News room: How to pitch a self-published book to a literary agent, with Harry Bingham

How to pitch a self-published book to a literary agent, with Harry Bingham by Sarah Juckes

Many authors we speak to are often surprised to hear that you can self-publish AND look for an agent. It’s something we at CompletelyNovel actively encourage if a traditional publishing contract is the main aim for you (we send our best books to Greene & Heaton literary agents each month to help!). So how do you go about pitching a self-published book to a literary agent? Is it any different to submitting an unpublished manuscript? To find out, we asked author, editorial consultant and agent hunter, Harry Bingham, for his advice.

It wasn’t so long ago that literary agents were wary of self-published authors, thinking that most of them were slightly crazy people who couldn’t really write. And, while there were always self-published authors who broke through to mainstream success, examples were few and far between.

All that has now changed.

For one thing, the average quality of self-pub work has been transformed over the last five years or so. Covers have got better. Proof-reading has improved. Texts have got better. It’s been an impressive transition. And then as well, there’s been a deluge of successful self-pub authors – in Britain alone, one would count James Oswald, Kerry Wilkinson, Nick Spalding and – the queen of them all – EL James. Sometimes, authors who have made their names in the self-publishing arena have then chosen to parlay their go-it-alone success into traditional deals with mainstream publishers.

So: if you too want to walk that road, what do you need and how do you go about it?

1. First of all, you need to demonstrate success. With print books, you’ll need to show at least a few thousand sales. With low-priced e-books, you’ll need to show sales in the tens of thousand. With free e-books, you probably need 50,000 downloads to convince a publisher that there’s a large enough paying market for your work.

2. You need to demonstrate professionalism in all aspects of your work. Is your work properly copyedited? Does your website look classy and work properly? Do you have a reasonable social media presence? Those things never swing a deal, but they do help.

3. You need to find a literary agent who works in your kind of area. The site we set up, Agent Hunter, allows you to search and filter agents by genre, experience, and much more. Not just that, but you can see what kind of books and authors they like or dislike, so you can search out the people where you feel a real point of contact.

4. Then approach the agent. There are some dos and don’ts here, but they really boil down to this: be professional, don’t be an idiot. If you can write a book good enough to be published, you can certainly write to an agent without messing up.

5. Give it time and persevere. Agents are busy people. They’ll typically receive about 2,000 manuscripts a year, and they have to handle that deluge outside of normal office hours. (When they’re at work, they’re handling the business affairs of their own clients: always their first priority.) So be patient, not pushy. And always approach multiple agents, not just one or two.

6. Finally, it’s perfectly OK to meet agents face to face and pitch your work direct. That doesn’t mean “turn up univited at their office”. That would not go so well. But it does mean that you can use events like our Festival of Writing, or other writers conferences, to meet agents in a setting where they positively welcome approaches.

And remember this: agents WANT you to approach them. They know damn well that the next, great, undiscovered writer is lying somewhere in their slushpile. Make your approach – be professional – and good luck.

Harry Bingham is a crime writer who occasionally moonlights as an editorial consultant and a hunter of agents.

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Written by
Sarah Juckes
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Literary agents