EVENTS Agents' Party 2021

Nearly 300 writers from around the world dialled into this year’s Agents' Party, and a whopping 120 of you were brave enough to submit. Well done to everyone who stepped up. What did we learn from these zoom chats with the UK’s top literary agents? Chrissy Sturt reports.


Christabel McKinley, David Higham Associates

Christabel’s agency receives a toe-curling 25 queries a day. “So, it really is hard to stand out.” A strong pitch will catch her eye, but include some plot specifics in the letter (not just the synopsis). Try to avoid blurb-style details. Instead, laser in on specifics – character, setting and stakes. Pack your query with positive energy, and don’t ever adopt a defeatist tone (“nobody else wanted this…”). Don’t skimp on the bio either – give a sense of your personality and interests. Generally, Christabel asks writers for some redrafting before signing them, to gauge how well you’ll work together.

Lucy Irvine, Peters Fraser and Dunlop

Lucy also receives a mind-boggling number of submissions, but as junior agent – not quite as many as her older colleagues. A punchy pitch will be the difference between her reading your query straight away, or filing it for later. “If you submit to me, really perfect the hook and I’ll sit up and take notice.” Don’t call her ‘sir’ in your covering letter (an amazing number of writers do!). If she loves the full, Lucy doesn’t usually ask for any revisions before organising a zoom call to discuss next steps, although there’s likely to be editorial work after the contract is signed.

Christabel McKinley.

So, what did these two agents make of the SCBWI pitches?


Lucy - “I loved this pitch!” It conveyed a strong sense of the two main characters. She loved the way the story opened with a list, playing with form. She suggested switching Jess and Isaac around in this opener would build more tension and intrigue. Christabel loves stories about young carers. She would like more plot specifics, very distinct voices and recommends taking time to spell out how this story is different to other YAs already published, including US buy-ins.


(Disclaimer, this is actually my text – eek!) Christabel felt the pitch was well-written, and really liked the comps which set the tone. Ensure the antagonist is described as “the Japanese Army,” rather than just “the Japanese”. Lucy would like to know more about the “based on true events line” – could be helpful in selling the story.


Both Lucy and Christabel loved this pitch, the sparkly writing and the really warm voice. As chapter books only sell as series, it’s very important to explain in your letter how you see the series panning out, and how the character progresses through the other books.


Christabel “would love to hear more … I’d love a story about a Young Muslim – there are almost no books out there dealing with this.” Lucy felt the one sentence pitch nailed the concept. She loved the writing sample, but would also like more of a sense of the plot and content.

Lucy Irvine.

A week later, we were back with another two agents.

Gemma Cooper, The Bent Agency

Gemma describes herself as “a very commercial agent”. She wants something easily pitched (X meets Y), high concept and, “so obvious it’s amazing it hasn’t been written before … commercial is not niche – loads of people will want to read it.” With queries, she advises to keep it short, don’t over-explain and let your writing speak for itself. She will look at the title first and the comps – do include these. If you’re signed, expect to work. “I’m very editorial and my authors tell me I’m more horrible than their editors … I’m quite hard.” 
Gemma is looking for an epic MG fantasy but a sprinkling of humour is essential – just like the witty voices you'll find in Nevermoor and Amari, very successful books by her authors. She is also very involved in the US market, and has a great feel for what sells overseas.

Lydia Silver, The Darley Anderson Children’s Book Agency

Also at the commercial end, Lydia is looking for pacy writing, big and ambitious in scope, and stories that can be pitched in one line. “I like things which are super hooky.” Lydia loves a good comp and likes to sense immediately where your book might sit on the shelf. She says some of her books will hardly need any editorial work, and others might be worked on for up to a year. She’s on the lookout for a 7+ series with “lots of slapstick and stupidity.” She would also love a YA romance that “feels Netflixy.” 
Keep on reading. “The more you read the better your writing gets, and the more you know the market.”

Agents' party host Sara Grant.

Gemma's and Lydia's pitch feedback: 


“The title is genius … if this came in, I’d want to open it up,” said Lydia. It reads like a really fun, strong MG story. Pitch is clear but could benefit from some more detail. She enjoyed the voice, but said it did feel quite British. “Agents are always thinking internationally. I’d have to be careful about how I pitched and positioned this.” Gemma also loved the concept but wondered if it started in the right place. “Might be fun to open a little later, and really get that humour on the first page.”


“There’s a real push for stories like this,” according to Gemma. “This is such a great set up – solving a murder at a thriller and horror movie festival.” She advised against setting it in the 90s – although writers in their 40s might feel nostalgic about this period, young editors and child readers won’t feel the same. “Keep it current, and on trend.” Perhaps think about basing it around You Tube or TikTok. 


Gemma loved the voice – “It’s really funny.” A comp would be helpful, and she’d like more plot in the pitch to gain a clearer sense of what’s going on. Lydia also loved the hilarious writing, but felt a one line pitch would have brought more clarity. She also felt “zest for life” was a very adult motivator, which might need addressing to help children relate to this character.


Lydia loved the set up. “There is so much fun in this clashing of lives.” She felt it wasn’t super clear the age range this is aimed at. The MC is 17, but the intense best friend theme made it feel a bit younger. Some comps would help show where it’s sitting. “I’d definitely read it, but I’d want to know which end of YA it is.”


Chrissy Sturt is an award-winning journalist and writer of flash fiction, short stories and children’s novels. She lives in Hampshire with one husband, two children and far too many animals. 


Fran Price is Events Editor for Words & Pictures. Contact her



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