Write Advice: Ed Wilson talks about agents and publicity

Mo Harber-Lamond
20 June 2016

Getting published involves far more than just writing a book. An integral part of the process is your agent, and for debut novelists this is often uncharted territory. To help clear things up a bit, we invited agent and co-owner of literary agency Johnson & Alcock, Ed Wilson, to talk to our Faber Academy alumni. In this Q&A, they discuss synopses, what agents look for in certain genres, and how much editorial help you can expect from your agent.

  • Spend time on your novel, and get it done
  • Work within a small, supportive group of writers
  • Fit your writing around other commitments
Writing a Novel: the first 15,000

Q – Hi Ed, thanks for coming along! In general, what would you say a crime novel has to do, for you?

Ed Wilson – Glad to be here. Crime fiction is a congested genre, and I really need it to be doing something different. By different, I mean unlike anything else currently in the market. Be that character, setting, premise, whatever, it just needs to stand out from the crowd.

Q – Do you think there still is a different slant to be taken in crime fiction? Aren’t the CWA Dagger and Theakston winners still writing to a formula of sorts?

EW – If you’re writing a crime novel there is a formula: it has a crime in it! But, you’ll find every new writer has something different, something new, even if it’s voice, or tone, or setting.

Q – How genre-specific are agents?

EW – Most of the major – ie obvious – genres are covered by existing brands. Know how your novel – or ideally novels – are different, how they fit into the market, and what their USP is. Some agents are very specialised, but most are general. Personally, I’m the latter.

Q – I’ve had mixed responses from industry people about what a synopsis sent to an agent or publisher should do. Should it tell all, or just indicate that the author understands story structure, and will take the novel somewhere satisfying?

EW – I think people get too hung up on synopses. No agent ever signed a novel because of a good synopsis, and I personally would never turn a book down because of a bad synopsis. I’d say tell all, leave nothing untold. Simplify the story. The synopsis is only a tool, not the main selling point. All it needs to do is not put the agent off, and then they can decide based on your writing and your writing alone.

The same goes for covering letters: they have one purpose, and one purpose alone, and that is not put the agent off. It’s vital to understand the numbers, too: with 100 manuscripts sent to me every week, and my existing authors on top, the default answer to a submission has to be no. I take on one new writer a month, if that. Just make sure you’re a hard no, not an easy no.

I think people get too hung up on synopses. No agent ever signed a novel because of a good synopsis, and I personally would never turn a book down because of a bad synopsis.

Ed Wilson

Q – Do you ever indicate whether someone was an ‘easy no’?

EW – Sadly not, because we get so many submissions. An easy no will get a form response, and unfortunately most submissions get a form response. We’d love to give feedback on everything, but there just isn’t time.

Q – How long should someone expect to wait for any response to their submission?

EW – Every agent should say on their website how long their wait time is. Often this is a guideline, and all agents are optimists, so I’d suggest most are longer than what’s stated. As a general rule, don’t start to chase until the stated time has been exceeded. I think we say 6-8 weeks at present, but that should probably be more like 10-12.

Q – Would you usually suggest a lot of editing to a debut novelist between when they submit to you, and when you submit to an agent?

EW – A book needs as much editing as it needs! Some books I’ve worked on for years before they’re ready, some just for a few months. Each book is different, but if yours needs a lot of work, that will put some agents off.

Q – Do you still look at novels outside length parameters currently accepted by publishers? I understand thrillers over 100,000 words are generally considered too long. How would Tolkien fare today?

EW – Honestly, length is a red herring. For general fiction, anything between 70,000 and 120,000 words is fine. Young adult and middle grade fiction can be shorter, and for sci-fi/fantasy, 120,000 is on the short side. Again, length is not a reason to reject a book, but if it’s unusually long or short, there has to be a reason. Have you left anything unsaid? Are you trying to do too much?

Q – Realistically speaking, is there room for new blood, or is there just an over-saturation of existing authors on agent’s books?

EW – There’s always room for new blood. Publishing loves a debut, and there are always writers who stop writing, either because they want to or not. People starting out should find an agent who is looking for clients. I’d probably seek out someone younger.

Q – How do non-industry newbies find hungry new agents actually looking for new authors?

EW – Do plenty of research. There are lots of resources out there, and lots of ways to find out who the up-and-coming agents are. Social media, Q&As, literary events – all of these things and more will be useful to look into.

Q – Do you work quite closely with the writers you take on, or does that depend on whether they need/want it? Do you feel like you take on an editor-type role with your writers?

EW – I work editorially with 100% of my authors. Some agents don’t, and these are more the ‘deal-maker’ agents, who are looking for a quick sell and an easy payday. Not my bag. I heard people say that agents who act editorially are a thing of the past, but don’t believe everything you hear! An author’s first editor is themselves. Their second editor is their agent. Their third editor is their editor.

When I sign an author, they’ll have a finished book, but it’ll need editing. Editorial work takes about six months. Submissions and contract work will take about two months. Then, it’ll be a year to 18 months before the publisher publishes it.

Ed Wilson

Q – If you feel that your novel sits between two different genres, do you mention this in the pitch/synopsis? Would an agent question where it would be placed in a bookstore were it ever to be published?

EW – The industry is getting much better at handling cross-genre books, Amazon has a category for everything! Some cross-genres work: women’s commercial fiction + sci-fi = Time Traveller’s Wife. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, is another, rather extreme example, but it sold shed loads.

Q – When you’re reading a submission do you do so with an idea of which editor it would appeal to, and subsequently, if you can’t think of any, does it make you lean towards a rejection?

EW – I’ll never take a book on unless I know at least six editors I can send it to, and ideally more. That’s part of an agent’s skill: we have to know editors’ taste, what they’re looking for, and much more.

Q – What are the top three factors that compel an agent to stop and believe that what they’re reading is worth taking further?

EW – Three factors? I’d say there’s just one: gut feeling. You can’t duplicate the sensation that what you’re reading is something special. You really have to be that excited.

Q – Are you ever prepared to take something on that you think is good, but is outside what you think are publishers’ current tastes?

EW – All the time. When I sign an author, they’ll have a finished book, but it’ll need editing. Editorial work takes about six months. Submissions and contract work will take about two months. Then, it’ll be a year to 18 months before the publisher publishes it, and these are hopeful estimates. So, the genre I thought was “hot” is two years behind me.

On the other hand, the two long years it takes to get a book published gives the author time to write their next novel. The writer can worry less about the publishing process, and just keep on doing what they love – writing.

Q – Is it reasonable that once one has an agent to just let them get on with the selling and publishing, while the author goes into hiding to write? I would’ve thought we would have to “sell ourselves”?

EW – Well, there has to be a balance. An author can very rarely be a recluse any more, but there’s no need for every author to go mad on the publicity front. Around the time of publication, you’ll need to make yourself available, but for the rest of the time your agent will be delighted if you leave them alone to get on with their job!

Q – Is it reasonable to expect feedback from an agent on a full manuscript?

EW – If an agent requests a full manuscript, then it’s not unreasonable to expect some feedback. But be realistic: if it’s a rejection, there is no financial incentive in providing that feedback, only moral. So don’t be too harsh if an agent doesn’t give you more than a few lines. Also, be aware that some agents request a lot of full manuscripts, and farm them out to readers, so you often you don’t know whose feedback you’re receiving.

Q – I love that you take a close editorial interest in your writers. How does this work for subsequent novels? Would they work directly with an editor, or would you be closely involved?

EW – An agent will usually only edit the first book, especially if it’s a multibook deal, but if it’s a one-off, and the agent wants to move publisher, he/she may well have input on further books. Hard to say!

Q – Ed, this has been fantastic. Thanks for you insight to the world of agents and publishing!

EW – It’s my pleasure. I hope I’ve made these often muddy waters a little clearer. Thanks!

Ed Wilson

Ed Wilson is as literary agent, and co-owner/director of literary agency Johnson & Alcock. Follow him on Twitter @literarywhore.

Writing a Novel: the first 15,000 online course

Begins: 27 September 2017
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