Transparency, targeting, Twitter: what it means to be a literary agent now

Transparency, targeting, Twitter: what it means to be a literary agent now

When I first worked in agenting, all submissions from authors were sent in hard copy: towering piles of envelopes containing the first 50 pages with SAEs enclosed for rejection slips. Indeed, many agents still submitted to publishers that way, biking the printed copy round to their offices and waiting for the offer to come in. In those days the book fairs really were where you could get your hands on a hot book – literally – coming to the agent’s table to physically read a proposal before putting an offer in.

Ten years later, it is undeniable that the face of agenting has changed hugely: we all accept email submissions for one, we sit on panels, we talk on Twitter, and we have brought the ‘dark art’ of agenting fully into the light. In many ways, of course, our roles have remained the same: we have extensive publishing contacts, are expert negotiators, we work hard to foster new talent, and to support long-lasting and successful writing careers.

But unlike in the past, when some agencies would only accept submissions via referral, or from those with publishing credits, agencies are now much more open to finding new talent than ever before. We interact now far more with unpublished writers: teaching or giving guest lecturers to writing groups, or using the #askagent hashtag to answer questions on Twitter. Social media contests such as PitMad allow the authors to tweet their pitch, and for interested agents to favourite those they like, and request the manuscripts.

One of the reasons for co-founding Caskie Mushens with Robert Caskie, was because we recognised that agents are having to change with the times – and we want to be known for our proactive approach to signing new talent. As well as reading our submissions daily, and interacting with writers online, we also approach prospective new clients based on articles we have read, or radio pieces, or even because we think they are funny on Twitter (which is how I came to sign @SoVeryBritish). It was key for us to make sure our website and submissions guidelines were user friendly, sharing more information than ever before about what we do for their clients, and the type of clients we are looking for.

In the past, authors had to rely on buying printed books which listed the agencies in the UK and how to approach them. But agenting is now increasingly transparent. You can google agencies in the UK, and within a few minutes have a ready prepared submissions list. Rather than just sending to a generic mailing address, you can target your approach hugely: choosing the individual agent based on their client list, their sales track record, their interests and even their personality. Sites such as Agent Hunter, or QueryTracker, allow authors to record their own experiences of agents, whether it is what they seem to be focusing on in their client list, or how long it takes them to reply to submissions. Advice abounds on Twitter and forums (some accurate, some not so much!) as to how to make your submission stand out, or the best questions to ask an agent who offers you representation.

Harnessing social media is also an incredibly useful tool for agents. Twitter, tumblr or blogs can allow agents the space to give detailed manuscript wishlists, to debunk publishing myths, or to share positive news from their authors. Prospective clients now have a real insight into what agents do, and to who we are as people: which means they can target their submissions much more closely. In a way, we market ourselves to potential writers now, often competing to sign authors and to attract the best novels. Readers are now used to having access to their favourite writers online, and this desire for access also translates to agents and editors as well.

At Caskie Mushens we work hard to find new talent – be it on the slushpile or from a connection on Twitter – alongside supporting our current client list. We actively seek new opportunities for our clients, and investigate non-traditional income streams for them, from digital publishing, to writing novelisations of videogames, to merchandising and graphic novels. As publishing continues to adapt to new technologies, agents will continue to be on the forefront: protecting IP, but also adapting ourselves to the changing face of the industry.