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Cat Hellisen

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Submitting to Agents

I don’t normally do “how-to” posts because my way is not your way etc, but I’m putting this little agent-getting-of post up about my experiences (which even by now may be a little dated :P) because I’ve been noticing a few posts here and there that have set off alarm bells.

So okay, my credentials. Um, I’ve had two agents. I’ve done the query mill with a host of books and learned something from my experience. And here’s what I know.


Have a Finished Book.

This might seem like a no-brainer but uh…you’d be surprised. Because wait times on queries can be months, people sometimes think they will have finished the book by the time the agent responds. Heard of Murphy’s Law? Yeah. Don’t do this, it just makes you look like a tit, it’s unprofessional, and WHY WHY WHY if you have an opening good enough to interest an agent, would you squander that golden opportunity by having the rest of the book be a rush-written pile of shite?

Also, finished book means not just first-drafted. it means rewritten, revised, polished and ready to go.


Do Your Homework.

Some people like to skip the agent hunt and submit straight to editors. You *can* do this, but I’d recommend against it. First off, you are limited in who you can send to – many publishing houses don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, and the ones that do are certainly not putting you on a priority list.

Some other things to consider – you can submit a query to more than one agent at a time (and I strongly recommend you do – wait times being what they are) but editors in general only want you to be on sub to one place at a time. Also, agents will have more contacts within the industry, can get you a better deal than you can yourself, and are well-versed on Contract-Speak.

When you do go agent hunting, make sure you are querying the correct agent for your genre, in the format they prefer. I tend to keep a bunch of varied queries and sample pages and synopses lengths to cater for the different agents. This is the main website I used for agent-information when I was querying; Agent Query.


Queries Are Professional Letters.

Follow formatting guides like a boss. You do not want to get cutesy here. Keep your query professional in tone, fulfill the requirements, and make sure that you have some help with getting this one right. You have 250 words to catch someone’s interest, out of a pile of 300 other similar 250-word pitches. (I’m going to include an example of a very early query letter of mine that garnered good results. Not saying it’s a perfect query, but that it gives you an idea of what does/did work)*


A Good Agent Has Nothing To Hide.

This goes hand in hand with do your research. An agent (especially when you have multiple offers) understands when you ask to speak to other clients, when you ask questions about how they work, their communication style, their approach to editing manuscripts (some agents are very hands-on, other do not want to be involved in the process). Any agent that is unwilling to answer basic questions about how they work, and discourages you from speaking to other clients is raising red flags.

Research agents at places like Preditors and Editors and AbsoluteWrite’s Bewares and Background Checks. The entire forum at Absolute Write is a wealth of publishing information and I recommend reading through at least some of the stickied threads.


Sometimes We Divorce.

Now, I’m not saying the agent/client relationship is a marriage because that would be weird and awkward…..but, it is a relationship, and sometimes Things Just Don’t Work Out. And it’s nobody’s fault. Shit Happens. If you part ways with your agent, be upfront about it when you hit the query-rounds again, and be aware new agents are going to ask why. No matter what, don’t slag off your old agent to the ones you are querying. It’s a) plain bad form, and b) stupid. You have no idea who is friends with whom in this world.

If you have any questions that I haven’t covered here, you can ask in comments or drop me an email and I’ll add it to the post.


* Sample query for a very old book that while it did get me agents, never sold (and has been significantly rewritten). It’s here simply as an example of what worked in terms of layout and style and voice. I’ve removed names etc:


Dear [agent person]

I am seeking representation for BLACK WINGS, my completed 62,000 word
urban fantasy novel aimed at the older YA reader.

It’s Irene Kerry’s gap year and while almost all her classmates have
swanned off to Europe, she’s stuck working a sucky bar job. The only
thing that keeps her serving suburban socialites is her desire to put
herself through art school. She’s also in love with her best friend
Rain, despite knowing that he only likes boys.

Clubbing and work are slowly destroying her passion for art as Irene’s
life spirals into a crazy merry-go-round of drinking and drugging with

Then Rain meets Caleb at their dealer’s house, and Irene watches as
she loses her best friend to an ageing goth who looks like he should
be buried at a crossroad with a stake through his heart. Knowing that
Rain is not the most emotionally stable emo-waif out there, Irene
worries that Caleb is only going to end up hurting him. What she
doesn’t know is that her friend’s new lover is a dead man; Caleb is a
trickster looking for someone to take his place in the afterlife, and
Rain is his perfect mark.

I’ve included the first five pages below as a sample, as per your guidelines.

My short story This Reflection Of Me appears in the anthology
Jabberwocky 3.

Thank you for your time.


Contact details:






Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Sally</a>
    August 27th, 2013 @10:48 #

    Excellent post Cat.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Cat Hellisen</a>
    Cat Hellisen
    August 27th, 2013 @10:59 #

    Thanks, :).

    There is so much information out there but it's scattered all over the place. A master-list of useful agent-hunting sites would be cool. I'll have to add to this one as I go.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    August 27th, 2013 @11:44 #

    I recently listened to this podcast of a panel discussion by UK agent, Juliet Mushens, and one of her authors, Den Patrick, very interesting:
    Many of the points, which support several of Cat's, are summarised here:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Cat Hellisen</a>
    Cat Hellisen
    August 27th, 2013 @12:45 #

    Thanks, Louis.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Cat Hellisen</a>
    Cat Hellisen
    August 27th, 2013 @12:48 #

    "Let us know if someone else is interested."

    Oh VERY good point! And not just for the agent, for the writer. Sometimes agents need a nudge to get them to look at a manuscript they've requested. If you get an offer, letting the other agents with fulls and partials know is not only polite, but could lead to more offers, which is almost always better for the writer - not every agent is the right fit.

    Having said that, NEVER EVER EVER LIE and say you have offers when you don't just so that agents will read faster.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    August 30th, 2013 @10:29 #

    Great advice Cat.

    I'd add that your query letter should be some of the best writing you've ever done in your life. You get one shot with an agent, don't screw it up - I think it's best to keep it simple, accessible, don't get too clever, but show that you can write and don't be afraid to reveal major plot points in your synopsis. This isn't the back cover blurb, it's your pitch and you have to sell it.

    Do your homework, to find someone appropriate to you and your work and your ambitions for the future - the relationship metaphor is a good one. You want someone who gets you. And if it doesn't work out, you need to move on.

    You could also add a bit about who you are, especially if it's surprising (Eg. one of my friends is an award-winning journalist who is also a white collar boxer and a jazz chanteuse - and I make her put that in her query letter, because its bloody cool).

    If you're querying multiple agents, be sure to tell them that in your query letter.

    Accept rejection with grace and style.

    And most importantly, don't give up. It took me a year of gut-wrenching rejection to sell Moxyland.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Cat Hellisen</a>
    Cat Hellisen
    August 30th, 2013 @10:46 #

    Agreed that your query should be top-notch (and reflect the tone of your work within the actual hook part) but just wondering - do you think it's necessary to tell agents you're multi-subbing?

    My understanding was that subbing to multiple agents is standard, though a few will ask for exclusivity. If you do agree to give an agent an exclusive, I'd suggest putting a time frame on that (a month at the most) otherwise you're sitting there twiddlign thumbs while waiting for said agent to get round to reading you manuscript. (agents are busy, and human, and they forget things just like the rest of us)

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    August 30th, 2013 @11:12 #

    My agent is going to be at Open Book Festival on a talk called The Insider's Guide, so would be a good thing to ask him.

    From my personal experience, I think it's polite to say that you're querying other agents too, or planning to. And I'd say query 3-5 others max.

    It might prompt them to ask for an exclusive reading period (as happened to another friend) and get them to put your submission at the top of their list.

    It ups the ante and also shows you've done your homework on who you're approaching specifically ("I'm also querying Josephina Bloggs at the Awesome Agency" and Max Dealius at HighLitRUs") and hey, might create some friendly rivalry, to come back to the relationship analogy.

    But then it might also let them off the hook, oh, well, if s/he's querying Max, then I don't have to feel bad about not reading it.

    I agree you should give a time limit on the exclusive period.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Cat Hellisen</a>
    Cat Hellisen
    August 31st, 2013 @08:34 #

    Also just a note: Lauren's agent is from the UK (correct me if I'm wrong?) and mine is in the USA.

    When I was querying, I noticed there tends to be quite a difference in how the agents on the two sides of the pond like to be approached and what they expect in a query.

    It comes down, again, to doing your homework. There is a lot of info out there, but the sites I've linked to are pretty good places to start.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    September 1st, 2013 @15:30 #

    Oh definitely, agents are people and it's entirely subjective and personal.


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