Agent Hunter: the Hunt for a Literary Agent Ends Here?

August 1, 2013 8:00 am

Wait, I can explain.

This post – (hopefully) unlike the books represented by the majority of literary agents who didn’t bother replying to me – took a little longer to get going due to an interminable prelude that negates action and thus fails to advance the story. (The irony probably escapes them.)

The irony, however, inherent in those agents (who shall remain nameless: I don’t have that much space here!) not replying to me with regards to a fairly reasonable (I would have thought) request to be interviewed for this post, which is ostensibly about agents, er, not replying to me, is something all aspiring writers will certainly relish.
Thus, this post will focus exclusively on a new website and service from the good people at The Writers’ Workshop (TWW), called Agent Hunter (AH) that seeks to ameliorate the agents-for-some-reason-that-nobody-understands-rarely-if-ever-replying problem that most writers have. My follow-up post next month will contain the nuggets of priceless wisdom gleaned from all and any agents that manage to get back to me by then. (Looking like it might be a short post, that one.)

Being ignored can be very frustrating, especially when you think you're the new Jane Austen..

Being ignored can be very frustrating, especially when you think you’re the new Jane Austen..

Oh, by the way, many thanks in advance of that post to the, ahem, two (out of forty) – two (I hear my loyal subscribers splutter)? – agents that have actually got back to me as of the writing of this post. Interesting fact: one of these agents is by a very wide margin one of the most influential agents in the world (and I found her through AH). The obvious professionalism of this agent, and hence her position in the industry, one must assume, is due to her reluctance to suspend normal business etiquette, and actually get back to writers expediently and with kind words of encouragement. So all the “I’m waaay to busy to reply” excuse mongering doesn’t hold a lot of water here, unless you’re somehow suggesting that one of the industry’s busiest agents has nothing better to do than answer questions put to her by me.
Exactly. So perhaps we can all learn something from this, and I would urge you to subscribe and get reading next month’s post early.

Can’t be fairer than that.

Okay, so far, so backhandedly complimentary. Pah. So. Let’s start again … As difficult as the agent run-around makes it for me (the whole game is best viewed through the prism of good humour; it hurts less that way), I have, nonetheless, foresworn to forsake my usual acerbic tone for this post. Why so? Because, regardless of the I-keep-sending-agents-my-polished-query-letter-and-well-honed-first-three-chapters-only-for-them-to-keep-rejecting-me-out-of-hand syndrome, which every writer at one point or another feels he or she is terminally suffering from, help may well be at hand.


Regular readers will know that I am not a big fan of many of the various so-called consultancies that take your money for critiques that my neighbour’s cat could have done, given fifteen minutes and a keyboard with pilchards placed strategically on the right keys. However, TWW – a highly regarded editorial consultancy – is not one of these. TWW is the brainchild of Harry Bingham – an actual, published, successful writer – you heard that right. Not a second rate MA in creative writing from a South Shields community college night course that couldn’t cut the mustard in the cut-throat world of professional publishing and so has set himself up as a paid-for expert in the very area he failed in. (Er. How does that work again?)

Harry is the author of the wonderful Talking to the Dead series, a terrific writer and first-rate story consultant and editor – if you don’t believe me then click here, buy his books and make up your own mind. And that is the point with Harry: you can have the proof and the pudding for the price of a kindle download, and make up your own mind. (I was fortunate enough through my publisher to have access to a commercial editor of Harry’s calibre – very fortunate – however, it is otherwise next to impossible to secure talent at this level; regardless of the cost, talent at that level is mostly to busy to be bothered with you. Sad but true.)

So the question is, why does Harry bother with what is an enormous amount of hard work on behalf of unpubbed writers. With a resume such as his, he could’ve rested on his laurels, but he has chosen to help set other aspiring writers on the path to the same success as he has achieved.

The editorial services of TWW can be explored on their site; however, Harry has agreed to talk to me about the main topic of this post – his new brainchild, the AH concept and website, and I begin by putting this very question to him: Why do you bother?

Harry explains with refreshing candour: “Well, for one thing it’s easy to forget that even writers with decent-looking careers don’t always get paid that much,” – at least the man is up front and honest: and I have to concur: writing, as a general rule (the exceptions are rarer than you might think), is the worst business decision a person can make.
But his motives are not purely mercenary: Harry continues: “The Writers’ Workshop was born at a particular crisis point – a publisher completely failing to honour a contract – and I vowed never to be financially dependent on publishers again. I’ve not quite kept that promise, but I’ve done my darndest.”

So a man who covers all his bases, then; but what does TWW offer the aspiring writer?

Taking notes?

Taking notes?

Harry continues: “Our main business [at TWW] has always been manuscript assessments and writing courses, and the fact is that both things are enormously rewarding to deliver. It’s partly just the experience of being with creative people seeking to develop their skills, but it’s also the experience of seeing, and almost sharing in, the improvement. It really is tremendously exciting – just ask anyone who’s been to one of our courses or attended the Festival.”

I go on to ask how the AH website differentiates itself for other similar sites. (I am signed up to this site and find the interface easy to use, the information comprehensive.)

Harry makes some good points: “The USPs are simple. They’re threefold:

“One, our list of agents is comprehensive. The (Artist and Writer’s) Yearbook excludes (a) smaller agencies, because there is a turnover threshold that has to be met, (b) newer agencies, because of the time lag between data collection and publication, and (c) agencies who choose not to be included. That means that many of the agents that writers should most like to know about (small, new companies seeking to build their client lists) aren’t listed in the one place writers are looking” –

– And I will step in here to point out that these USP’s are indeed crucial: especially the point about the time lag on a resource such as the Yearbook being too long to ever hope to keep up with a fast-moving industry, as well as the limitations of their criteria for inclusion or otherwise.

Crucial –

– Apologies to Harry for interrupting: he continues:

“… Two, our list is searchable in a logical way. Before Agent Hunter you effectively had a phone directory and the internet. The challenge to authors was: go and spend twenty hours researching this lot and you’ll probably end up with a reasonable selection of names. That’s a ludicrous way to search for agents in the twenty-first century.

“And third, we don’t just provide names and addresses. We provide as much public data as we can scavenge and as much further data as agents care to give us. I wouldn’t say that Agent Hunter gives you everything – you’ll always need to check an agent’s website directly – but it gives you a platform that you can really work with.”

AH’s stated goal on their website is to list all UK agents. Ambitious. I ask Harry how that is going:

“We’ve listed every agent we can find. One brilliant sign is that agents are now contacting us and asking to be listed. As long as the people asking look kosher, we’ll always give them a listing. Likewise, if a user points out an error on the site, we usually correct that the same day. We’re trying to put in place a system where we will literally get the Bookseller arrive on a Friday and have any job changes etc. documented in time for Monday/Tuesday of the following week. We’re not there yet, but give us time.

“And in that sense the site will never be finished. It’ll always be a work in progress. We have hundreds of agents all told. I’m not certain how many, but I think we’re in the region of [almost five hundred].”

My next question to Harry is, I think, critical: in this (and any) business it really is who and not what you know. So I ask Harry if he or his team (and a friendly and efficient bunch they are, too – this goes out, in particular, to Deborah and Jon) personally glean information from each agent as regards their current needs. His answer is as illuminating as it is encouraging:

“We ask every single agent, yes. Prior to launch, we didn’t always get answers back. But now that we’re post launch, and with traffic numbers building very impressively, we’re in a much better position to push. This year, we’re going to be more assertive in pushing for additional data. Basically, our pitch will be: the Yearbook is no longer the primary way you market yourself to potential clients. So how can you afford not to look after your Agent Hunter listing?

“I might also say that the more switched on agencies have been very, very responsive to that message. And younger and independent agents have been on our side from the start, because Agent Hunter gives them a platform that’s completely level with the big boys.”

This could be your next big novel..

This could be your next big novel..

Again, refreshing to hear some straight-talking advice as well as some fantastic tips from Harry, and I will leave it with my subscribers to get on over to the TWW and AH sites and make up their own minds. (Talking to Harry has certainly diluted my cynicism and stilled my vituperative keyboard somewhat, so perhaps there is hope for us all yet.)

Thank you everyone at The Writers’ Workshop, and I will leave the final word to the man himself, who sums up his relationship with his clients and the wider industry thus:

“We like what we do! We’re very editorially focused as a company. Those manuscript assessments and creative writing courses give us joy, they make some money and they help writers.”

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