So, you’ve finally finished writing; you’ve buffed that manuscript so hard that you can see your disheveled writer-face in it, and you think the hard work is over. No such luck. It’s time to try and publish that big ol’ sucker, and that means that just maybe it’s time to think about contacting a literary agent.

Some say that finding an agent to accept your work is nearly as difficult as finding a publisher. Well, what we have here is an expert’s take on the process. So, if you think you’re ready to tread those murky waters in search of an agent, or if you’re merely wondering what it is that they do, then have a listen to what Sophie Hamley, Australian literary agent with Cameron’s Management, and president of the Australian Literary Agents Association, has to say.

We at Speakeasy recently had the opportunity to throw a few questions her way. In response she offered us tips on approaching agents and writing pitches and query letters; advice on preparing manuscripts; and insights into the role and work of the literary agent – invaluable reading if you’re thinking of approaching an agent, or if you’re just interested in the business of writing.

Sophie Hamley will be appearing at the 2012 GenreCon. For full details please see the website.

Speakeasy: For those who may not be familiar, can you please talk a little about the role of the literary agent?

Sophie Hamley (SH): In very simple terms, an agent manages the business of writing. An agent helps their writer find and keep publishing with a publisher – hopefully the right publisher! The agent also acts as an intermediary, to give the author guidance about the publishing process (if they’re new) and deal with any issues that arise – anything from the author not being sure what they’re being asked to do in an edit, to helping them prepare for publicity, to talking over a cover with them, and reviewing their contracts for them. Ideally we free up authors to concentrate on the creative part of their job, as being a writer and being able to manage a writing career are discrete activities.

Speakeasy: Numerous stories abound about various author/editor relationships; can you describe, in general terms, the author/agent relationship?

SH: It differs from author to author (and from agent to agent). Some authors like to be in regular contact and some do not; some like to be in contact only when there’s a project on the go; some like to be in contact even if there’s nothing on the go. Some agents give editorial advice and some do not, which can also influence what sort of relationship you have with an author. Ideally agents should be able to interact with each author as an individual and tailor the relationship accordingly.

Speakeasy: What kinds of authors and/or writing do you tend to work with? How do agents generally develop their lists?

SH: I look after fiction, non-fiction and children’s books, but not all flavours of those. Agents in Australia have to be more broad in their lists than agents in the US and UK, who can afford to specialise a bit more. Agents always have to take on work they respond to, so the first criterion is, ‘Do I love it?’ After that we have to be pragmatic about whether or not we can find a publisher for the work. For me a big consideration is whether or not the author is suited to the publishing process – are they going to be able to work with an editor and a publicist? Being able to behave professionally (or not) has an impact on the author’s trajectory through the publishing world.

Speakeasy: How can an author determine if an agent (or an agency) will be a good fit for them?

SH: Authors should research agencies before they submit to them. Quite often authors submit to agents who do not represent the sort of work they’ve written, and that wastes everyone’s time. Most agencies have their clients listed on their websites and they may also indicate what sorts of submissions they’re looking for. If they do not, the author is absolutely entitled to enquire before making a submission.

Speakeasy: At what point should an aspiring/emerging/established writer consider approaching an agent?

SH: When their work is as ready as they can possibly make it. That doesn’t mean polishing a manuscript to within an inch of its life – it means not being too impatient about sending it off. Don’t send a first draft of anything. Take the time to ensure that you have done the best you can by your own work. So many authors will do their work a disservice by not giving it time to mature. You can’t write a manuscript overnight – it’s worth taking a bit of extra time to make sure that manuscript is as good as it can be before sending it out.

Speakeasy: Can you outline some of the important things to keep in mind when submitting work to agents? What should writers look for, or be aware of?

SH: The most important thing is to follow the submission guidelines – if you don’t it looks like you either don’t care to or think that you don’t have to do what everyone else does. The guidelines are not frivolous – we all receive a lot of submissions and we need to have a way to compare them.

Also keep in mind that we do receive a lot of submissions and most of us are not reading them at the office – we’re reading them outside of work hours. We get through them as quickly as we can, so calling or emailing to remind us that we haven’t read yours yet is unnecessary. We understand that you want to know, but we’re not superhuman!

Speakeasy: Aside from writing a great book, what things should a writer absolutely do before submitting work to an agent? Can you outline some of the common mistakes that authors make when approaching agents?

SH: As mentioned above, the most common is that they’re impatient – they submit their work before it’s ready. There are lots of ways now for authors to ‘test’ their work – at writers’ centres, in courses. Yes, it’s time consuming; yes, it can be hard. But isn’t it worth it to take the time and do the best you can?

They’re also impatient when they submit – we state clearly in our guidelines when authors can expect to receive a response, but I regularly have authors contacting me before that time to ask why I haven’t responded to them yet. That doesn’t make me feel warmly about them. Agents are looking for great work but they’re also looking for great clients, because we expect to have that relationship for a while. All of your interaction with the agent – not just what’s in your submission – can influence our decision.

Speakeasy: Can you talk a little about pitching to agents and about what makes a good or bad author pitch?

SH: A good pitch tells me what I can expect to read in the manuscript and why I should read it, without resorting to hyperbole. It also shows me that the author can write – some authors complain about having to write query letters, but writers write and it would be unusual if they could only write one type of thing. I have yet to see a bad query letter and a brilliant manuscript – someone who can write a great story usually also has the facility to write a great pitch. But, like writing a manuscript, writing a pitch takes practice. It’s also good for your manuscript – if you can’t describe your story in one or two paragraphs in a way that makes me want to read it, how is any publisher going to be able to do that to persuade a reader to buy it? If an author has difficulty coming up with a pitch, it can indicate that there is actually a problem with the manuscript. If you think you’d be better off talking through the pitch, then say it out loud and record yourself doing it, then transcribe it.

Speakeasy: The Cameron’s Management website presents a range of genres that are accepted in terms of submissions. Obviously you pay close attention to market trends. What type of work is flooding the market right now (the website clearly states no vampire erotica)? Conversely, are there any particular areas or types of work that the market is particularly hungry for right now?

SH: There is far, far, far too much young adult fantasy being submitted now and publishers are saying that they want realistic YA, so any fantasy/paranormal YA would have to be super-extraordinary for me or a publisher to take it on. I also see a lot of chick lit and its variants, but it’s very hard to get that published (because it’s a crowded, but not very big, market).

The market doesn’t know what it’s hungry for – that’s the nature of markets. Demand is, to a great extent, often manipulated by supply. Even Fifty Shades of Grey does not necessarily indicate a hunger for BDSM erotica – it is Twilight fan fiction and that is likely where its ‘tipping point’ came from. If another writer were looking at it and trying to replicate its success, it would be impossible unless there was a very similar set of circumstances around another book’s publication. The other thing to bear in mind is that by the time a trend has been identified, it’s over. Writers should concentrate on writing the story that they really want to write and on making it as good as it can be, and worry about the market later. That is not to say that they shouldn’t look at genres and what’s popular, because the story that they want to write may well be in a genre and therefore they should pay attention to what’s around. But it’s very difficult to devote a lot of your time to writing a novel if your motives are purely cynical and, therefore, your heart’s not in it. In order to be able to commit to it, you have to really want to do it.

Speakeasy: How is the current state of flux in and around the publishing industry effecting the role of the literary agent? As an insider, can you offer us your perspective on the state of the Australian publishing industry?

SH: Our publishing industry, like that of almost every other country that has one, is in its state of greatest ever change. The jobs that all of us do – including writers’ – are changing. A couple of decades ago writing involved producing a story and leaving almost everything else to the publisher. Now writers need to be engaged with what’s happening in their genre, in the community around that genre, and with the world at large. That’s not a bad thing – it’s just a changing thing. And as writers’ jobs change, so must agents’ – in the future we are likely to do a lot of advising and managing and distributing knowledge, and the focus will be less on ‘the deal’. None of us really knows how it will end up. Like all change, it’s a bit scary but a bit exciting too.

Speakeasy: Is there anything else you might like to mention to our readers?

SH: There are a lot of people who write manuscripts – and send them to agents and publishers – but they don’t actually read a lot of (or any) books themselves. It shows. If you are not a passionate reader, you’re unlikely to make a great writer (the exception is people who have a great personal story that can be turned into a non-fiction book). If you’re a writer, other people’s writing is the context for your own work. Don’t compare yourself to other writers, though, and don’t engage in ‘If only’ statements (‘If only I had the talent of XXXX I would be a superstar’). If you have a story to tell, just write it. If you don’t have a story to tell, wait and see if you have one. But don’t force yourself to write a story just because you want to be a writer, because it is very difficult to make it if you’re working with ego alone – you need more. You need talent, yes, but that’s only part of what’s required – you also need to apply yourself. Talent will only take you so far. I see submissions from people who are clearly talented but they either give up too early (when they get feedback, usually, because they don’t want to redraft) or they think that their talent is enough and they don’t need to learn the craft of writing. People who get by on talent alone are rare and they are flukes. If you look at any of the writers you admire, it’s a safe bet that behind their success is countless hours of plain old work.

Julian Thumm is a freelance editor and writer. He has degrees from The University of Queensland and The University of Adelaide. He has worked with the Australian Journal of Communication, The University of Queensland Press, and Corporate Communication International through The City University of New York. He is currently based in Brisbane.

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