Book agent Juliet Mushens gives us her do's and don'ts for approaching an agent, and how to get noticed!
"When I became an agent in 2011 I didn’t really know what I wanted to represent. Good books, sure; nice people, definitely, but above and beyond that I had no idea as to the genres I wanted to focus on. ‘Growing up’ in an agency where everyone had a specialism led me to believe that I should probably develop one… but the truth is that my reading tastes have always been incredibly broad, and my list reflects this fact. Now, two years into my career as an agent, I represent everything from bestselling crime novelists, to inspirational memoirs, from epic fantasy to literary historical fiction.
Genre has always been one of my key loves. As a teenager I found refuge from puberty in Robin Hobb (I might have had spots but at least I wasn’t a royal bastard), David Eddings, Isaac Asimov and Tad Williams. My first job in publishing was at HarperCollins, where I was marketing and editorial assistant to the Voyager team, and where I was able to read the slush-pile as well as learning from the senior editors there as to how the process worked. Now I'm lucky enough to represent authors who are published by fantastic genre imprints: from Tor, to Gollancz, Solaris and Voyager.
A list as diverse as mine means that I attract a lot of submissions. I average around 150 a month and I do read all of them (although it can take time). Because I receive so many submissions I've become used to establishing pretty quickly what makes one stand out, and my 'Dos and Don'ts' of submitting cover off a lot of advice: some obvious, some not-so-obvious. I don't think there is any such thing as the 'perfect' submission, but by honing your covering letter you definitely give yourself an advantage in a crowded market.
So you've finished your book and edited it, and you're about to send it to agents, but who do you send it to? The first thing I'd suggest is getting a copy of 'The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook' to identify the main literary agencies you want to target. Then, look for the right agent at each agency. If you've written a middle-grade adventure there's no point sending it to an agent who specialises in crime/thrillers. Similarly, an agent with a big, established list is unlikely to take on many clients a year, so perhaps best to identify someone at that agency who is still actively looking for clients. Identifying the right person to target, and addressing your submission to them, already gets your book off to the right start.
Send them what they've asked for
If the agent asks for the first three chapters and a synopsis, send them the first three chapters and the synopsis. If the agent requests ten pages of sample material, send them ten pages of sample material. I lose count of the number of submissions I receive where people send me the wrong information, or tell me that they actively ignored my guidelines as they felt they 'wouldn't do their book justice'. Immediately this puts them at a disadvantage to the other writers who send me the right material.
When you look at something time and time again, it can be incredibly easy for mistakes to slip through the cracks. We've all done it. An omission which is glaring to someone else can escape the writer who has studied the page so many times! I understand that mistakes do happen, but it's a good idea to get someone to look at it with fresh eyes for you. Trust me, they'll pick up on things which you didn’t.
Focus on your book
When you send me your book, make sure that the cover letter focuses on the book. Tell me a bit about it, the genre, the word count, give me a blurb, and then a couple of lines about yourself. A lot of cover letters or queries leave me none the wiser as to what the book is actually about, which isn't very helpful. Often they focus on the marketing plan, or its potential as a blockbuster film, or the author's blog ... Whereas the best letters pique my interest and make me eager to turn the page to read the sample chapters. Similarly, if you have written several books, then make sure that you focus on the one you are submitting in your letter. Some writers tell me about their whole body of work - four thrillers, two YA novels, a picture book, a cookery project – and I end up wondering which one is their true passion and focus.
Sweat the small stuff
I run an #askagent on twitter every Sunday night and one of the most common questions I get is: 'which font should I use?' or 'should I have a business card?' or 'what if I forget to number the pages?' Please don't worry that if you sent it in Times New Roman rather than Arial that it means we will instantly reject you! Font size, font type, whether you sent 51 pages rather than 50... None of these are instant deal-breakers. (Within reason, of course: size 40 hot pink is never a good look. I say this as someone who has received a submission done in that style!)
Finish your book. Finish your book. Seriously: finish your book. There is nothing more frustrating than calling in a full manuscript and the person telling me that they haven't finished it ... Some people also rush their books because they feel as if they're writing to a trend which might be over by the time they finish it. But that alien-vampire-zombie trend you can see are all books which were commissioned 12-18 months earlier, so the trend might well be over by the time your book is sold at all. The best thing to do is finish your book. Put it away in a drawer and look at it again after a month, when its flaws and its successes will be more obvious to you, edit it, edit it again, and then send it off. Far better to wait and send off something brilliant, than bang something out and submit it, only for it to be rejected.
Forget that agents are people too
Sometimes agents can seem like the terrifying gatekeepers to the publishing industry. I've had people shake when they sit in front of me for a one-to-one, or remark very bitterly on how we operate. But in reality we are just people who love books, and who feel passionately about our authors and their novels. I'm always looking for exciting new projects – today's slush-pile writer could well be next year's bestseller – so I always read my slush-pile, and my two biggest deals of the year so far were both slush-pile authors (The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton and The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig).
I have a close relationship with my authors, and I am their biggest cheerleader and champion. I don't enjoy turning books down, but I really have to love something, and feel confident that I can sell it, in order to take it on. Replies to rejections which are rude are always off-putting. As are people who aggressively pitch to me without even telling me their name (I've been pitched to in the queue for the ladies before, at a convention!). It's a business built on personal relationships and being friendly and professional goes a long way.
Lots of writers have had countless turn-downs. Some were writing for twenty years before breaking through, some had passes from 25-35 agents before finding one, others had three or four novels hidden away before producing the one which was finally published. You should write because you have a story to tell, and you should be immensely proud of yourself for writing a book at all, even if it doesn't find a publisher. Every book you write you learn from, and you know the old saying: if at first you don't succeed ... So go on, keep trying, it'll all be worth it in the end."
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Juliet Mushens is an agent in the UK literary department of The Agency Group where she represents a bestselling list of fiction and non-fiction. She was picked by The Bookseller as a Rising Star in 2012 and was shortlisted for the Kim Scott Walwyn Prize 2013. In 2014 she was shortlisted for Agent of the Year at the Bookseller Industry Awards. Please email her your cover letter and first three chapters when submitting. You can follow her on twitter at @mushenska