How to get an agent for your thriller

It’s easy to think that because you’re writing a crime novel or thriller, you need an agent who represents crime thrillers.

I write crime thrillers myself, yet my agent represents Hilary Mantel, and other esteemed literary authors, authors of different genres. You’d think he wouldn’t have been the right person to represent a gritty crime thriller, yet he and his team sold my work to markets in Europe and North America.

As such, you needn’t get hung up on genre. A large majority of all agents have eclectic, varied tastes. They like balance and diversity in their lists. That can mean if you go to a ‘leading’ crime agent, you may get shorter shrift than if you go to an agent whose list happens to be a bit underweight in that area – your book could be just what they’re looking for to redress the balance.

The secret to getting an agent

What are they really looking for?

Nevertheless, it makes sense to target your submissions, to know you’re writing to an agent who likes crime fiction. It’s normally fine to call up an agency to say, ‘I’ve written a book about [your subject]. Which of your agents would be most appropriate for this?’ You should keep your enquiry very brief, business-like and polite, but you may get useful information, the politer you are. (I did. My first novel was rejected by Curtis Brown. Then a receptionist told me the MD there loved my kind of book, and I resubmitted it to him, so the book was accepted almost straightaway.)

A little targeting, then, is fine, just don’t overdo it. Other good tips include:

  • Check your favourite authors and see who represents them. (Use author websites or acknowledgments pages.) This is worth doing even if your favourite author writes in a different genre from you. If you and the relevant agent happen to share a taste for a certain kind of writing, it’s a fair bet you have some overlap. Try it.
  • Check out who represents good but lesser known authors in your category. If you are writing a conspiracy thriller and you write to Dan Brown’s agent, you’re almost certainly wasting your time, since that agent’s desk will be awash with conspiracy thrillers. Also, anyone who represents Dan Brown is likely to have the bar set high. If you find talented authors who have not yet made the big breakthrough, those agents are probably far better targets for your submission letters.

If you still think that you’re somehow going to be disadvantaged if you don’t have a Very Well-Known Thriller Agent on your side … think about this:

  • Very Well-Known Thriller Agents have long client lists (of over a hundred names) and you will be the least important person on it. Is that what you want?
  • The Very Well-Known Thriller Agent is probably not looking for new writers at all. Most of the additions to their list will be already established writers who are moving home for some reason. Lots of ‘big’ agents take on very few genuine debut authors.
  • Selling a book isn’t rocket science. If an agent is competent enough to sell (say) a literary novel well, they’re competent enough to sell pretty much any other sort of novel, too. It’s just not that technical. If an agent’s contacts are weak in one area, a couple of phone calls is all it will take to make the required connections. It isn’t that hard for a well-connected agent to locate the people they need to approach. (Two exceptions: fantasy or sci-fi and children’s fiction. Those two markets are reasonably specialist.)
  • Publishers know the next wonderful book could come from anyone. When Bill Massey, my editor from Orion, opened a manuscript from Bill Hamilton (my agent), it just didn’t make a difference to him whether Bill Hamilton had an amazing track record in crime fiction. Only two things matter at that point: (1) the editor loves the book, (2) enough other people in the company love it, too. That’s it. That’s all that ever matters. The name of the agent making the submission matters for maybe half a minute. Then the editor starts reading the manuscript and the agent becomes irrelevant. All that matters is your writing.

You can read up on tips for writing crime and thrillers, or more on approaching agents, but either way – best of luck.