What do literary agents want?

I am the Gatekeeper. Effectively, this is the prime role I play as a freelance. I police the borders, I man the drawbridge and am pledged to repel intruders. However, those who do get past me stand on the threshold of fame and fortune, in the citadel that is Publishing. A bit scary isn't it?

That's the beginning of an advice sheet written by David Llewelyn, who works as a reader for the literary agency Conville and Walsh. Scary? I'll say. He doesn't fill the prospective author with confidence. But if you're ready to start submitting your manuscript to literary agents, his piece is essential reading. (You can find the whole article here, at Conville and Walsh's FAQ; scroll down almost to the bottom to find the link.)

Of course, everyone's hoping to find a magic key that will get them past every gatekeeper. Unfortunately, there's no such thing. Each literary agent has his or her own requirements and tastes. Nicola Morgan, otherwise known (for some reason) as the Crabbit Old Bat, has a lot of good, detailed advice in her books and on her blog, Help! I Need a Publisher. But if you want a briefer version, the only universal rules that I know of are these:

  1. Have a fantastic, fresh product that can be sold the world over, and might make a good movie or TV series.
  2. Be marketable yourself – not weird or off-putting.
  3. Follow their instructions (usually spelled out on the website) to the letter, and don't try to hoodwink them.

I remember going through a publisher's slush pile once and finding that one clever-clogs had up-ended the alternate pages of his submission, so that every other page was upside down. It was a ploy to reveal to him how far we had got in his manuscript, once we sent it back. You can imagine how hard it was to become riveted in his story when I had to stop after every 500 words and flip the page around. Nice try, pal.

In other words: save your cleverness for your creative endeavours. Literary agents are only human, after all. Llewelyn adds: 'As a Reader, I can only impress on you the importance of the first half dozen pages. If you fail to catch the imagination or light some spark, in those opening pages, you will be struggling to retain a Reader's interest.' So if you're able to give them a manuscript written in a unique voice, with a gripping opening, you've got one foot on the drawbridge already.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *