Writing Qs: How Do I Get An Agent?

Over the past decade, I’ve been a frequent speaker at book events and festivals, bringing me into contact with a great many readers, as well as writers in the early stages of their own careers.  Naturally, lots of ‘how to’ questions arise, and in this short series of interviews I hope to answer some of those questions, to encourage more writers to take their work seriously and follow their ambitions. 
To kickstart the series, I am delighted to welcome book champion Kate Shaw to share her words of wisdom on the subject of finding (and keeping!) a literary agent.

Interview with Kate Shaw, The Shaw Agency, London

Kate Shaw has been a literary agent since 2001, and she founded The Shaw Agency in 2019. I first met Kate ten years ago, when I was on the brink of releasing my debut novel, and through a series of fortunate events we were reacquainted several years later, and I have had the pleasure of Kate’s support and representation since 2011. Kate represents writers of literary and commercial fiction, children’s books from age 7+, and non-fiction across a variety of genres including politics and current affairs.  Her passion is nurturing new literary talent.

Kate, thank you for so generously agreeing to share your insights with us today.  Firstly, perhaps you could tell our readers exactly what a literary agent can do for a writing client?
I think of myself as a combination of the following: a talent spotter, a literary midwife, a connector of people and their stories; a tough negotiator, a champion and nurturer of writers, a simultaneous translator between writer and publisher/producer, a strategist and most of all, a tireless and passionate advocate of my authors and their books.

What type of writers do you represent?  Any we have heard of?
Fiction has always been central to my list and among the novelists I proudly represent are: Isabel Ashdown (Little Sister, published in 8 territories); Susan Elliot-Wright (Sunday Times bestselling The Things We Never Said, translated into several languages); and Melanie Finn (whose debut was longlisted for the Orange Prize and IMPAC Award).  Children’s and YA books have also always been an important part of my list and include: Holly Smale, (Geek Girl series, sold 3.4+ million copies worldwide, translated into 29 languages, won the Waterstone’s Best Book for Teens Prize); James Nicol (The Apprentice Witch series, translated into several languages, optioned for TV by Lime Pictures); Alan Macdonald (Dirty Bertie series, with illustrator David Roberts, translated into 21 languages); Vashti Hardy (Brightstorm, Independent Booksellers’ Book of the Season and shortlisted for the Books are My Bag Readers Award, translated into several languages); and Lucy Adlington (The Red Ribbon, translated into several languages, nominated for the Carnegie Medal). Since 2018 I’ve had a First Look Deal with the Golden Egg Academy an organisation which gives editorial advice to aspiring children’s and teen authors.

In non-fiction, my clients include: Ian Cobain (Cruel Britannia: A Secret History Of Torture, Paddy Power Debut Political Book of the Year), Alex Crawford (multi-award winning Sky News journalist, Gaddafi’s Hat, optioned for TV by World Pictures) and Andy Seed (Silly Book of Side-Splitting Stuff, Blue Peter Book Award Winner).

We’ve all heard that literary agents are inundated daily with new submissions, and unpublished writers live in fear of the dreaded slushpile!  What chance does a new writer have of getting signed with an agent – and what can they do to improve those chances?
It’s true that I take on only a handful of new writers a year, and yet receive dozens of new submissions a week.  I don’t get time to read these during my working week or even most evenings – my client’s business must take precedence.  
So, I advise: research, research, research.  Make sure you know a bit about the agents you are submitting to from their websites, twitter feeds and articles like this and make sure you submit the material they are asking for in the way they ask for it.  Bending the rules (e.g. sending emails when they ask for paper/post submissions, adding two extra chapters when they ask for three, chasing replies when they ask you not to) are more likely to irritate than to win you attention. 

Next, make sure your cover letter is well written, interesting and concise – and relevant to the submission. This is your ‘hello’ so make it work!  Have you any professional writing credits such as publication in magazines or plays read on radio?  Have you won any prizes for your writing?  Is there a pertinent and interesting reason you chose that subject e.g. were you a psychiatric nurse whose subject is mental illness?  Put those things in the short cover letter.  I have had lots of unexpected finds in my career. The slushpile is my friend (sometimes!)

When you receive new submissions, how important is the accompanying synopsis?  Any tips you can offer?
I never look at the synopsis first, I read the chapters.  Afterwards, though, it can be useful, and I prefer them to be no longer than a page, showing where the story goes but not giving too much away.  For plot driven genre fiction this is particularly important.  Interestingly, I find them more useful than I used to, perhaps through experience: so many times I’ve liked something in the opening chapters but the synopsis didn’t sound interesting and when I ask to read the rest I discover that the novel realises exactly the weaknesses of the synopsis.  That said, when I have completely fallen in love with an opening I may not even look at the synopsis before asking to see the rest.  The opening three chapters of Holly Smale’s debut, which became the international bestseller, Geek Girl, hooked me immediately and I asked to see the rest in a heartbeat.  I didn’t even notice there wasn’t much in the synopsis. The reason? Holly hadn’t written the whole novel yet.

Of course, getting an agent isn’t the end of the line.  Once they’ve secured a literary agent, what more can a writer do to strengthen their chances of getting published?
Make sure you choose your agent carefully.  Some employ a splatter technique, taking on lots of new projects a year and dropping those that aren’t bought straight away.  So do your research and don’t be afraid to ask them questions about what you can expect from them, what their success rate is etc before signing up. 

The next thing to consider is your social presence and your social media presence.  You’re officially a writer now, soon to be a published author.  You are entering a new network and expanding your contacts within this community is vital.  This might be through membership of organisations such as SCBWI (for children’s writers), attendance of writers’ festivals and book events, and also via good use of social media. 

Social media is now pretty much vital for an author to engage in. If you are a relative newbie at this, don’t be afraid to ask your agent, your publishers (when you have them), fellow writers … everyone … for advice, encouragement, tips.  Several agencies like ours will have sheets of handy tips about SEO and on-line platforms, and will make this topic part of their ongoing conversations with their authors.  And it really is a conversation: I can learn as much from clients as I am teaching them.  Perhaps most importantly of all, work incredibly hard at your writing and editing. Be patient and responsive to feedback; and flexible, while also of course being true to yourself and your creativity.

What makes for a good agent/author relationship?
First, a passion for and commitment to the author’s writing.  Next mutual respect, honesty and shared attitudes towards professionalism, promptness and hard work.   Finally, on both sides: thoughtfulness, a good sense of humour and graciousness.

Some of our readers will be interested in a career in publishing.  Can you tell us about your route into becoming a literary agent?
I left university during the recession of the 1990s and applied for hundreds of jobs before I was hired by a PR agency in the City. I knew it wasn’t me but I also learned important skills there about how publicity works and about being part of a team.  I continued to apply for publishing and media jobs and finally I got a break as an assistant to a literary agent, part time. It was risky – the pay was terrible – but I asked everyone I could in the industry how to get more work and soon was hired as marketing and publicity manager for a small publishers.  After two years this led to a job at Penguin, where I worked for a couple of years as publicity manager and then director.  Now I knew exactly what I wanted to do – to work with brilliant authors on their manuscripts.  I made the switch into agenting, initially as an assistant at Aitken Alexander Associates.  You could say I was right back to where I started five years before, but now I was focussed and more experienced.  Soon I was taking on my own clients. 

So far, what have been the most memorable moments of your career?
Being called on maternity leave to be told one of my clients was a Richard & Judy selection; celebrating with authors like Holly Smale and her publishers when she won The Waterstone’s Best Book for Teens Prize, and when she sold her millionth copy;  telling Joanna Courtney and Justine Windsor that finally, after years of effort and belief, they had their first book offers; every time there’s wonderful, exciting news to share with authors, to reward their hard, hard work.

Perhaps most of all I love that feeling, when the hairs on the back of my arm stand up as I am reading an unpublished, unsolicited novel I have fallen in love with.  Often I am the first professional to read it: that is so exciting!

While it is terrific when clients enjoy critical and commercial success, what’s even more special to me is the moment when I recognise that they are the real deal.  This often happens when I read a second draft of their book, perhaps after I’ve been in two minds about the first draft.  Authors make me most proud, and move me most deeply, when they make courageous, difficult changes to their work and in doing so, understand what is required to uncover the brilliance within. 

What are you reading at the moment?
Always, always reading with a sense of awe and wonder, new material from my existing clients.  
And although I don’t get to do this as often as I like, I do still read published books for pleasure!  Recently I enjoyed Emma Kennedy’s painfully funny memoir, The Tent, The Bucket and Me, published some years ago now, and comedy gold; Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans, Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney and Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout.

Any final words of encouragement to aspiring writers who are reading this blog today?
Keep reading other books, keep writing your own.  Be realistic about what you can achieve and how you can get there.  Work hard.  Research hard.  Work even harder.  Never stop doing these things and you will improve as a writer, whatever else happens. Good luck!

Website: www.theshawagency.co.uk
Twitter: @KateJShaw
Instagram: @agentkateshaw

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