If you desire to be a self-published author, you don’t need an agent. But if you aspire to be traditionally published – and have the might of an expert editorial, marketing, and sales team behind you – then this blog will hopefully apply.

A year ago, I wrote a blog entry titled “Getting A Literary Agent”. You can find it on my website blog archives, or simply copy and paste the following link: http://www.matthewdunnbooks.com/getting-a-literary-agent/

12 months on from my previous post, with the fourth book in my Spycatcher series complete [DARK SPIES, published by HarperCollins in October 2014], and with the book industry changing and evolving at a rate of knots, I thought it might be helpful to impart some further advice on getting an agent. In particular, I wanted to draw a parallel between the process of submitting to agents and the way that entrepreneurs come up with a new idea for a commercial venture and try to get investment to back the initiative. The following points are intended to complement those made in my first post.


Literary agents are commercial people. No matter how much they like the draft manuscript of your novel, they won’t take you on if they think your book won’t sell in sufficiently high numbers to not only pay the costs of publication but also to make a profit. An agent gets a cut of all advances paid to authors and profits made (typically 15%), and for obvious reasons has a vested interest to weed out the unsaleable manuscripts from the potentially marketable. This means that an aspiring author shouldn’t think of his draft story as a piece of art; instead, think of it as a commercial product.

Like all products that are in the pre-manufacturing stage, your book will no doubt need to be tweaked or wholesale changed until you think you’ve got a magic formula that will make your work stand out in an over saturated market. In most cases, authors will make many revisions until they’re satisfied with the end result. Only then will they submit to agents. But I guarantee the changes won’t end there. The agent will scrutinize your manuscript and will inevitably suggest further changes if he decides to take you on. And if he submits the further amended manuscript to an interested publisher, the publisher will critique the book and supply you with further required amendments.

Run with that; don’t object to requested revisions.

Think of the agent and publisher as your “investors” in your commercial venture. They want to help you put together the best possible product, and to get a return in their investment by seeing the book purchased in large numbers by readers.

Coca Cola, Heinz baked beans, and other wholesale companies kept refining the formula of their product before they decided they’d got it right and subsequently hit the big time in manufacturing and sales. Think the same way about your book.


Your crucial first contact with an agent is your submission of your draft book, together with a synopsis and covering letter. Make that submission perfect and professional [my previous “Getting A literary Agent” post gives you hints on this submission process]. If an agent bites, he’ll want to meet you to make an analysis and assessment of your personality and aspirations. Attend that meeting with the mindset of a businessman who wants to assuage any concerns the agent may have.

Here’s what the agent will be wondering at that meeting: Is this aspiring author flexible to make changes to her manuscript? Can I work with him? Has she got many books inside her, or is her submitted draft manuscript as far as her creativity goes? Does he have a story to tell about his life that makes sense of why he wants to be a writer? Does she need her book to sell to make money, or is this just a hobby that has no financial aspirations? Is he deadline driven? Is she a businesswoman?

Being a tortured artist who cuts his ear off and rolls around an attic floor in a state of self-imposed anguish will not get your book published and sold because such quirky angst is no longer marketable. Instead, be a professional who views his writing as a career.

If you’re lucky enough to get a face to face meeting with an agent, look her in the eye and tell her that – minimum – you aspire to have 5 of your books published over the next 5 years. And back that assertion up with detail as to plots, ideas, and crucially your desire to couple creativity with a willingness to learn and adapt. In short, you should be able to convince your potential agent that you are willing to do whatever it takes to get your draft manuscript published and will help drive that publication with timely sequels.


Of course, none of the above matters a jot if you can’t write and come up with a story that is compelling. You might have a highly attuned business acumen, and all successful entrepreneurs do, but if you can’t imagine a plot and string a sentence together then your aspirations to be a traditionally published author are doomed.

But, I’m working on the assumption that you can write – and even if you can but still need some help, there are some tips I’ve previously posted on my blog to help you further [“Writing A Thriller” Parts 1 and 2]. You are, first and foremost, a writer. But if you’re confident you’ve got that box ticked then put your business head on and sell your draft book and yourself in the best possible way.

Literary agents want to partner with people who can not only write but can also envisage a future as a profitable author. You need to be an artist and a businessperson. It’s a tough ask, I know, but that’s the nature of today’s literary industry.

In tandem with my previous post, I hope this post helps get you get signed up by a literary agent.

Best of fortune

Matthew Dunn
May 2014

Comments on this post:

I have just dipped my feet into status as an “agented author” for a mystery thriller set in Japan. It is just as you say and already I am being asked to make some difficult decisions. At the same time, the agent and her colleagues have left a lot of my prose alone, which makes me believe that the sinews of the book are strong.

Your no nonsense approach appeals to me, particularly as I have a side to my identity as author that is driven by visions of artistic integrity. Surprisingly hard to achieve in today’s, as you say, highly competitive marketplace. I know the hard decisions have just begun and reading your piece realize the necessity of girding my loins for some sort of bloodletting, if not all-out editing carnage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *




Alternatively, you can follow all the latest posts by subscribing to Matthew's RSS feed.