Tuesday, 15 March 2016

How NOT To Submit To An Agent - Reporting Back from York LitFest by Sophie Claire

I’m always keen to attend literary courses and conferences, but this panel discussion looked particularly interesting –  and it didn’t disappoint! 

Part of York Lit Fest, ‘How NOT To Submit To An Agent’ was an event run by the Writers & Artists and, contrary to the rather negative title, it featured a very positive and encouraging panel discussion with literary agents Jo Unwin, Sam Copeland and Sallyanne Sweeney.

Jo Unwin, Sam Copeland, Sallyanne Sweeney
Sam Copeland began by explaining what an agent’s role involves:

Firstly, editorial input. An agent works closely with his author to get the manuscript as perfect as possible. Once this is done, he then sends a pitch letter to the first round of publishers (usually between 8 and 10). If he gets an offer, then he contacts the other editors to let them know (the ideal scenario is to get lots of interest and competition for the book). Then, once an offer is accepted, negotiations begin on the contract. This can take between 2 days and 9 months(!) and the agent’s job at this stage is to ensure his author gets the best terms possible.
But an agent does much more than just negotiate book deals. He also helps his authors plan their careers, brainstorm new ideas, he serves as a sounding board and keeps authors aware of changing trends in the publishing industry. He also deals with publicity, reviews, press enquiries: the list goes on. Crucially, he mediates between authors and their publishers.

Sallyanne Sweeney then gave advice on approaching agents:

Most agencies have a website. Follow their guidelines! (They all vary a little, so give them exactly what they ask for).
Use the Writers & Artists Yearbook or the online service, Agenthunter, to find the right agents for you. Follow agents on Twitter to keep up-to-date with news, but do not pitch to them via Twitter – that’s a big no no!
Query ten agents at a time and make sure they represent your genre. Always address your submission to an individual, and update them if you get interest elsewhere.

Jo Unwin gave us tips for submitting to an agent:

Jo receives 8000 submissions per year. In 2015 she took on 5 authors, and that was a good year. Depressing, I know (but don’t be too disheartened - I'll explain in a moment). Given these statistics, it’s imperative that your submission stands out from the rest!

How NOT to write a query letter
Submission letter

We were given examples of a good query letter, and of a poor one (see left).
Show you’ve done your research about the agent and are certain they are a good match for you (e.g. look at their existing authors). Although it's depressing to learn that your query may be one of 8000, Jo reassured us that by writing a professional letter and abiding by the agent’s guidelines, you considerably increase your chances of being noticed.

Make clear what your book is about and where it fits in the market (ie the genre and/or similar authors). You also need a strong elevator pitch. This is crucial and it's used throughout the selling process, from pitching to publishers to, ultimately, persuading the customer to buy the book. 
It needs to intrigue. And, as with your opening page, it’s worth taking the time to hone this until it’s as good as you can get it.

Jo read out short descriptions of famous books (taken from Amazon – look them up, was her advice) such as Gone Girl, Life of Pi and One Day. The best ones could be condensed into one line. 

For example:

‘Memories define us. So what if you lost yours every time you went to sleep?’
(Before I Go To Sleep, SJ Watson)

We, the audience, were then invited to test our one-sentence pitches on the panel. (No, I wasn’t brave enough – wish I had been!) They gave constructive feedback, mostly about keeping it simple and clear with an element of intrigue.


Don’t worry too much about the synopsis, was the general message. It is necessary to show that the story is complete, but no one is rejected on the basis of their synopsis. Stick to one or two pages maximum, and include the characters, the setting and the plot’s conclusion – don’t leave it hanging as you would for a blurb.

Opening Chapters

In contrast to the synopsis, make sure your opening page is as polished as possible! Your submission hinges on this and the agents agreed that in 50-75% of cases, they don’t read past the first page of a submission.

They gave us some Do’s and Don’t’s for the opening paragraph:

Do’s: surprise, quirky, confidence, a clear voice, attention-grabbing, atmosphere, emotional connection with the main character, beautiful writing.

Don’t’s: describe a character waking up, describe the weather, a dream, flashback, a character looking at their reflection in the mirror, too many characters all at once, telling not showing, overly florid language, info dump.

Finally, the panel wrapped up with their current wishlists:

Sam would love to receive anything outstanding.
Sallyanne would like anything she can get excited about, or a gorgeous YA love story.
Jo said she never knows what she’s looking for until she finds it!

Sophie Claire's début novel, Her Forget-Me-Not Ex, is available from Amazon


  1. Fantastic post, Sophie. One I've bookmarked in the hope of using it soon! Thank you for sharing. :-)

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Rae. Good luck with your submission.x

  2. All very good advice. Keeping the introduction letter short and sweet definitely worked for me. The hardest part is condensing a whole book into one letter, then if you can, condensing it down into one line or hook! That part is very tough.

    1. I agree that it's tough, Stephen. It's something I always struggle with, which is why I kicked myself for missing the chance to get feedback. Glad it worked out well for you.

    2. I went to this workshop as well and enjoyed it very much. Sam Copeland's flippant remark that every title should have 'girl' worked into it somewhere made me laugh, but I am seriously considering it.

  3. Great post, Sophie. I agree about the elevator pitch. It took me a long time to get mine right, but it was worth it!

  4. Truly helpful and bookmarked. Many thanks!

  5. Truly helpful and bookmarked. Many thanks!


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