A chat with my literary agent

Alexander Cohran

If you’re starting out on your writing journey, you might be wondering what a literary agent is, and whether or not you need one. To help shed some light on the matter, I had a chat with my agent, the brilliant Alexander Cochran from C&W Agency.

Hi Alexander!

How did you become a literary agent?
– When I started to look for work in publishing, I thought I wanted to be an editor (primarily because it was the job I’d heard of). While trying to get a foot in the door, I did placements at a small press, a literary agents, and with a literary scout. I quickly realised I found the agent side most interesting, and was lucky enough to eventually land a job as an assistant to a literary agent at C&W. I’ve been there ever since.

In short, what does a literary agent do?
– It’s a really varied role, but in the simplest terms we’re a combination of cheerleader and managers for our authors. We negotiate agreements on our author’s behalf, match them with the best publishers, make sure their books are published as successfully as they can be, and help to shape and steer their writing careers.

What are the advantages of having a literary agent?
– A good literary agent is invaluable. In a very basic view, they ensure an author is treated fairly, and gets the best terms possible, when dealing with a publisher. But they also give huge amounts of advice and guidance on the business focussed side of the industry, helping to negotiate tricky situations, giving editorial guidance, ensuring your work is seen by the right editors, and maximising an author’s options in their writing career. We handle the nuts and bolts that authors shouldn’t need to deal with. 

What would you advise authors to look for in an agent?
I’m taste driven when it comes to deciding what I represent, so I’d always say look for someone who shares a similar reading taste to you, or represents authors you admire. If there’s a novel you love, it’s worth skipping to the acknowledgements to try and figure out who the agent is. Beyond that, it comes down to trust. Although it’s a creative industry (and those of us who work in the industry do so because we love books), an author’s relationship with an agent is primarily a business relationship. You need someone you trust, both in terms of how they’d work for you but also in terms of having a shared vision for your career.

What genres do you represent?
My list is primarily SFF, and my taste tends towards the weird and subversive, but I’m also interested in crime, thriller, literary fiction, and serious non-fiction. It’s one of the joys of being an agent that if I love something, I can represent it. 

When you receive a submission, what are you looking for in it?
It depends a little on genre (what I’m looking for in a literary novel is probably different to what I want in a thriller) but I’m always keen for a voice that grabs me from the first page, a killer hook that keeps me reading, or beautiful writing that pulls me in and doesn’t let go.

Do you accept proposals, or does the book have to be already written?
For fiction, I almost always need to see the full novel. For non-fiction, proposals are fine.

What’s your top tip for approaching a literary agent?
Do your research and be friendly but professional. Every literary agent will have slightly different requirements when it comes to submitting, which can be frustrating, but they’re there for a reason. A submission that gives a good reason as to why it’s coming to me will always make me pay more attention.  If someone shows awareness of my list and my taste in their approach, it’s a sign they’re taking their submission seriously.

What’s a definite no-no?
Copying in numerous agents to one submission letter. It happens way more often than you’d think.

Do you still find time to read for pleasure?
I try to carve out time whenever I can, and normally have a book or two on the go at any time.

What have been your favourite recent reads?
THE NICKEL BOYS by Colson Whitehead, A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE by Arkady Martine, EXHALATION by Ted Chiang.

Thank you for your time!

You can contact Alexander at C&W and find him on Twitter at @a_cochran

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Author: Gareth L Powell

Writer

8 thoughts on “A chat with my literary agent”

  1. As mentioned on Twitter, while this is very informative, it’s also rather frustrating.

    So the aspiring writer, having finished his first SF novel, reads this only to find out that Alexander Cochran is closed to submissions. Not very inviting. You can admire, but not submit.

    Next time, maybe do an interview like this with an agent who’s actually open to queries?

    Right now this only strengthens the impression that the writing business is only open to those ‘in the know’.

  2. If Alexander Cochran tells me what HE likes to see in a novel, it’s not really ging to help me when I query a different agent, with a different taste. I’ll be barking up the wrong tree.

    In that sense, a link to a website that lists agents who represent SF would be really useful. “Do your research,” your agent says, but HOW does one do that research? Which websites, social media accounts to check? Especially right now in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, when aspiring writers can’t go to Cons anymore to meet possible agents in the flesh.

    Now, would you be interested in being a beta reader for my novel? I understand you’re busy (as is everybody else), but I can pitch it by email for you to judge if it’s worth wasting your time on.

  3. @jetse in times past the writers’ and artists’ yearbook would have been the only place to start. Nowadays start at http://www.agentsassoc.co.uk/members-directory/ then go to the individual agencies web-pages, and read the bios for the agents.
    Follow those agents on twitter, see who they follow or re-tweet.
    Work through the W&AY (above) to find the agents who are starting out, who aren’t in the AAA (above).
    Start a spreadsheet of agents, what you’ve sent to whom.
    It’s hard work. Most things that are worthwhile are.
    Good luck.

  4. Thanks Gareth for sharing such useful information

    Agents who aren’t open now may be open in future.
    The system is far from perfect but it is not opaque
    I agree with William
    -most agents or their agencies have relatively informative websites
    -you can usually find who represents writers you admire or in your field
    -chatting on twitter or in forums will also throw up names or help you refine

  5. Hi Gareth. I found this genuinely informative and helpful. I’ll definitely be submitting to Alexander when he reopens…unless of course someone immediately snaps up my manuscript before then (takes a moment to recover from hysterical laughter).
    But seriously, if we all follow the basic rules that Mr Cochran (QED – went back to confirm the spelling of his name. It’s “Cohran” not “Cochran”) insists that authors follow, at least we can be sure any rejections are for reasons other than the quality of the submission.

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