Having shared insights with Festival of Writing 2017 attendees, three agents – Catherine Cho, Sandra Sawicka, Susan Yearwood – sat down with us for an interview on getting agent submissions right, what they’re most moved by, and what they’re looking for in the slush pile.
What sort of books do you love receiving?
Catherine: I love books that are transportive; with layers and depth, with a compelling story at its heart, those are the novels that I remember.
Sandra: I love reading about things I don’t know. It could be a particular setting that is foreign to me, or a character with a weird profession, or completely different set of experiences … worlds for me to explore and learn.
Have you ever opened a new manuscript, read a single page, and thought ‘I’m going to end up making an offer on this’? What was it about that page which excited you?
Sandra: Yes, first line in fact. It was Paul Crilley’s Poison City where a talking dog tells his owner off for not providing his favourite tipple (sherry). I immediately thought – this is mad, I need to tell everyone.
Catherine: I have read manuscripts and been drawn in from the first page – usually from an incredible voice that immediately pulls you in. It’s an exciting feeling, especially after reading so many submissions and to discover something amazing, it’s a bit like falling in love.
Are you most drawn to beautiful writing? Or a wonderful plot? Or a stunning premise? Or anything else?
Susan: I’m drawn to writing that engages so completely that I’d rather read the submission than do anything else during the course of the day. A good plot and premise are difficult to realise fully without a good sense of place and character in any genre.
Catherine: Plot and premise are very important. What I notice is that often, first-time novels don’t have a strong narrative drive, and we need that central conflict or narrative momentum to create a compelling story.
Do you need good personal chemistry with your authors?
Sandra: I mean, it helps. I usually meet authors before I offer to represent them, to see whether we are on the same page about the edits but also to talk about how I work.
Tell us how you like writers to submit work to you and how you’d like them not to submit work?
Catherine: I prefer to receive my queries by email with the cover letter, synopsis, and first 3 chapters in the body of the email.
Susan: I prefer to see the initial 30-50 pages of a script (or a book proposal with a sample of writing at that length in the case of non-fiction submissions). The covering email (or letter if it’s impossible to send the submission by email) should be brief, with a line about the book, an explanatory paragraph with more detail about the script then a few lines about yourself.
Do you have any pet peeves about cover letters?
Catherine: I have a couple of pet peeves on cover letters (Dear Sir, in particular), and this is a personal one, but unnecessary autobiographical details. I think a novel, even if it is inspired by personal experiences, should stand for itself.
The grim stats: how many submissions do you get per week (or year)? And how many new authors do you take on?
Susan: I receive about 80-100 per month, depending on the month. How many new authors I take on depends on the submissions I receive. I am looking to take on more writers in adult fiction and non-fiction than I currently represent and introduce 9-12 age range children’s fiction and teen/YA fiction to my list.
Catherine: As I’m building my list, the majority of my writers are from the slush pile or writers I’ve approached from anthologies and writing journals. I receive 50-80 submissions a week, and because I read them all on my own, it means that I’m constantly behind!
When did you come into agenting? What did you do before? And why agenting?
Susan: In 2007, I founded Susan Yearwood Literary Agency (now Susan Yearwood Agency), having spent part of the early to mid-90s at Virago Books and Penguin. I spent some time outside of publishing and came back to books via agenting to represent the type of writer I enjoyed reading, which, I feel, is the most exciting part of being a literary agent.
Catherine: I came into agenting in a roundabout way. After university, I went to law school and tried working in the corporate law world. I then shifted to lobbying and worked for a lobbying firm in Washington DC. After a year at Capitol Hill, I realized that I’d rather lobby for something I believed in, and I decided to try and move to publishing. I hadn’t heard of agenting before, and I initially planned to find a job in editorial. I slept on friends’ couches in New York and had many coffee meetings with different people, and someone suggested that I try to find a job with a literary agency. It sounded like a dream job, and as a bonus, it would mean that I’d also be able to use my legal background. I was lucky enough to become a literary assistant and contracts manager at Folio Literary Management in New York, which was a great introduction to the industry. And then when I moved to London, I joined Curtis Brown as a literary assistant and have been working on building my list.
If you had one bit of advice to give to new writers, what would it be?
Catherine: My advice to new writers would be to keep writing! Writing and querying is a very subjective business, and the most important thing is to keep going, to keep learning and improving your craft.
Read more free advice on submitting to literary agents!