Saturday, 4 October 2014

What are agents looking for? – David Thorpe

I had the pleasure last month of attending the Agents' Party at Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road, London, organised by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

It was called a party, but I'd say that's stretching the term; despite the free wine and nibbles, gratefully received, this was a place to pay full attention.

The agents attending were a good cross-section. Those on the panel were:

  • Ella Kahn DKW Literary Agency
  • Jo Williamson Antony Harwood Ltd
  • Julia Churchill A.M. Heath Literary Agents
  • Lauren Pearson Curtis Brown
  • Penny Holroyde Caroline Sheldon Literary Agents
  • Yasmin Standen Standen Literary Agency.

There were also other agents in the room:
  • Alice Williams David Higham Associates
  • Bryony Woods DKW Literary Agency
  • Elizabeth Briggs LAW Literary Agents
  • Eve White and Jack Ramm Eve White Literary Agent
  • Hannah
 Whitty Plum Pudding Illustration
  • Louise Burns Andrew Mann Literary Agency.
In the assembly were up to 80 of us writers and illustrators. On the way in we were handed two badges to fill in and stick onto our clothing: one saying our name, and the other our favourite children's character.

I spotted at least one person who'd chosen a character from their own book. There's confidence for you.

Who did I choose? – Skellig, the brilliant creation from David Almond's beautiful novel, a broken winged human found in a garden shed who, maybe, has miraculous powers. I thought he might bring me good luck.

Thus protected, I entered the airy new seminar room on the top floor of the wonderful new bookshop (they've moved a few doors down the hill away from the Crossrail engineering works. I went to the old bookshop first by mistake – shows how long since I was last there!)

(ASIDE: I remember the days when Foyles was completely disorganised, full of dusty piles of randomly assorted books that the overworked staff never got around to sorting out. If you wanted a book, it could take you days to burrow through them, like looking for a diamond in a snow drift, you'd have to take a whole week off work. While the old bookshop was definitely Dickensian, the new one is well into the 21st-century.)

Yes! There were a few familiar faces, very nice to see some old friends I hadn't seen for ages. (I confess I am a lapsed SCBWI-er, recently returned to the fold.)

So first of all there was a panel with Nick Cook as the ringleader, and lots of questions being asked about what agents are looking for, and how they make their choices, and then we could queue up to talk to them individually.

Here's what I took away from it:

In the younger age group, humour is popular and perhaps something with a strong literary bent. Others are looking for something more quirky, but above all they are looking for a powerful voice, something with attitude, strong and moving. Some of them were looking for a paranormal story, some for something with lots of twists.

Other keywords for older readers included dark, emotional,  historical, with flow, written from the heart, and another interesting thing was said by Ella: "I know it's ready to be submitted to a publisher when I get lost in it".

That is really important in the context of answering the question: "When do I submit? – Either to a publisher or an agent". The answer is, don't send it in until you are absolutely sure it is ready for publication; is it in the form that you would like to see it in print? Because if it is, then the agent or editor receiving it will stop looking for mistakes and become absorbed, as if they were reading a book that had already been published.

And then all the agent has to do is send it straight off to their favourite editor. With absolutely no work for them. What could be better?

In connection with this, another piece of advice was: take your time. There's no rush to submit, not even when an agent gets back to you and suggests some changes. It's far better to get it right than to get right back.

That certainly good advice and probably the best thing I took away from it.

Website: My new book, Stormteller, is out at the end of the month.


Penny Dolan said...

Being a longish way from London, David, I really appreciate you writing up this meeting as an ABBA post. Thanks.

Sue Purkiss said...

Very interesting!

Stroppy Author said...

"And then all the agent has to do is send it straight off to their favourite editor. With absolutely no work for them."
So how do they earn their 15%? I want advice and constructive input from an agent, or they're not worth having!