#DiscoveryDay – Pitch an agent with literary agencies Curtis Brown and Conville & Walsh

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Yes, it’s a little later than planned, but I had an excuse – it was my birthday last week, I went away to York and returned completely shattered after all that shopping and general merriment 😉

So, here is the blog (finally) about my experience at Discovery Day II on Saturday 16th November. The purpose of this post is to offer an insight into the day, so I’m sorry if this is long, please bear with me, and I’ll try not to waffle!

For those who haven’t heard of Discovery Day, here’s a quick recap: For the second year running, literary agency Curtis Brown (joined this year by their sister company Conville & Walsh) held a Discovery Day – a free event at Foyles bookshop in London, where authors get the chance to pitch their work in progress face to face with a literary agent and get on the spot feedback on their opening page. Authors then get a chance to ask general questions to another literary agent in the ‘Surgery Session’, and finally, if you were lucky enough to secure a place, you got to sit in on the panel event with those in the industry.

So, how did it all go?

The beginning of the week started well. On the Tuesday I had the fourth request for the complete MS for ‘The Principle of Evil’, so it boosted my confidence – briefly.

I ended up bundle of nerves a few days before the event. I’d decided to learn my pitch by heart after advice from other authors. It should be straight forward, right? I spent a week memorising it, only to change it all again two days before the event.

The new pitch was so much better than the original but that meant I had to learn something new all over again. By the time Saturday came, I had remembered most of it. In the line outside The Gallery, where about eleven agents sat at a desk each, I was trying to recite the pitch in my head and remember the key points I wanted to get across.

In the line, I chatted to other authors. Most were excited and nervous all at once, just like me, so that was comforting.

As I got closer to the front, my mind started to go blank. I kept forgetting parts of my pitch (nerves will do that to you!) but I reminded myself I’d brought notes with me in case the worst happened.

Then it was my turn. I had 6 – 8 minutes. Make it count I told myself.

Authors couldn’t pick which agent they wanted to pitch to – you went to the first available table. I pitched to Carrie Kania from Conville & Walsh. She was welcoming and I felt my confidence come back and after I’d told her a bit about myself and my crime series, I pitched my third novel. Luckily I didn’t forget any of it, and I didn’t need to refer to my notes.

Carrie seemed to like my pitch. She asked me a few questions about my previous novels, and about the agent feedback I’ve had before. Then she read my opening page. Again, this part was nerve-wracking for obvious reasons.

After reading the first page, Carrie said it was a really strong opening, there were no negatives, and her advice to me was to keep submitting to agents because, ‘It seems you’re just waiting for the right agent for you.’

Carrie also advised me not to offer anything on exclusive. I’ve heard conflicting advice on this. If an agent asks for the full MS, some would like it exclusively (because they don’t want another agent to be considering the full text at the same time as them). I’ve only been asked for exclusivity once, which I agreed to. In hindsight, I’d probably think twice about it again or at least put a ‘time frame’ on it.

Carrie summed it up nicely – It’s like dating. You keep searching until you find ‘the one’.

I’d like to add that until you find the agent for you, you don’t owe anyone any loyalty. It’s your work. Find the best person to represent it.

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After my pitching session was over, it was off to the Foyles Café to sit with other authors and ask another agent general questions about the industry. We had about 10 minutes max.

I was on Sophie Lambert’s table. Sophie is another agent at Conville & Walsh, and she answered our questions with enthusiasm, and offered a good insight.

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After the ‘Surgery Session’, I attended the panel event at 4pm.

The Panel:

Anna Davis – The director of Curtis Brown Creative, the first and only creative writing school to be run by a literary agency. She is also an agent at Curtis Brown.

Jonny Geller – An agent at Curtis Brown, joint CEO, and Managing Director of the Books department.

David Shelley – Little, Brown Book Group publisher.

S. J. Watson – Author of best-selling début novel, ‘Before I Go to Sleep’

Clare Conville – Agent and the co-founder of Conville & Walsh.

Much was covered at the panel event. All of it was interesting, and I will try to cover the highlights.

Each member introduced themselves, but most notable, I think, was Clare Conville, who represents S. J. Watson. She said that she looks for a unique selling point and she found that with S. J. Watson’s debut, ‘Before I Go to Sleep.’

S. J. Watson is one of the most successful début novelists in recent times; having sold over 4 million books throughout 46 countries. Filming has also just finished on the feature film starring Nicole Kidman, Mark Strong and Colin Firth. Now that’s impressive, and just proves what can be achieved by a début author.

David Shelley said that authors shouldn’t follow any trend. Write what you like to read, and make sure you do read. A lot!

Jonny Geller is looking for an author who is in 100% control of their work. He believes there are two types of author. The ones who do it as a hobby – which is great – but he’s interested in the other type of author, who for them, there’s nothing else. That’s all there is. He wants an author who is interested in a career.

Interestingly, he also says he’s not looking for anything particularly unique. He’s looking for something that is familiar but told in the author’s own words. As far as the submission process goes, Jonny stressed the point in making sure you’ve asked yourself every question possible about your book before submitting.

Inevitably, the question why does an author need an agent, was raised. With self-publishing being so popular and more practical for some authors, this is an important question.

Clare Conville stated that you need an agent to fight your corner. I agree with her, and this is one of the main reasons I want an agent. I can certainly fight my own corner when I want to, but, for example, I just don’t have the extensive knowledge or experience to negotiate a contract. Clare managed to get a bigger print run for S. J. Watson’s debut, when the publisher initially wanted to run a smaller batch. Simply put, she kicks butt when she needs to in the interest of her client. The agent is able to look after the business side of things, while the author gets on with writing.

Jonny Geller echoed Clare’s thoughts about the agent fighting your corner, and said it’s his job to get the authors work out to as wide an audience as possible.

David Shelley said around 40 debuts are published a year. Only 7 or 8 were previously self-published. For S. J. Watson, he always wanted an agent.

I guess it all comes down to what you want as an author. There are definitely pros and cons for both traditional and self-publishing.

Soon it was time for the panel to take questions from the audience. One very brave woman stood up and admitted her pitch was terrible! She asked what an author should do if they think the agent just didn’t ‘get’ the idea they were trying to get across in their cover letter, or, in her case, the verbal pitch.

Jonny Geller said that the will to succeed will drive the author on. That will to never give up is like a disease that can’t be cured! He advised practicing your pitch until the story can be summed up in just a few lines. Know your story.

David Shelley said that there have been many self-published authors who have proved, with fantastic sales/reviews, that this industry is subjective, and agents have been proved wrong before.

What doesn’t work for one agent, might be loved by another.

Another point was raised about authors who self-publish. Can it damage their chances in getting an agent or mainstream publisher? David Shelley’s answer was simple – Publishers need to know what people want to read. If you’ve had a lot of positive responses, then tell the agent/publisher.

Curtis Brown runs the CB Creative writing course, and there are many others. For example, S. J. Watson attended Faber Academy, where he met Clare Conville. Curtis Brown have had a lot of alumni students secure an agent and sign big publishing deals after being on the course, so there was a question raised by a few in the audience. Does an author who undertakes one of these courses stand a better chance of getting an agent than those who don’t?

The answer was sometimes, because there is still a selection process before you can join these courses, but the overall consensus was clear – it all comes down to the strength of the writing. The panel said they don’t judge someone on whether they’ve been on a course or not. It can’t hurt to mention you’ve done one, but don’t think that because you sign up to, say, CB Creative, that it’s a guarantee you’ll secure an agent. These courses are more about getting your novel into the best possible shape before sending out submissions.

Public profile was the next topic raised. So, just how important is it to have 5,000 Twitter followers, or 10,000 Facebook ‘likes’ for example?

Whilst David Shelley said it can help to have a publishable ‘hook’, I think S. J. Watson had the best response. He had NO online profile at the time. ‘It’s about your book’, he said, and he’s right. It doesn’t matter how many ‘follows’ you have or what ‘angle’ you can use. It comes down to how good your book is.

In my opinion, there will always be the odd – no, make that phenomenal – exception to this rule. A certain erotic series of books springs to mind 😉

Next topic – Is a series easier to sell?

Jonny Geller said it depends on the genre, but he does like to have a book or two to sell at once, and this was a view shared by David Shelley. On the flip side, Clare Conville said she never thinks in terms of a series. It’s down to the author to write a great book, no matter how long it takes – to a point, of course. Some authors are suited to a book a year, some not. Pressure shouldn’t be put on an author purely for ‘commercial reasons’.

See, I told you there was a lot to take in, and I haven’t included everything. I hope you managed to read this far down the page without skipping (thanks to those who did!).

I would highly recommend those who are serious about carving out a long career as an author, try to attend next years event if it’s run again. Even if you intend to self-publish, the experience of pitching your novel to a complete stranger will help build your confidence.

I got a lot out of Discovery Day. I tested my confidence levels. I got the chance to chat with other authors, and ask agents direct questions. Most importantly, I was able to get on the spot feedback on my WIP. My overall experience was extremely positive.

There are certainly worse ways to spend a Saturday.

12 thoughts on “#DiscoveryDay – Pitch an agent with literary agencies Curtis Brown and Conville & Walsh

  1. Great piece! I’m glad it went well for you. Lots of interesting stuff in this post – I had no problem reading it all! Thanks for sharing your experience. 🙂

  2. Hi Tania What a fantastic experience and some solid advice about why having the right agent is important. You did so well and I wish you good fortune in realising your dream!

    • Thanks, Diana. Hopefully this post will offer authors thinking of starting the submission process more of an insight. I hope the mystery novel of yours is coming along OK.

  3. Hi, However confident you might have been about the quality of your book beforehand, you must have been pleased to get some positive feedback from an agent. What’s your next step – are you going to submit the book to other agents? Have you submitted it to any already? Bearing in mind Carrie liked both your pitch and the opening to the book, is she prepared to take it further, say by having a look at the first few chapters? If she likes it but it isn’t something she would go for (if, for instance, she doesn’t deal with crime drama) would she be able to give you an introduction to someone who might?

    • Hi, yes it was great to hear I’m not wasting my time 🙂

      The book authors had to pitch had to be a work in progress. I pitched book three in my series, and I’ll be working on that for some time I think. I’ve been submitting the first and second books in my series, and book two has had four full requests now (still waiting for the outcome of the fourth). I’ve submitted the first three chapters of book two to Carrie, and I’m waiting for a response. Generally agents pass on material they think might be best suited to another colleague if it isn’t for them. I’ll still be submitting my work to various agents, because, as I’ve found out, just because an agent requests a full MS, doesn’t mean they’ll offer representation.

  4. Wonderful piece and what an experience! How fab to be there and see and hear all these successful people. A great opportunity. Fingers crossed. Only a matter of time I am sure. Thanks for liking my author blog too. Your visit and support is greatly appreciated. I shall be back. 🙂

  5. Pingback: ‘How to Hook an Agent’ | T. M. E. WALSH

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