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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