In the second part of my 'How to Find the Perfect Agent' I asked my agent, Sarah Williams, a few questions about finding talent and what makes a manuscript stand out.
When I contacted Sarah she read my submission quickly, requesting the full manuscript within days. She then got back to me asking to have a chat as she thought it was 'wonderful'. I was on holiday in Italy, staying in a remote farmhouse, so we arranged to chat on the phone in a few days. I was seated at a cafe table in Lucca when she offered to represent me, the phone signal then cutting out! I danced through the tiny streets afterwards, a celebratory ice-cream in my hand and my family a few paces behind, pretending they weren't with me!
- Hi Sarah, thanks so much for answering my questions, I know a lot of writers often wonder how an agent sifts through the huge volume of submissions they receive. What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to authors submitting to you to ensure they stand out?
I can’t emphasise enough how important your cover letter is – and there is so much advice online about how to craft an excellent one. I don’t need to know what you like to do in your spare time or how long you’ve been married or where you live. I need you to pitch your book succinctly, tell me a little bit about it and where you see it on a bookshelf and why I’m the right agent for it. I’m not Sir or Agent or Editor - any submissions that don’t address me by name get deleted.
- Great advice. Thorough research is so important, and saves wasting everyone's time. So beyond getting that cover letter right, what was it about the authors you have on your books that made you choose to represent them?
For fiction, it can be any of a number of things that grab my attention and will make me fall in love with a book – from an incredible, vivid voice to a character I either love or hate or a world that I completely fall into and can’t stop thinking about even after I’ve turned the last page. For non-fiction, it is usually a story or an idea that is so unique, I want to keep reading more of what I’ve already seen and can immediately picture what a whole book would look like.
- What takes up most of your time as an agent?
I’d love to say lunches with editors and reading fabulous manuscripts, but in reality: answering emails. I am perpetually dealing with a range of things for my authors such as commentary on book jacket design to negotiating a film option to updating translation publishers on delivery dates to discussing publicity plans to fielding requests for speaking engagements. You name it, I’m probably dealing with it.
- Sounds fun but frantic! What do you do for me that I probably have no idea about?
Good question! I think the thing authors sometimes don’t realise (especially those who think they don’t need an agent!) is that even if I haven’t spoken to you in a few days, I have talked about you and promoted you in some way during my day-to-day dealings with other people. I’ve had lunch with an editor who is looking for something specific and I talk about you. I’ve just been called by a production company in LA and have told them all about you and your new book. I’ve emailed the new, fantastic review of your book to the translation publisher who is considering buying your book for their territory. The promotion is endless!
- So out of all that, what would you say is the best part of your job?
Making that phone call to say: you have a book deal or a film deal. Every single call like this I make is as thrilling for me as the very first one I ever made.
Believe me, it's just as exciting to receive those calls!
Thanks so much Sarah, for all your advice and the insight into the world of being a literary agent.