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All About Agents – The Short Version

The following article was commissioned by Writing WA and written by Sophie Hamley (commercial publisher and former literary agent).

Just because most of Australia’s literary agents are in Sydney or Melbourne doesn’t mean that they only want to represent writers from those places. Australian stories come from all over the country and agents welcome submissions from writers in every state and territory. Yes, it’s nice if you can meet your agent in person but it’s not absolutely necessary – agents often have clients they never or rarely meet (but call or email on a regular basis). Even if you’re a writer who has no intention of setting foot in any eastern state, we still want to hear from you. Hopefully the following information will help make us more approachable and also give you some tips on how to approach us.

What do agents do?
In simple terms, we manage the business of writing. But that really doesn’t describe all of what we do. We find new writers and place them with publishers; we manage careers, and career planning; we negotiate contracts; we give advice (about all sorts of things, not just writing, as often issues to do with ‘writing’ are not about writing at all). Some agents provide editorial support, giving feedback on manuscripts. Some manage foreign rights for their writers, so they try to place their work with agents and publishers overseas. There aren’t a lot of agents in Australia, so most of us don’t specialise (as some American agents do) – you’ll find that most agents handle a range of both fiction and non-fiction, and some will also look after children’s books.

How should you find and approach an agent?
As not all agents may represent the genre you’re writing in, it’s wise to submit only to an agent who would be likely to be interested in your work. You can find a list of agents on the website for the Australian Literary Agents Association  – this is not a list of all agents in the country as not everyone is a member of the association, but most agents are on it.
It’s advisable to visit the websites of agents to whom you wish to submit, to read their submission guidelines and also to see who they represent, which should give you an indication of what they’re looking for. Many authors trip themselves up on this point: children’s writers, for example, send submissions to agents who don’t represent children’s books, and that submission is then a waste of the writer’s and the agent’s time. Many agents don’t represent sci fi or fantasy novels, so if you write in one of those genres, don’t waste your time by submitting to an agent who does not represent them.

If the agent’s website does not give an indication of what they’re looking for – or they don’t have a website – contact them (via phone or email, whichever they indicate is their preference) to ask. Most importantly, when you are submitting, follow the submission guidelines. The fastest way to get rejected is to completely flout the guidelines. We don’t have guidelines because we want to annoy writers – we have them to make it easier to assess submissions (to compare apples with apples, if you will). We all receive a lot of submissions and having some rules makes the process more streamlined.

NB: Agents – like publishers – may periodically close their submissions. This is due to the volume we receive and the fact that we have to look after our clients first. But it would be unusual for every single agent to be closed at the same time, so just submit to the ones who are open and keep checking the websites for the others.

What should you do before approaching an agent?
Make sure your manuscript is as ready as it can be. This doesn’t mean it should be ‘perfect’ – we don’t expect that it will be publication-ready – but it does mean it shouldn’t be a first draft. Too often writers will submit a manuscript when it’s not ready – and they actually know it’s not ready – and they’ll get rejected and then grow disheartened. Patience is indeed a virtue when it comes to submitting to agents (or publishers) so take your time with your work – don’t throw away everything you’ve done to date simply because you’ve been impatient.

Are agents open to submissions from all parts of Australia?
Absolutely. I would personally love to see more stories from rural and regional Australia, and specifically from Western Australia and the Northern Territory – there is a noticeable lack of fiction and non-fiction being submitted from those parts of the country. Australia is not just the eastern seaboard! We need your stories in our culture, and having them published is a very good way to make that happen. I’m aware that for people who aren’t in New South Wales and Victoria it can sometimes seem as if the publishing industry is a long way away and doesn’t care about what’s happening in other parts of the country, but that’s not the case: we just sometimes forget to tell you that we are interested in your stories.

This is a potted version of advice I often give to writers:

  1. Writing is a job – it is work, work, work. Successful writers know that they have to draft and often will not submit till draft five or six. And that’s with the awareness that they’ll probably have to do another draft once their agent or editor gives them feedback. If you don’t feel you’re able to draft and re-draft, writing may not be the gig for you.
  2. The book publishing process is slow, and in order to succeed you will need to be very patient. Once your book is taken on by a publisher, you can then expect to wait at least a year till it hits the shelve A snap survey at a Romance Writers conference in the US found participants had all written on average four manuscripts before getting published.
  3. Fiction is always harder to place than non-fiction – not necessarily because publishers are publishing less fiction now, but because there are a lot more people trying to get published. To keep yourself sane, it helps to not have high expectations and it also helps to just keep writing. It helps distract you, for one thing, but it also shows agents that you are prepared to work – and that’s information that publishers want to know.
  4. Sometimes you’ll need to accept that the manuscript you really, really want to see published just isn’t working, for whatever reason – perhaps the timing isn’t right; perhaps the writing isn’t as good as it should be. The wisdom of knowing when to put that manuscript in the bottom drawer is hard won but will stay with you forever – and after you’ve relinquished your attachment to the bottom-drawer manuscript, you create space in your brain for new stories.
  5. If you are serious about becoming a writer, don’t assume that your agent or editor or publisher should do everything for you. It’s your job to write a great hook and synopsis; it’s your job to convince an agent to take you on, because they then have to convince a publisher to take you on. If you approach an agent with the attitude that the agent would be lucky to have you – that you are the best unpublished writer in the world – then you’re probably 100% guaranteed to get knocked back.
  6. The most important point of all for you in trying to become a published writer: read. Read in your genre, read outside your genre – just read. The best writers are those who read a lot. It also helps you to place yourself within the industry and the literary world in general.
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