Kelly Falconer, founder of the Asia Literary Agency has some tough truths for writers who want to impress – and what it takes to find a good literary agent.
Apart from creating a spectacularly engaging story – be it fiction or non-fiction – writers nowadays must be aware of their responsibility to market and promote themselves even before approaching a literary agent.
With so much competition now – with the increase in creative-writing course graduates, the self-publishing phenomenon, the digital-publishing age – that to stand out from the crowd it is no longer enough to write a good book.
Writers must now also show what they’ve been doing in the meantime – be it blogging regularly, tapping strategically into social media to generate followers, aiming to get published elsewhere by submitting to newspapers, magazines, journals (online or off).
You’ll need to show what awards you have submitted to and/or won, what kind of grants and fellowships you might have applied to and received; in short, writers must show what they have been doing to earn their stripes.
There is no such thing in this world as an overnight success – it is a myth – and it applies to the profession of writing fiction and non-fiction as much as it applies to becoming a professional athlete or a doctor or lawyer, subject to regular training and certification.
Even so-called debut novelists often spend years and years refining their scripts, evolving as artists through practice and perseverance and by learning from other writers.
Of course there are some authors who have an inherent gift for story-telling, and who can tell a good story well, with characters, setting, plot all fully developed, and dialogue that rings true. But rest assured they, too, will have practised before reaching perfect.
Like many other agencies, the Asia Literary Agency asks for the synopsis plus the first three sample chapters of any novel, and for the first one or two chapters of any non-fiction proposal along with a rationale and proposed chapter outlines for the rest of the book.
Perhaps unusually, I also ask for a CV, so that I can see what the writer has done so far on their own, and of their own volition, to further their careers. This background information helps – if I decide to take on a script – when I pitch any writer and their work to editors and publishers.
Regardless, whether or not an editor likes a book is, and will forever be, a matter of subjectivity, dependent on personal taste primarily but also on whatever else may be happening at the office at the time the script lands in an editor’s email already overflowing with other submissions from other agents, and from authors delivering scripts that have already been commissioned.
In addition, these editors may also be distracted by the job of editing, working on any sales and marketing material needed for their books: writing cover copy – a skill in itself; creating advance information sheets for booksellers and the rights, marketing and publicity and sales departments; briefing the art department on the book so that the designers can then go off and create the covers; attend in-house meetings, including sales meetings, marketing meetings, acquisition meetings…
You may begin to see why a writer who’s already done so much groundwork will have better potential of catching the attention of any agent and, therefore, of any editor.
Kelly Falconer is the founder of the Asia Literary Agency, which represents Asian writers, experts on Asia and writers living in the region. She has worked as an editor in London for a variety of publishers including Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Granta magazine. In 2012, she was the literary editor of the Hong Kong-based Asia Literary Review.