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Business of Writing, The Writer's Life

A (Previously) Undiscovered Country of Agents

So now that I’m submitting again, I’ve also restarted querying for my two novels. One of them is a historical fiction that takes place at the beginning of World War I, in Paris. It’s a rollicking tale about three American entertainers caught in the events of the time, revolving around the assassination of a French leader who led the effort to stop the war before it started, as he did two years before (all true, btw).

The fact that the 100th anniversary of the war begins in 2014 so far hasn’t appealed to the agents I’ve contacted regarding Curtain Calls, however. But recently it dawned on me that perhaps a European market would be better for the book.

Sometimes I think most Americans[1] know there was a World War I only because they’ve heard there was a World War II. Europeans, however, have a different perspective, having suffered much more through what they call The Great War, and may better appreciate the appeal to that history.

I started researching British agents, and was immediately surprised—make that shocked. Those of you who have queried in the U.S. know that the average agent expects you to condense the description of your 300-page novel down to a paragraph or less. It feels like writing copy for the side of a box of kids’ cereal.

But here’s what one British agent asks from authors of fiction:

  • 1 page synopsis outlining the premise and overall narrative structure
  • 1 page author profile
  • 1 page with a few lines on five comparable books giving author, title, publisher and date of publication together with a note on how the books compare to the author’s own book
  • 1 page on marketing opportunities, including the author’s particular expertise, contacts and profile (including social media), and any specialist marketing outlets such as websites, organisations or magazines
  • Brief synopses of each chapter, about half a page each[2]
  • Sample chapters, preferably the first three

Really, this is for fiction. Nonfiction guidelines are different. I triple checked.

Other UK agents I’ve found aren’t as elaborate, but still give writers ample opportunity to present their artistic vision, rather than asking them to turn it into something that would fit into a fortune cookie. Could it be that the Brits actually still value literature enough to spend time finding good stuff? I sure hope so.

In thinking about it, I also realized that these guidelines are a great way of separating legitimate authors from the thousands of wannabes out there—a good writer has a platform and a vision for the book, which usually includes where its potential lies in the market. An amateur may look at these requirements and realize he may not be ready for the big time. This agent may receive fewer queries, but of higher quality.

I was so pleased with the first agent’s approach that I thanked him for making me do the extra work (although not in those exact words).

So now it’s up the British! I’m all about this new overseas possibility. To paraphrase an old tune from WWI: I won’t stop querying ’til I’m over, over there!

[1] The ones who can count, that is.

[2] Wow—a chance to tell the story!


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


12 thoughts on “A (Previously) Undiscovered Country of Agents

  1. Interesting post. I’m also in the agent hunt but hadn’t thought of the British side – maybe for the next novel, which is historical fiction. Meanwhile, I’ve struggled with trying to boil down a complex novel to the ingredients on the side of a soup can (literary, southern, suspense, yes the narrator is 16…)

    Posted by valerienieman | November 16, 2013, 2:09 PM
    • Your comment cracked me up, Val. When querying, maybe we should just list our nutritional info:
      Characters: 12
      Pages: 260
      Avg. Reading Time: 5 hours, 17 minutes
      Contains scenes of violence, sex and riboflavin

      Posted by jpon | November 16, 2013, 2:27 PM
  2. Dear Joe, This is indeed very exciting! Though I’m not sure I would know where to look to find novels to compare in kind with some I’ve written, since one sometimes has time either to read or to write, and often not both, as it turns out, I think the British definitely sounds like the better market, and remembering my go-round with agents a few years ago, and with editors, would absolutely encourage you, with your gifts, to strike out for Anglo-parts-previously-unknown. I would love to see you as a world sensation!

    Posted by shadowoperator | November 16, 2013, 2:25 PM
    • Yes, me too!

      Interestingly, when I searched Amazon for comparable books, I came up empty—too sales focused. But I found what I needed on Goodreads, where the books are organized by topics. Had my 5 similar books in an hour.

      Posted by jpon | November 16, 2013, 2:29 PM
      • Thanks for the tip, Joe. I’ve never investigated Goodreads. If I ever get to the stage of doing the kind of submissions you’re doing, I’ll know where to look.

        Posted by shadowoperator | November 16, 2013, 2:36 PM
      • Ah, good resource! It will be interesting to follow your progress – best wishes!

        Posted by valerienieman | November 16, 2013, 2:36 PM
  3. Well, now, isn’t that interesting. You can absolutely see how this formula would help in a number of ways, not the least of which allowing the writer to show their entire plan upfront, as well as weed out those who have no plan. I have a friend who published his first novel and first short story collection in the UK, and eventually both were picked up by small American publishers as well.

    Posted by Teri | November 16, 2013, 4:49 PM
    • Yes, I know a couple of people who published their first books in England as well. It’s encouraging to say the least.

      Posted by jpon | November 16, 2013, 8:58 PM
  4. as always, a very interesting post with wonderful insights and practical suggestions. Love the goodreads idea!

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | November 17, 2013, 4:45 AM
    • I was getting pretty disappointed with the Amazon returns. A Google search turned me on to the Goodreads idea.

      Posted by jpon | November 17, 2013, 12:06 PM
  5. It’s a huge generalization, but I think there’s typically more of everything in the U.S. compared to Europe, including the number of people writing novels and querying agents (and likely literary agencies, for that matter). We lived in Europe for 5 years, and with each visit back to the U.S. during that time, I found it extremely overwhelming. Everywhere I looked, there were too many choices. Eventually I nicknamed our home country “the land of excessive excessiveness.”

    Your theory seems plausible: an agency attempting to weed out the folks who aren’t ready to publish and/or those who can’t be bothered to jump through all the extra hoops. You could draw the same parallel to publications here who don’t accept email submissions. I certainly hope you find your market in Europe, and I think you may be on to something. The two world wars resonate very differently with Europeans, who suffered the direct impact of German occupation and all the horrors of war. Your novel sounds fascinating; I really hope someone over there picks it up. I am a history buff and love historical topics — I just finished revising an article on an obscure fact about Thomas Jefferson and plan to start submitting to children’s publications. It’s amazing how many children’s markets are looking for historical articles. I really enjoyed researching my topic…might compel me to try writing more.

    Good luck, Joe. Keep your readers posted.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | November 17, 2013, 12:02 PM
    • I hope you’re right about the European view of the world wars. It certainly makes sense.

      One interesting aspect of my UK agent search: I’ve found a couple of agents there who do not accept queries from American authors. I think we can guess why. Makes me paraphrase the Woody Allen line: I want to be a member of a club that wouldn’t have someone like me as a member.

      Posted by jpon | November 17, 2013, 12:10 PM

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