Ireland is a small country with a prodigious amount of literary talent. And it’s not just that Ireland has a stunning historical tradition, it’s also that contemporary Irish authors and would-be authors punch far above their weight in impact on literature and popular writing alike.
However, despite there being so many writers, there are only about half a dozen literary agents active in Ireland, as compared with perhaps a hundred times that figure in the UK. It’s also true that while there are some fine Irish publishers, including the domestic arms of the big multinational firms, the European headquarters of every main English language publisher is to be located in Britain, usually in London
But that needn’t be a problem for Irish writers. Literary agents only congregate in London because that’s where the publishers are; their clients come from all over. I don’t know of a single British literary agent who would not happily take a good quality Irish client. Indeed, nearly all of them are happy to accept writers from South Africa, Australia and other, equally far flung, places. It is perhaps also worth mentioning that North American agents would typically expect Irish writers to be represented, as a first step, in Britain or Ireland.
The question which therefore arises is how to go about identifying the literary agent who is most suitable for you and your book. And roughly speaking, there are three possible answers.
The first is the tried-and-trusted pin-in-the-phonebook method. I don’t want to disparage this technique: when JK Rowling was getting ready to send out the first Harry Potter book, she sent her submission off to literary agent Christopher Little because she liked his name – and I’m fairly sure that that relationship worked out reasonably well for both parties. If you would like to adopt the same method yourself, you can buy the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook – essentially a directory of useful names and addresses – and try your luck. You do need to provide your own pin, however. There are also a number of free online listings available at the Association of Authors Agents and elsewhere.
A second, and rather more sophisticated, method is to get face to face with your putative agents. A fair number of UK literary agents will visit Ireland (for literary festivals and the like) but there are also a host of opportunities to meet agents in the UK. The two largest writers’ conferences are the Winchester Writers’ Conference and the WW Festival of Writing in York, but you’ll also find agents cropping up at literary festivals, local seminars, crime festivals, and the like. If you enjoy crime fiction, for example, then you’ll find that the Harrogate Crime Festival is heaving with agents and publishers from across the crime and thriller world.
One of the huge advantages of these face-to-face meetings is that, depending on exactly how the event is arranged, you should stand a good chance of encountering an agent in an informal setting. (That’s publishing-speak for ‘in a bar’.) Those informal contacts are, in my experience, often worth twice those offered by the more restrictive and formalised pitch sessions.
If you do go to an event where agents are present (especially where one-to-one pitching sessions have been made available), then do go prepared. Research the agents you’re likely to meet. Check that your work is suitable for them. Make sure you have a letter, synopsis and opening chapter(s) in good shape. Double-check for hideous typos in your opening pages. Pitch with confidence, but do listen to the feedback you’re given: agents are pros, and their reservations about a book usually need to be taken very seriously. At the same time, if they ask you to submit your manuscript in full (perhaps after some suggested rewrites), you should do your level best to respond as quickly and professionally as you can.
Finally, there is now a third method for finding literary agents – and one which brings a little bit of digital age magic to the old pin-in-the-phonebook method. Agent Hunter is an online database of literary agents agencies and publishers which enables a user to search for precisely the kind of profile which suits their own particular project.
For example, if you’re a huge fan of Maggie O’Farrell, you can do a ‘who represents whom’ search to locate that author’s agent. Or you could search for ‘agents who like women’s fiction and are actively seeking to build up their client lists’. Or, if write in a couple of genres and would prefer to have the resources of a larger agency behind you, you could search for ‘agents who represent women’s fiction and crime/thrillers and who work at a larger agency.’ Or anything else. The point is that, for the first time, it’s possible to set search criteria more rational than whether someone’s name sounds sweet.
The same site also goes far beyond simply providing a list of names and addresses. It offers photographs, biographies, likes/dislikes, submissions info, Twitter handles, useful links, and much more. The site essentially brings all the available public data on agents together in one place, supplements it with additional information supplied direct by agents, and allows users to search and browse the results in intuitive ways.
The Writers’ Workshop, my company, runs a major festival for writers and is also the outfit responsible for Agent Hunter. We found that while there are some good databases (both paid-for and free) covering the US market, their coverage of the UK market is patchy at best. Agent Hunter is designed to redress that inbalance.
And one final point. Writers can become too obsessed by the business of finding an agent, when they ought to be obsessed by the (rather harder) business of writing a wonderful book. If you’ve done the latter – genuinely done it; not just ‘my mum thinks I’ve done it’ – then actually getting an agent will prove fairly simple. As a rough rule of thumb if you try a dozen different literary agents without joy, then the problem isn’t that you’re knocking on the wrong doors, the problem is almost certainly that your book isn’t yet good enough. In which case, stop knocking on doors and start rewriting the book. Hard advice to hear – but the best advice to take.