How to get a literary agent (or not)
I’ve just responded to an aspiring author on this topic, and thought it was worth sharing my advice (such as it is) more widely. Here’s what I told him:
Here are a few thoughts based on my own experience of getting publishers/agents to be interested in my work.
It’s always a struggle, as you have clearly already found out! What we as writers find fascinating – and it’s generally obvious to us why we wrote, or are writing, a particular book – often seems to leave the potential publisher or agent cold.
What they are always looking for is what they call a ‘hook’ – by which I suppose they mean both: what will reach out and ‘grab’ the reader, and what can they ‘hang it on’ when they’re describing the book to others? While we, the authors, are wondering what will engage a publisher, they are in turn thinking what will booksellers (i.e. the buyers in book stores etc.) respond to. And unfortunately, our expectations often differ, in that authors tend to think in terms of being original, doing something no one has ever done before, whereas the booksellers (at least as perceived by publishers’ marketing departments) want the tried and tested, something familiar, something ‘like’ something else, so that they know where to put it on the shelves. Sounds stupid, but I’ve had that kind of response so many times.
What we somehow have to try to do is achieve both those things – be different, and the same, simultaneously.
So, in a covering letter and synopsis, what ideally should come across is that your book just had to be written, that you are the person to write it, that, yes, it is original but at the same time it can be ‘placed’. Which successful authors/books is it in line with, which existing audiences will it appeal to? Does it have some particular relevance to world events now? To ‘entertain and educate’ is too vague. There are millions of books already doing that – or trying to – so why is yours especially worth reading? Why wasn’t it enough for you to read other people’s books, come to that? If you can give convincing answers to those kinds of questions, you may be on the way to being heard.
Then, once you’ve got something you’re happy with and believe ought to convince others, the only other thing to do is not to give up. Pick an agent that deals with your kind of topic and, when they reject you, try the next on the list and keep going!