Answering YOUR questions about literary agents

On Monday 20th February, the co-founders of The Author School and Hashtag Press will be hosting an informal seminar about literary agents. From 1830-2030 at the Calder Bookshop in London SE1, for just £25 per ticket, a small group of authors will gather to get answers to their specific questions relating to the publishing process and what it means to hire a literary agent.  

Ahead of this evening workshop, we wanted to share some top-level questions and answers with you to inspire, inform and guide you through the minefield that is publishing and seeking representation from an agent.

Do you need a literary agent?

Yes and no. Not the most helpful of answers but it’s true. Some authors NEED a literary agent because the genre they’re writing in is typically published by traditional publishers who require an agent to put manuscripts to them. Some publishers will only accept submissions via an agent. Why? This is a longer answer that requires us to look back at publishing history and the evolution of the industry over decades. As the publishing industry becomes more diverse, fragmented, disrupted (whatever you wish to call it) there are increasing pressures on publishers. There are more authors than ever before, there are more people publishing books (from indie to digital publishing and everything in between) and there is more competition than ever. So, the publishers rely upon literary agents to provide a filter on the submissions. They used to have huge numbers of people employed to work through the ‘slush pile’ finding winning manuscripts and helping them rise to the top. But they’re being squeezed, as I say, and so they are cutting down on the filters, and relying on literary agents.

So, how do I know if I need a literary agent or not?

Ask around, come to The Author School evening workshop (February 20th) or the full day course (March 13th) in London, sign up to our online course, follow us on Twitter…We are here to help and support you and have helped – and continue to help – many authors along their own author journey.

You can ask fellow writers (at writers’ groups, networking events, author conferences) face to face, you can join author communities online (Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn), and you can ask other authors who have been published by your ‘dream’ publisher how they got there. Ask away! Do your research! Dig around!

I’ve worked out that I could get an agent or go direct to publishers, so which should I do first?

If you think your book could fall into either camp, then consider whether you think working with an agent is right for you. Do you feel like you want professional input, help polishing your proposal, manuscript and synopsis, that do you like the idea of someone opening doors for you that, frankly, you’d be unlikely to open yourself? Do you want someone to negotiate and fight your corner, to pitch for the best possible deal for you and your book? And are you prepared to pay their commission fee? Are you ready to wait and play the game on their timetable (literary agents often work to the next literary fair from LBF in March to BEA in May and Frankfurt in October, and everything in between)? Are you braced for critique?

I want an agent! Where do I sign?

This is vital…you need all the help you can get to get an agent. It’s a major challenge and there are tasks you can do to help yourself in advance. Top tips include writing a well-presented marketing document about yourself – what are your selling points? Why are you the right person for the job? What is your online platform? What are your plans to sell, market and promote your book? Remember publishers’ budgets have been squeezed and you need to show commitment to the book once it’s been printed.

  • Get your book edited professionally, write a flippin’ amazing synopsis, make that first chapter sing.
  • Fine-tune your elevator pitch and then fine-tune it once more. Sum up your book in one sentence. Sum up why you’re the best author for the job in one sentence.
  • Once you’re ready, then you can start putting yourself out there…don’t run before you can walk!


There are so many other questions to consider, all of which we’ll run through during the evening workshop on February 20th…join us if can!

By Helen Lewis, co-founder of The Author School (with Abiola Bello), book publicist and journalist and director of Literally PR (


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