How literary agents work (from Conville & Walsh)

David Llewelyn wrote this piece (abridged for us) as a reader at Conville & Walsh. It proves that literary agents really, really do want new clients and they really, really do think hard and intelligently about how to find and recruit them.

Reader reports

In 2011 we received just under 4,800-part manuscripts via the Submissions Department. As I’ve said in earlier accounts, these are what we consider our “talent pool”, which others – wrongly, in my opinion – insist upon calling “the slush pile”. Out of that total, I was able to recommend that 144 typescripts were worth further scrutiny by our agents.

Those recommendations came from right across the spectrum: from non-fiction, children’s and young adult, to commercial and literary fiction. Of the 4,800 or so received, most manuscripts were of middling quality, and in these very competitive times we must concentrate on those manuscripts that are felt to be exceptional in terms of writing, and very near the finished article.

We endeavour to be as positive as possible about those that don’t meet our criteria, and I hope that we’ve been able to provide some useful guidance and technical advice to enable a number of authors to improve their manuscripts.

The secret to getting an agent

Free submission pack template

We are always open to receive fresh drafts of previously seen work. The door is never shut. We sincerely regret that we are not able to offer more in the way of guidance to even more authors, but we simply don’t have the resources to deal with more manuscripts on a personal level. In the coming year, however, we are pledged to improve our communication and advice to unsuccessful authors, as we are obviously anxious not to lose contact with authors who fall only just short of industry standards.

A number of authors are still under active consideration, but of the debut authors recommended by me in 2011, three achieved publishing deals, published in the spring of 2012.

It may be interesting to authors to know that those three recommendations came nearly twelve months ago. So why the long delay between being accepted for representation by the agency and eventual publication?

Well, firstly there is the careful work undertaken between agent and author further to shape the final draft so that both are as confident as they can be. When the book is as good as it can be, it’s ready to submit to editors. Things can move very quickly if more than one publisher is interested and a buzz of excitement starts to build. But this can also be a slow process, involving both author and agent doing the rounds of publishers until a book finds an appreciative home. The publishing house then takes over, with further editorial work, involvement with the marketing and publicity departments and finally arriving at proof copies for final scrutiny. It is pretty rare that a book is published within a year of submission to editors.

Later this year we’re planning to provide a case study of a book from the moment of submission to us all the way through to the appearance of a book in the shops, to give a fuller picture of how the whole process works.

In the meantime, what were the three-talent pool first novels published in 2012?

  • The Sea on Fire by Howard Cunnell (agent, Patrick Walsh). Publication by Picador on 15th March 2012.
  • The Other Half of Me by Morgan McCarthy (agent, Jo Unwin). Publication by Headline on 24th May 2012.
  • The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman (agent, Susan Armstrong). Publication by Doubleday UK on 26th April 2012.

These three wonderful debut novels – each so strong, yet each so very different – maintain my annual average.

Over the years, I’ve tried to work out if there are any common factors to the successes via the Submissions Department at Conville & Walsh. What’s the magic? Is a good plot an imperative, or dialogue, atmosphere, structure, voice, or genre?

In the books that have passed through my hands to publication, there seem to be two stand-out elements: what I would term narrative flow (which is closely allied to narrative pace) and memorable characters. For me, the narrative has to have a large presence, and although there have to be digressions from that narrative throughout, if an author digresses too much a novel will start to fall apart. Balancing narrative flow whilst maintaining narrative pace is far from easy to achieve.

As for characters I can, without having to think too hard, immediately recall a host of people who have entered my life through first novels in the last few years, and who are now firmly embedded in my psyche.

So send in your books.

In closing, I can only thank authors, and the equally talented others not mentioned in this note, for enhancing the quality of my reading experience and for allowing me to enter the worlds of their imaginations.

The secret to getting an agent

Free submission pack template