How to get an agent: Advice for writers

“They’ve probably given my script to the receptionist to read,” I once heard a writer say after sending his work to an agent. He was right. I was that receptionist, and his script, along with many others, was on my desk. “Lucky him,” you’re almost certainly not thinking. But you’d be wrong. It was good, so I passed it on to the agent I was working for at the time. In doing so, I presumably increased its chances of getting somewhere – or, at the very least, saved it from a “standard rejection” letter.

Having posted many such letters in the past, I know how difficult it is for new writers to get an agent. It can seem like a vicious circle: agents tend to want you to have had something produced; producers tend to want you to have an agent. However, there are ways of getting your work noticed, as I found out when I spoke to a group of agents – Georgina Ruffhead from David Higham Associates, Matt Connell and Julia Wyatt from Berlin Associates, and Jean Kitson from MBA – about what makes them take on a new client.

“There is a lot of luck in this business,” says Jean. “But there is plenty you can do to increase the possibilities of your luck, which is being in the right place at the right time, getting involved in competitions or putting on a theatre play.”

Even if you’ve written a brilliant script, almost all agents want to see a CV with some writing experience on it as well. Often this is the first thing they read. Georgina explains why: “It’s good for writers to have initiative and to have taken some steps themselves, whether this is through a course, the Writersroom, the theatre or involvement in well-regarded shadow schemes or initiatives.”

Julia agrees: “Even as an agent, if you’re sending scripts out by writers who haven’t done anything, some people will look at them and think, ‘Well, they haven’t got any experience. Why haven’t they? What have they been doing?’”

Getting some professional writing experience on your CV might be difficult but it’s not impossible. “There is a lot of support out there for brand new writers,” says Jean, “Usually I would have expected writers to have availed themselves of that as much as possible.” Winning competitions, putting on a theatre production or getting your first radio play are all things the agents suggest are possible without their help. “For writers, all of those entry level points are accessible without an agent,” says Matt.

So, once an agent likes your CV and decides to take a look at your script, what are they hoping to find? Something that’s easy to sell and will get you onto Doctors? Or so earth shatteringly original it’s unlikely to be appreciated in your lifetime, let alone get made?

Matt says: “The bolder and more risky the idea, the less likely that anything [production-wise] is going to happen with it but the more likely it is that you’ll get an agent or it will attract attention.” Georgina agrees. “I think a ‘calling card’ script that takes some calculated risks and grabs our attention without being too avant-garde can be very effective.” However, “don’t be tricksy for the sake of it,” says Jean. “Tell the story you want to tell. What producers and script editors are interested in, and what I’m interested in, is what a writer has got to say.” The rest of the group agrees.

“For me it’s usually about dialogue,” says Matt. “It’s about there being a truth to the dialogue and the characters from the very first moment.” Georgina already has quite a full client list, so needs “to feel very convinced not just that the script is good but that I’m the right agent for it.” She continues: “Agencies and agents all differ hugely. Some writers will prefer a big or small agency but ultimately the individual agent they work with is probably the most crucial thing.”

So what should writers look for in an agent? “A good agent should have lots of good contacts and be a gateway into the industry – whichever part of the industry you’re aiming for,” says Jean. “But it should be a two-way conversation. My writers who are working best are real go-getters.” The others share similar thoughts. “You can’t just get an agent and that’s it,” says Julia. “You are working together. It’s a partnership.”

What none of the agents are looking for is writing that’s trying to second guess what they want or what’s commercial. “One reoccurring problem I see is that some writers replicate what they think they see on mainstream film or TV rather than create something they are truly passionate about,” says Georgina. Julia agrees: “We get a lot of submissions that are similar and try and copy things that have been successful.”

All of the agents get dozens of enquiries a week and, since their first priority is looking after the writers they already represent, they take on very few new clients. “A good three quarters of the submissions that come in can be pretty easily dismissed as people who haven’t done their homework,” says Matt. These include writers who haven’t checked the agency’s submission guidelines (see below). “Anyone who is aware of the Writersroom blog and is already linked in, you’re already ahead,” adds Julia.

However, the sheer amount of competition for limited space means you may well end up getting at least one thanks-but-no-thanks letter. So, what then?

“If the agent asks you to stay in touch or to send something else, then it’s fine to check back in – but do it when you have something genuinely new to say or show,” says Georgina. “Otherwise I would try another agent – you want someone who likes your work.” The others agree. “If there are blanket responses that aren’t positive definitely go and write something new, do some courses or read scripts,” says Matt. “Think about your approach and what you could do to make it better,” Jean adds.

None of the agents I talk to think there is one specific path for writers to follow. If you want to write for BBC Continuing Drama that’s great, but theatre, radio and other kinds of television are also options if you don’t. “Television, specifically television in the UK, feels very exciting at the moment,” says Jean. “There are a lot more channels, there’s a lot more opportunity and there’s a lot more call for content.” Georgina agrees: “Many people now feel that the best TV can really compete with film in terms of quality and that’s a very positive thing.”

While an agent can clearly help you build your writing career, there are successful writers who don’t have one. Indeed, one writer I talk to, who has worked a lot in radio and television, says: “When I first started out I didn’t realise that people had agents, and it took me a couple of years to get one.” He and others prove that it’s possible to find and make the most of opportunities whether you have an agent or not. “Everyone would love to discover the next big thing,” says Jean. “You’ve just got to make them believe that you are it.”

Before getting in touch with the above (or any!) agents please read and follow their submission guidelines:

Berlin Associates: http://www.berlinassociates.com/submissions.php

David Higham: http://www.davidhigham.co.uk/submissions.htm

MBA: http://www.mbalit.co.uk/content/submissions

Written for BBC Writersroom

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