Friday 22 March 2019

The Thrill of the Chase - My Quest for the Perfect Agent

By Nick Cross

All photos of Banta the dog and his frisbee by Tom Ek

I’m only in the first sentence of this post, and already I’m not sure about the word “perfect” in that headline. In fact, I’m quite sure there is no such thing as the perfect agent - they are all human beings like us writers, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. But all I know is that my previous experience of having an agent was very unhappy, and I’m not keen to repeat that!

Of course, I may not get much choice in the matter. As I’ve discovered over the last ten years, you can be friends with any number of agents, but that doesn’t mean they'll want to represent you. In fact, what it mostly guarantees is that they’ll reject you promptly with a kind email and words of encouragement. All of which is much nicer than the alternative, but hardly the way to build a writing career...

So, what to do? It can be a bittersweet feeling to watch your friends achieving success, as most of the Slushpile team have. There have been multiple book deals, awards and all sorts of other good stuff since I first met these talented folks a decade ago. I’m proud of their success and proud to cheer them on. But I can’t escape the feeling that I’m still stuck on the starting blocks, the perennial “nearly there” author.

Enough feeling maudlin. Where is the “thrill” mentioned in the post title? Well, it’s something that’s surprised me about the submissions process for my illustrated YA novel RIOT BOYYY. Six books in, you’d think I’d be well and truly fed up of submitting by now, just going through the motions. But new thinking and new technology have made the process unexpectedly exciting this time around.

The source of my joy is those three little words. No, not those words, I'm talking about Manuscript Wish List. Using the hashtag #MSWL, agents regularly tweet about what kind of books they are looking for right now. Armed with that information, you can quickly craft a submission and get it in their inbox double quick, before someone else inevitably comes up with the same book you’ve already written. Even better than #MSWL is the accompanying website As well as linking to #MSWL tweets, this site hosts pages that agents can update with their preferences. It’s searchable by age group and genre, which removes almost all of the guesswork when selecting agents.

The vast majority of agents on Manuscript Wish List are American, but that’s fine because I’m targeting the US market for my book. Aside from the huge number of agents who accept YA fiction, submitting to US agents has other advantages. They are mostly working when I’m not, which means that if I avoid my email from mid-afternoon, I only have to worry about finding rejections in my inbox when I wake up in the morning. Of course, a rejection first thing is not the greatest start to the day! But is there any good time to receive one?

The buzz that comes from using Manuscript Wish List can be addictive. I was browsing Twitter one Friday lunchtime when I spotted an agent who was requesting exactly what I’d written. I sent the manuscript then and there, which took me a while because the agent had some unusually complex submission requirements. But once I pressed Send I didn’t care - this was so exciting!

My dreams of publishing glory crashed and burned the next day when the same agent rejected me. On a Saturday! Like some other responses I’ve received, this rejection praised the book’s concept, but was less enamoured of the way it was written. This sucks, but I guess it’s something I’ll have to live with. I’ve been writing for long enough (15 years!) to know I’m not suddenly going to develop a luminous, poetic writing style where every sentence sparkles like a rare gem. More than that, though, this is the right voice for the book I’ve written. And if you can’t see that, then I guess you’re not the right agent for me.

Submitting to agents (or “querying” as the Americans call it) can sometimes feel like a full-time job. Even with the help of Manuscript Wish List, you have to search for agents, check them out on Twitter, read their submission guidelines, tailor your covering letter, check everything twice and make sure you send only what they ask for. This takes me a minimum of thirty minutes per submission, and often longer (I estimate I’ve spent upwards of 30 hours on submissions of this book so far). The Twitter part is an essential stage BTW, because agents are constantly changing agencies or closing their submissions list. Plus, if their tweets look really crazy, you can swiftly walk away, whistling!

Another technological innovation I’ve encountered is the use of a system called QueryManager to manage submissions. Instead of sending an email, this requires you to submit via a web form, uploading attachments as necessary. This feels like a faff, but once you finish you get a URL back that you can use to check the status of your submission at any time. No more worrying about whether your email (or an agent’s enthusiastic reply) fell off the back of internet, or agonising over whether you spelt their name right in your covering letter.

The use of QueryManager opens up the possibility of asking for more information beyond the basic covering letter, sample and synopsis. Prompts such as “Describe the intended audience for your book” or even “Who is your favourite Harry Potter character?” At their best, such questions can make you think more deeply about the commercial appeal of your work. At their worst, they risk making the submissions process ever more time-consuming and labyrinthine, like some sadistic game.

Talking of sadistic games, I almost joined a mass Twitter pitch session earlier this month, but chickened out at the last minute (I guess I'm not ready for that kind of excitement!) There were tens of thousands of tweets, it all seemed so public, and I lost confidence in my carefully-crafted paragraph because it didn’t seem to follow the rules that everyone else had internalised. In fact, the more I researched the rules for Twitter pitching, the more I began to doubt the pitch I’d been using for months. Should I be including a rhetorical question in my pitch? Was that why agents kept sending me form rejections? Are you going to stop reading this blog post if I keep using them here?

I quickly found myself in a doubt spiral, which feels a bit silly in retrospect because this was the same pitch I’d delivered in front of 200 people, and it seemed to go down pretty well! In the end, I resolved to change nothing and resumed sending out individually to agents. If I’ve learnt anything about my process over the years, it’s that when those doubts strike I need to hold firm and meddle with my novel as little as possible. The devil makes work for anxious writers.

My quest for the perfect agent continues, and it’s hard to say if I’m getting any closer at this point. At least I’m having a bloody good try. My fellow Slushie Kathryn Evans, so long a “nearly there” author, used to have the following as her status:
Waiting, waiting, waiting. Hoping, hoping, hoping.
What she said.


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.

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