Man Booker 50: How to find a Literary Agent

We are now based on Function room located on the 5th floor of the usual Royal Festival Hall. Two agents and one of their authors sit in front of us.

The first significant difference between the two is their age. While Claire Conville, has been in the publishing world for 35 years, Emma Paterson represents fresh names in the business such as Meghan Hunter, author of The End We Start From as well as the author of ‘Cat-person’ (a successful short-story published in December 2017 by The New Yorker). The other agent is Claire who brings the 2003 Man Booker Prize winner, DBC Pierre.

The first question is clearly directed to their daily life and if the first impression I get is that they don’t have much space nor time for personal life, the second, coming from Claire’s perspective gets even worse.

For those who are interested in the profession or are still waiting for an agent’s reply, this next part is elucidating. Most of their time is spent reading… e-mails. Claires wakes up at 4/5 am in the morning to start reading her inbox before heading to the office. As she says, ‘it’s a 24 hours cycle. Loads of e-mails and phone calls, looking after my authors, meetings with the team…’. Evenings are reserved for readings and launches, as for the weekends more work and reading.

By now heart-shaped balloons from Pride Parade fly all over the sky, passing London Eye and mixing themselves with the planes on their way to Heathrow Airport. The flag from Underbelly Festival dancing with the far away songs from the parade. And while I distract myself with the outside world, Claire’s list finally finishes with ‘loads of editorial work’. She believes that 80% of the manuscript should be ready to be published before being given to the publisher. And at this moment, right before the story that unites this agent and the writer, a question is raised: ‘What do you (agents) look for in a book?’

The answer is not helpful, but full of promise. To be honest, they do not know. In the end, they both agree that they want to be surprised. In addition, there is another factor involved, the first encounter with the narrative is told to be important, unforgettable and personal. Claire, advancing on the other agent’s silence explains: ‘I didn’t know [Pierre’s book] would win a Man Booker Prize, but I knew it could’.

When asked about the feeling on being chosen by an agent, Pierre laments ‘not everyone understood the book. Some readers still don’t. The good thing about being published is they will still read it’.

About his own process of writing Pierre’s reflection is distorted and well-known for those who put their stories into paper. ‘The minute you start think who the audience/reader will be you compromise. And so I tried to take that out of my head and wrote whatever I wanted, believing no one was ever going to read the book’. But when the work is finished that is a whole other story, ‘when I finished, there was fume coming out of the page, such was the energy I had put into it; when I finished I was happy so I sent it’.

Yet, leaving the author’s solitude was hard for this Man Booker winner, ‘by writing completely by myself I did not have anyone to understand it. We were completely alone. Me and my book. My book and me. It’s more difficult to find an agent than a publisher’.

Sympathetic with the writers who listen his words carefully he exclaims: ‘There are always people who want to write stories, and people who want to read stories’. He also adds, ‘there is something incredibly human under writing, the story has to tell the truth even if it offends someone. And that story connects people’.

There is yet another important note to take into account, agents will not send a novel out to publishers because it is talented. It has to be distinctive, word of advice?

‘The only thing we have is our unique self’.

On Q&A time, agents guarantee that all the manuscripts on their desks and computers are read and the writer usually gets an answer six weeks to two months after submission.

First step, finding the right agent. Do read acknowledgements on other books of the genre, most writers mention them. It is also advisable to write on the letter who inspire you as a writer, the courses you’ve done… everything related to the area you’re writing about because selling the manuscripts also means selling the writer authenticity and background.

In terms of presentation, it might differ from company to company/agent to agent but the submission details will be detailed on their websites. No manuscript will be rejected due to its presentation, yet those rules should be followed. And please, Claire personally asks, ‘don’t sent presents’.

In the very end, I finally follow the staff advice and go to the balcony to write. The sun is hiding and now there is no need for me to hid from it. The view is freely opened to seagulls and planes and children shouting and splash on the water fountain downstairs. It is noisy, it is full of life, it is central London.


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