Following the inspiring talk she gave to London Library members last week, Emma Herdman, literary agent at Curtis Brown, joins The London Library blog to give her insights on how to get your words in print.
“When I do any event billed as ‘How to Get Published’, or a variation on this title, I always feel a bit of a fraud. If it was that simple to get published, then we wouldn’t have JK Rowling’s ‘rags to riches’ story, William Golding’s rejection letter for The Lord of the Flies which reads, ‘An absurd and uninteresting fantasy’, or TS Eliot’s rejection of Orwell’s ‘Trotskyite’ Animal Farm. However, what I think I can do – indeed, what I hope I do do – in these sessions, is to arm the aspiring author with the tools to make the best possible submission they can, and give them a broad understanding of how publishing works. With that in mind, and following on from some of the questions I was asked at the event last week, I’ve picked a few questions that come up regularly to answer…
1. Do you need an agent?
You’re forgiven for thinking that I say yes because I’m biased, working as I do at one of Europe’s oldest literary agencies. However, I say yes not (just) because of that, but for several objective reasons. First off, many publishers don’t accept unsolicited submissions; second, an agent has a broad overview of which editors are looking for what, so can do a targeted approach when it comes to sending out your manuscript; third, they know the industry standards when it comes to publishing contracts so are in a much stronger position to ensure you get a good deal.
They’re also a great sounding board – that objective, commercial eye who can help you with your ideas and writing. As much as some people submitting work to us may insist, I’m not convinced that your family member is ever going to be totally objective about your work…
2. How do you get an agent?
You submit a sample of your work to them – usually the first three chapters, or equivalent, with a cover letter and synopsis. The best place to find who to submit to is to look in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which is an invaluable tool. The other method I’m quite fond of is looking on the acknowledgements page of the books you feel are similar to yours and crossing your fingers that the author’s thanked their agent.
You then need to write your cover letter – an infamously tricky task – and all I’ll say here, briefly, is to keep it succinct, friendly but formal. Be sure to include any relevant information (writing courses, prizes, previous publications) if you have any, why you’re submitting to that agent specifically, a short pitch of the book (akin to what you’d find on the back of a book) and a very short bio of yourself.
3. What about self-publishing?
Self-publishing works really well if you’re willing to put the work in. I was at Harrogate Crime Writing Festival last weekend and heard author James Oswald – who originally self-published, and is now published by Penguin – talking about the trials of doing it all yourself. He clarified what I’ve always said about self-publishing: that you need to be your own editor, designer, marketing, publicity and sales person. It’s a huge amount of work to make a success of a self-published book, but there are of course key examples of where this has worked, from Oswald, to Hugh Howey to (dare I say it) EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey.
Those are broadly speaking the three questions I get asked the most, but if they don’t answer yours then there are huge numbers of resources out there on the internet, from blogs to official websites, and any number of writers groups across the country where you can swap tips. The road to publication is rarely a breeze, so arming yourself with as much information as you can will – one hopes – make it ever so slightly more navigable.”