The Art of Getting a Literary Agent
Writing can be very lonely. It’s an often misunderstood and thankless job, with no guarantee of anyone reading your words. For many of us, the goal is mostly to have a readership. Of course we all need to make a living, and getting paid for writing is important. But my blog posts are written with the tightly held hope, that someone out there will read them, and take something away from that experience. I write because I must, and because I want to make a difference in the world. That is why I appreciate so very much, when someone comments on a blog or social media post, sends me an email, or reads one of my books. I am very lucky, after all of these years of blogging, to have a beautiful group of people in my online communities. So many of you comment and join me in sharing our lives, and what really matters, and I thank you for that.
In writing books, the goal is to have them published and out in bookshops, so that more people can actually see them and read them. Since making this my main goal, one of the wonderful things I have discovered, is the amazing Australian writing community on Twitter. You can join us at #AusWrites and #6amAusWriters Other writers lift you up, nourish you right when you need it, and celebrate your wins together, with genuine glee. I am very much looking forward to meeting some of these people in real life over coming months. Writing books is a difficult road. With a blog, you write, perfect the blog post, and hit publish. With a book, you write the words, edit the words numerous times, research agents and publishers, attend conferences and networking events, pitch your manuscripts, get rejected, get advice, edit again and again, craft a better book and pitch, and pitch again. Some people receive hundreds of rejections, but they keep going. There are so many stories of people persisting and eventually finding the right home for their stories.
In my case, I have spent the last 18 months or so, writing 2 children’s manuscripts (one which is ready for publishing, and one which now needs lots of editing to prepare it) and started my diabetes memoir. Alongside that, I finished my PhD (and had a fabulous graduation!), wrote blog posts and spent a lot of time in the networking, researching and pitching space. This involved becoming part of the online writing communities on Twitter and Instagram and attending KidLitVic and the Children’s Book Council conference. At KidLitVic I pitched (for the first time!) my really not ready (I realised later) manuscript live, and learnt much from that experience. I also had a couple of live manuscript assessments and used that feedback on both of my children’s books, to make them better. I also submitted both of these to a number of online manuscript assessment opportunities. I am seeking feedback, always.
In the meantime I was continually networking online and in real life with publishers and agents and other writers. I pitched to a few publishers direct and a few agents, but was rejected. I kept going, acknowledging that the books were not ready yet, taking on board every piece of feedback they gave me to make them ready. I attended a workshop on publishing, pitching and contracts. I refined and perfected my pitch for my first children’s book, finally understanding a pitch should be about selling the story, not telling the story – and this week, I got a ‘yes’ from an agent!
So, I am beyond delighted to announce that I have just signed a contract for agent representation for both my children’s book, The Heart of Scorpius AND my diabetes memoir, with the very lovely Debbie Golvan, at Golvan Arts Management! Debbie has many years of experience as a literary agent, has been incredibly responsive and positive about my work, and is a lovely person. There are some fantastic authors in her stable, who I look forward to meeting. I am so excited to be working with Debbie, who I can now proudly announce as my literary agent.
The Heart of Scorpius is a contemporary Aussie family drama, set in Coonabarabran, against the backdrop of the beautiful Warrumbungle mountains, during the worst drought in 100 years. It shares the story of 13 year old Issy, as she deals with anxiety, bullying, friendship, compassion, holding onto hope, and learning to love all of the parts of yourself. My diabetes memoir will share my journey living with diabetes and other chronic physical and mental health conditions over the past 40 years. I then have my young adult cli-fi (climate fiction) story to re-write and perfect. That is a lot of writing, which makes me very happy! I am just so pleased to now have someone in my corner, to help achieve my dreams of seeing these books come to life and out into readers’ lives.
At the publishing workshop I attended via Writer’s SA with Alex Adsett, she said that having a literary agent is not a necessity. If you are confident in approaching publishers and dealing with contracts and other legalities yourself, you might not need one. If you want to focus on writing and have someone else dealing with these things for you, then you need an agent. I am definitely someone who does need an agent. But signing with a literary agent is not an easy thing, especially in Australia, where there is a very small pool. It does not happen without lots of work. If you are truly determined this is the right way to go, here are my tips from my personal experience:
- Network – online and in real life, with agents, publishers and other writers. Don’t stalk them or make inappropriate approaches. Just get to know them, interact in a genuine way and have real conversations with each other. Join your state writer’s association and attend their workshops and events.
- Research – who is the right agent for your work. What are they looking for? What aren’t they looking for? Who are their authors? What sorts of books do they tend to submit to publishers? Where are they located and how will that work for you? Do you think you will get on well with them? Do you think they would have passion for your book/s? Agents work very hard and do not get paid either, unless you get published. So both of you must be totally committed to your work. An agent should not charge you up-front. Check the Australian Literary Agents’ Association website as a starting point.
- Attend as many workshops and literary events as you can – look for what is happening across the year and plan out what events might be most beneficial. If you can have the opportunity to pitch or get a manuscript assessment, take those! Many agents will not accept a pitch unless they meet you in person at one of these events.
- Build your platform – especially for non-fiction writers. Be sure to have at least a landing page website, so agents and publishers can find you and your bio. Develop social media platforms that you enjoy and can manage. You don’t need to be on every platform. Twitter is excellent for writers and most people have a Facebook page. Instagram is also a growing platform for authors.
- Take advice well – you will get rejections and criticism of your work. I see all of this as positive. Take the advice and apply it to all of your work. See it through other people’s eyes. It is easy to become lost in your own work and read it so many times, you stop seeing it. Criticism and feedback are the building blocks to an excellent story.
- Be kind – as in everything, be kind and thoughtful about other people. We are all in this together. And be professional! Alex Adsett was talking about someone pushing their manuscript under the toilet door to an agent at an event once! Just. Don’t! Follow guidelines and rules on publisher and agent websites. Do not break these without good cause and explain why you are doing so, if you must.
- Be patient – this is not an overnight success story. Most people are not going to suddenly have their manuscript accepted by a top agent, the minute they finish it, enter a publisher bidding war and then be a world-wide smash hit with a movie deal. Be patient, write the words, do the hard work, and stay positive and hopeful.
Writing is something anybody can do, and if you want to write, you should. Once you do, you are a writer, as I said here. If you want to have an agent, get your books published and see them in bookshops, going to live in actual human homes, your words dancing beneath their eyes, your character’s stories entering their minds and hearts – you need to do the work. It will be worth it. I have no idea if my books will get published. I have a lot of hard work ahead, as does Debbie. But, I have made it to the very important next stage of the journey, and it looks very bright from here right now.
I am so thrilled for you – this really gives me hope for the future. I look forward to reading your books when they come out. Thanks for all the great advice in this post – very helpful.
Thank you! I am glad to hear that. Good luck with your writing!
Congratulations Helen! Great to see hard work paying off as well as such collegiate and helpful advice. 🙂 All the best for your journey ahead.
thank you! Now awaiting feedback from publishers, so fingers crossed. Enjoy your writing