Saturday 15 August 2020

How Not to Get an Agent: Submission Pet Peeves plus a Passive Aggressive Ukulele Ode to an Agent

By Candy Gourlay 


Inspired by You'll Be Back, mad King George's song in the musical Hamilton by Lin Manuel Miranda, George Kirk scarily demonstrates how not to communicate with literary agents. If you haven't seen Hamilton, you can hear the original song below. We love it! 


If you're a ukulele strummer, you can download the chords and lyrics here.

Always keen to be of service, we asked literary agents what their top subbing peeves were. 


If this has made you fear for George's chances of getting an agent, don't worry, she's already got one, Alice Williams of Alice Williams Literary

We asked Alice what her top subbing peeve was and it wasn't 'Passive aggressive ukulele lyrics' but interminable submission letters.  

Alice says: "Remember an agent will often sit down and sort through a big batch of submissions in one sitting. They are looking for the standout ideas and writing, and interesting creative people. An overly long covering email can slow the process down and be a bit offputting." 


Author Nizrana Fahrook, author of the utterly brilliant The GirlWho Stole an Elephant, kindly asked her agent Joanna Moult what pet peeve gets up the collective noses of her agency Skylark Literary.

Joanna Moult
Joanna replied: "Amber (Caraveo) and I often talk about our most hilariously unappealing submission! It came in from a writer who said next to nothing about themselves in the covering email, other than to insist in VERY STRONG TERMS that they were only willing to communicate by email and that a publisher would not be allowed to change a single word of it. It all sounded so mysterious, so we were intrigued and opened it immediately. It turned out to be a disastrously badly written story. So that was a pretty easy ‘no’!"


Notes from the Slushpile denizen Nick Cross offers this from his agent, Heather Cashman of Storm Literary Agency (you can read a brilliant article on Nick and Heather's author agent relationship over on the SCBWI newsletter Words & Pictures and you might be interested in Heather's Manuscript Wishlist)

Heather Cashman
Heather says: "This is such a difficult question to answer, because it's hard to choose 'the worst' thing that people have done. I've been told (by aspiring authors that) they have book deals when they didn't, I've been DM'd or emailed incessantly by the same person, I've been propositioned ... but I think the worst would be showing blatant prejudice through the authorial voice. It really offends me."


New York Times bestselling author Mo O'Hara (whose graphic novel Agent Moose just came out ), has this from her agent Gemma Cooper of The Bent Agency.

"Sending a book out on submission is stressful, and lots of agencies have different requirements, so you are adding complicated systems to that stress! That is to say that for me, I understand if mistakes happen. Check the website and try your best to follow the guidelines."

Please don't gaze at the starkly worded instructions on agent websites and think you can do it better.


Gemma collected some comments from other agents at The Bent Agency and there was an astounding number of comments about the lack of self belief on display in submissions.

"I don’t like to see authors putting themselves down," said one agent, citing the number of times she's had to read lines like: “It’s probably not very good" and “I’m sorry for wasting your time”.

"If I’m open to submissions I want to hear from you, so my time is yours to take. You’ve written a whole book. That goal is on a lot of bucket lists, and you did it! Be proud of this and confident in your approach. Be professional. Don’t put doubt in my mind before I’ve read a single word."


Molly Ker Hawn riffed on query letters that didn't actually query.

"Query letters that are all about the author and why they wrote the book, and don’t include a solid pitch for the book itself."


Zoe Plant
Zoƫ Plant adds: "Queries for books in areas or g
enres that I don’t represent."

So, guys, please don't submit a children's book to an agency that only represents adult non fiction, or a young adult novel to a picture book literary agent. It's a waste of everybody's time.

Candy, Mo and George are children's authors who love playing the ukulele together and rewriting the lyrics of songs. During the lockdown they made a video rewording the World War II anthem We'll Meet Again as We'll Write Again. They are pictured playing their ukuleles at the 2018 conference of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (left to right: Candy Gourlay, Mo O'Hara, George Kirk and Tania Tay)


  1. Ukekele brilliance and agent wisdom together in a blog at last! thanks!


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