How does a literary agency sell its authors?

“How does a literary agency sell its authors? We asked bestselling agent Andrew Lownie.

There are three elements to selling books to publishers:

  1. an agency needs to have saleable books in the first place
  2. the proposals need to be the best they can be
  3. one needs to know the right editors to approach and not give up too easily.

My agency spends a lot of time and effort on the website, as it’s a crucial tool in presenting the public face of the agency, in attracting potential authors and in selling rights. The website runs to several thousand pages with individual pages for each author – with a photo and link to their own website – and each book with the jacket cover, a précis of the book, review extracts and the rights sold. There are also pages for latest news, current submissions, publishing tips, forthcoming releases, and much more.

Details of what books have been sold, important reviews, short-listings for prizes etc are posted on a daily basis in the news section. These postings are also carried over onto the agency’s Facebook pages and Twitter account which has some 7,000 followers. There are also commissioned articles, such as the popular annual feature ‘What Editors Want’, which tend to be picked up on social media. The result is we receive an enormous number of visits to the website – over 20,000 in January 2015, for example – and, as a consequence, some 500 submissions each week.

From those 20,000 submissions each year, we’ll pick maybe 20 authors. This isn’t a simple or cheap process but we take submissions very seriously, from the standpoint of how can we make them work, rather than why we should reject them. Every single submission is read by the agency and a response sent with perhaps two proposals or manuscripts a day sent for further readings by external experts. These reports do not come cheap and constitute the agency’s biggest annual bill. Quite often this development process can go through a dozen readings over a period of years but it’s time well spent as the more polished the proposal, the easier it is to sell.”

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