Date with an Agent

The only problem with having amazing weekends is the Monday morning which follows them.

Image: sodahead.com

Image: sodahead.com

I am a tired lady this morning, but it’s definitely good tired.

This past Saturday, I was privileged to be one of seventy-five unagented writers invited to Dublin Castle to take part in a fantastic event called Date with an Agent, held in conjunction with Dublin Writers’ Festival. Not only did we have the chance to listen to a selection of guest speakers discuss all aspects of the publishing industry in Ireland and worldwide, but we also had the brain-boggling opportunity to meet an agent. In the flesh. One-to-one. For realz.

It was a scary prospect, in some ways: I did a lot of preparation in the run-up to the event, and while I didn’t necessarily use everything I’d prepared (we had ten minutes with the agent, which sounds like a lot, but it zipped past), it was good to have that ‘net’ of knowledge at the back of my mind. I knew I’d feel a little like a pygmy among giants, too, so I was expecting to sit in a corner and wibble gently for the day; however, I found myself talking to a wide variety of people, writers from all over the place with vastly differing life experience and literary interests and several generous, interesting and supportive industry professionals, all of whom couldn’t have been more welcoming.

It was – to use a word which annoys me, but which keeps cropping up in my written and spoken communication lately – awesome.

Chuck Hath Spoken. Image: forums.marvelheroes.com

Chuck Hath Spoken.
Image: forums.marvelheroes.com

The agents who took part were: Simon Trewin of the WME Agency, Polly Nolan of the Greenhouse Literary Agency, Sallyanne Sweeney of Mulcahy Associates (whom I was lucky enough to meet), Madeleine Milburn of the Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV and Film Agency and Faith O’Grady of the Lisa Richards Agency. The day began with the agents introducing themselves and their agencies and discussing the sort of work they represent; then, they took questions from the audience, and every word they uttered was indispensable.

Ever the swot, I took about twenty pages of notes. I’m going to try to distil the wisdom here, but bear with me if it spills over a bit. Ready? Good.

Image: benuambassador.wordpress.com

Image: benuambassador.wordpress.com

In relation to beginning the submissions process, the agents were – unsurprisingly – united. Polly Nolan stressed the importance of being able to summarise your book in a single sentence, in which you should be able to identify what you’re writing, and who it’s for; Simon Trewin unambiguously advised aspiring novelists not to write to the market. Faith O’Grady made the useful point that if you, as the writer, have a good grasp of your genre and the ‘type’ of book you’re writing, it will help you when it comes time to revise your work, and Polly Nolan further advised us that no idea is wasted – you don’t need to put all your good ideas in one book. She also stressed the importance of the first five pages of your novel, and how they are vital for grabbing an agent’s – and a reader’s – attention; they can’t be neglected. Sallyanne Sweeney advised us to know our market, and to ready widely in our area, and Madeleine Milburn suggested practising our pitching by taking published books and writing pitches for them, in three or four sentences.

Sallyanne Sweeney discussed how personal taste does play a part in an agent’s decision as to whether to ask for more of a book, and agents will know editors’ tastes which will influence their thinking when it comes time to submit the book to publishers; if an idea has potential but it’s not for the agent to whom it’s been submitted, it is possible that the book will be passed to a different agent within the agency. She made it clear that an agent can’t represent a book they don’t love. Polly Nolan picked up on this by saying that you need an agent who’ll believe in and fight for your book, and they can only do that if they care about it. Simon Trewin mentioned that several editors and agents turned down Harry Potter, but that if it had been picked up and published for the ‘wrong’ reasons, half-heartedly, it may not have become the phenomenon which it turned out to be.

On the important question of who agents like to represent, Madeleine Milburn said that she looks for professional people, those who are social media-savvy, a person who is open to suggestions and who is ambitious. Sallyanne Sweeney made the point that it doesn’t necessarily take social media to establish a ‘brand’; some authors will find social media more relevant than others. Everything you do builds you as a writer, including the competitions you enter and the stories you publish; it all goes into honing your craft. Faith O’Grady likes people who are prolific, Polly Nolan those who are pragmatic and realistic, Sallyanne Sweeney those who bring determination and resilience to their work. Simon Trewin said he has found clients through newspaper articles, as has Sallyanne Sweeney, but that they’ve also been referred to him through literary consultancies like Inkwell. Polly Nolan has had clients referred to her by other authors, and has also found clients through the Greenhouse Funny Prize, of which she is a judge. Sallyanne Sweeney has found clients through personal approaches and referrals, but also through her slushpile, and she says that agents need to be proactive. Faith O’Grady has also approached public figures who seem to have a story to tell, and this has been fruitful for her in the past.

Image: writersliving.com

Image: writersliving.com

Phew. I’ve only managed to get through a fraction of the issues discussed, and this post needs to be wrapped up. I’ll revisit this topic tomorrow, maybe, if anyone would be interested in learning more? Let me know. Yet to be discussed are issues like pen names, public speaking, how to write an author biography, the Irish publishing scene, how things like advances and royalties work and – important for some, but not for me – how much money you can expect to earn as a writer.

I hope this has been of interest. If anyone has questions, hit me in the comments.

 

19 thoughts on “Date with an Agent

  1. jryanmcn

    I was there too Sarah Jane and I think you’ve nailed it in this piece – exhilarating and informative in equal parts! Keep going and looking forward to your first book 😄

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Nerves deadened my neurons and have rendered much of my memories of the actual pitch itself useless, but it was basically a friendly, relaxed and fun chat with Sallyanne Sweeney about the book, my future plans and things that were both good and bad about Emmeline and her little tale.

      I didn’t so much ‘pitch’ as ‘babble’, but Sallyanne didn’t run away screaming, so I reckon I did okay. 😀

      Reply
  2. susanlanigan

    Oh sounds very exciting! I’m glad you got plenty out of it, you’ve worked hard. And good that Sallyanne gave comprehensive and valuable feedback!

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks! I really did. Sallyanne was so generous – as were all the agents, really – and the day was a total headrush. 🙂

      Reply
  3. Pingback: A Second Date with an Agent: Things Get Serious | SJ O'Hart

  4. LadyNicci

    Thanks for this, I’m entering a submission this year, so doing a bit of googling to see how others got on last year. Will be checking out the rest of your blog!

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Very best of luck to you – and sorry this comment is so late! I hope you got through and even if you didn’t, don’t give up. Entering competitions is great, but you can’t beat just going through the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and querying the agents you want. That’s how I got mine, in the bitter end. 🙂

      Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks! I’m so behind the times with comments; I hope you had a brilliant time at the event – well done hugely on getting through – and hopefully we’ll all be reading about your deal in the future. Simon Trewin is a great guy to have in your corner! 🙂

      Reply

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