When we first start writing, we don’t know much about the business and how it works, but we do know that we need an agent. TV and films have taught us that FOREVER. An agent gets you work. They phone you up from their fancy office and tell you all about the amazing project they’ve secured for you and the favours they had to pull to land it. They usually do this in an offensive manner and often have their own interests in mind, but hey, that’s just them! Sure they’re big and brash and treat their assistant poorly, but at the end of the day we couldn’t possibly get work without them.
So of course this leads to writers desperately seeking representation.
I hear the question being asked all the time. Along with, “How do I stop people stealing my idea?” it’s the ultimate concern for new writers.
The answer to both questions is actually the same.
Do the work.
It’s as simple as that. You don’t need to concern yourself with getting an agent or people ripping off that one idea of yours. Just keep writing.
Start things. Finish things. Start new things. Do the work.
I know what you’re thinking – that’s all well and good for me to say. I already have an agent. Typical writer walking around with his agent, telling people that they don’t need to think about getting an agent. My agent probably told me to say that during our recent trip to Palm Springs.
But the truth is, I’ve not had representation for all that long and NOBODY was interested in signing me and my writing partner for the first decade or so.
My Story (or the bit to skip if you’re only interested in how YOU get an agent)
James and I had a few credits for decent productions. These included web videos commissioned by Funny or Die UK and sketch shows on BBC1 and BBC2. We’d performed at the Edinburgh Fringe and “toured” New York twice. We’d filmed a bunch of our own videos and somehow managed to get people like John Mulaney, Kristen Schaal, David Cross, Sean Lock, and Andrew WK to act in our stuff. We thought this would automatically qualify us to receive our very own agent.
Writers helped us out and put us in contact with their agents. We had a few email conversations that ended with the standard, “Keep doing what you’re doing and stay in touch.” We had a meeting someplace on the South Bank, which was the usual routine of us giving our backstory, prompting the agent to say, “Oh you travelled all the way from Oxford? You should have said…” One time we drove to Edinburgh and slept on the floor of a friend’s kitchen just to have a meeting where the most exciting part was that Lester from The Wire was sat on the next table. Then we drove the 365 miles back home, absolutely agentless.
Most of our enquiries went unanswered. We couldn’t believe it. What were these stupid agents thinking? Didn’t they realise that we had literally MINUTES of broadcast material, some of which had been rewritten so heavily it was no longer recognisably ours?! Did they not read our lengthy email introduction where we name dropped every famous person who had appeared in our Myspace videos (see above)?
Eventually we stopped bothering and instead put that agent-seeking effort and energy into DOING THE WORK!
We started meeting up in the evenings after work in a pub and writing a script. Nobody asked us to write it. We weren’t doing it to fit the brief for any competition or commissioner. We had an idea that excited us, some characters that came naturally and were a lot of fun to play with, and we wrote the script.
When the next BBC Writersroom Comedy Window (RIP) opened up, we were in a position where we had a script to hand. We didn’t need to rush something together to hit the deadline. We had a script that we were passionate about and that we had poured all of our energy into over a period of weeks.
The script was for a children’s comedy series called Kelly is Famous. It landed in the top 2% of entries. There were 2,634 entries across TV, radio, film, and stage (about half of the amount received in the most recent window).
Realising that this script might have something going for it, we wrote a new draft and submitted to the David Nobbs Memorial Trust. After submitting we wrote another new draft and sent that to BAFTA Rocliffe. The script shortlisted for both.
Realising that this script DEFINITELY had something going for it, we started sending it out to agents. Most agents will say that they don’t/won’t/can’t read unsolicited material. This means that when you reach out to them, you can’t just send a script. Instead, write a good email that summarises who you are, the work you’ve done to date, why you’re contacting them specifically, and invite them to read your script.
One agent read our script and really liked it… Then he asked to read another.
We didn’t have another. That WAS our script.
We’d written this script and then went straight into pushing it out. We were fortunate that as we’d previously written for some broadcast shows, we had a small portfolio of sketch samples and thankfully he accepted these to read instead. He liked them too and invited us to meet.
We travelled into London to a cafe inside some fancy building hoping that at the very least, we’d sit on the table next to another cast member from The Wire. We got there early and took a script with us. We sat there looking all writerish, making notes on our script and sipping coffee out of one of them big mugs. The agent arrived and joined us. We went through the usual stuff, discussing how we met whilst working in WH Smith and the way we’d apply stories to the customers. We talked about our work to date, our goals, our projects, and discussed Kelly is Famous. We asked the agent about his story and background, the agency, how we works with writers, his goals, and looked around hoping to spot Stringer Bell, Omar, or at least Bubbles.
The meeting wrapped up and instead of telling us to keep doing what we were doing, the agent said he’d go away and consider. We left feeling hopeful but also not expecting a yes. We’d been conditioned to always expect a no.
A few days to a week or so later, the agent asked if we wanted to sign with him. We did. He’s now our agent.
Points to reflect on (You can start reading again from here)
You’ve probably come to this blog if you’re in a position where you’re looking for representation. If so, this next bit is important.
Why do you want an agent?
What will an agent enable you to do that you cannot currently?
If any agent agreed to read your work, are you confident that you have the best possible sample to share? (But also… Don’t get hung up on it being perfect, otherwise you’ll never show it to anyone).
If an agent likes that sample and asks for something else, what will you show them?
What are your career aspirations? Can you explain this in a way that an agent can understand and see how they can “sell” you to producers? Clarity is key. Who are you and what do you want?
Are you doing EVERYTHING you can on your own or are you using a lack of representation as an excuse for not pushing yourself?
The Tough Part (or where you hear what you might not like)
That last one is tough. I get it. I know that there are a lot of writers out there who go all in when entry level opportunities open up. They submit to Newsjack, Breaking The News, and The Skewer whenever they come around… and then they rest until they’re called back. This is fine and you can have a lot of success doing this. You can get invited to writers rooms or added as a commissioned member of the team. You can have a lot of fun coming up with funny lines, immerse yourself in the online community of fellow writers, and occasionally get a little bit of beer (or in my case, Funko) money.
BUT if you’re serious about writing as a career to the point that you’re considering whether or not you need an agent, you REALLY need to be doing more. This could be writing your own original scripts, creating a podcast or web videos, joining an improv group, signing up to open mic nights, emailing radio stations, reaching out to producers and script editors on shows you like… ANYTHING EXCEPT SITTING AROUND WAITING FOR SOMEONE TO ASK YOU TO WRITE! You need to be learning your craft, too. Read scripts/books (not just good scripts – read BAD ones too. Real stinkers), listen to podcasts, join Masterclass, attend networking events, ask writers for advice, find a mentor, AND WRITE AS OFTEN AS YOU POSSIBLY CAN AS THAT’S THE ONLY WAY YOU’LL IMPROVE. I trained myself to write scripts on my phone so I can write at any possible opportunity. Three minutes while you’re waiting for the office microwave to warm up your Chicago Town pizza? That’s writing time!
Do the work.
Talent shines through. Good scripts stand out. Persistence pays off.
I promise you. Do the work and things will happen. But don’t expect any shortcuts. An agent will not put you on a direct path to the Big Time. That’s for you to do. You still have to network, reach out, send CVs and samples, have interviews and DO THE WORK! HONESTLY I KNOW I’VE SAID THIS SO MANY TIMES BUT I KNOW THERE ARE SOME PEOPLE READING WHO WILL STILL IGNORE IT!
You might find that you’re fine without an agent. Hey, if Bill Murray can get by without a manager then just about anybody can. You can get commissions on existing TV shows without an agent. You can create your own content without an agent. You can get an option from a production company without an agent. You can do development work on a new show without an agent. You can get invited to a writers room for long running and highly respected radio shows without an agent. Don’t tell me that you can’t get this work without an agent. I know firsthand that you can. Ideas of mine that were written on the back of till receipts whilst standing for hours behind a checkout were broadcast on BBC 1. You don’t need an agent. You just have to… I’m not even going to say it.
So what does an agent ACTUALLY do?
Wait, so if you’re doing all the hustling and running around, finding jobs, booking meetings, and building a career… What’s an agent doing?
An agent helps to professionalise you and the way in which you conduct business. Yes you can get work without an agent but having one does look good. It shows the industry that you’re qualified. They can take a shot on you. You’ve demonstrated enough ability to justify representation. An agent won’t necessarily get you lots of work. You still have to hustle, network, research, write, and create opportunities.
Your agent will be plugged into the industry. They’ll be able to guide and advise you based on their insider knowledge, experience, and relationships. They’ll meet regularly with producers and commissioners and will understand what people are looking for. Sometimes they’ll be approached to see if they have anyone suitable for a project and will put you forward. They’ll be your biggest cheerleader. They’ll read your work and provide feedback and notes. When it’s ready, they’ll showcase it for you. They’ll get it in front of the right people.
One of the best parts of having an agent is being able to stay out of the business of writing and focus on the work. You can concentrate on the stuff you love doing whilst someone will negotiate the terms of your contract on your behalf. They’ll understand contracts, credits, fees, etc more than you can ever hope to imagine. And you’re a represented writer so you must have a pretty good imagination.
They’ll handle pay – invoicing it, receiving it, and chasing it. They’ll meet you for a coffee when you’re in town for a meeting and will help you prepare to make sure you get the best results. And yes, they’ll help you to feel like a professional writer because you can say things like, “Please speak to my agent.”
When to contact agents
The BIG question. When is the right time to reach out to agents? There’s a fear of doing it too early or too late. There’s concern about rejection or ruining your chances by making contact when you’re too green.
Truth is, there is no right time.
Some people have credits when they sign, or they have a script that’s getting buzz, or they’re negotiating a development deal. But not all of them. There are represented writers without credits just as there are credited writers without representation.
So the answer, really, is whenever YOU think it’s time.
End of the day, as long as you are professional, friendly, respectful, and follow their processes (as outlined on their website) when you reach out – that’s a new contact. They might not want to sign you yet but they now know that you exist.
Keep doing the work and check back in from time to time. Not too much that you irritate them but at key points in your career. This advice isn’t exclusive to agents. It’s the same with others in the industry, including your fellow writers. Make contacts and continue to build relationships. You have no idea what things will lead to. That guy who offers you a coffee when you’re waiting for a meeting could be the country’s next hot agent.
Before you reach out, do some research. Look at a range of agents and agencies. Find out who reps writers with a similar style to yours. Speak to friend’s with agents and see if they’d be willing to recommend you. Be realistic. I’d recommend looking towards the smaller boutique companies. They’re more likely to have the time and passion to commit to you and your career.
I would suggest not making the mistake I did. Try and have a portfolio of strong scripts to show. If you’ve read enough scripts, you should have a good ability to assess if one is strong or not. But you might also want to enter the script into competitions, pay for the services of an experienced reader/script editor, or join a community of writers (online or a local club) and put your work forward for peer review or a script reading.
If you reach the point where your work is being optioned by production companies, I’d suggest that it’s probably time to seriously try. You can negotiate your own deal but this is one of the times when having an agent is really valuable. You might find an agent who’s willing to handle the deal for you as a one-off and that may then lead to a further relationship.
Remember that it is a relationship. It’s important that you assess the agent as much as they do you. You want to find someone who you click with and enjoy working with. Someone who understands you, your voice, and your work. You’re not committed for life, you obviously can part ways if things don’t work out (and you’ll find examples of this below) but really, you’re looking for someone to go on a journey with. There needs to be trust and confidence that the person who represents you has your best interests in mind. They need to get you.
And be careful. There are people out there who see your dreams and are looking to profit off them. Do not ever pay someone for advice on how to get an agent. Use the money towards Final Draft, or a notebook and pen, or an entry fee to a reputable competition. Invest in yourself.
But don’t take it all from me. I’ll leave you with some highlights on the subject of agents taken from my ‘Writers in Various Stages of Development‘ interview series. Besides, my agent will be calling from the club any moment with my next million dollar deal.
Keep doing what you’re doing and stay in touch.
I’ve only just signed during lockdown with Ebdon Management.
Hollie, who runs them, was really interested in me as a person and what I do and my northern-ness so that really intrigued me. They are heavily comedy-driven as well which is perfect for me. If I’m honest I started to feel like channels, companies etc would take me more seriously if I had an agent and I really needed somebody to get me into rooms and secure me some gigs where I don’t have any contacts.
I spent a few days emailing LOADS of agents, big and small, and basically sold myself a little and attached an example of my best work (an adult sitcom I wrote during lockdown actually). A few came back and I had several chats but I felt like Ebdon were the right ones to help me move my career onwards and upwards.
This is going to sound like the “before” story on an episode of Queer Eye, but essentially, after a solid round of rejections from agents my very first year writing I just felt so discouraged I gave up trying. After that, I’d get approached maybe once or twice a year after a competition or something and it’d get my hopes up and I’d send them things, and they’d then just reject or ghost me, which only made me more scared to approach other agents. I did YEARS of this.
It wasn’t until I was on the Yellow Earth Professional Writers Programme (my Fab Five in this Queer Eye metaphor) that I was forced to try again. They put on a reading at the end of the programme and made us invite industry folk, so I dutifully emailed people. Never in a million years did I think anyone would show up, and to be fair, my agent didn’t, but she did offer to read my play. She liked it enough to ask for more of my stuff to read, and really responded to a sitcom I’d written whilst in the BBC Writersroom Comedy Room. I was talking to a few other agencies, but she was so warm and responsive in her emails that I was half-smitten already when I went in for the meeting.
Well, my post makeover “after” reveal is that it’s been just over a year with Louisa at Blake Friedmann and it has been life changing. Seriously. I used to meet all these writers who were like, “Why do you need an agent? I get all my work on my own!” I don’t know what those people were talking about because my agent has opened so many more doors for me. I have zero regrets.
Cue Queer Eye theme song, warm hugs, laughs, and cheersing with delicious-looking cocktails all round!
I was put in touch with agent Jean Kitson by an animation friend, and we arranged to have an informal chat at CMC. I didn’t have any huge hopes of being signed by her (or anyone!) at that time – I mainly wanted to find out more about the agent-writer relationship, what to expect and what might help my chances. I had a great chat with Jean over some fancy G&Ts at the Mercure bar and we stayed in touch. To my surprise and delight, Jean signed me up not long after! We’ve been working together ever since.
I signed with an agent fairly soon after graduating NFTS, mainly because the final sitcom project I wrote and produced a live performance of was optioned by Citrus TV. Having an option offer was the way I got my agent’s attention, and I was also writing sketches for Comic Relief at the time, and had a couple of spec 30 minute sitcom scripts to show her too. I think the best way to get an agents attention is to already have a bit of success that you’ve got for yourself. Most will be willing to chat to you if you write a really nice email to them, telling them what writing credits you’ve got, what competitions you’ve been shortlisted for etc. It’s best to have a really good script to send them as well.
My first agent came to see Casual Violence at the Edinburgh Fringe. She ended up signing us after House of Nostril in 2013, though she happened to come to the ONE performance of our run where nobody laughed and fourteen people walked out. When we secured our first run at the Soho Theatre for the show, I emailed her basically to say “hey, it turns out we’re not shit, please come watch this.”
It was a good relationship for a while, and I wouldn’t have started on Gumball if not for her, but the further I went into animation, the more it became apparent we weren’t a great fit for each other. I changed agents in 2018, and now have a team working with me who are far better suited to the kind of work I want to do.
Without looking it up, I can’t remember 100%, but I think it was around 2004 or 2005? By this point we probably had about half a dozen TV credits, and also had done a fair bit of work with production companies on shows that didn’t make it to screen. We asked for agent recommendations from producers we trusted and were put in touch with three agencies. We met them all, and ultimately opted for Curtis Brown. Two pieces of advice helped us make our decision. One was from Phil Clarke who said your agent “should be a bastard, but not too much of a bastard”. They need to negotiate hard for you, but be approachable enough that producers aren’t afraid to call them. Thankfully, our agent Lily is firmly in that bastard sweet spot.
The other bit of advice we were given was to look at established writers’ who have the kind of career paths you admire, and see who they’re with. To this day, we are still full of admiration for (and highly envious of) the writing careers of then Curtis Brown clients Kevin Cecil & Andy Riley, Bert Tyler-Moore & George Jeffrie and Tony Roche, so that sealed it for us.
After placing highly in competitions and generating a bit of work for ourselves, we started to appear on agents’ radars. After some nice chats and even nicer offers we decided to go with Julia as she really got us, was super enthusiastic about our work, understood what we wanted to do and wanted to be part of our team.
I signed with my first agent after my Radio 3 commission in 2017. Things didn’t really work out and we parted. After that I focussed solely on building my writing portfolio and trying to establish my own networks.
Shortly after, I was sent my first option agreement for a TV script. At that point, I felt it was best to try and find an agent to help negotiate this on my behalf. Therefore, I contacted an agent who’d previously been very encouraging about my writing and has been brilliant ever since.
It’s all about the writing. The priority is to have a script that’s good enough to be circulated. In the early days, I’d say that a good script editor or fellow writers/creatives who can effectively critique your writing are the most important relationships to form. You want to be in a position where you’re approaching decision-makers with scripts that do justice to yourself and your ability.
I think it’s always important to build relationships with people in the industry and this is something you can do with or without an agent. As writers, in our insular little worlds, it’s vital to find people we can share ideas with. A good agent doesn’t just facilitate meetings or negotiate contracts but can nurture your creativity and help you to distinguish the great ideas from the bad ones. It’s important to sign with an agent that will champion your writing, but for a new writer it’s especially crucial to know that the agent believes in your potential and will be patient enough to back it.
One of my sitcom scripts did well in the BBC Comedy Room, just before they started having their full development programme, I think – my timing seems to be awful! That still snagged me a meeting with Henry Swindell, who was the development producer at BBC Writersroom North at the time. He asked me why I didn’t have an agent, and I didn’t have a good answer. Nick was one of the agents he suggested I contact. When we had a chat, Nick clearly got what I was trying to do so I signed up. Since then, Nick’s provided invaluable advice and feedback on my spec scripts.
I got my agent last year (2020). Some stuff was happening. A TV option was on the table and I had started to get a few credits (on TV and Radio). I’d quit acting about a year prior to that as I just wanted to put all my eggs in the writing basket.
I submitted to lots of agents. Got lots of rejections and I had about four that were interested. Which is not bad odds, I guess? I met with a few of them and I just really liked the direction that the agent that I ended up signing with was going in, in terms of what we were going to pursue together.
It’s not easy to get an agent. I would say it’s just as easy to write a script as it is to get an agent. It’s one of those seemingly impossible things at first, unfortunately. But once you have your portfolio and you have a few things going for you and you’ve established your voice, I think… I think you get an agent at the right time in your career. So if it’s really impossible, it might not be the right time. That’s my theory.
I had obviously reached out to agents before in my time, but never had much success. So I think it’s all about timing and we were just on the same page. We both wanted to establish my joke writing and all of that good stuff.
Let’s be real. Hundreds said no to me when I got my agent this time around, and that was with a deal on the table and an TV job coming up. So if you’re not having luck, change your focus to getting your work out there. Timing. Trust it.
As soon as I finished my first feature I went out to agents and on reflection, this was too soon. I didn’t have samples in different genres to showcase my talent. I’d often be asked for a comedy sample after they had read my drama scripts and for a long time, I didn’t have a comedy script. Last summer an agent reached out to me and I was querying at the same time. I had two offers of representation and went with my agents, which happened pretty quick once they read both a comedy and drama sample of my writing.
I don’t recommend sending scripts in the first instance, it’ll just get deleted if unsolicited. Email with a short query letter and ask if they would be interested in reading a sample of your work. If they agree, it’s now solicited and also a mental YES in their mind.
For me, it was sort of like a courtship over a couple of years. I approached the agency through email, to enquire about representation & at the time, it just wasn’t to be. So I spent more time focusing on getting better at stand up, and trying to build a name for myself – and then approached them again. That time, the Edinburgh Festival was just starting for the year so it was bad timing.
I kept emailing other agencies and went for a few meetings with different ones. One thing I think is useful is to catalogue all your achievements in a sort of “comedy CV” that you can send out to agencies – so they know what you’ve been up to and what you’d like to be doing in the future.
The final time I got in contact with Hannah Layton Management, I had just got to the finals of the Funny Women stand up comedy competition and got some recent paid writing work for a Hat Trick Productions podcast (SeanceCast), and I guess it just felt like it slotted into place then. I should probably stress that the week before I got signed to Hannah Layton I also had two other separate agency rejections – so, although it’s easy to get disheartened – it’s good to be proactive and chase things up.
I signed with my agent Julia Mills last February just before lockdown, it’s weird because although me and my agent are in contact loads; we’ve only actually met face to face once. Julia had contacted me a few months before hand via email and we’d had this date set to meet up, once we did eventually meet up, we clicked straight away and like they say ‘the rest ishistory’.
I knew at that time I needed an agent; ‘Oi Pussy’ was on BBC iplayer and all everyone was telling me was ‘strike whilst the irons hot’.
I was really keen to get stuck in to more screenwriting opportunities and I knew I’d benefit from representation to really get through the door.
Julia is great, we’re in contact often. It’s lovely to have someone just as passionate about my work and progress as I am, Julia has been great in introducing me to the right people and getting my work in front of production companies I previously could only dream of working with.
I made a lot of mistakes when I began submitting (including not having finished the book I was sending the opening chapters of. Yes, I was that stupid.) So the main thing is the obvious thing – ensure your (completed) scripts and books have been worked on and polished until you’ve worn your fingers to their stubbled nubs.
My book agent rejected me the first time she read my book but offered representation for the same manuscript a year or so later after I’d revised it with the help of a literary consultancy (Cornerstones). Luckily my agent had no memory at all of the first submission. If she had, she might not have agreed to read it again.
The story of getting my scriptwriting agent is more convoluted but I found that with scriptwriting it was really important to demonstrate that I had a good list of credits and had already made contacts within the industry. (With scriptwriting, I know it can feel as if you have to not need an agent in order to get one…but then it’s an insanely competitive industry so perhaps agents are looking to see you’re a self-starter.)
While I’d recommend getting an agent if you possibly can, it’s important to remember that you can thrive without representation – I know several writers who have carved out phenomenal careers without an agent in both the book and television industries.