So what does a Literary Agent do?

An interview with literary agent Susan Mears

Interviewed by Dee Blick – from her book ‘The Ultimate Guide to Writing and Marketing a Bestselling book’ ┬á(Filament Publishing)

Literary Agent Susan Mears representing AuthorCraft members at international book fairs

Literary Agent Susan Mears representing AuthorCraft members at international book fairs

I have always wondered what a literary agent does and how they can help you get your book accepted by a publishing house. So when I was given the opportunity to interview Susan Mears, a literary agent of some esteem I jumped at it. This is what Susan told me.

ÔÇ£Before founding my Literary Agency in 1993, I was a commissioning editor at Century Hutchinson, which later became amalgamated with Random House.┬á I then moved to Piatkus books (now part of the Little Brown Group) as Managing editor for fiction and non-fiction, finally becoming the Senior Managing Editor at Element Books. Throughout this time I was at the receiving end of presentations and proposals from many literary agents and aspiring authors via posted submissions and at the book fairs. I had a strict criteria of┬á what I wanted them to provide me with for their title to be taken seriously. As a Commissioning Editor, I had to have my finger on the pulse of the market on behalf of my publisher and select manuscripts that would sell in all markets around the world.┬á Publishing is a highly commercial business. It can only survive if customers buy books.┬á Then, as now, commissioning editors are under intense pressure to select the right titles. Over the last few years with the publishing industry continuing to go through fundamental change, publishers are more risk averse than ever before with fewer books making the grade. But the rewards are still there for authors who can tick all the boxes.

And so when I set up my own literary agency, I knew what worked and what commissioning editors were looking for. This enabled me to match authors and their manuscripts to publishers, particularly in the UK and the USA and to represent them in the way I knew was most effective; now sitting on the other side of the desk.

I also knew that the big publishing houses were cutting back on running costs and that the ‘slush pile editorsÔÇÖ, who evaluate new manuscripts, were being made redundant.┬á As a result, publishers were becoming even more reliant on literary agents to do the reading and filtering of new manuscripts.

When a publisher works with a literary agent they expect the agent to have undertaken a thorough evaluation of a manuscript; to believe it has real potential and that it matches the genres they are looking for.   A literary agent will not command the ongoing respect of any publisher if they are seen to be wasting their time.

Every day I receive at least half a dozen unsolicited approaches from authors all over the world.  Some are keen to find out if their idea is worth developing. Others will send their completed manuscript and expect me to read it and provide detailed comments. Very few present their book proposal in the form that I require and so fall at the first hurdle.

So what can you do to give your manuscript the best possible chance of going forward?

In the same way that publishers increasingly rely upon agents to sift through and find the best manuscripts on their behalf, in turn I rely on experienced readers and editors to read manuscripts and produce a readerÔÇÖs report. A credible third party endorsement of a manuscript from a professional whose job it is to know what ‘good’ looks like makes my job much easier.┬á Those authors that use an editor to produce a readerÔÇÖs report give themselves the best possible chance of being accepted. In addition, an independent reader’s report often highlights things the author has missed which could make a big difference to the final manuscript. This report should be accompanied by some sample chapters. If I am then happy to represent the author they will be under contract to the agency and I will include them in my portfolio.

Most of my meetings with commissioning editors take place at the big book fairs around the world. In the UK the London Book Fair takes place in April every year.  I also travel to the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Emirates Literary Festival and other big events in the USA.

Many authors donÔÇÖt understand these are trade events and so turn up at them clutching their manuscript, hoping to be signed up. Whilst all the big publishing houses have stands, they are staffed by sales people whose job it is to sell books, not commissioning editors. Many donÔÇÖt know who the commissioning editors are within their company, let along be able to broker an introduction to them!┬á The editors are tucked away in the Agents Hall which is only accessible by appointment. ItÔÇÖs here where the literary agents and the editors do business and weave their magic.

At a book fair, I will have a portfolio of one-page proposals that I use as the basis of my presentation to an editor.┬á I will have found out from an editor the genres they are looking for and will spend a couple of minutes highlighting the main points of the proposals that match their criteria.┬á At this point, all thatÔÇÖs required is a well written one-page synopsis highlighting the authorÔÇÖs track record, their success at media, PR and marketing, their previous publishing history and sales figures. There isn’t time for anything more. The editor will identify the books they are interested in, and after the fair I will follow up with a more substantial document. This all takes place via email.

To help me to represent any author I need the following:

  • A well crafted ‘one-pager’ – a tightly written summary of what the book is about.
  • The gap in the market that the book will fill.
  • A few facts about the author and their background, including previous titles.
  • Recent media activity.
  • The following the author has in their sector.

Whilst I know that any author worth their salt could easily write 10,000 words on this all I need is one page.  If this does the trick and an editor wants to find out more I will require the following from the author:

  • A synopsis of each chapter
  • A ‘long form’ description of the book
  • A more extensive author biography
  • A minimum of four well proofed consecutive chapters

At the last London Book Fair there was interest in every proposal in my portfolio which is wonderful but, this initial interest has to be whittled down to firm offers.

Once a publisher has expressed an interest, and we have followed up with a full submission itÔÇÖs quite normal for a few months to elapse before I hear back from them. Authors expect to hear something the following week which is unlikely unless they have a track record of selling millions of books.

ItÔÇÖs most definitely a waiting game and first-time authors particularly have to understand this. If youÔÇÖre lucky enough to be made an offer, it can take a while to negotiate any advance payments and sadly many books do not sell in sufficient quantities to earn out their advance.

However, new authors donÔÇÖt have to wait for a commitment and a deal from a publisher before starting to receive an income from their manuscript. Commissioning editors are increasingly influenced by the success an author has had with their own edition. For those authors that self publish, achieve good reviews and positive media coverage a book deal is more likely because any risk to the publisher is minimised.ÔÇØ


Read more in Dee Blick’s book ‘The Ultimate Guide to Writing and Marketing a Best Selling book’┬á┬á Published by Filament Publishing Ltd

A little about Dee Blick

Dee 039[3]┬áDee started her marketing career in 1985 as a graduate marketing trainee working for a global insurance company.┬á She was promoted rapidly and within just three years was entrusted with planning and running direct mail, advertising and marketing campaigns for some of the U.K.’s biggest brands.┬á After taking a little time off to bring up her two boys, Dee started her own marketing consultancy in 2001, realising that the tips, tools and techniques that she had learned within a corporate setting could be applied to small businesses with incredible results, and on a shoestring budget.┬á She now works with a diverse group of businesses, helping them to grow with her no-nonsense, practical and down to earth approach to marketing.

  Dee has extensive experience in new product development and marketing strategy, and has a track record of creating and delivering exceptional campaigns.  She is also frequently called upon for her marketing troubleshooting skills to ascertain why a business is failing in its marketing.

┬áDee has an exceptional talent for writing and has won seven national awards for writing press releases and adverts, each having generated the highest reader response in its respective publication.┬á She is also an avid blogger, and a regular columnist for many printed publications. Her first book, Powerful Marketing on a Shoestring Budget for Small Businesses, is in Amazon UKÔÇÖs top four bestselling small business books and has received dozens of five-star reviews.

┬áIn 2009, Dee featured as a marketing entrepreneur on BBCÔÇÖs ÔÇÿBeat the BossÔÇÖ alongside the ÔÇÿThe ApprenticeÔÇÖ star, Saira Khan; an experience that resulted in Dee becoming a popular and sought after public speaker.┬á In response to many requests from her readers, Dee has recently launched a series of one day Marketing on a Shoestring boot camps for small businesses.

┬áDee is also a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, the highest status that can be awarded by the world’s largest marketing body.