Questions and Answers with James Wills

James Wills - May 14

Points raised by the questions:

  • Check the agent’s website for submission guidelines and do what they say! Emails are acceptable.
  • Yes, you can contact multiple agents, but be courteous enough to let them know you are doing this, and inform them should you accept an offer; it is very annoying for an agent to spend a weekend studying an author’s work only to find on the Monday that another offer had been accepted the week before.
  • Are literary agents getting fewer submissions due to the rise of self-publishing? No, they are getting more!
  • Has self-publishing affected literary agents? Not really; the agent’s search for serious writers continues.
  • Can the self-published book get the attention of an agent? It can, but it does depend on the degree of success and other factors.
  • Will agents be impressed by a web presence? Broadly, yes; but if you are not good at website creation then get experienced help.
  • What percentage of a book is read by an agent? This depends – enough to make a decision!
  • Do sub-editors have the right qualifications and skills?       Yes, if you pick the right one for your book!
  • What about copyright protection of the MS? Usually quite adequate, but in the event of an infringement the AAA may be able to help.
  • What about the contradictory comment and advice an author gets from different agents? Comments will always be subjective, but are worth analysing and absorbing.
  • Often, “rules” of how to write a novel are offered. When so many classic novels break these apparent rules, can they be valid? There are no real rules, but you need to understand what you are attempting.
  • Must we write purely for commercial appeal? Best to immerse yourself in what is going on at the time and understand what is popular and why, but do not simply duplicate.
  • Is the selection of children’s books for publication purely commercially driven? Are themes of sex and violence creeping in too much? Editors of children’s books are lovely people, but with the changing times slightly darker themes will inevitably creep in.
  • Are the first and last sentences really key? No – but they are a good start!
  • If a book has not grabbed the reader by the throat by the 5th page, will it be binned? Probably, unless you have effectively set the scene by then.
  • Would works of acknowledged genius, if submitted today, get published? If it is not what the intern is looking for, it probably will not.       Newspapers try this out periodically, but fail to appreciate that publishing is market-driven.
  • Should I complete the book before trying for an agent? If fiction, absolutely.
  • Will an agent dump a book after reading just one sentence?  Such brutality is very rare, but the reputation is worth having!


Some general questions from the membership then followed, and James had the following comments:

  • Do not go to an agent who asks for money to read your MS.
  • Are there any truly taboo subjects for thrillers? Yes; truly appalling sexual violence etc.       Discuss your intentions with your agent.
  • How long should an author allow for a response from an agent?       This depends on the time of year, Watson Little try to be under 4 months. A polite nudge is acceptable if you have been waiting for far too long.
  • Some agents ask for 3 chapters; how much material do they think they will get for that? Some people do write with short chapters; use common sense and send 30-50 pages as you believe will do the job.
  • Do film and TV tend to use adaptations or fresh material? Literary agents usually have associates who handle these options; check the agent’s website carefully.

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