There’s nothing like having breakfast with 150 of your like-minded peers to get the literary juices flowing. And it’s always a great time when WCDR is organizing the breakfasts and speakers. Today was no exception.
Today’s speaker was Hilary McMahon of Westwood Creative Artists, Canada’s largest literary agency. And she started right up front with an apology. She wanted to forewarn us that getting published isn’t easy.
She started by talking about that piece, reminding us that we can’t go looking for the goal of the Giller or Booker or Pulitzer Prize. She told us that we have to write to please ourselves first and that, more often than not, that may be as far as we get.
The problem is, everyone thinks they have a book in them. She reminded us of the story of Margaret Atwood meeting a brain surgeon and him saying that he wanted to write a book after he retired. Atwood responded by telling him she wanted to do brain surgery after she retired. And while this sentiment is an exaggeration, it’s not a big one. Everyone thinks they have a book in them. But not everyone is capable of successfully delivering it to the page.
She talked about the publishing industry and the state of flux it’s currently in. There’s the economy to consider, there’s the free-falling number of hard copy book sales, there’s the rise of e-pub and more and easier ways to self-publish. This has led to falling advances, increased commission percentages to cover the increased expenses. McMahon stated that she represents over 90 authors, but ten of them are her surefire money makers.
And there was more discouragement. She estimated that she receives about 300-500 queries annually. That’s just her, one of about 30 agents in Canada. Of those, she may take on 3-5 authors per year. Pretty easy to do the math there. She rejects 99% of what she receives.
And she freely admits that she turns down some great works, but, as she says, while great, she doesn’t feel they’ll have a big enough appeal to break big in Canada or internationally.
She did offer some pointers for anyone seeking out an agent:
- Prep your pitch: You need to show your skill as a writer in your pitch. Your writing should be all about capturing the attention of the reader and engaging them. So should your pitch to an agent. She shared an anecdote where someone talked about working up the right attitude for a pitch: “Imagine you’re telling someone about your story in a bar, and it’s noisy, and that person isn’t even interested in hearing about it.” Pretty good challenge, isn’t it?
- Know your hook: Think about the core concept that will grab attention. McMahon used Yann Martel’s LIFE OF PI as an example: “The story of a boy in a life raft with a tiger.” It opens up a lot of questions immediately…it captures your attention. Other notable examples were Emma Donoghue’s ROOM and Kathryn Stockett’s THE HELP.
- Submit to more than one agent at a time: Her advice was solid. If you follow every agent’s rule to exclusive submission, it could take you years to work your way through them. Her advice? Be upfront with all of the agents and let them know they’re part of a multiple submission. If someone is adamant about exclusivity, then you make the decision to try them first, or perhaps leave them until the end. And submit to agents first, then publishers next, as it makes it easier for an agent to work with publishers on your behalf if that publisher hasn’t already rejected you.
- Send sample chapters even if you’re just querying: McMahon raises a good point. It’s Friday night, she’s just read your query and is on the fence. If you’ve got the sample chapters there to back it up, it could tip the balance in your favour. If they’re not there, will she think to email you Monday morning? Do you want to take that chance?
- Be patient and don’t expect feedback from the agent: Agents are busy and they have to wade through a lot of material, most of which isn’t very good (and that’s me speaking, not her. It’s the standard 80/20 rule…80% is crap). They don’t have time to respond and feedback every submission.
- That first page has to kill: Again, that’s my words, but it’s true. You have to grab that agent on the first page. McMahon mentioned more than once that amazing feeling of reading something from the slush pile that grabbed her on the first page and made her think this is gonna be good.
- Finally, don’t hassle them: As already stated, they have a lot of stuff to go through. If you haven’t heard from them in six to eight weeks, then politely and succinctly reach out to them. Do you have news? Did you win a contest, get a story published somewhere? Use that as an excuse because it will also help elevate you a bit more.
So, a lot of tough advice, but realistic. And agents have to be tough. Want proof? McMahon told the story of looking over the memoir manuscript by a family member and having to reject it. She said, “Imagine having to tell your 89-year-old great aunt ‘It’s my own family and even I don’t care about the story.’”