One question I get asked a lot is whether I have an agent. When I answer yes, the next question is ‘why?’. After that comes ‘how do I get one?’. Clearly I can answer the first one quite easily, but the second takes a bit more explanation and the third… well, it’s best to hand that over to the professionals.
Which is why I’ve invited Sophie Hamley*, literary agent extraordinaire with The Cameron Cresswell Agency, to the Fibro to answer the questions that I think are on every writer’s lips. She willingly obliged, and I didn’t even have to tie her to a chair. She’s that kind of woman.
What does an agent do and does every writer need one? Sophie Hamley: “In broad terms, an agent manages the business of writing so that a writer can get on with the actual writing. Agents place authors with publishers (or ‘make deals’, to be blunt); we look after contracts and administrative matters; we often talk through creative issues with authors; we also spend a lot of time dealing with publishers, because if we didn’t we wouldn’t be able to place our authors with those publishers. Not all writers need agents. Some writers are very comfortable managing the business; some just don’t see the point. And that’s fine – agents really only want to have clients who actually want agents!”
How do I find one?
SH: “The Australian Literary Agents’ Association has a list of all of its member agents; the Australian Writers Marketplace is also a terrific resource. Before a writer submits to an agent it’s worth doing some research: go to their websites and look at the authors they already have. If one agent only manages non-fiction and you’re writing fantasy, it would be a waste of time to submit to that agent. Only submit to agents who are looking after your type of work, and if you’re not sure if they are or not – ask. Agents often get clients through referrals, too, so if you know a writer who has an agent, ask them about their agent (in a polite fashion, of course). I can’t emphasise strongly enough how good it is for writers to ‘network’ with each other – if only for the creative and moral support.”
What are the biggest mistakes that people make when they contact an agent?
SH: “They don’t read the submission guidelines, or they ignore them. Nothing tells me to reject faster than someone who clearly just doesn’t care enough to even write a half-decent letter, because if they don’t care about the letter, they probably haven’t taken any care with the manuscript. Some writers complain about having to write letters and synopses but, well, how else is an agent meant to be introduced to your work? We can’t just read full manuscripts – there’s not enough hours in a century for that.”
What are agents looking for – what will make them take on a writer as a client?
SH: “The most important thing is the writing, of course – I want to take on someone when I get really excited reading their work. The next most important thing is professionalism – and the two often go together. It’s rare to come across a really exciting manuscript that isn’t also accompanied by a really good letter, and by professional behaviour from the writer in subsequent communications. The agent-author relationship is primarily a business relationship, so it needs to be professional on both sides. I wouldn’t expect an author to want me to be their agent if I behave in an unprofessional manner.”
Are you always looking for new clients? Even with the publishing industry so tough right now?
SH: “Yes, but I can’t take on many each year – mainly because many of my existing clients are always writing new books! But I always keep a look-out – I work in this industry because I passionately love books and stories – fiction, non-fiction, children’s, I love it all. So I don’t want to miss out on chances to find new fantastic stories. Yes, the industry’s tough. It’s always been tough. Humans will always need stories, though. We just have to work out how they’re going to be delivered and find their audience in the decades to come.”