Writing a book – that’s tough. Finding a literary agent to represent you – that often feels a whole lot harder.
The traditional method for finding an agent at least had the advantage of simplicity. You got a writer’s handbook – the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook is the best known of these, though there are now free listings services available online (this, for example) – and you got a sharp implement of your choice: a pin, a pencil, a lucky carrot. You took your sharp implement, jabbed it into the pages of the directory, and got a shortlist of agents that way. You didn’t, admittedly, know anything much about the literary agents in question, or at least not without a whole heap of further research. All you had was a list of names and addresses and very little idea of the person behind the name.
There were other disadvantages to that approach too. Although it wasn’t often disclosed, most of the big listings guides deliberately omitted smaller and newer agencies, no matter how strong the pedigree of their founders. There was a certain kind of snobbish sense to that in one way … but new writers are, on the whole, rather keen to find new agents in search of clients. Excluding these agents was effectively excluding the people most likely to take on a new author.
Hence, the evolution of the second method for finding agents: namely, actually meeting them. The first big writers’ conference in the UK was the Winchester Writers’ Conference, but others have sprung up since, including our very own Festival of Writing. These festivals and events bring literary agents together with writers in a way that’s exciting and potentially transformative. Even if an agent doesn’t take you on (and they almost never do that on the spot anyway; it just doesn’t work like that), you can get feedback and advice on your work which can be absolutely crucial. That’s not to say that agents are the last word in editorial advice. They’re not. But they bring a perspective to bear which can be absolutely crucial. Roughly speaking, if you go on a creative writing course or get editorial feedback, you’ll learn about technique: how to write better, in fact. Agents can’t really talk about technique – they haven’t written books – but they can tell you about the market: what publishers will and won’t buy. You need both perspectives. They’re both crucial.
Having said that, not everyone can travel to these events and plenty of agents seldom go to these things anyway. For all the real and substantial advantages offered by the festival approach, your perfect agent might simply never go to festivals, and there’s no reason why you should be limited to those that do
Aware of these things, we at the Writers’ Workshop realised that it was time to take the hunt for agents into the digital age. So we created a database – Agent Hunter – that included all literary agents in the UK (or all those we could find, anyway) and we gathered all the data that we ourselves would want if we were on the hunt for agents: not just contact info, but biographies, photos, likes and dislikes, submissions advice, interesting links, Twitter feeds – you name it, we found it. We used every public source of information we could lay our hands on, but we also approached agents themselves. Asked them to describe themselves to their potential clients. Not all agents responded – though many did – but those that did started to come alive as people. Started to come alive as literary guardians and potential business partners.
We also made it possible to search the data in ways that struck us as rational. So you can ask, ‘Which agents like historical fiction, have been in business less than five years and are keen to build their client lists?’ You can tweak the search terms this way and that to evolve a list of literary agents that’s right for you and your particular project. I should also say that we do charge for subscriptions to the service, but our prices compare favourably with what’s out there now (£12 a year against £19 for the leading printed directory) and we’ll keep our prices competitive well into the future.
I have to say, this is a brand new venture for us and we can’t be sure that we’ve got everything right, but we’re pretty excited about the feedback we’ve got so far … and already beginning to gather ideas for how to improve the system.
So if you’ve written your book and are about to seek out an agent, we’d love it if you cared to try out Agent Hunter … and love it if you let us know how you found it.