• Mark Stibbe

Finding a Literary Agent - or, Hunting Down the Golden Hare.

Some of you may remember Kit Williams' famous (some would say infamous) bestselling picture book, Masquerade. Published in 1979, it sparked a treasure hunt the length and breadth of the UK when the author set up a series of clues in the book's pictures that were said to lead to a buried, bejeweled, golden hare. Treasure seekers had to find and decipher these clues and then, on solving the puzzle, locate and dig up the hare-shaped, ceramic casket containing the prize. In 1982, the treasure was discovered in public land in Ampthill Park. When it was sold at auction in 1988, it went for £31,900 at Sotheby's in London.

When it comes to choosing a great publishing option for your book, you'll often need to locate and secure the services of a literary agent. This is easier said than done. Finding a good agent can be as tough as finding the golden hare. It takes a considerable amount of research, perseverance, skill and hard work if you're to find the person who will best represent you to publishers. These days, if you're going to publish your book through a mainstream and established publishing house, you're going to need an agent. They are a crucial mediator between authors and publishers. Finding your agent ... well, it's tough. The following are steps that will help you find the treasure.

Step 1: Know your Genre

Let's say you're writing a fictional story (or a series of such stories) for the age-group known as MG (Middle Grade). That's the 9-13 age range. Before, during and after the writing process, you must make yourself familiar with (a) the books that publishing houses have captured in the past, and (b) the books that publishing houses are looking for in the future. The best way of doing this is to read The Bookseller magazine and to attend fairs where stories written for your age group are being auctioned by literary agents and bought by publishers. For the MG (9-13) age range, The Bologna Children's Book Fair is the no 1 place. The Bookseller provides reports each year.

Step 2: Spot the Gaps

As you do your research, you'll become aware of what's already been done - and probably done to death - and what hasn't been done. So, for example, if you're writing for Middle Graders in 2020, you'll notice that there haven't been many stories written by or about underrepresented minorities within society. You'd probably be wise therefore not to write stories about white, middle-class kids! We've all had enough of those. Well, most of us. Publishers are looking for stories that showcase and celebrate diversity. They are not looking for the further adventures of the Famous Five or the Pevensie children from the Narnia stories! Today, MG publishers are looking for:

a) Stories for the older MG, younger YA age group - for the 11-13s. This is known as "tween fiction" and those who read them are referred to as "upper MG."

b) Stories that champion diversity. Here's a telling quote from Reiko Davis of DeFiore and Co: “We have bemoaned the whiteness of children’s books for a long time, but the conversation has taken on a new life, and it’s been wonderful to witness more writers of colour and books with diverse characters being published and celebrated. There is still work to be done, and progress is slow. But when I think of recent MG books like Brown Girl Dreaming (Jacqueline Woodson), The Thing About Luck (Cynthia Kadohata), The Crossover (Kwame Alexander), George (Alex Gino) or The Distance Between Us (Reyna Grande), I’m encouraged that this movement will continue.”

c) Stories that move readers deeply. Publishers are looking for stories that change the conversations that kids have with each other and their parents. This means they don't want stories that are formulaic and predictable (i.e. regurgitating old conversations and themes), but rather original and topical, addressing issues that matter to kids today, such as the impact of global warming on the environment (to take just one example), and doing so through characters and plots that really move them.

Step 3. Look for Ambassadors

Let's imagine that you've written an authentic and fresh story that fills the gaps in your genre. Now you need to find a literary agent who is on the hunt for what you've got! So, head for the websites of reputable literary agencies. When you do, you'll find that most of the people who work for these agencies specialize in different age groups and genres. You need to find the person or people who state on their particular page, or in their specific bio, that they are looking for MG titles. So, if you head for the Madeleine Milburn Agency (top agency of 2018, why not?!), you'll find Alice Sutherland-Hawes in the "Meet the Team" section. This is what she says she wants from authors:

"Actively looking for: Middle Grade for 9-12 (standalone and with series potential); tween stories to fit between MG and YA; quirky picture book illustrators; non-rhyming picture book texts; brilliant world-building; diverse and marginalized authors across all ages and genres."

If that's what you've written, BOOM! You've got your first potential ambassador - the person who's going to fly the flag for you with publishers.

Step 4: Contact your Agents

I say agents (plural) because the likelihood is that you're going to have to persevere. When I was a small boy, my father watched from the window of our house as I taught myself to ride a bike on a nearby football pitch. He saw me fall off time and time again until I eventually mastered it. When I came back home, bloodied and bruised, he applauded me for my determination. He drilled into me the lesson, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try and then try again." Contacting agents is a bit like learning to ride a bike. It takes time and determination to learn how to find and approach them. How, then, do you approach them:

a) Pitch your Book. Your pitch should be in a letter and it should be concise, courteous, confident and compelling. Don't write more than one side of A4. Spell out what's unique about your book, how it fills the gaps in your genre, why it is exactly what they're looking for, and do all this passionately. Don't be cocky. Be confident.

b) Provide a Synopsis. Make sure you include a one-page summary of the book. There's an art to this just as there's an art to writing your pitch. I'll show you how to do this in future blogs. A literary agent will want to have at least some handle on the main characters and incidents of your story, not least so that they can see that the claims in your pitch are backed up by what you've actually written.

c) Include a Sample. This should be the first three or four chapters, so make sure they're the best they can be. Don't tolerate typos. If necessary, have someone edit these chapters and have lots of trusted and wise supporters of yours read and comment on them. Agents do like to hear that you've been accountable in your writing. It shows humility and a willingness to learn.

HOT TIP: Your best resource for finding the names and addresses for literary agents is the Writers' and Artists' Year Book, which you really need to buy each year. There are often very useful articles in here about pitching to agents, writing your synopsis etc. However, please note that there is a special edition for those who write books for kids:


Finding a literary agent is a quest, a little bit like a treasure hunt. And of course this task only really applies if you want to use a traditional publisher. Having an agent is not necessary for self-publishing. And you won't need an agent to approach an Indie Publisher either. You can usually submit your work directly to them. Traditional publishers do not, however, consider "unsolicited submissions" as a general rule. In other words, they don't look at submissions from authors themselves, without representation from a literary agent.

None of what I've written guarantees success. It's pretty ruthless out there. I've been writing books for a quarter of a century and I can say without reservation that the landscape has never been tougher for prospective authors.

However, if you are prepared to try, try and try again, you may just find the golden hare!


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