Getting an agent in Canada

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.'”



11 thoughts on “Getting an agent in Canada

  1. At the first Ontario Writers`Conference, Robert Sawyer told us that half of us would not finish our projects, half of the ones who did finish would not stay the course to find an agent or publisher, half of the ones who did stay the course would not be accepted. I think that left about two of us who would make it. That was the moment I decided that I would be among that miniscule percentage who did end up with an agent and a published book in my hand. It was a sobering talk, just as Hilary`s was today, but it just strengthens my resolve.

  2. Tobin, thanks for giving such a good summary of today’s breakfast. I think everyone there got a lot out of it. Were you also at Noelle’s workshop today? It sounds like you’re doing a lot of the things she recommends!

  3. Great summary Tobin!

    Yup – Hilary gave the room tough love, but love all the same. We can’t all be best-selling authors I guess, now can we? You know what I walked away with? It’s hard to be writer, it’s a very tough business, but after hearing Hilary, I’d rather be a writer than an agent. That is one tough job. After all, they don’t get paid unless we get paid, and so few of us get paid! LOL. I thought the talk was fabulous, but I could have listened to another full hour of it!

    PS to Christina – I’d like to take credit for Tobin’s master blogging skills, but he’s never heard my workshop on blogging basics. Hmmmm…how can I take some credit…..well, I said hello to him today and gave him a hug, does that count?

  4. Sorry I missed today’s talk, so I’m especially thankful for the summary Tobin. Much appreciated!

    And I missed Noelle’s workshop too, but I’m going to take her half day up in Barrie on the 24th of January, so I’m somewhat mollified there.

  5. Tobin, great job encapsulating Hilary’s talk. You left nothing out.

    So great for you to take time to pay-it-forward to those who could not be with us at yesterday’s WCDR breakfast meeting. Bravo!

  6. I’ve heard Hilary speak twice and am still impressed by her frankness. I’ve also been on the recieving end. Hers was a nice letter that while it was a no, it left the door open. That was two years ago.

    I actually thanked her at the breakfast. She said she’d never been thanked for a rejection letter before. It was a learning time for me and I admitted to her that I had sent my query letters out before I was ready. Writing is all about learning. And thick skin. VERY thick skin.

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