Seven Steps to Landing your Ideal Literary Agent by Ali Harper

Leeds writer Ali Harper gives us her top tips to help you get a literary agent. Then come along and meet literary agent, Jamie Cowen, Director at The Ampersand Agency, on Thursday 17 May at the Leeds Library. Book your tickets here.

1. Write a novel
That might sound obvious but don’t pitch too early. EVERYONE has a good idea for a book – a writer turns a good idea into a polished manuscript. It’s not enough to have written the opening five chapters. Finding an agent means finding the right person at the right time. You don’t want to locate the one person who’s looking for the very thing you’re writing, if you’re years away from having a final draft.

2. Check it’s the right book
Where would your book sit in a bookshop? Who will read it? As a tutor and mentor, I’ve read some great stories that didn’t get picked up because they didn’t fit into a genre. A few years ago I wrote a novel about a young man who kept trying to kill himself and a woman with cancer. An agent told me it wasn’t a debut novel – turns out suicide and terminal illness is a hard sell for a complete unknown. The hardest book to sell is your first.

3. Showcase your assets
Put together a submission package. Allow more time for this than you did for your first draft, because if there’s one thing that’s harder to write than a novel, it’s a one-page synopsis of a novel. Include a letter that makes you sound a) sane and b) interesting (no mean feat for a person who spends most days alone, locked in a room making stuff up). Your first three chapters need to showcase your writing and hook the reader into the story.

4. Imagine your ideal agent
Think about what you’re looking for in an agent. This means considering which skills you lack. Do you need help with editing? Or with marketing? I wanted a young, quirky woman who was starting out on her career – a fighter with something to prove. Who are you looking for? Remember you are building your team – there’s no point having someone who shares all the same qualities.

5. Go shopping
I don’t recommend the scattergun approach where you send your manuscript to anyone who can read. I spent literally weeks on the internet, pouring over photos, staring literary agents in the eyes, asking myself, ‘Do they look like my type of person?’ I looked up writers I loved and found out who their agents were. I researched each agent and found out what they loved to read. More time spent on selection means less time spent on rejections.

6. Submit
The clue is in the word. Surrender. Press send and let it go. It’s a real achievement to get to submission stage, so make sure you have a reward system lined up. For every submission I made, I promised myself a treat (a new notebook, a bar of dark chocolate with sea salt, a writing weekend in Whitby). Treats are vital. Few writers make it to submission. Don’t forget to celebrate your success.

7. Don’t give away the goods too soon
If an agent gets in touch, contact everyone on your list and tell them you’ve had a request/offer. We all hate to feel we might miss out on something, and agents are no different. Ask to meet anyone who expresses an interest. I met with four agents and the thing that struck me most was that I’d end up with a different novel depending on which one I signed with. Hold out for the person who shares your vision for your book.

Ali Harper writes feminist crime fiction. Her first novel, The Disappeared, will be published by HarperCollins in ebook on 18 May, and out in paperback in August. An option for TV and film rights has been signed with Yorkshire-based Duck Soup Films. Ali lives in Leeds, where she teaches creative writing, has just completed a PhD, and plays netball badly.



Jamie Cowen, The Ampersand AgencyWant to know more about what literary agents do? Jamie Cowen, Director at The Ampersand Agency, will be in conversation with Ali Harper, at The Leeds Library on Thursday 17th May. It’s a golden opportunity for writers to ask all those questions and get some great advice.

Jamie and Ali will talk about the author-agent relationship, what it means for both of them and how they worked together on The Disappeared, Ali’s debut novel.

Tickets for the event are £5 + Eventbrite booking fee, including a drink. We anticipate that this event will be very popular so please book your ticket in advance here. Doors open at 7pm.

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend and the Northern Short Story Festival. She continues to be its Director.

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