Guest post by Kirsty McLachlan - Step out of the slush pile and into the hands of an agent

For a few weeks now, I’ve been raising the issue of the slush pile in our agency meetings on Monday mornings (when we discuss new authors, deals and Other Business). SAE’s seem so last decade and isn’t it time we geared ourselves up towards the digital decade? And just how many people have we found in the slush pile anyway? For the past few years, many of our clients have come to us through the ‘back door routes’ – those routes that ensure a manuscript lands firmly with a loud plop and a bit of glitter on the desk instead of the floor. Those authors haven’t asked for their work to be returned – either they are too cool for that or they assume – quite rightly – that we will agree to represent them.

So what are these ‘back door routes’? Let me name a few:

1/Friends of friends of friends – or just-who-do-you-know? Think about six degrees of separation – someone in your circle of friends, your family, your work colleagues will know someone in an agency or in publishing – it’s just inevitable. It might take a bit of working out – a bit of detective work but I reckon 50% of writers, will be able to locate a name with more than just a whiff of publishing about them.

2/Get noticed – start platform building - start a facebook page, start blogging, start twittering. I’m meeting an author this week who I found via twitter. Get your readers following you now, even as you write your book – get them involved in the writing process. Ask them questions. By making a name for yourself, you might just get an agent approach you.

3/Rules are for fools – start breaking them. I work in a busy but small agency. We have guidelines but there are times when people duck under these and aim straight for David Godwin, the agent, they email him and grab his attention. He’ll respond straight away if you ‘seduce’ him with your email – I’ve known him to read a synopsis that day and respond. So don’t feel you have to always tow the line. Be a bit daring.

4/Do your homework – target each and every agent you send your work to. Look for hungry agents – those with small lists and who have just moved agencies or have just been made an agent. They will be the ones who will read your work quickly and get back to you with a response.

5/Stalk your favourite agent – get to know them – who do they agent? Look for author events where the agent might be present. Learn what their likes and dislikes are. I’m obsessed with books set in snowy locations – so when a book came to me set in a cabin north of the Arctic circle, I leapt on it. It’s a personal business, so get personal – each agent will have their own little quirks and patterns so you need to find out what they are.

6/Get involved in a writers’ community – writing is no longer an isolated occupation. We’ve found at London Writers’ Club that writers love to network, chat, compare notes and use each others experiences to take their writing to the next level.

7/Get on your soap-box – start talking – shouting – about your book. Someone, somewhere just might overhear the conversation and will help you get your manuscript to the desk of an agent.

So it’s time to be a bit canny, a bit bold and a bit tricky. Look for the gaps and you might just bypass the slush pile completely. Be passionate and that passion will take you places, I promise.

Kirsty McLachlan is an agent with David Godwin Associates and co runs The London Writers' Club with agent Jacqueline Burns.

The next LWC Live which is on Tuesday, 23rd Feb. (next Tuesday) details here:


Caroline Green said...

Thanks very much for this, Kirsty. It's a really interesting - and surprising [breaking the rules and 'stalking' in particular!] insight into the other side of that door. I'm also drawn to chilly, Northern books and when I clicked on the link, realised that novel is in my 'to read pile'...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, if only it truly did work like that!

If, like me, you live in a sleepy little town in the depths of Devon and don't even remotely know anyone who might be linked to a friend of a friend of a friend of an agent, there's not a lot of hope :(.

Being a good writer isn't enough. Nowadays it is often about who you know, and if you don't 'know' anyone, the chances of getting an agent are even more remote than winning the Euromillions.

RosyB said...

Wow - this is a very refreshing post! For so long, the writers' communities and forums and websites etc have vetted each other with a rod of iron making it seem like someone is the spawn of Satan if they do anything remotely lively in their covering letters or do something a bit perky or unusual with the synopsis. I wrote a piece for Strictly a while back about a debut writers event I took part in and it was really fascinating that every one of the writers involved had not found an agent through the slushpile route. Agents seem to look through other means and it is good for writers to know this - a short story in a collection, being seen in a creative writing anthology, being read in a competition (even if you don't win!), all sorts of things.

Anon, I think that if you look back, the arts has always been a lot about connections and who people know. Perhaps even more so in the past. There were certainly small elite circles, usually in London, and not many books were published in comparison - I don't think it is worse now in that respect. In fact, with the internet, it is probably now possible to live in darkest anywhere and still to contact or communicate directly with someone about your work. It is also possible to "take part" in literary things online, which opens things up more to people living outside the cities. This would previously have not been possible either.

But I totally understand the slightly dispirited tone of your message. It's all so hard. And it is a bit of a lottery. But I think there are maybe more avenues, rather than less, than there used to be.

Whether one feels confident enough to do this is another matter, though. And that is something that I think is hard for many writers who can - naturally - be somewhat shy individuals.

Good luck!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Kirsty, you've confirmed what many writers have believed for some time, but which is often pooh-poohed: we are told that we're just looking for reasons why we're not taken on. Whilst this may be true AS WELL, it's a relief to hear from the horse's mouth about the reality of the slush-pile situation. I do know some writers who've been taken on by agents via the slushpile, but it really does seem more likely to happen if you have 'back-door' contacts. And I like what you say about breaking the rules.
The London Writers' Club looks brilliant - wish I still lived there!

Anonymous said...

Oh this is brilliant news! Much more exciting than the idea of a boring old slush pile. I've always thought I want to make my book proposal fun, to express the mood of my manuscript. I do know a published author, I wonder if she would help me out. I'd better keep bloggin and stuff! :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a very enlightening post.

I have to confess I tend to veer between "It's never gonna happen" and "I will hunt them into the ground until it does" - depending on how well that day's writing has gone.

One thing's for sure, I'll never give up.

Jacq Burns said...

To Anonymous
You can make contacts. We have a writer who did the London Writers' Club Masterclass and who Twitters on writing regularly - just by doing those things he's gotten to know more than half a dozen agents and has asked their advice... On Twitter he is @benjohncock

Kate said...

A fascinating post and some interesting networking ideas.

Like Anonymous I live out in the sticks and so networking face to face is an impossibility - But - there is the internet. Online writers communities and blogging have enabled me to interact with other writers I would never have met, and okay, I've not managed to network myself onto an agents desk, but maybe that will come.

Of course your writing still has to sing. :-)

Rosalind Adam said...

Thanks, Kirsty. How exciting. I've been given permission to break all the rules, to loiter, lurk and stalk. Must agree with Kate that our writing still has to sing. The only problem with blogging and tweeting and poking our heads above the laptop is that if you're not careful there's no time left to write.

Claire Moss said...

I know a lot of agents attend literary festivals and offer 'one to ones' or other opportunities to meet and chat. I met a writer recently who got an agent for her first book after a chat over coffee at Harrogate Crime Writing Festival - so you don't even need to be in London!

Kate said...

I promised myself this year I'd try to get to some literary festivals. Does anyone know of any good ones in SW England?

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Kate, I think Winchester would be nearest.

Caroline Green said...

Claire, we will have the brilliant Rachel Ward, author of the YA book Numbers, on Strictly soon as a guest poster and I believe she picked up a publisher at a similar festival.

Lizzie said...

Kate, Winichester is excellent. You can meet up to three professionals face to face – editors, agents and published authors.

There's also a literary festival at Frome where you can meet agents face to face, much I think it's much smaller than Winchester

Kate said...

Those sound just the ticket. Nothing much on their websites yet about agant one to ones - I'll have to keep a close watch.

Thank you :-)

Jacq Burns said...

Help for anyone out of London, we hear you. London Writers' Club events will be recorded and avail online from now on. Plus we feature an agent and a publisher, and two published authors on our Fiction Masterclass series - next one starts in April - done via teleconference from your sofa. You can ask them direct questions, even, will you read my pitch?
You don't even have to put down your gin and tonic, I don't.

DT said...

That was a great post - expect your quota of submissions to increase accordingly! It's refreshing to hear about what we CAN do as opposed to the squeeze on the publishing industry generally.

To anonymous from Devon - you may not be aware but there is a new literature charity covering the whole of the South West and it's called Cyrpus Well. You can find them on the web and their website is being launched from March. You've also got an Arts Council office based in Exeter that might be worth contacting. Those of us living in Cornwall empathise with you though!

menopausaloldbag (MOB) said...

When I read inspiration posts like this I get all fired up for a few days then bog myself down in the old self doubt mire that I wallow in. I suppose I need to print this and put it on the wall where I can see it daily. Thanks. a great read too.

Helen Black said...

Hmmmm. I have mixed thoughts on this.
I did bag my agent via the slush pile. Absolutely no conacts. Absolutley nothing fancy in my sub.I know lots of other authors who were taken on this way too. In fact I don't know anyone who got taken on any other way!!!!!

Now, I've got nothing against folks getting out there and trying to get themselves known as it were,but I worry that a. folk will spend time net working instead of writing a bloody good book and b. that net working will ultimately become more important than the book iyswim.

Of course, writers must do whatever they have to, but agents will be missing a trick if they ignore their slush pile and check stats on twitter instead.

RosyB said...

Helen, I'm not sure that was what she was saying...

There seems to be a lot of concentration here in the comments on "marketing yourself" but a lot of the writers I have met who got their agents away from the slushpile got them through their writing. It was just a matter of where the agents were looking for that writing - in anthologies, comps, short story collections etc. Any sensible agent is not just going to wait and see what comes through the slushpile. They will be actively looking in a variety of areas. Whereas WW etc always just concentrates on this - the perfect submission etc. Apart from anything, if a writer does not know what's happening out there how can they even make sure they are sending to the right person?

The other point is timing.

I used to work in a job that had a similar idea to the "slushpile", but what people on the outside don't realise is that maybe at some times of the year there is no space to take anyone on. At other times there might be. And whilst subbing on spec is one way of doing things, if you sub on spec and the organisation isn't looking to take anyone on at that time, you might miss out.

The other point is getting read by the right person. If you are read by a workexperience or placement person at the wrong time (say) and they aren't looking to take anyone on at that time...then you may miss out. And who is to say that the work experience person has the same taste as the person whose taste you have carefully researched - who may not even get to read it?

I think the point is that if you put your work out there, it does allow the people who are looking for work like yours to find you. As I said the people i know are not people who "marketed" themselves, nor are they people who twittered their time away rather than wrote. What they did do was write, commit to their writing and then do something with that writing.

A lot of people concentrate on the "getting the agent " as the goal in itself rather than the writing. But there are all sorts of things and events and ways of getting writing read and that can be valuable and satisfying and even be the main venue for some types of writing. I suppose i see it as if you have something to say then say it, you don't need permission. Look at poet's careers - are they just obsessed with endless submissions to agents or are they carrying on writing, perhaps reading at events, or being part of anthologies or whatever.

I agree that the slushpile shouldn't be discounted and people should still submit to them but I think that writers, if they are serious about their work, should get on and do it anyway.

Kirsty said...

Great comments. In case, my blog was misunderstood, I don’t think agents – or writers – should ignore the slush pile, just that there are other ways to get to agents.Our slush pile at DGA is read carefully by the same reader (who has worked for us for years) and it is a careful and considered process.

Ann said...

This was very interesting and enlightening. My head spins trying to work out the process of finding an agent.

Rosy T said...

I must admit I found this post profoundly depressing - hearing what I had always assume was merely a myth among unpublished authors (namely, that it's all about who you know) apparently confirmed by an industry insider.

It's not the part about breaking the rules a bit with submissions - I'm all for creativity and spark in covering letters. It's the part about needing to network and know people. Like Helen B (and in fact like almost every published author I know) I had no contacts with any novelists or fiction publishers or literary agents. My full-time job and my family responsibilities mean there was absolutely no way I could possibly have got to conferences and lit festivals to chat up agents.

I have always been naive enough to believe that what would et a book noticed is a well-written and sparky pitch letter, a clear and professional synopsis and (above all) three cracking, fresh-voiced chapters that they just can't put down. What on earth difference does it make to the quality of the book whether the person who wrote it does or doesn't know someone who knows someone who knows the agent?

Essie Fox said...

I've heard great things about the London Writer's club on Twitter...and Susie, they do some sessions on conference telephone lines - so you could be part of things without having to travel to London.

Nicola Morgan said...

Sorry to cast a dampener on the party! Obviously this is a really interesting post and raises some great issues. However, I have to cast a few notes of caution. The many agents who contact me with points to make on my blog all caution against trying to stand out in these ways. They hate being stalked and they hate being approached in unusual ways. They like it when writers send them a lovely book in a clear and sensible way. They say that there is only one way in which they want writers to leap out from the slushpile: by shining with the brilliance of their writing and their idea.

I agree about lots of things: the homework, the platform-building, getting involves, blogging and shouting about your book (as long as this does not involve shouting at an agent about your book!). And certainly if you DO know someone, use it - though i have to warn you that authors usually find it really, really difficult when people approach them and ask for help - we're willing to give it, but it gets us tangled up too often.

I am a natural rule-breaker, but I'm very sorry to disagree hugely with the "rules are for fools" adage. Of course, if you're brilliant and your book is brilliant, you can break any number of rules, but I fail to see why anyone would take the risk, except in exceptional and very calculated (and still risky) circumstances. You can break rules if you like, but one thing's for certain: some broken rules will stop your MS being read. Honestly - I have a whole clutch of agents who contact me with their stories of writers who thought they were being original but who were just being annoying. These agents are well-established and are members of the AAA - in fact, it's usually after their meetings that they contact me...

Look guys - I was unpublished for a million years (well, 21) and I tried all the rule-breaking - sometimes unintentionally. In the end, I got published because I came up with the right idea and wrote it well enough. It's all about the writing and then it's all about being someone an agent could work with. The better your book, the more rule-breaking you can get away with - but we have to focus on the writing first.

This was a fun post, and obviously written by an agent and therefore containing some truth (!), and I wish all agents were more like that - but they're not and, as someone who has to give advice that applies to as many writers as possible, breaking rules and stalking agents is not something I can in all conscience advise.

I know - I sound really boring! I'm not and i love some of this advice - my worry is that writers will think that "break the rules2 means break all the rules, or any rules, for no good reason. the rules are only there because agents have asked for them to be there - if some don't mind about them, great, but the thing is that so many do. How will you know which is which>>>

Andrea said...

I absolutely agree with every point Kirsty made. It sure is great to hear an agent talk about things like this!

As a testimony to what she said:

1. I found both my agent and my publisher through friends/family. My agent is married to my cousin - I had no idea he'd ever agented before (he's now a business owner). But, he read my book, liked it, and had maintained his connections in the industry. And my publisher, Valor, I found through friends from (HarperCollins' website).

2/3. When I approached Valor, sidestepping their standard system of receiving submissions, I presented them with my book's following - people love getting to know authors, and are usually willing to support and help us.

4/5. My agent fell into my lap, practically. However, I'd done my work on the agents I really liked. Spent hours reading up on them (the forums at AbsoluteWrite are amazing!) and making sure they'd actually be interested in what I was writing.

Thank you for this post - I'm passing it along to my writer friends!

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