The Agent Secret


There’s a crackle in the air this morning, kids are back at school, autumn is here and it’s time to take stock. I’ve had a high gear year so far. Having won the Escalator Award – a professional development scheme for writers – I was determined to use 2013 finish my novel with the encouragement and direction of my Escalator Mentor, the novelist Tobias Hill. And I have.  The time and investment the scheme afforded me has not only resulted in a completed MS of ‘The Hole in the Moon’, but also a screenplay of the same (and the screenplay has now been selected for further development with the Script Hot House scheme).

Next step for the novel is to find an agent. This is not the easiest step. As an Arts Council funded Escalator Prose Artist and a UEA Creative Writing MA graduate, who is also an award winning writer with a long list of short-stories published, plays broadcast and staged – you might think that I’ve automatically acquired the secret handshake that allows entry into the exclusive world of agented writers. This is not the case. My track record makes it likely that my submission will achieve some attention when submitted, ie I might make it to the top of the slush pile that week, but only the quality of my writing will result in an agent contacting me re representation. 

I’ve been researching the subject of agents over the past week and it makes for sobering reading. Most agencies in London will receive an average of 450 manuscripts a month. From this figure, they might contact 3 or 4 regarding representation. And from those, perhaps one will go on to be published. Yes, it’s that competitive so don’t approach an agent lightly and send them you work only when you feel it is perfect. Tips on approaching agents include the following:

1)      Finish your novel before you contact an agent.

2)      Buy the lastest Writers and Artists Yearbook (if in the UK or Ireland) or the US/Can/Aus equivalent and make a list of agencies/agents who might be interested in your work. Think of an author whose work yours resembles and find out who their agent is (usually mentioned in “acknowledgements” page in a novel.) Research – make sure the agent you contact is interested in the type of book you are proposing. Check the “Yearbook”, if the agency states ‘no Romance’ don’t send them your love story. If they say no email submissions, do not submit by email etc… Make a list of twenty suitable agents.

3)      Most agents (but do check first) should be approached with a cover letter of not more than a page in length, outlining your project and a brief bio. Also attach a one page synopsis and the first three chapters (or first fifty pages) – but as I said, do check with the submissions guidelines on their website.

4)      Be polite and business like. Don’t adopt a grovelling/humorous/aggressive or any sort of extreme tone in your cover letter. Don’t send pictures of your cat or try to be cute.

5)      It has now become acceptable to send out multiple submissions to various agents however, if you are doing so, it is only polite and respectful of agent time to let the agents know you are doing this. You might want to limit this send out to three agents at a time.

6)      Some agents will get back to you within three weeks, others might take up to six months. Some you’ll never hear from at all. I feel that if you’ve not heard back after three months, it’s unlikely they’re digging your manuscript. It is acceptable to send a nudge email at this point to clarify but don’t be terribly surprised if you don’t even get a reply then. This happens, don’t take it personally.

7)      If a number are interested in your work, make a list of your specific needs and choose the agent who might best meet them. However, your choice may all come down to chemistry in the end. Do meet them personally.

8)      If you’re turned down across the board (say 20 or 30 rejections) you might want to rethink your project, put it in a drawer and get started on another. Some agents may have been generous enough to give you feedback re why they didn’t feel the book was right for them. Take note and come back to their comments in a few months when the raw disappointment has eased. If it is any consolation, I don’t know a published author who hasn’t got at least one unpublished novel languishing in a drawer. Put it down as part of your training as a writer and get cracking on your sophomore MS.


About suehealy

From Ireland, Sue Healy is Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre, London, a full-time Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. Her book on theatre literary management is published by Routledge, December 2022. Sue is an award-winning writer for stage, TV, and prose writer. TV Her current project, a 6x60minute TV series, is under option. She is under commission with Lone Wolf Media, producers behind PBS’ “Mercy Street”, to co-write the pilot and treatment for a six-part TV series. Stage Her most recent stage-play, Imaginationship (2018), enjoyed a sold out, extended run at the Finborough and later showed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Her previous stage productions include Cow (Etcetera Theatre, 2017) and Brazen (King’s Head Theatre, 2016), funded by Arts Council England. Sue’s short plays have been performed at the Criterion (Criterion New Writing Showcase), Arcola (The Miniaturists) and Hackney Attic (Fizzy Sherbet Shorts). Radio Her radio work includes nine plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm. Prose Sue has won The Molly Keane Award, HISSAC Prize, Escalator Award, Meridian Prize and has been published in nine literary journals and anthologies including: The Moth, Flight, Tainted Innocence, New Writer, Duality, HISSAC, New European Writers. She has been writer-in-residence on Inis Oírr, Aran Islands, and at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island. She has also benefitted from annual artist residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and at Ginestrelle, Assisi in Italy. An academic with a PhD in modern theatre history, specifically the Royal Court Theatre, Sue has presented her research internationally. She spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. She has a PhD in modern theatre history (Royal Court Theatre) and is a UEA Creative Writing MA alumnus. View all posts by suehealy

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