Needles in haystacks and the tricky business of finding an agent

needle in haystack

Since the start of the year, I have been without an agent. Sob, sob. As any writer will tell you, getting an agent is harder than getting a publisher, so this ‘agent-less’ situation I found myself in was a little daunting, to say the least, and made me appreciate how my five-year-old felt when we left his favourite teddy behind when we went on holiday recently (and the less said about that, the better).

Having an agent is so important for a writer for many, many reasons, but they have to be the right agent – someone who is interested in the genre you are writing in, someone who ‘gets’ you and ultimately someone who is as excited about your writing (if not more so) than you are. As one agent said to me once, ‘I have to love the writer so much that I want to break down the publisher’s doors to make sure they get published.’ This is a serious relationship you are looking for – commitment, passion, enthusiasm, excitement – it’s pretty much up there with marriage.

But finding the ‘right’ agent isn’t simply a case of sticking a pin in the latest edition of the Writers and Artists Yearbook and hoping for the best. Neither is it a case of sending out hundreds of random letters to agents who may, or may not, be interested in your subject matter, let alone in representing you. This isn’t a numbers game at all (although I am sure there are authors who have done exactly what I’ve just described and are now international best-sellers). For me, finding an agent was about carefully researching which agents – and agencies – might be right for me. But there is still a bit of ‘needle in a haystack’ impossibility about all this, because unless you’ve met or interacted with the agent in some way, how do you really know anything about them and what if, with the best research in the world, it still doesn’t lead to representation, still doesn’t lead to your agent being found?

It’s a tricky, almost myth-riddled business with talk of super-agents and up-and-coming agents and agents of the year …. and can lead to a lot of teeth-gnashing by the poor writer who isn’t sure where to go next, or even if these ‘elusive’ agents actually even exist.

But, bear with me, because there is hope! After approaching three, carefully selected, agents at the start of the year, (which didn’t lead to representation – booo, hiss), I found myself getting more and more frustrated with the whole issue, so I decided to relax about it all for a while and concentrate on my writing.

And guess what?

Earlier this month I was contacted – I WAS CONTACTED! – by two agents – TWO! – in New York – NEW YORK! – who had both read ‘The Girl Who Came Home’, loved it, wondered if I was working on anything else and whether I was looking for representation? Of course I fell off my office/kitchen chair. This is the sort of email you dream about. This doesn’t happen to me – except, it did!

To cut a fairly short and surprisingly fast-moving story even shorter, I am very excited and delighted to say that I now have a wonderful agent, Michelle Brower, who is with Folio Literary Management, a mid-sized agency in New York. After receiving Michelle’s initial ‘chair-fall-inducing’ message, I did some research on her and the agency and I immediately loved what I read. I had a sense that Michelle was ‘right’ for me and after talking with her on the phone, this became even more apparent. For me, the most exciting, reassuring thing about this is that Michelle is very excited about my writing. She ‘gets’ me, loves the genre I write in – historical fiction – and is very clear about where she feels my writing could fit with certain publishers. Of course, there is still a long way to go and I’ll have to be patient as I wait for Michelle to break down those publishers’ doors, but it is such a huge step in the right direction.

Finding an agent has been a bumpy – and at times frustrating – road and, for a while, I was really at a total loss as to where to go or what to do next. But taking a step back, not panicking, tapping into those reserves of Yorkshire grit within me and, ultimately adding a spoonful of self-belief to a healthy dose of patience, has certainly paid off. I definitely feel as though I was supposed to wait for that email from Michelle and that signing with any of the other agents I had approached would have been the wrong thing for me and my writing.  With Michelle’s help, I also feel that I am turning a corner and that  this is a new start for me and my writing. Exciting times indeed!

So, although it turns out that agents are pretty much as hard to find as a needle in a haystack, for any writers out there who are looking, I can assure you that they can – and will – be found, but only when the time is right for you.


Then and Now: Louise Phillips, author of Red Ribbons


For this month’s ‘Then and Now’ feature I am delighted to welcome crime writer, Louise Phillips, to the blog to share her ups and …. ups of the past twelve months. From many years of hard work to huge debut success, Louise is a fantastic example of how keeping going will reap rewards in the end. Over to Louise ….

Can you give an overview of where you were at with your writing this time last year.

This time last year, it was six months since I signed a 2 book deal with Hachette Books Ireland for Ireland, UK, and Commonwealth rights. The deal was negotiated through my agent, Ger Nichol of The Book Bureau, and I was working on the final edits of Red Ribbons. It was a challenging time because some restructuring was needed, and like all changes in a novel, especially in a crime novel, every change has an impact on the script. I had a publishing deadline, but I also had a family one. Our first grandchild was due early May. As my daughter was hoping Caitriona would arrive soon, I was hoping that she would stay there until I got the edits done! Thankfully, our new granddaughter was very obliging, managing to hold off until mid-May and the edits whisked themselves away!!!

What was causing you the greatest challenge/frustration with your writing?

Time is always the biggest challenge, because there is never enough of it. I work in the family business, so I need to split my time between working within the company and writing. Although our children are grown up, they’re a huge part of my life, not to mention my ever suffering hubby, so it’s always a juggling act. They say women can’t have it all – well none of us can. It is a constant struggle balancing your work and personal life, and many writers including myself find themselves writing into the early hours of the morning. But you wouldn’t do it unless it meant the world to you, so onwards and upwards with both the challenge and frustration!!

What important decisions did you make in the last 12 months?

Gosh that is a hard, because the last 12 months has been filled with one decision after another. Before I was published, I had no idea what was involved. I needed to get to grips with contracts, publicity, deadlines, decisions over cover options, the blurb, who you should thank in the acknowledgements, what kind of book launch would work best for you, do you take the plunge beyond blogging and create your own website, who do you purchase your domain names from, how many domains should you buy, will you create a book trailer, and on and on the questions and decisions went, until your head is somewhat frazzled. But then you remember – this is all a learning curve. No one faced into this knowing the right answers to everything. So you take one decision at a time, and between research and your gut, hope you make the right one.


What was the pivotal moment for you in the last 12 months? How did that come about?

The pivotal moment was my book arriving on a shelf, and funnily enough, it wasn’t a shelf in a bookstore, but my bookshelf at home. I guess that was when the reality of the dream coming true finally registered with me. There it was, a copy of RED RIBBONS sitting neatly beside a favourite author of mine. It was an amazing feeling, because since I was a child visiting the library, I have been in awe of writers and books.

I guess there were many things that lead to the publication of RED RIBBONS, initially learning my writing craft through workshops and becoming part of a writing group, entering short story competitions, doing well and not so well, realising that essentially I was a novel writer, discovering that dark issues interested me most, but by far the clincher moment that led to publication wasn’t a conversation I had with a writer, a publisher or an agent, but with my middle daughter.

I was writing away at the novel, stuck in what I call the ‘murky middle’, and she asked me what I wanted. It was a simple question and one with a simple answer. I told her I wanted to publish a novel. She then asked me what do I had to do to make that happen. I said, well first I need to finish it. It might not sound like a huge thing, but if that afternoon hadn’t have happened, maybe I might have lost heart, maybe I might have let self-doubt get in the way, but in the end, I decided to finish the novel, without that, I couldn’t have been published.

What was/were the high point/s of the last twelve months?

The high point had to be RED RIBBONS being nominated for the Best Irish Crime Novel of the Year 2012 in the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards. Even now, I have to pinch myself when I think about it. It was phenomenal to be up there with such writing giants, and beyond any expectations I had. The memory will stay with me always.

What is the most important thing you have learnt about your writing during the last twelve months?

I’ve learned that the more I write, the more I learn about writing, and hopefully the better writer I become. I’ve learned to trust myself. I don’t plot, so my writing is what they call organic. This can lead you into plenty of cul-de-sacs that fire up challenges!! My writing is primarily character based, with an initial understanding of the theme/themes I want to explore. Although it might be the longer route, I’ve learned it’s the best one for me.

What are your hopes for the next twelve months – and/or what do you definitely have coming up in the next twelve months?

Right now it’s the release of RED RIBBONS into the mass paperback market (that’s the smaller paperback version), and I’m thrilled, along with bookstores nationwide, that it will be available in both Tesco and Dunnes Stores. In the writing sense, my hopes beyond that surround two things: THE DOLLS’ HOUSE which is coming out August 2013 – I think I’m more nervous this time around. My other hope is to get into writing LAST KISS, which will be my third novel. I can’t explain how exited I am about both of the above, one novel nearly ready to go to print, and the other one growing in my mind by the hour.

At the end of the day, as a writer, the most important aim/hope should be to write the best book you can, so I plan to do that!

Any other good news, inspirational or positive experiences to take away from the last twelve months?

News from the last year can be found on the website and there are plenty of great pics on the site too!!

‘Never give up’, is a bit of a cliché, as is, ‘dreams can come true’, but clichés are clichés for a reason, so if there is a novel in you, then write it, irrespective of it being published, irrespective of what others might think of it, irrespective of everything, other than your love for story, and knowing you have one in you.

Check out the trailer for RED RIBBONS here and continued success to Louise – a very inspiring lady indeed.