Julia Churchill, Greenhouse Literary Agency, and Ali Dougal, commissioning editor at Egmont, London Professional Series Book Camp, Mar 6th, 2012
Julia gave a great talk on Tuesday, with advice on how to find an agent, what they want in query letters and the job agents do for their authors. Below are edited highlights. For more about Julia and the Greenhouse, see her website or the recent interview by Nicky Schmidt. Ali Dougal’s excellent contribution and more from the Q&A are on my next post. Thank you so much, Paolo and Tina, for organising such a brilliant event.
How to Hook an Agent
by Julia Churchill, Literary Agent, The Greenhouse Literary Agency
Finding an agent is about the book & putting yourself on the market. So, before you send an agent a query, here areFour things to do before you mail THAT letter
1. Finish the book. Then put it away for a bit, come back with a fresh eye and work on it again. Wait until it’s as strong as you think you can make it. Don’t send out queries until you’re sure you’ve finished because (a) if you send me a proposal I like, I’ll be on the phone for the full manuscript immediately. Be ready to take advantage of that momentum. And (b) those first critical pages will be so much stronger when you know what your book is about, and where it’s going.
2. Only send one book at a time. I prefer a focused, confident approach, a clear message. If you have more than one MS, choose the best, your favourite, the newest. If it feels like an author is throwing everything at me to see what sticks, there’s always the sense that the books have been around the block. Like there’s dust on them. Not exciting.
3. Formulate a list of agents to approach.
This is about finding a match. What sort of book have you written? Who’s looking for that kind of book? There are loads of resources to help you, both in print and online. For print, see Writers and Artists Yearbook or The Writers Handbook. Online: Writewords, agentquery.com. There’s tonnes more – just don’t rely on the print versions only.
It’s also a good idea to look at writer’s magazines at the library. Google your favourite authors, find out who represents them. Go on the bookseller website, bookbrunch, which are all trade sites. See who’s hot and doing deals. Spend an afternoon in a bookshop looking through the acknowledgement pages of authors who are writing in and around your area. If you’re UK based, writing for children and looking for a UK agent, you’ll probably come up with 20-30 agents.
4. Go to selected agents’ websites.
The website is an agent’s public face, so find out if you like the look of it. Is their news page busy, dynamic? Are they doing deals? Get a feeling for each agency. We twitter. We have Facebook pages, interactive FAQ sections, blogs. Get to know us.
On each website you will also find submissions guidelines. These supersede anything else you’ve seen in print or online. Do what it tells you to do because that suggests professionalism.
The Query Letter
I’m looking for something brief, a page, businesslike and with a nice tone – and most importantly with a strong hook in the pitch. With all of the authors I’ve taken on, I’ve been excited by their covering letter. They’re all good communicators and I could see immediately that their books had a great premise. There was a focus to their story – and an interesting kernel. And it goes without saying that it should look good on the page, no spelling mistakes and addressed to the right person.
Send these out in batches – maybe seven or eight at a time. You might get some good feedback from an agent that helps to make your book stronger. You might want to refine your covering letter or improve certain chapters. Also, and this happens surprisingly often, you might have made a mistake – sent the wrong version or missed out pages. It’s such a shame if you’ve done that to everyone.
If you find an agent you want to submit to exclusively in the first instance, let them know. They’ll probably look at your submission sooner.
Submitting is a learning curve. You’ll get better each time you do it.
What are agents looking for?
The next big thing, of course. But the really fun bit about this business is that the next big thing isn’t going to be on trend. Somewhere, right now, a handful of people are tapping on their computers in their studies or sheds. And that's what we're all looking for.
So, when an author asks: “What are you looking for, Julia? What will make my book stand out?” The best I can say is: “I know it when I see it. Write the book that only you can write.”
That said, your book has to work – or have the potential to work - on six levels. Here’s my brief take on each of them for anyone who’s still finding their feet:
That’s the hook or premise; those few lines that sum up the story in the covering letter. It needs focus and clarity and freshness. Nothing is really that original - but the treatment of it can be.
Examples? Try THIRTEEN REASONS WHY by Jay Asher. A girl's suicide isn’t new, but the author did something structurally and conceptually new, so that it turned into a tense, compressed thriller.
Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater. Sam spends his summers as a human and winters as a wolf.
Andromeda Klein by Frank Portman. A high school underdog’s tarot card readings become strangely accurate.
As You Wish by Jackson Pearce. A teen falls in love with the genie sent to grant her three wishes.
Hate List by Jennifer Brown. Valerie’s boyfriend opens fire in the school cafeteria, killing students who were on a list she unknowingly helped create.
Publishers want something that sets a book apart from all the others on their desks – a special way to present your work to their sales team, to retailers, to the world. How does your book meet that need? Spend an hour in a bookshop. Look at first chapters. Be critical. Why are they published? Read the back cover. That’s where you’ll find the pitch and see what buttons it presses. What are the buttons in your story?
Without great characters fiction is pretty much dead. I look for character which is entirely tied in to plot. Plot is what makes the character interesting (because the character is pushed, stretched, challenged) and character is what makes the plot interesting (because we're learning about the character that we’ve come to love). I’m looking for characters that change and learn – and characters I like. Because if I care about them, I keep reading.
Keep it fresh – don’t give us another kid with super-powers, another kid whose parents die in a car accident in the prologue. Be clever and credible. If you’ve got a baddy, what’s his USP? Think about The Twits, Lord Voldemort, Queen of Hearts, Cruella Deville
Also, remember the main purpose of physical description is to reveal character – it has little value of itself. What does it tell us about your character if his jeans are ripped or she wears scarlet lip gloss?
We all know what it feels like to have something happen that is completely life-changing. A dilemma that leads to a forked path. A moral issue so tough that real anguish is involved in resolving it. A question about who you love most and what that means. A choice that needs courage and action. The stakes must be high. That's how you grip your reader.
But forget non-stop action. It’s boring. You need pace instead. Quieter scenes let you build character, relationships, develop the romance, make us care. They will also help to ratchet up the psychological stakes. Treat it like a rollercoaster. Slow your pace right down, give your reader a breather, and then hit them again.
An outline can help you map these peaks and toughs, and make sure your story has focus and clarity. If you write by the seat of your pants, an outline will help. Honestly.
A vivid setting is one that is imbued with emotion, and such a strong sense of place that your setting becomes a character in its own right. Think about Hogwarts, Gotham City, Narnia. JG Ballard’s twisted London suburbs and the moors in Wuthering Heights. Transylvania in Dracula. Rural Alabama in To Kill a Mocking Bird. Oxford in Northern Lights. How could you possibly separate story from setting in any of these books?
There needs to be something DEEPLY FELT in your story that will stay with your reader after the last page is turned: hope, redemption, struggle, friendship, growing up. This deeply felt theme can be built in to the story at the planning stage and should be integral to your concept. Theme is about finding the heart of your story.
Examples: In FRACTURE, Delaney realizes that love can overcome fear.
In DEVIL’S KISS, Billi knows she must sacrifice her innermost wishes and desires for the good of the many and a destiny from which she cannot turn away.
Voice is different, distinct and totally plugs into your age group - the excitable five year old, the adventure-hungry nine year old, the slightly aggro teenager. You can identify voice from a hundred paces. Think of the humour of Louise Rennison, the cool of Antony Horowtiz, the otherworldliness of Eva Ibbotson. Nobody else could be Jaqueline Wilson or Cathy Cassidy or Karen McCombie. Find that special something in your writing, something that stands-out. A clever, low-key spareness or a wicked sense of fun. Make it original and authentic.
Other useful tips
Know your market. Be sure you know who you're writing for. I don’t much like the word ‘crossover’ in submissions because something only becomes crossover when it exists in the marketplace; it stretches up from the core. So think about your core reader. Who are they? How old? Many novels don’t find a home because they don’t speak clearly enough to their intended reader. Publishers publish into age categories. That doesn’t mean you can’t push the boundaries. But you need to know where the boundaries are. So read and be a fan.
After you've finished your first draft, put it aside, take time to distance yourself. Then read it as objectively as you can, and polish your writing as much as possible. Show it to people you trust, find some critique buddies, take it to a conference and read it aloud. Get fresh, intelligent, un-vested perspectives.
The single, most prevalent mistake that I see in debut novels is too much going on. There is no clear focus. Decide what the main character wants and why (that’s where the high stakes come in) and how are they blocked from getting it. Apply that to every scene. Is it clear? If so, you have a story.
Does your main story arc take off soon enough? An agent will look at the first few pages. They want to find intent and focus, to understand what this book is about and where it’s pointed. So start strongly, not with backstory. You need an opening scene with a character and a challenge, a mini drama.
Other questions to ask before you submit to an agent. Is the opening too crowded? Are there too many characters? Does every scene need to be there? Take another look. Does everything push towards story? If a scene can come out without an issue to the plot, then it probably shouldn’t be there.
Are you entering scenes at the right moment? What’s the latest point you could start? And the earliest you could leave? Are you holding the tension from scene to scene? Have you read your dialogue aloud? Dialogue is difficult. Master it.
Are the stakes high enough? If the protagonist doesn’t achieve that goal, what will happen? Are the stakes being raised chapter on chapter? Is there enough conflict to hold the pace of your story?
Is the main character growing? Does he/she have an emotional arc as well as a journey? Do incidental characters have an arc?
Show, don't tell! Yes, it’s that biggie again. In the vast majority of submission I see, the writer hasn’t mastered it yet. So if ‘Show, don’t tell’ looks like three words to you, go buy a book, do a search, take a class. It is a skill that can be learned. Good writing is about looking through the page, beyond the words, to the scenes, characters, feelings and drama below. The paper should be transparent. And you get transparent paper by showing, not telling.
Is your point of view consistent? Decide from the outset who is telling the story and stick to it. If you're writing from multiple POVs, you're up against it.
Things to avoid. Clichés. Too much description. Talking down to young readers. Don’t condescend or preach. Don’t try to give them hidden messages; you wouldn't do that to an adult. I bet the best books you’ve read made you feel clever, and made you stretch a bit and occupy some space. Leave your readers some room. Trust them.
At key moments - the pivots, shocks, thrills, the bits with feeling - have you squeezed the juice from the fruit? Are your readers laughing or crying?
A last word: Back everything up! Don't lose your final draft if your computer fails.
My job as an agent
My job is to spot talent, help develop it and then sell it. I do whatever I can to make a career for each author I represent and support them along the way. It’s a great feeling when you negotiate an advance that pays off an author’s mortgage, but it’s not all about the biggest advances. A publishing contract has a long lifespan, so it's important to get it right.
My job starts with the submissions pile; that’s where every agent’s job starts. I’m looking for something that gets its hooks into me from page one. If something jumps out, I’ll always try to be the first agent to see the full MS. So I get on the phone right away and secure an exclusive first look. If I really like it, I might offer to sign up the author there and then. If the first five pages aren’t quite there yet, but still pique my interest, I’ll have a more thorough look because sometimes that special something doesn’t jump right out and bite you. I might work on a MS editorially, then see if the author can take it up to the next level before I offer to represent them. Sometimes I work speculatively with an author for a couple of drafts and still don’t get to that point.
Nearly every manuscript I see needs some level of editorial work before it reaches submission point. At Darley Andersons (where I worked before the Greenhouse) only two books in 20 years came in ready to go out to publishers. When it is ready, I have to find a publisher that’s the right match. That might mean picking one editor for an exclusive look if I’m sure that house is the best home for my author. Mostly, though, I send it out widely (to 15-18 publishers) because you can never be sure who’ll like it. Taste is very subjective.
I’m an editorial agent. Not every agent is, but more and more are because:
(a) There are more agents than ever before, with new agencies starting up all the time. That means there are lots of hungry agents looking for talent, but also more books on submission to publishers. An editor can get five manuscripts a day during a busy spell, more during a perfect storm.
Also, publishers are buying less. Macmillan Children’s cut their output by 30% last year. More agents + less books being bought = a tougher market for agents. So we need to work hard to make sure it is our books that get bought. If an agent puts a lot of work into bringing a manuscript up to submission point, they’ve got the advantage over an agent who hasn’t sent out a book in optimum condition.
(2) In the old days, editors decided which books to buy, then told the publicity department and sales team to sell them. Today it’s a company-wide purchase, with the final decision often made by people who don't work on the texts. Sales and marketing have to see the potential in it as well as the editorial team. And they don’t ever want to see a potential disaster!
Do you need an agent?
There are lots of ways to be published these days, and it can be easier to get a publishing contract than a literary agent. If that’s how it turns out for you, the Society of Authors has a good contract vetting service for its members. Literary agents are really about selling big books to big publishers. On the other hand, a contract is filled with lots of things, hundreds of things and will last a long time. So it's important that it's done well and carefully. At the Greenhouse, we strive for an optimum contract. We negotiate good royalties and high discount rates (so you get decent money when your books are sold at low prices in the supermarkets). The difference between accepting what is first offered and fighting for more is 20-30p per book! We’re also after good percentage splits, so if the publisher keeps the rights to serial, i.e. selling an extract in a magazine or newspaper, the author gets 90% rather than the 60% first offered. We also get more money paid up front, more free copies and make sure the rights revert to you sooner rather than later if the book goes out of print.
Where appropriate, we also hold back rights in order to sell directly into other markets. Say, for example, I sell a book in the UK, Sarah Davies (the U.S.-based founder of the Greenhouse) sells it in the U.S. and our rights team sells it in the foreign language territories. That means the author will get several advances, rather than one. We’re generating multiple income streams.
A long-term partner
An agent manages an author’s career for the long-term, keeping one eye on the market. We give guidance, feedback and support, and provide contacts and opportunities. Crucially, an agent can help with ideas - if that's what an author is looking for. At the Greenhouse, many of our authors are friends. There’s a sense of community.
Inevitably there will be bumps in the road. An agent is there to deal with legitimate complaints against the publisher - like not enough publicity or promises that haven’t been kept. We’ll discuss it and fix it, leaving the author/publisher relationship untroubled. And if the first book and first deal don’t work out, an agent can get things back on track. That might mean moving to different books, different publishers, or starting again with a different name in a different area.
So that’s what I do for my 15%: spot, develop and sell talent, and handle the business side of things so that authors can get on with the important stuff. It’s a great responsibility, hard work, and also very personal. It’s my job to make sure every one of my authors (the ones who make loads of money and the ones who don’t make much) can keep on writing if that’s what they want to do.
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