Traditional Publishing

Some tips on approaching an agent

By Andrew Lownie
Literary Agent, The Andrew Lownie Literary Agency Ltd – Friday February 20, 2015

Our thanks to Andrew Lownie, named by Publishers Marketplace as the top selling agent worldwide, for providing this advice on how best to present yourself to an agent. This article is taken from The Writers' Handbook 2015, available through AmazonAmazon UK, and other outlets all over the world.

Authors are often angry, frustrated or shocked by the responses or lack of responses from agents, and it might be useful to give some background and advice which might help with pitching to agents.

Your book is special to you, and may one day be to other people, but at the moment it is just another submission. Authors need to remember that agents are inundated with submissions. Most have full lists already and need to concentrate on their existing clients. Of course agents are looking for new talent, but the chances of selling books from the slush pile are small.

Some agents claim they have never sold anything from the slush pile, though I take it very seriously, and personally look at almost twenty thousand submissions each year. Given each submission may be over forty pages long, that is a lot of reading to fit around the reading of my existing clients’ work, such as the fifty delivered manuscripts each year, and the normal work of the agency.

The most promising submissions – some eight a week – once read by me are passed to one of my specialist readers where the average charge for a reading will be about £40, which I pay; my bill for reading each year is over £15,000. Sometimes I will obtain several reports and spend years with authors reworking proposals and still fail to sell the book. Out of all those submissions, I will only take on around a dozen authors a year, and of those I might place eight.

The decision whether or not to look more carefully at a submission is made quickly, so authors may benefit from the following tips:

Address the agent correctly. I often receive proposals meant for other agencies, Mr Brown, Mr Mooney, Ms Lownie, the Andrew Lownie Litter Agency, the Andrew Lownie Literacy Agency. Sometimes the email claims to be addressed to me exclusively but refers to another agent in the body of the text.

Make sure the agent actually handles what you are offering. Well over half my submissions are for genres which, in all the reference books and on my website, I categorically say I don’t represent. I don’t know any agency which handles poetry and short stories so best to try publishers direct in those genres.

There are a number of annual reference books that list the leading literary agents, such as The Writers’ Handbook, the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and Guardian Media Guide. Many agencies now have websites giving a good sense of what they handle and their success rates There are countless websites, such as, giving information about submitting to agencies and publishers and numerous writing magazines, such as Writer’s News and Writing Monthly, with tips not just on writing books but also placing material.

Pitch by email rather than phone as it’s the writing which will sell you. If leaving a phone message, explain why you have phoned. You are unlikely to receive a return call to Australia if you simply say “Steve called”.

Try and personalise your email. It is easy enough now agencies have websites to find out the authors they handle. Look at the acknowledgements page of books which are comparable and try the agent who handled the book. Any email submission which I see has been copied to hundreds of other agencies is immediately discarded. A submission which shows the author has done research on the agency and comes with a recommendation is always taken seriously.

Follow instructions. If agencies have a preferred format then follow it and customise your proposal. The format is generally the one that they find works with publishers and helps everyone assess the proposal most effectively. Don’t insist they read the whole manuscript.

In the agency we initially ask for a short synopsis and the first three chapters for fiction. For nonfiction we ask for: 

  • one page mini-synopsis highlighting with bullet points what makes the book new and special with proposed word count and delivery date;
  • one page on your qualifications to write the book;
  • one page with a few lines on the five most recent competing and comparable books, giving author, title, publisher and date of publication together with a note on how the books relate to the author’s own book;
  • one page on sources used;
  • one page on any specialist marketing outlets such as websites, organisations or magazines; and
  • a sample chapter.

We then ask for a half page synopsis per chapter – roughly ten pages – if we are interested and want to take it further.

If the book is categorically rejected then don’t respond pointing out the agent has made a “mistake”. Move on to the next agency. It is a subjective business and agents turn down proposals – even perfectly publishable ones – for all sorts of specific reasons, even if they don’t always give you those reasons.

Agents understand that authors need to make multiple submissions to agencies but dislike “beauty parades”. It is not flattering nor encouraging to be told you are simply one of a hundred approaches. Time is limited, and if an agent suspects the author may go elsewhere then they will simply say “no” at the beginning. Keep quiet about multiple submissions and only send a few at a time so you can adapt your submission in the light of the responses you receive.

Agencies are keen to find and nurture talent but they are inundated with submissions. Remember they are businesses, not the Citizens Advice Bureau; manuscript evaluation services; or a branch of Social Services. Don’t expect them to recommend other agencies within or outside their areas of expertise. Presentation is important. Check spelling and punctuation. Don’t underline or use exclamation marks.

Submissions should be sent by email, preferably as Microsoft Word files or similar, not least as this is how we will submit. Gone are the days of photocopied proposals and scripts being posted. Remember that often more than thirty people in a publishing company may be asked to assess the submission so it needs to be circulated easily. My agency no longer accepts submissions by post.

Be clear in your covering letter. The concept of the book should be apparent in the opening sentence.

Don’t boast – the agent will be the judge of the quality of the material – but do highlight in a covering note what you think makes your book different and special. Not every idea makes a book. It might solely work as a television programme and long article.

And remember, if you receive lots of rejections, that not every book is sufficiently commercial for an agent or trade publisher. There are now plenty of opportunities to self-publish without being ripped off.

About the Author

The Andrew Lownie Literary Agency Ltd, founded in 1988, is one of the UK's leading boutique literary agencies, with some two hundred nonfiction and fiction authors handled respectively by Andrew Lownie and David Haviland. It prides itself on its personal attention to its clients and specialises both in launching new writers and taking established writers to a new level of recognition. Andrew Lownie remains the top selling agent worldwide, according to Publishers Marketplace, and was short-listed for Literary Agent of the Year at the 2013 and 2014 Bookseller Awards.

Books represented have included: The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English; The Oxford Classical Dictionary; The Penguin Companion to the European Union; Norma Major's history of Chequers; the memoirs of Sir John Mills, Alan Whicker, Gloria Hunniford, David Hasselhoff, Emily Lloyd, Kerry Katona and Patrick MacNee; the best-selling fostering series by Cathy Glass and Casey Watson; Sam Faiers' Living Life the Essex Way; Daniel Tammet's international best-seller Born on a Blue Day; Laurence Gardner'sThe Magdalene Legacy and The Shadow of Solomon, the literary estates of Joyce Cary and Julian MacLaren-Ross; the historians Juliet Barker, Roger Crowley, Tom Devine, Robert Hutchinson, Sean McMeekin, Linda Porter, Geoff Roberts ,Desmond Seward, David Stafford and Christian Wolmar; the wine writer Michael Schuster; crime writers, such as Mei Trow and David Roberts, and thriller writers such as Duncan Falconer.