• Burhana Islam

The Rabbit Hole of Literary Agents



For the past year, I’ve found myself wholly lost when searching for answers in the world of literary agents. If like me, you had little clue of where to start, the whole process can seem a little overwhelming- if not a whole lot daunting. Now that I’m a year older and perhaps a tiny bit wiser, I thought I’d gather together the tips and tricks I’ve learnt thus far.


Before I start though, I think it’s wise to have a bit of context on my part. Everyone’s journey on the publishing ladder is different and it’s always helpful to have some bearings. These were mine:


- I’m lucky enough to have made it onto the Penguin Random House WriteNow scheme, which gives me some advantage. However, that itself didn’t stop the 17 rejections I’ve collected to date.

- I’ve written a verse novel that is currently on its third draft under the editorial guidance of Penguin Press.

- I have a couple of other ideas beyond my written manuscript in mind.


My bearings changed somewhat significantly seven months on, which pretty much accelerated my search. More on that later though.


Part One: The Rabbit Hole


Tip 1: Back to Basics


I didn't know where to begin so I scanned my bookshelf, looking for books along the same vein as mine. Once I had a collection, I skipped to the authors’ acknowledgements pages and made a note of their agents. Then I did my research online, scouring through the web in search for their respective agencies.


I soon opened up a Google Spreadsheet for efficiency and made a column for the agents, their company, their manuscript wish list, their submission guidelines, their timeframes, if they were open for queries, what to do in case I don’t hear back and one for additional information.


I also made a column for the title of my submission (helpful should I ever have more than one manuscript and still be in the same position). I’d fill the box in green if I’d submitted, red if the window for feedback had been exceeded without getting a response, black if they’d rejected, and I made notes if they'd given me advice.


I made my list bigger as the hunt progressed. My intention wasn’t to query as many people as possible. It was so I didn’t query one agent twice because I knew I had only one shot to make a good impression and I didn't want to waste it carelessly. It was also so I could tailor my query letter more personally and so I had everything in one place. It was a good way of making my progress visual too- OFSTED would be proud, right?


On a side note, the spreadsheet took a whole day to put together. It did take hours, yes, but once I had a model query letter, I could get it sent out in about 20 minutes- if not less.


Tip 2: Reflect and Stagger


I learnt that a lot of my rejections stemmed from the fact that I was just sending out my manuscript too early. I had written three drafts prior to submitting to my editor for the first time, but it's hard to get the guidance you need to shape your book without advice from people who know what they’re doing. In some sense, I was only really sending out a skeleton of my story.


Rule number one, by the way, is to never send out a first draft.


It's worth noting that even my second draft under an editor’s guidance was still too early. Hell, even though I have an agent now, I still think it’s too early- the draft itself I mean. I'm wholly happy with my agent of choice.


In hindsight, I should have read more writing blogs, attended more industry events and joined a critique group. Granted, this is all hard to do when working full-time and funds are limited. Had I done that though, I may have got at least some feedback with my rejections.


I also always had a rule to only query three agents at a time- something I learnt from the WriteNow workshops back in September 2017. If they gave feedback, which a few did, I’d take it on board and edit again before sending out my next batch.


Tip 3: Forging Connections and the Twittersphere


Organisations like New Writing North and CommonWord, as well as publishers such as Sarah Odedina and authors like Malorie Blackman and Patrice Lawrence on Twitter are God-sent when it comes to spreading news about opportunities in the industry.


Over the past 12 months, I've attended three events for free. Each event put me in touch with multiple agents, industry influencers and editors themselves, all of whom happened to be interested in my work after pitching to them in person. At one event, an agent, one who’s sought after for representing bestsellers and award-winners, asked me to query her again despite me being rejected the first time, which I think is pretty rare since it was an outright automated email rejection place (FYI, I did get another rejection from her, but she gave me an excellent line of feedback that has wholly changed the way I see my manuscript- a bonus, is it not?).


At a similar event, a publisher kept in touch with me post-workshop and made an offer on my MS four months later. I also attended a free Hachette open day where, at a 121 with a children’s editor, I got some invaluable advice about a WIP.


All of the above were from a few tweets and a couple of newsletter subscriptions. Not bad, ey?


Part Two: The Offer


You might think having an offer from a publisher made searching for an agent easier- well, you'd be right in some sense, but wrong in another. When I explained this to a friend of mine, one who has been guiding me through this whole thing with so much advice and encouragement, she told me to put ‘OFFER OF PUBLICATION FROM *********** AND PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE WRITENOW MENTEE’ in the subject line of my email. I’ll be honest, I felt like too much of an impostor to initially do it. When I eventually had the guts to do so, the waiting period for a response reduced significantly from three months to three minutes- no lie.


At this point, it’s worth noting that nine of my 17 rejections followed, but hey ho, you win some and you lose some so no complaints.


It's also worth noting that with each of these rejections, I got gold dust. I learnt something from every single agent that gave me their time and, for that, I’m incredibly grateful.


This part of my post focuses on what I ultimately realised I wanted in an agent and the questions I asked afterwards.


My Reflections:


- Only now that I’ve had a chance to talk to agents with some degree of depth am I sure what kind of writer I want to be. I thought I only wanted to write MG/YA verse novels so I targeted those agents alone. I now know that I actually want to branch out to other genres so I’ve chosen my agent accordingly. I didn’t know this a year ago so realising this now was a big thing for me. There was also a time when I'd jump for anyone who’d take me, but now I'm smart enough to believe in myself enough to have found a partner to grow with- and therein lies the difference.


- I also wanted someone to hold my hand (as cliche as it sounds). I'm so new to this industry and, from my perspective, I feel a little bit out of my depth - it's actually quite daunting. I needed someone who could offer me that and as such, one of my questions was around communication- about their preferences in comparison to mine, their process and their reasonings behind it.


- Every agent, I've been told, has their own specialism. Some are maverick negotiators when it comes to contracts, some are incredibly heavily involved editorially before passing on to editors, some have a poetry list alongside their fiction clients, some go out of their way to champion diversity in particular, some have branched out to the US, examining the market there, and the list goes on. I needed to figure out what I prioritised. In my case of writing a verse novel, a genre that has seen success in the States, I wanted someone who could guide me on that. There were actually a whole host of other reasons why I chose my agent- that just happened to be a very convenient one.


- Big brands with big names: there came a point when I wanted to consider whether to go to a notable agency for its namesake or a smaller agency for its attention. Both come with their perks. Did I want to be a part of a big client list of huge successes or would I rather go for a smaller firm where they’d give me more of their time? In the end, I settled for the one I was confident, in time, would help me nurture my craft at a pace I was comfortable with. I wholly believe that agents add value- I needed that value to be tailored to me.


- I also wanted to know to what extent agents got involved in other writing projects I had going on so I asked for clarification on that.


- When talking to my agent, I told them about the other ideas I was dying to work on. I think this helped a lot. I didn't want to be a one-trick pony and I was very conscious that there were times when I came across as one. I wanted someone to see potential in my ideas and to dream big with me.


- One of the things my agent did, which I wholly appreciated, was that she put me in touch with two of her existing clients- one without a contract as of yet (no doubt she’ll get one soon) and another with a debut already out on a two book deal. I emailed both and they were incredibly frank about their experiences. They made me so excited about this whole journey and that's what you want, right?


- Somebody once told me that finding an agent was like dating, you just never know who you’ll click with. I’m glad I found somebody I could click with. Only intuition can guide you there.


- My last question was around my offer. I wanted to know her take on my decision. I'd thought about it a lot- my head’s actually spinning thinking back on it now. Personally, I knew I'd made the right choice for my book. I guess I just wanted to see if she saw it that way too. Thankfully, she did- another good indicator.



I think that's everything for now. The past few months have been a bit of a whirlwind. I'm in that period of rest between submitting a draft and waiting for feedback. I've also started a new job, which is keeping me busy and I'm beginning to realise what’s important to me. Right now, these are all good things.


I'm also incredibly excited to be working with Polly Nolan at the Greenhouse Literary Agency. I think we’ll make such an incredible team in shaa Allah. I can't wait to see what the future has in store for us. I guess only time will tell.

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