Meet UK literary agents at the Festival of Writing (& Tor Udall’s story)

It’s not easy wowing literary agents. With one email, just a letter, a synopsis, and your first chapters to go on.

A great literary agent submission pack makes a difference, but agencies in London are often inundated and it’s not uncommon for writers to not hear back.

UK literary agents are looking for new writers, though – and you’re that bit harder to ignore face-to-face.

(It’s not to say you can harass agents. You couldn’t phone an agent to ask a meeting unless you were a client – nor is it an idea to thrust a manuscript under a nose at first chance. Nor send gimmicky gifts to UK literary agents’ offices. This has happened.)

What you need is a chance to connect authentically, in a professional setting. With an agent there who is open and expecting to talk to you.

Here’s how to make the most of the Festival of Writing in York and meet literary agents for yourself – plus an incredible story from one author who had several UK literary agents jumping to represent her after her time at the Festival of Writing.

Who’s the Festival of Writing really for?

If you’ve got a manuscript written and want to publish – and you’re ready to talk to editors, agents and book doctors about it – the Festival of Writing is for you. And whilst you’ll find great workshops on improving writing and craft (as on publishing topics), agent 1-to-1s are part of your ticket.

So the focus is on publication, whether it’s traditional or self-publishing you’d like.

You’ll be a writer looking to pitch an unpublished manuscript. You’ll be able to send competition entries on time for judges to review, opening chapters in time for your chosen agent to look at before the day. It means you’ll get full value out of your Festival ticket.

If you’re also pondering self-publishing (our Festival workshops cover self-publishing), professional feedback is still vital before you self-publish a book. A literary agent, book doctor or editor 1-to-1 at the Festival can give that feedback.

And if you’re not from the UK – that’s okay. We’ve had many writers fly in for this event. Just bear in mind it’s literary agents from the UK you’ll meet at the Festival.

If you’ve just started writing, or you haven’t got a manuscript ready, or you couldn’t get it ready in time for the next Festival, this is an annual event, and one to plan for – you’ll want to have your writing ready as it can be.

It could be the sort of event to write towards in a year. And you can follow us on Twitter or join our mailing list for ‘earlybird’ updates each year, too.

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How prepared should I be for the Festival of Writing?

On one hand – there’s no need to be worried about presenting your agent pitch. The only thing that ever persuades an agent is the quality of your manuscript. Think of the pitch simply as a gentle way of introducing the rest of the discussion.

1-to-1 sessions are also the most formal part of proceedings, but we hope you will chat to agents over tea or in the evening, as well as other writers. Some of the best contacts can be made this way.

All the same, you’re investing in your writing career.

Aside from 1-to-1s, you’ll enter writing competitions (deadlines before September), and shortlisted entries are read out for literary agents in the room. Past Festival visitors have been offered representation because of these things.

Your agent submission packs also need to be with your chosen agents before the Festival itself, so they need time to read your work over before 1-to-1s. So it’ll help you to prepare at least a few months in advance.

Be as prepared as you can, because the Festival of Writing gets you noticed – as happened for author Tor Udall.

Tor came to the Festival of Writing in 2013 and A Thousand Paper Birds went on to be published with Bloomsbury.

Tor Udall’s story (Warning: Attending the Festival of Writing could seriously change your life)

The truth is I was terrified.

My comfort zone is a quiet room with only my characters and words for company, so the idea of spending three days with hundreds of writers I didn’t know felt challenging.

Apart from having to face industry professionals, there was also the prospect of the Gala Dinner. When I followed participants on the forum discussing dresses they were going to wear (taffeta was mentioned), I definitely wobbled.

But I was determined to do something radical.

I had been writing for 15 years, been close to publication a couple of times, but the overall message I was receiving was ‘you have talent, you write beautifully, BUT…’

Hearing I had potential in my early twenties was lovely. Hearing I still had potential 15 years later was frustrating and I realised that if I was going to cross that golden threshold I had to do something different.

I had submitted my third novel to 5 agents in June 2013. After receiving silence, I booked my place at York. The week before the Festival, three of the original agents got in touch, saying they were interested.

So I arrived at #FOW13 on a high and had an absolute blast.

I learnt so much from the workshops and loved meeting writers from other genres. The biggest discovery was that I actually ENJOYED ‘small talk’ if it was about books. I was in my element.

During the weekend, I met two agents who both asked to read the manuscript. I returned from the rollercoaster, proud that I had pushed my courage to the limit, and as I sat there on the Sunday evening I had no idea that the real ride was only just beginning.

The agents from the Festival read my manuscript within 24 hours and both offered representation.

I then returned to the original 3 and they offered representation too.

Overwhelmed, I contacted two people I had met in York: the wonderful book doctor, Andrew Wille, and the fabulous Francesca Main from Picador. Both offered advice without being directive and both suggested that I contact other agents too. This led to a ridiculous number of agents saying yes and my diary became unrecognisable with daily meetings. I was in the centre of a ‘buzz’ and I realised that people were now reading the manuscript differently with a starting point of ‘how can I help make this work?’

The doors I had been knocking on for 15 years were crashing down around me.

I now had a new problem. Who was I going to pick?

All the agents were smart, passionate, experienced and a delight to be with. I would have happily worked with each of them as they all brought something unique to the book and showed great insight. By this point, several successful writers were also getting in touch to recommend their agent or offer advice – and I remain stunned and humbled at the support I received from so many professionals who took time out of their busy schedules to help.

But it did get to a point where I was scared to look in my inbox to see which celebrity was there that morning: ‘BOO!’

However the overall message I received was clear. I needed to listen out for that infamous ‘click’ … and to trust my instincts.

When I walked into the ANA offices, Jenny Savill led me into the boardroom where I found a pictorial homage to my book spread out on the table. There were not only photographs of the novel’s location, but print-outs of music I mention and images of motifs that proved to me she understood the subtleties of what I was trying to do. She then introduced me to her colleagues and they had read the book too.

Despite being in the hectic run up to Frankfurt, each of them stopped to meet me and I was so overwhelmed that I walked into a glass door. A classic Bridget Jones moment. …

Had I heard a click? There had been a symphony of castanets. But still I wasn’t sure. How could I possibly turn down the others who I also adored? But I kept coming back to Jenny who had shown me that she understood the book, and what I’d been trying to do, better than I did.

The key moment came when I drove past a poster of an NME cover showing David Bowie surrounded by origami birds. Both of them key motifs in the book. It was the strangest synchronous moment … and the first person I wanted to call to was Jenny.

And that was that.

It was hard to let the others down – all who had put so much energy and belief into the book – and of course I would have loved to mesh them into one uber-agent! But this was the real world and after all the excitement, my suitors rode into the sunset to find other books to fall in love with, other writers to court. In the ensuing silence, I was left standing opposite the one I had chosen, the two of us looking into each other’s eyes, thinking of the years and challenges ahead of us and saying. ‘Okay, let’s make this happen.’

So then I had the draft of my life ahead of me. But I was back in my ‘happy place’, playing around with words and asking these wonderful, frustrating characters to reveal themselves to me just a little bit more. And as I worked, I didn’t only have the brilliant support of Jenny … but all the agents’ wise voices in my head.

And I feel hugely supported and blessed.

None of this would have happened without the Festival of Writing.

They were the spark that lit the fire.

I also can’t thank Andrew and Francesca enough for their unbiased support – I couldn’t have got through the rollercoaster of these crazy months (or had so much fun) without them.

There are still many more hurdles to jump. But I have learnt an important lesson … and ironically, it’s a lesson I needed to learn for my characters too.

If you do the thing you’re most frightened of, you might just get what you want.

11 tips for making the most of the Festival of Writing

  1. Be brave. As Tor said – if you do the thing you’re most frightened of, you might just get what you want.
  2. Make sure to locate the front desk. This is where you’ll check in and can ask your questions during the weekend.
  3. Write down your 1-to-1s and keep these with your programme. This way you have your map, timetable and 1-to-1s all in one place!
  4. Be professional. We’ve mentioned it before, but it’s very important! First impressions really do count, and although this is a fun weekend, it’s the opportunity to meet UK literary agents with whom you may want a working relationship – so don’t just thrust your manuscript at them! They are people, too, so have a chat.
  5. Make the most of tea breaks, meals and drinks. These are all great times for networking and if you’re professional and polite, industry professionals will enjoy talking to you.
  6. Bring bottled water. Although there’s plenty of tea breaks, it can get hot and you’ll be going between workshops and 1-to-1s. Make sure you’re properly hydrated!
  7. Wear comfy shoes. Between workshops, panels and 1-to-1s, there’s lots of walking around. Make sure you’re comfortable in what you’re wearing!
  8. Take a walk if you need a few quiet minutes.
  9. Bring a bag with some empty space. There’s the opportunity to buy books over the weekend and maybe even have them signed by their authors. Leave some room to take your books home!
  10. Remember to ‘dress to impress’ for the Gala on Saturday! We’ve had kilts, black ties and ball gowns. On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve also had jeans, nice shirts and tops. Wear whatever you’re comfortable in to bring a bit of sparkle to your evening.
  11. Have fun and enjoy your weekend!

Find out more about the Festival of Writing!

A Thousand Paper Birds (Bloomsbury) was longlisted for the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award and has been translated in six languages. The paperback was released 3 May 2018. You can follow Tor’s journey on Twitter and at her website.

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