Myth-busting the Publications Industry; Laura Williams, Literary Agent

“It’s the best job in the world,” Laura Williams, Literary Agent for Greene & Heaton told the members and guests gathered at the Hampshire Writers’ Society November meeting, “I get to work with authors, from day one of their career, until the end of their career.”

“Agents are not out there to take the author’s money,” she says, “and neither are they there to crash your dreams.” Outside the agency, they are super competitive. But, inside they are very forgiving. They talk books all day, swap manuscripts and read unbelievably fast. As agents for authors, they need to get to know all the publishers and booksellers in the industry. They go to book fairs and carry out a huge amount of editing. Laura’s message is that; if her author isn’t happy, she isn’t happy. Myth numbers one and two — busted!

Myth number three: your submission needs to be perfect? No. A bad synopsis will not preclude your submission. Your synopsis should be like a “greatest hits of your book.” The end MUST BE INCLUDED. Your covering letter needs to be polite, to the point and endorse that you know your book thoroughly. Also include a little about yourself. It doesn’t matter that you might have your genre wrong, that is fixable.

It also doesn’t matter who, in the industry, that you know. Laura is keen for us to understand that “It is all about the book.” Myth number 4 — busted!

Until she reads it, Laura sometimes doesn’t know exactly what it is that she is looking for in a manuscript. Her list varies from horror to big love stories that make her cry. As for timing and luck of your submission? The year’s two biggest book fairs take place in March and December. Do not expect an expedient reply if you submit at those times. Also, manuscripts submitted on Christmas Day are not likely to be read until the New Year! “Try three pm on a Thursday in August.” Laura says in jest. But yes, Agents really do read every submission that they receive.

On to myth number six – no, you do not need to live in London. Perhaps this was partly true in times of posting hard-copy manuscripts. Agents travel well and they are eager to try out all other cities. Laura even has clients in Canada.

Myth number seven: it’s about the prizes that you’ve won. It isn’t! A list of the competitions in which you’ve been successful, and your membership of societies (Hampshire Writers’ Society for one) in your covering letter shows that you are serious about your craft. Again, Laura is keen to advise that; “It’s all about the book.”

The same answer shot down myth number eight: it’s essential to have an MA in Creative Writing. There is a plethora of websites offering free advice. The Writers and Artists’ Yearbook is another free resource readily at hand.

Find the “essence” of your book and use that to pitch it in answer to the question, What’s it about? The essence is not always what the book says. All books can be pitched in this way.

Do not write for the market or the current trend. Some trends pass by very quickly, going right out of fashion. It may well be that by the time your novel is to come to fruition, the trend will be long gone. Always write the story that you want to write. If the agent picks it up and the genre isn’t clear; they’ll just “make it up”. And that takes care of myth number nine.

Ten: it’s all in the great writing? It’s a great story that is necessary. If, however the agent suggests a change, it is a good idea to listen. Again, here the agent supports their author. Laura once spent a Sunday afternoon re-writing half of a future client’s manuscript in order to change the point of view; the author did the other half.

What about social media? The agent and the publisher are there to help you through social media. Even if you have no presence on social media at all, it doesn’t matter.

Finally, to number twelve: once you have an agent, you’re set for life! Laura wishes that were true, but unfortunately it is not. Not all books are sold. However, many authors debut is not their first book. In the rare event that the agent is unable to sell your book, they will talk this through with you and together you’ll work out a way forward.

“Carpet bombing may not be quite the right phrase.” Laura says, “But, you get the idea. Send your manuscript to everyone that you want to read it. That’s what she does.”

Report by Lisa Nightingale