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  • Writer's pictureLaura Matheson

One-to-one Agent Meetings at the York Festival of Writing

Two grinning women in front of an empty stage with "I <3 York: Festival of Writing: Jericho Writers 2022" on a screen

Two of us made the trip from Zürich to England for the 2022 York Festival of Writing. Held on the University of York campus over the first weekend of September, YFoW brings together hundreds of writers, editors, presenters, and, most nerve-wrackingly, literary agents. While the workshops and keynotes and socialising and canteen food are all very exciting, it’s the ten-minute agent sessions that really get most attendees’ hearts racing.

It’s rare to get this kind of access to literary agents and there’s generally no human face to the process of submissions and rejections. YFoW’s one-to-one meetings offer time with two agents of your choosing (selected from over 20), who have read your query letter, synopsis, and first three chapters in advance. The hope is to answer “Is my work marketable?” and every attendee I spoke with before their meetings was feeling the pressure. We’d been feeling it for weeks!

A pinch of research

Several weeks before YFoW started, registration opened for workshops and agent one-to-ones with a suggestion from the organisers: research agents before booking a spot. My most rewarding one-to-one was with an agent I follow on Twitter. I knew what kind of stuff she was into and my underrepresented protagonist was definitely up her alley. Another prospective querier said their most helpful meeting was with an agent they thought might not be a great fit for their novel-in-progress, but they had a really great Twitter feed. Both of us had a sense (even a tiny one) of who we’d be meeting beforehand.

I heard from a couple of people who said the agent across the table simply went, “It’s not for me.” And then seemed happy to sit in silence for the remaining nine minutes.

Checking into agents is valuable whether you’re going through the standard querying process or meeting an agent face-to-face. Prepping submissions takes time and bravery, and there’s no reason to waste that on someone who won’t appreciate it.

Write, revise, agonize

Submitting the agent package a month before the festival was nerve-wracking, even with plenty of support — from articles on crafting the perfect query letter and webinars about mastering the tightest spoiler-filled synopsis, to roping in readers and good ol’ spellcheck. Those few pages (one-page cover letter, one-page synopsis, and the book’s first 3,000-ish words) are your only chance to make a stunning first impression.

The YFoW online community got pretty active around the submission deadline. Lots of hang-wringing around perfecting the pitch. Much panic about the website not working as expected. Some hysteria as people noticed a typo mere moments after confirming the file upload. No one posted confidently that they’d nailed the submissions package. We were all bumbling around, struggling with imposter syndrome, and clearly beyond our comfort zones.

All in the same boat

The similarity of our situations was apparent in person, too. At the welcome speech, the festival director asked for a show of hands from people who were excited about the agent meetings. The number more than doubled when she asked who was nervous.

We were all scared of what the agents might say. Anxious about having our work judged. Not-so-secretly hoping they’d love what we’d written. Trying hard not to focus on the question ‘Will you represent me?’ as we’d been warned against in the YFoW brochure.

Most people seemed satisfied or resigned as they left their agent sessions. A few were distressed. And a handful were downright delighted. I spoke with a couple of writers who got coveted full manuscript requests through their one-to-ones, but most of us parted ways with the agents saying ‘Good luck with your writing!’

I think nearly all of us received feedback we can use to improve our work. Maybe it took a few beats to get past an uninterested agent, or a bit of processing to overcome the sting of criticism, but my impression was that most attendees found the one-to-ones a positive experience. That doesn’t mean that we all agreed with the comments the agents made.

A grain of salt and tough skin

Yes, the agents at the Festival are professionals. But they’re also human. And they have differing opinions. One person I spoke with said the first agent stated her work was ‘too literary’ for them. And the second deemed it ‘not literary enough.’

Just like any kind of submission, there’s an element of luck (and perhaps a bit of magic) with these agent meetings. And getting a book published usually requires persistence. The agent one-to-ones at the York Festival of Writing reminded me that being critiqued is hard and there’s bound to be a sense of rejection. Pretty much every traditionally published writer is turned down (repeatedly!) before finding an agent and (fingers crossed) getting a book deal.

So while I’m waiting for my next ‘Good luck with your writing’ farewell, I’ll be lurking around literary agents on Twitter, refining the pitch for my novel-in-progress, and polishing my rhino hide.

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