Friday, 1 November 2013

Ten Top Tips to Finding an Agent - Benjamin Scott's Guest Blog

by Addy Farmer

Benjamin is the Writing for Young Adults online course tutor for Oxford University Continuing Education Department. He teaches creative writing to a range of groups, schools and organisations. As well as pursuing his own writing, he is lead author on the Star Fighters series written under Max Chase for Working Partners. He runs his own private critique and editing service and is honoured to be one of the four editors for this year’s Undiscovered Voices. Website and Twitter: and @Benjamin_Scott

Having just signed with my agent, Gillie Russell at Aitken Alexander, I’m delighted to share with you 10 tips to help you with your agent search. I can’t promise to make it faster, but there are several things you can do to make it easier to find that agent willing to champion you and your work. My own achievement on taking my writing journey that bit further is still sinking in, but it’s a delight to know that I’m now sharing the next stage with my agent.
1). Join SCBWI. As a former ARA, I bet you think I might be biased, but the truth is I wouldn't have come this far without the support of some great friends, making some brilliant contacts and having access to amazing advice which being a SCBWI member brings.

2). Get involved. It’s not just a matter of joining and hoping good things will come to you. I say this as someone who lives over two hours from London and gets back after midnight from any evening event in the capital. Grab as many chances as you can to meet people and participate as much as possible.
It’s true, the more you put in, the more you get out.

3). Welcome friends who will encourage you to push your work further. I’ve been blessed to find some great critique partners. If you’re really lucky, they’ll hold off telling you to send it out until they genuinely believe your work is ready and then give you a massive shove to send it out. I’m a huge rewriter and it helped to have someone say it’s time I sent it out and stopped avoiding the submissions process.

4). Live in the moment. Celebrate all concrete achievements. Don’t worry about things you have yet to achieve or problems that don’t exist. Creative people can be easily distracted by the shiny baubles of the future, but grasp onto the future too tightly and those glass baubles can break and hurt. A question I try to live by is “What if this is it?” What if today, this hour, this minute is it? Am I going to appreciate and love this moment? Am I going to be grateful for my achievements however modest or am I going to feel bad because I haven’t won a Carnegie yet? What a thrill to have at least tried and got this far. I have no guarantee that I’ll get any further in publishing than this (although I plan and hope to do more - much more) but if this is it for me then I want to go to sleep with a smile on my face and have sweet dreams. I want to write without worrying about the future.

More friends on a journey
5). Remember, it’s a numbers game. In a book on job hunting I co-wrote years ago, we made the point that applying for jobs is a numbers game. The fewer jobs you apply for, the lower your relative chances of being hired. The more companies that know you’re looking for work the higher the chance one of them will take you on. Publishing is a numbers game too. It comes down to luck and subjective evaluation.
Even if your book is a perfect bestseller-in-the-making just as it is, the more people you offer it to, the higher the chances someone will say yes.
6). Write more than one book (but not in the same series). I’ve stolen this advice from Sara O’Connor who told a SCBWI Masterclass that the only way to double your chances of selling work to an agent or editor is to write another book – on a different topic. I was pitching a 7+ series called Eureka Evans: A Disaster Waiting to Be Discovered, but I had a YA fantasy up my sleeve called The Summoning of Freiya Rolandson. My query letter only mentioned Freiya in passing, but my agent was keen to look at both projects. Two different books make two different opportunities – you double your chances.

7). Delete the R-Word from your vocabulary. I’m serious. Promise never to use the word Rejection again. You’d think as people who take care with words we’d find a better way to describe the phenomenon of an agent/editor deciding not to devote their time, energy and emotions/money to the book we sent them. The R-Word comes with too many connotations. As much as I can see the analogy between publishing and dating, rejection is not an easy word to feel neutral about, let alone positive. It’s also too personal. A pass from a gatekeeper is about the text and them, not about us as writers/people and them. Instead, I offer you the more neutral suggestion of a project simply being ‘passed on’ – that’s all it is. It simply wasn’t a fit this time around.
sometimes the fault lies with the stars
8). What was that about feeling positive about being passed on? Impossible, right? Like duelling scars in Bismark’s Prussia, I regard each pass is a BADGE OF HONOUR. It’s a rite of passage. Let’s face it, few, if any, writers get away without a single agent or editor passing on one of their books at some point. If it was all right for J.K. Rowling or William Golding to have had work turned down then I see it as a personal Badges of Honour to have at least had the courage to send my best work out and see how it fared. Somewhere inscribed on these imaginary badges are the words Perseverance vincit (Perseverance conquers). Each Badge of Honour is a personal invite to try again as Samuel Beckett wrote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

J.K. never gave up on Harry

9). Stagger your submissions and plan for the long haul. This is just practical planning really. Draw up a list of all the agents who represent the work you’re sending out and draw up a list of potential editors too. As an agent advised at a SCBWI Agent’s Party a while back, if you apply to editors and they all pass on your project then there’s nothing an agent can do for you – the well of opportunity is dry. However, if all the agents pass on your book then there’s a whole load of editors to approach.
I found the way that worked best for me was to send out one query a week (and therefore hopefully one submission a week) to ensure no matter whom passed on my work I knew what to do next: just follow the plan.

10). Send a query first and start a dialogue before you send a submission. I like to know that I’ve got the right email address and that the agent has some sense of me and my project before they receive a manuscript or sample. Time is hugely precious and an informative and to the point query often gets a quick response that a submission. It goes without saying always be polite and always be patient.

Thanks so much, Benjamin! This is such good advice from someone who knows. 


  1. An inspirational set of top tips, Benjamin! Huge congrats on finding an agent!

    1. Thanks Addy - I'd be the first to admit that there's a lot of luck involved too, but it's case of creating room for the luck to work!

  2. Congratulations on signing with your agent! I love tip number 4, not just for your writing life, but as a way of living.

    1. Rachel, thank you! I couldn't agree more - 'What if this is it?' works well almost everywhere... it's like pausing the world and reconsidering how to react to it. Thanks for commenting!

  3. You're so right about joining and participating, Benjamin! Since I joined SCBWI Ireland and became a volunteer, I have met a ton of people. I volunteered one year for the Children's Books Ireland conference as well, and that was a great way to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes with an awesome team of people and develop strong connections. I try to pass on what I'm learning to others because sharing is such an important part of being in this business. It's tough to do it alone, so the more we connect the better. Everyone benefits from it, not just me. I'm a strong believer in positive networking, trying to find ways to help others, not just myself. You're a star. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience with us!

    1. Thanks, Colleen - and you've made great impact on SCBWI Ireland! I think we're probably very like-minded - make a positive impact where and when you can! When I'm teaching and running workshops I often find myself realising and understanding things I've discovered or learnt more - so not only is it generous to share with others, but it also helps us solidify our own thoughts and knowledge. Thanks for all the kind words, Colleen!

  4. Congratulations again, Benjamin, and I love love love the image of duelling scars and the way you have rebranded rejection.... Every one of these tips is inspiring!

    1. Thanks, Tania! It's something to be proud of to have tried so many times - some writers sadly give up after their first pass and don't try again. Got to keep trying - it's part of our own hero's journey!

  5. I love the 'What if this is it' question. I've just taken a moment to ask that and I feel very satisfied with my writing journey even though it's taken a long time and I'm not traditionally published. Thanks for getting me to step back a bit and have a good think :) See you in Winchester!

  6. Thanks Benjamin - some inspiring tips here. I'm still working on point 4 - there's a real balance between finding satisfaction in your achievements and resting on your laurels. Artistically, there's a great benefit in staying hungry and eager, but it can also make you dissatisfied and blind to the good stuff that's just behind you.

  7. Insightful, perceptive and jolly good advice, Benjamin. Thank you.
    I so agree with the networking and participating part. Joining the Birmingham critique has given me so much confidence and encouragement. The part about celebrating achievements too, is important. Hearing other Scoobies hooking a great agent, or getting a book deal is exciting for us as readers, as well as the writer themselves! It shows things are possible, and that's important to remember. Onwards and upwards all the way!
    Thank you again for a great piece. Congratulations once again on your success!

  8. All excellent advice, but I don't like the 'passed on' phrase. It sounds as though the manuscript has died! Or is that just me? How about something more upbeat such as 'missed out', as in 'Agent x has missed out on my novel so I'm trying Agent Y'? Just a thought.

  9. great post, Benjamin - and good plan to draw up a list for submissions. Congratulations, you did it! Like Maureen, I'll be asking myself the same question "What if this is it?"

  10. Excellent advice, Benjamin. Thank you!


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