literary agent

What is a Literary Agent Reader?

I am the Gatekeeper. Effectively, this is the prime role I play as a freelance Literary Agent Reader. I police the borders, I man the drawbridge and am pledged to repel intruders. However, those who do get past me stand on the threshold of fame and fortune, in the citadel that is Publishing. A bit scary isn’t it?

I am sure that, for many first time authors, the Literary Agent Reader elicits the same fear as the Grim Reaper. My aim here is to explain the role of the Reader, elicit some sympathy, and provide some tips on how to ingratiate yourself with the Reader.

Literary Agent Readers are employed by literary agents and publishers to fulfil a number of roles, but, in my case, I am employed as a freelancer to undertake the initial assessment of all general and non fiction unsolicited manuscripts that arrive at the doors of Conville and Walsh. Once a month, a white van pulls up outside my secret retreat and deposits up to five Post Office bags, containing up to 200 part manuscripts.

Conville and Walsh is one of a dwindling number of agents that still accepts unsolicited manuscripts from potential authors. The firm provides hard copy and information on the format in which they are prepared to accept unsolicited manuscripts. Essentially, we request up to 50 consecutive pages of manuscript, a covering letter and synopsis, plus a S.A.S.E. if the enclosures are to be returned to sender. All pretty standard, but it’s surprising how many people fail to follow even this basic advice, so let’s start by examining what goes wrong.

The idea, in asking for 50 consecutive pages, is to enable the Literary Agent Reader to make an initial assessment as to the quality of the writing, the flow of the narrative and the strength of the individual voice. I have had as little as two pages and as many as four hundred. Both extremes are unwarranted.

The Synopsis is a summary of the plot and we ask for a one to two page Synopsis. The Synopsis is not the equivalent of a book blurb and should contain no claims as to market placement, no hyperbole and no comparisons with any published literature. It should be a simple, clear and immediately understandable summary of the main plot and themes contained therein. Don’t hold back vital information when compiling the Synopsis. Too many authors seem to distrust agents and end up providing a truncated summary, with the proverbial, ‘All will be revealed.’ Such detail must be revealed to the Reader, especially if there is an unexpected twist or plot development.

The covering letter should be no more than a courtesy letter, containing a very short, two-line summary of the manuscript, reference to any other published or unpublished work and relevant personal details. ‘Relevant personal details’ is not meant to include the following: information on the author’s writing history from childhood onwards; lists of favourite books and authors; what the neighbours, friends, children and extended family, think of their work; or any obscure information which will hinder the Reader from starting the assessment of the manuscript in hand. Be concise and be professional. The author may complain that this does not allow for an individual approach and does not allow him/her sufficient opportunity for self expression. The manuscript in hand will do that, so let the Reader get to it, as soon as possible. Allow time for the manuscript to talk for you.

Personally, after skimming through the covering letter, I then start the reading the text straight away. I only refer to the Synopsis if the quality of the writing, strength of the voice or some other element of the submission catches my attention. I then look at the Synopsis to get an overall impression of the work, and to establish where the manuscript is eventually leading.

How the author presents the above package of papers is also important to a Literary Agent Reader. To portray a professional image, I suggest you follow these guidelines.

Do These Basic Things

  • Put your full name, address and contact details on your covering letter and at the head of the first page of your manuscript.
  • Number your manuscript pages (in case the Reader drops them at some stage!), and also ensure that you provide an approximate word count for the full manuscript. Usually, this information would be on the title page of your manuscript.
  • Print your work in a standard, recognisable font, such as Times New Roman 12 pt., as it is a very user friendly font.
  • Double space and include adequate margins.
  • Do not ask for a written assessment of your manuscript. It simply is not possible to formulate individual letters to every author. If rejected, you will receive a standardised courtesy letter (but see below).
  • Do submit to more than one agent or publisher at a time. This is quite acceptable practice. However, do make a point of checking with each publisher and agent that this procedure is agreeable to them. Keep a careful note of those to whom you have mailed your work.

I am reluctant to provide any tips on how to achieve good quality writing, as that is well beyond the scope of this short piece. However, as a Reader, I can only impress on you the importance of the first half dozen pages. If you fail to catch the imagination or light some spark, in those opening pages, you will be struggling to retain a Reader’s interest. Sometimes I do see poor openings that are redeemed by subsequent pages, but don’t test the Reader’s patience. Browse through bookshops and libraries to study how successful authors manage to grab the attention from the first line, then put extra effort into those opening pages. First impressions do count, especially when a Reader is faced with 200 manuscripts. Make yours stand out.

Don’t Do

  • Never sign your letter without referring to whether you are a Miss, Mrs, Ms or Mister and never fail to provide your first name. You are hoping to have a working relationship with your agent, so start off on as friendly terms as possible. J.K. Rowling or P.D. James may get away with it, but it is not recommended in introductory correspondence.
  • Never wrap your paper bundle in ribbon or try to staple together. Paper clips or clamps will do.
  • Never handwrite your covering letter, and do use plain, not lined, paper.
  • Never include a photograph of yourself. You are not entering a beauty contest.
  • Don’t ever apologise for your work or talk it down in your covering letter. It is surprising how many potential authors do this. Have confidence in your own work and be proud of it.
  • Never compare or liken your manuscript to a list of published authors. The agents will make such assessments themselves, based on their professional experience, and do not take kindly to such presumptions.
  • Don’t start chasing up the progress of your manuscript for at least a month, and six weeks in our case. You will receive a reply and very rarely (once in five years) has a manuscript gone missing.
  • In relation to the above, never send the only copy of your manuscript. Always retain a hard or electronic copy for yourself, just in case.
  • Don’t bother with dedications or acknowledgements at this stage. If all goes well, there will plenty of time for those insertions, later on in the process.

To Conclude

So, in essence, do your very best not to annoy the Reader. Make his/her job as simple and straightforward as you can, by ensuring that he/she spends whatever time is available in reading your manuscript and not in unravelling packages, unpicking fancy bows, reading irrelevant details in covering letters and badly constructed synopses.

I have the greatest respect for each and every author who submits to us, and I do read every submission. The process at Conville and Walsh is that out of two hundred submissions each month, I recommend between 6 and 10 for the agents to follow up. Out of this shortlist, perhaps two authors will be asked to submit their full manuscripts to the agents. Those authors rejected by the agents, at this stage, will get a more personalised rejection letter, indicating what worked, and what was felt to be deficient in the manuscript. Of the authors who are asked to forward us their full manuscripts, possibly three to four a year will get through to publication. The statistics are not very encouraging, I know, but there are new faces appearing every year. The industry is not a closed shop.

In the last twelve months, Conville and Walsh have been fortunate enough to have discovered a number of fresh, new authors out of the so-called ‘slush pile’. Rather than the term ‘slush pile’, I am endeavouring to introduce the term ‘talent pool’, as I think it more adequately reflects the company’s increasing success with new authors. Four of our new authors this year have, between them, grossed over £1.5 million in advances, and, of course, have the great satisfaction of seeing their work in print.

I look forward to seeing your work in front of me, in the not too distant future. Good luck.

This information can be found here David Llewelyn’s Reader Advice

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