Five literary agents sat on stage in discussion with audience heads in foreground facing panel

The secret world of literary agents

Hands up who’s looking for a literary agent.

If you’re a writer keen on getting published using conventional methods, your best bet to get publishers to notice you is the legendary literary agent.

Legendary because they have traditionally been seen as a “gatekeeper” to publishing success, and also because they are the first port of call for critical feedback.

I attended a talk by four literary agents at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to hear more about their role in the industry, and also any tips they might have for budding and ambitious authors.

The agents were:
Emma Paterson (Aitken Alexander Associates);
Chloe Seager (Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV & Film Agency);
Abi Fellows (The Good Literary Agency);
Isobel Dixon (Blake Friedmann Literary Agency).

They were interviewed by Heather Parry, co-founder of Extra Teeth literary magazine and the Society of Authors’ senior policy and liaison manager for Scotland.

I will say that none of the women was at all scary. Not even the tiniest bit. They were reasonable, approachable and softly spoken, so I shall cast aside my previous understanding of them as being hard-nosed and brusque…

Do writers need a literary agent?

So, first off – do writers really need a literary agent?

Chloe said: “I can’t imagine the publishing process without agents. We are fighting on the author’s behalf. We’re managing the author’s career, talking about their writing, their next steps, publicity… We are the middle man. We are on the writer’s side.”

That last point is the most apposite – an agent is not your enemy. They know if your writing will sell, can help you edit and rework it in the first instance, then sell it to a publisher, oversee and approve contracts, liaise with editors and publishers to see you through the process, make sure you’re getting paid…

And the agent doesn’t get paid unless you do, so they’re going to work hard on your behalf!

(Heather added here, in her role with the Society of Authors, that authors shouldn’t sign a contract with a literary agent until the SoA has had a look at it and made sure it’s all above board.)

What literary agents are looking for

So, what are literary agents looking for among the thousands of submissions they get sent by authors? The women agreed on the following, among other points:

• The writer must have conviction (in their own story);
• The voice must be distinct;
• There is an element of gut feeling, before the agent thinks strategically about whether the story can be sold;
• The work should be tapping into conversations that are bubbling up (since it typically takes a year or so for a book to be published, writing that predicts what will be talked about is on to a winner);
• Sentences should sing on the page;
• A rhythm and tightness of writing.

Ultimately, though, Isobel said: “The magic is hard to describe!”

While agents are canny with their knowledge of the markets and what is likely to sell, they are also human and therefore subjective, so don’t be too downhearted if they don’t connect with your work.

And that connection is definitely what the agent is after. Authors are generally asked to submit a cover letter, synopsis and first chapter or two of their work. You might think the synopsis would get read before the sample – the agent wants to know the plot, right? – but that’s not necessarily the case.

Isobel said: “I read the letter then go straight to the first page of the sample, then to the synopsis. There is no point reading the synopsis at all if you don’t like the writing.”

And if the agent loves your work and is convinced by it, the author also has to have that conviction in their writing, as Emma reiterated.

“The writer must have conviction in their work because it will need to persuade [publishers, editors, readers] when it’s out in the market – and before,” she said. If you aren’t passionate about your writing, why should anyone else be?


Passion was a concept Isobel also referred to in the relationship with her clients. She compared that professional connection with love affairs, and the chemistry necessary to make it work.

“The chemistry has to work,” she said. “I want to be with an author for a long time. You have to have that passion at the beginning [of the relationship]. You can’t think, ‘I will maybe take a punt on this.’ That won’t end well.”

One interesting question was about social media exposure, and whether agents thought authors should be active on social media platforms.

The overwhelming response was ‘not necessarily’.

It does seem to depend on the genre the author is writing in, specifically whether they are writing for adults or children.

Chloe, who works with children’s and YA authors, said being active on social media wasn’t important in the initial stages but authors should show a willingness to engage with audiences via social media and at author events.

She added: “It is a tricky balance engaging on social media and maybe saying the wrong thing, especially in children’s and YA writing.”

Abi pointed out that social media can be a toxic place, and her duty is to safeguard her authors.

She said: “There is a danger in excluding those who aren’t or can’t be on social media platforms.”

In fact, Abi was the most vocal about the need for diversity in the industry, and the importance of making it accessible and attractive to all.

The importance of editing…

A final word on the chat about editing, which of course made me prick up my ears, because that’s my job, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Publishers’ in-house editors are more and more stretched these days, and ideally want to see work that is already as ‘clean’ as possible.

The agents themselves do quite a lot of editing before submitting a work to publishers, pre-empting what publishers will like or dislike.

Emma said: “You need to feel as confident as you can of the work’s editorial quality.”

Isobel added: “I am always looking for reasons an editor will turn a work down.”

So at this point, I’d like to proffer my services as an editor who can clean up your work before you even submit it to an agent. Let’s make that work of art as shiny and beautiful as possible before you send it on its journey.

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