, but I’m very excited to see where this road leads. Particularly after so many attempts at travelling down it!
There we have it, that is how I got a literary agent. Bit of a long-winded story, and every journey is different for each writer.
No matter what though, persevere! You never know what opportunities are around the corner.