Literary agent Charlie Campbell popped into our online classroom to answer questions from our Writing a Novel: The First 15,000 students about when and how to approach an agent. The conversation was so useful, we thought we’d share it here with you.
Charlie Campbell: What I’m looking for is quality of writing first and foremost. Then if it’s good enough, I will wonder about the market for it. A really well written history of snails might be hard to sell to a publisher – but you never know. And lastly, it’s very important that the writer and the agent get on well because it is usually a pretty close relationship. But the writing is what really matters.
Q: Could you elaborate on what you mean by well written? Are you talking about voice, structure, plot, strength of characters or all of these?
CC: We all know good writing when it’s there in front of us. Structure and plot are all things that can be worked on.
Q: Is it true that a novel needs to be finished, polished and oven-ready before we approach an agent?
CC: Other agents feel differently, but I don’t think a novel has to be finished before you approach an agent. But what you do send has to be as good as it can be. So polished yes.
Q: Are the cut-throat stories accurate – that one spelling or grammar error in the first line or para of your novel submission and you’re out?
CC: That’s a good question. I do think that a typo on the first page does leave a bad impression. You’d be unfortunate if the agent stopped reading there and then. But we are usually looking for a reason to say no. And a few sentences early on that don’t really make sense might be a reason to move onto the next manuscript. With non-fiction I might give the author more leeway. If someone has a unique experience, you might find an editor to help them tell it.
Q: So if the theme grabs you but the writing needs some editing and you like the story as it unfolds would you read beyond page 3?
CC: With a novel, I would look past what I thought were flaws, if I really liked the rest of it. Agents don’t expect manuscripts to be perfect and will be looking for potential. But publishers will tend to favour the projects that are already nearly there.
Q: Lots of Faber Academy writers are based outside the UK, so would you say they would be best represented by agencies in the UK?
CC: I don’t think you need to be represented by someone in the same country. I represent an author who lives in Berlin, another who lives in Cyprus, and one who is in Africa much of the time.
But if a writer is based in the US, I would wonder why they would be submitting to me – unless the book was very UK focused. I would assume that they’d struggled to get representation there and were now trying UK agents. Perhaps that’s uncharitable.
Q: Is it best to try and meet an agent face to face?
CC: Meetings are much more constructive once someone is already interested in your work. If I’m submitting to a publisher, for example, I don’t expect to organise a meeting between an editor and the author, unless the editor has already expressed strong interest in the manuscript.
Q: Charlie, you said you represent fiction and non-fiction writers. Is it better as an unpublished author to pitch a novel and mention, say, a children’s book and short stories too? Or should we stick to one form at first?
CC: I think that it is best to pitch one thing at a time. Otherwise you might lose focus.
Q: Charlie, what are you looking for in a covering letter?
CC: I think covering letters should be short and to the point. Add anything that you think might be interesting to an agent or publisher: why you decided to write the book, if there was a particularly interesting story behind it. The marketing departments of publishers will like that. Marketing is more and more important in publishing – working out how to get the book to a reader/market. So if you can think of angles that would appeal, then great. But that is our job – to help you with that aspect. One last thing: I would never criticise another writer in a covering letter. A surprising amount of people do.
Q: Should the writer compare their work to an established writer – saying ‘it’s a bit like’?
CC: Yes, I think that’s helpful. Think of Amazon recommendations: people who bought this might like this. That sort of thing. It’s not totally scientific yet. But it does help readers.
Q: What do you think about authors submitting to several agents at once?
CC: It’s fine. Perfectly normal. But if an agent does like your book it’s best not to keep them waiting too much, if you can help it. But equally it’s a big decision to make.
Q: If an agency asks to see the first three chapters of a novel on their web submission outline, is it being too cheeky to send through the entire manuscript?
CC: You can send through the whole manuscript but I think it’s best to stick to the first three chapters, if that is what was requested. Also, these chapters should always be the first three. Not 7, 23, and then 48, even if they are the best ones. Because no one reads like that. Except BS Johnson fans.
We have a form that writers have to fill in to submit to us, so that does ensure a better quality of submission, in my view. We don’t get the cut and paste ones, where writers try 100s of agents in one go. It’s much better to really focus on a few very targeted submissions – to agents who represent books you have liked, that sort of thing. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is a good place to start looking for suitable agents for your novel.
Q: When you say you should target not spam agents, what would be targeting and what spamming? If I were to send 10 submissions to different agents is that spamming?
CC: Ten is fine, as long as they’re not all at the same agency. It’s worth taking your time. Try sending out one round and see if you get any helpful feedback. Sadly agents don’t always have time to offer constructive feedback. We usually spend that amount of thought on the books we are hoping to handle. But if more than one agent says something about your book, then it’s worth listening to. Maybe.
Q: What would be the ways of telling that I have approached a bad agent? Are there signs like them asking for a fee?
CC: No agent should charge a fee for reading your book. As for bad agents – there are busy agents, who might seem too occupied with their existing clients, but the right one should make time for your book. You have to be patient sometimes.
Q: Given that you are building a relationship with an agent and they are taking time to respond, does one send them a reminder and if so after what period of time?
CC: I would avoid chasing an agent too quickly. We’ve all had calls on the day of submission, which never make you want to work with that person. Obviously it would be nice if we all acknowledged receipt, but few agents have time. I think it’s nice to chase people with (good) news if you possibly can.
Q: What is a good timeframe in which to chase? Six weeks? Three months?
CC: I think it’s ok to chase after 4–6 weeks. But silence usually means someone hasn’t read something – rather than that they hated it and didn’t tell you.
Q: What are your pet hates in submissions?
CC: Pet hates: people who describe their novels as fictional. It’s sweet when writers talk about their mothers having liked their book. (I’m not totally sure mine liked the one I wrote….) But it isn’t that helpful for an agent.
Q: Q: Do you have a particular genre or area of interest you’re looking for?
CC: I’d like more thriller writers. Good lively literary fiction is something I enjoy. Accessible general non-fiction, too. But most agents will look at most things. We don’t tend to specialise as much as editors do.
Q: Finally, can you tell us a bit about the market? How is literary fiction doing compared to other genres and what’s hot right now?
CC: I would say that literary fiction is doing pretty well, with the successes of Nathan Filer, The Miniaturist, and so on. Trends are hard to spot. Obviously. There’s a lot of luck involved. No one saw 50 Shades of Grey coming. If a trend has passed but I liked the writing, I would try to think of another way of pitching the book. To be honest, trend following isn’t really what I do. And I think there are lots of people like me in the industry.
Charlie Campbell has been a literary agent for over a decade, and now heads up literary agency Kingsford Campbell.