by Rhianna Urquhart, Age 14, United Kingdom
Literary agents are everywhere, and it is their job to help you get the book you’ve written out of the desk drawer and onto bookshelves. They are just as important as anyone else in the publishing industry, yet many aspiring authors don’t know who they are or what they do.
Lindsey Fraser and Kathryn Ross are two literary agents who have their own company, Fraser Ross Associates. Their company was founded in 2002. Since then, they have worked with many authors and illustrators, including Gill Arbuthnot, Vivian French, and Sue Purkiss. Ms. Fraser and Ms. Ross also help run the Pushkin Prizes, a writing competition for teens in Scotland and St. Petersburg.
I was lucky enough to get to interview Ms. Fraser about being a literary agent and learned a lot about what her job is like.
What does a literary agent do?
At a very basic level, a literary agent works with authors and illustrators to help them find a publisher. Not all authors or illustrators have agents, so it’s not essential to have one, but lots of them do because it takes some of the strain out of getting a book deal, leaving them to do what they’re best at—writing and illustrating.
How did you become a literary agent?
It was a strange kind of evolution. Quite simply, we were asked. Kathryn and I had run the Scottish Book Trust for ten years, and we wanted a change. Over those years, we had worked with many authors and illustrators, and some of them had suggested we agent, but the time wasn’t really right. I suppose I thought it was all about contracts and long lunches and endless meetings and not about the creative side. I was wrong. It was really Vivian French who finally persuaded us, and we began adding to our list of clients. We actually wished we’d started the agency a lot sooner.
If you can combine a meeting with coffee, it turns out that they’re remarkably painless.
What do literary agents look for in a submission? Do all agencies look for different things or are some elements the same?
The thing about reading is that it’s subjective. Nobody reacts the same way as anybody else to the same book, so it’s hard to answer that question except to say that we’re looking for something that really excites us, brilliant, secure, and considered writing, stories to keep us turning the pages, wanting to know what happens next, characters with real interest, continuity, consistency, settings that grab our imagination—maybe not all at the same time! It is often a gut reaction, and Kathryn and I don’t always agree. For example, Kathryn really loved Barry Hutchison’s writing, but I don’t like horror, so I might have passed on him, whereas Kathryn saw the potential. And, my goodness, she was right!
Every agency is different, really. If you look at their websites, you’ll see the kind of writers they represent, and you’ll get a sense of whether you’ll fit their list.
Why is it important to send a synopsis and not a blurb?
To be absolutely honest, my favourite is when writers send both. A blurb “sells” the book, while the synopsis tells the story. A synopsis is very much a working document and something a lot of people hate writing. I always say to approach synopsis writing as if you were describing the story of your favourite novel to your best friend. Don’t include all the details but provide the outline of the story in such a way that they will want to go off and read it.
We ask writers to send the first three chapters, which I always read first, and, if I’m gripped by that, I can’t wait to read the synopsis to find out how the story is resolved. Sometimes when I get the synopsis, it indicates that the story fizzles out, or it doesn’t continue as strongly as the opening chapters, or the characters don’t act consistently, or any other number of problems that make a book unsatisfactory. A synopsis is often quite a good exercise for a writer. It can highlight weaknesses in their book—and strengths, of course.
What is the most important thing to do when submitting your work to a literary agency?
Give yourself the best possible chance. Don’t submit too early.
We receive hundreds of submissions, so, for something to stand out, it has to be very special. Although we will work on manuscripts with our writers, we can’t tutor them. We simply don’t have the time. I do regret that, and writers are always looking for ways to learn to write better. Classes are useful, but for me, the best tutors are other books. If you’re widely read, the likelihood is that you’ll be a good writer. Books—even books for young children—are complex entities, and experience is one of the best teachers.
Is there any advice you would give to young people looking to submit to an agency?
Think very hard. The only thing young people lack is life experience, and the only way of amassing life experience is to go out and live it. It’s that experience that provides the foundation for the best books. There are exceptions, of course, but most manuscripts we receive from young people are not strong enough to hold a publisher’s attention. They often have brilliant ideas or sparkling characters, sometimes a fantastically gripping beginning, but a novel is a complex organism and it takes a great deal of talent to pull everything together over the course of 50,000-60,000 words.
Having said that, if a young writer comes to the agency with a record of success in competitions like the Pushkin Prizes or with short stories published—on paper or online—that definitely makes us sit up and look more closely.
The internet in particular offers countless opportunities to write. I’d say take them, look for feedback read lots, and live a great deal.
The writer Keith Gray used to write stories and circulate them to his friends and get feedback that way. That worked very well for him. He’s a fantastic writer, so there’s no reason for your writing not to be reaching readers, even if it’s not through the conventional publishing route at this stage.
Always, always have a notebook on hand. Observe, listen, and watch.
The chilly truth is that you won’t be indulged by a publisher simply because you’re a talented young writer. All books have to measure up to a publisher’s standards, whatever the writer’s pedigree. It is a business, after all. Every book has to earn the publisher money. I know that may all sound a bit off-putting, but I think it’s best to be honest.
I suppose I what I really want to say is that there’s no great rush. Use your time well.
How closely do you work with the authors whose submissions you accept? Is there a lot of communication involved?
It depends very much on the author. Some are more self-sufficient than others. Some require a period of intense activity, then they’ll head off and get on with it on their own. Some like to be left to their own devices, and some like regular contact.
We are usually very selective about the authors we take on. Both parties have to trust the other. We don’t have to be best friends, but it definitely helps if you get along.
What is the worst part of being a literary agent?
Like any job, really—failure! I am always so disappointed when a book I think is fantastic doesn’t find a publisher. But, as I know well, time can change things, and books that didn’t find a home the first time around often get another chance and can be very successful. I couldn’t possibly reveal which titles I mean, but their authors know who they are.
What is the best part of being a literary agent?
I love working with writers. I am never bored, and I feel so lucky to work with the people I do. They have to work very hard—it’s not the easy life many people imagine—and I admire them enormously.
Also, seeing those finished books, especially when they’re on a bookshelf in a bookshop or library! Because many of our writers write for young people, reading positive reviews from readers is a huge boost to morale.
Rhianna Urquhart is a 14 year old writer from Scotland. Rhianna says, “I’m a teen writer, so I’m nowhere near publishing a book yet. But learning about what goes on behind the scenes never harmed anyone, and I hope that when the time comes, I’ll get an agent as good as Ms. Fraser and Ms. Ross!”