Sniffing Out An Agent
Everyone seems to be a writer, these days, and everywhere – at least, every town in the UK – seems to be having a Literary Festival. The second week in September, it was the turn of Battersea, in South London, and among the many events offered to readers and writers in the area was an ‘Agent-Led Dog Walk’.
Approaching a literary agent can feel intimidating. It’s a relationship that may last the whole of an author’s writing career, so it’s important to get things off to a good start. Yet agents are busy people who may not have time to spare for answering questions while they’re at work, and may not feel like it during their leisure hours. Nobody wants to come across as pushy, or be That Writer who backs an agent into a corner at a party and shoves a manuscript under their nose, but many of us have things we’d like to find out.
The dog walk was a chance to chat with an agent in a less formal environment, while also getting some exercise and having some fun. There’s nothing like a dog for creating an informal atmosphere and a topic of lively conversation. The £5 event fee would go to Battersea Dogs & Cats Home.
As a dogless writer, I’d happily have signed up for a charity dog walk even without the additional carrot (or bone) of chatting with an agent. Besides, perhaps dog-friendly agents would be more receptive than the average to my talking-animal stories? I went along to find out.
The Sunday of the walk turned out to be a beautiful morning, and a couple of dozen literary hopefuls gathered in Battersea Park. We were introduced to the four dogs and their agents, then we split into groups for an hour of walking and talking.
I had checked the agents’ websites beforehand, but none of them stood out as the perfect match for my writing, so I went by dog. My pick was Maisie, who had brought Jo Unwin of the Jo Unwin Literary Agency. She (Maisie) was a medium-sized brown dog with setterish ears who looked like a bundle of high energy fun. Sure enough, I was to spend much of the next hour throwing an increasingly soggy and ruptured tennis ball and remembering every now and then that I probably ought to be networking or something.
Jo very fairly made time to talk to each of us individually, and we also sat down as a group to drink coffee, ask questions and receive advice. I also seized the chance to bestow some scritches on Maisie, who was initially glad of the rest after jumping in and out of the duck pond but quickly grew bored with all this talking.
Some of what we were told was familiar to me from my obsessive reading around the submissions process, but it made a big difference hearing it in person. I might not be able to reproduce that experience, but here’s what we learned:
- Be professional. Find an agent who works with your genre, and address them by name in your cover letter.
- Identify what’s unique about your book. Imagine you’re in the pub, talking about a book whose title you can’t quite remember; what’s your book’s “that one with the…”?
- Sell yourself – but be relevant. List publications, prizes, and any background information that shows you’re especially qualified to write the book you’ve written, but don’t talk about your lifelong dream of being a writer, or how much your kids loved the book.
- Should you say your book has series potential? That depends if it does; is what you’re planning a true sequel, or are you too lazy to think of a new scenario, or too fond of your characters to let them go?
- Only submit when you think your manuscript is as good as it can be. It won’t be, but don’t send a draft you know is flawed and expect an agent or editor to leap at the chance of sorting it out for you.
As well as a deeper knowledge of what agents might be looking for, and how they like to be approached, I’ve gained an opening should I ever have a project I feel would be a good fit for Jo (“It was so lovely to meet you on the Battersea dog walk. I was the one who threw the ball for Maisie over and over and over again”). It was also lovely to swap notes with other local writers on works in progress and how far we’d come.
You might not be lucky enough to find a similar event in your own neighbourhood, but if you’re involved in a local arts festival, why not try setting one up? And if you’re a literary agent with a canine friend, consider turning your daily dog walk into an opportunity to help up and coming authors while also publicising your agency. The writers will thank you, and so will your dog.