Before I became an agent, I started out in Fiction Marketing at HarperCollins – a fantastic starter job, gained from applying to an ad in the Guardian (neither interning, nor nepotism involved!) After three years, I wanted to get closer to books but wasn’t sure how. With the scarcity of editorial jobs, and some uncertainty that corporate office life was for me, especially in the wake of my father’s sudden death, I took a Masters. Through chatting at parties I met someone (Jessica Woollard) who worked for the late Toby Eady, a formidable independent agent. She was going on sabbatical, and suggested I approach Toby to see if I could cover for her in the office. We got on very well, and that’s how it started: hard work, luck, trying your hand.
I represent books that I enjoy reading myself. Business and pleasure are interlaced in my world – generally a good thing! I love crime and thrillers, and I love selling a good one: genre, in its many latitudes, is a delight to read and sell, and play with. I also love literary fiction, a blanket term that sounds a bit meaningless, but useful industry shorthand for anything not genre and where style matters as much if not more than what it’s about. But what it’s about is important, and needs to attract me. For example I don’t read sci-fi and for this reason don’t represent it.
“I often think of a book as like a pyramid: it needs to have a very sharp point that you can feel in your hand, and press into others’ hands. Its shape, content, style, all radiate from there in various ways, grand and subtle, major and minor.”
The first novel I sold was Incendiary by Chris Cleave, a novel imagining a terrorist attack on a London stadium. I sold film rights and many territories. It came out on 7/7. That was a baptism of fire. Other writers I represent include Evie Wyld. She is unique and remarkable, and thus not the easiest pitch, but I didn’t pause on this because of my belief in her. I got two offers, many editors shy of a confident vision for her. I also represent Alex Marwood, a writer both on trend and who absolutely has her own voice, was a first on several fronts: my first big crime hit; the first runaway ebook bestseller that then served to create the paperback (a model now emulated in how we plan publications); and the first high-profile writer to deftly (and openly) give herself a new writing name to suit her new genre.
Advice for Writers
I often think of a book as like a pyramid: it needs to have a very sharp point that you can feel in your hand, and press into others’ hands. Its shape, content, style, all radiate from there in various ways, grand and subtle, major and minor. If it has that point, and better if that point connects strongly to me – whether through sense of place, or through a burning social issue, or a moral or emotional question, or because of the writer’s voice – then I’d be hoping to discover a strong voice and strong handling, in well-worked out POV, strong characters, narrative pacing, or an irresistible style and atmosphere. Not every novel can have this kind of point – some are more purely about their execution, and there it is the magic of their execution that’s hard to describe, but I know when I see it and I know I can convey this to editors.
I’ll turn down a manuscript if the premise is weak or too closely resembles something else (or not well matched to me, in taste and professional experience), and I’ll turn it down if the writing lacks command and that really arresting buzz I recognize when I’m sent something that’s both remarkably written and well-thought out as an idea.
You should start querying when you have finished your draft to your satisfaction; rested it for a time; and then come back to it for a re-read and any revisions. Make sure you have scouted around the market for what you might liken your work to, and made sure yours stands out in some way, and worked out how briefly to present that when you pitch your work.
One of the major down-sides of self-publishing is that you do not get the editorial scrutiny that publishers invest. Agent representation is important because one of the first milestones in getting successfully published is to have a manuscript that’s of high editorial quality. Amazon reviewers regularly comment on the poor standards of less well published books, I’ve noticed. But this skill and investment and leverage apply at every level – from design, to marketing, to retail distribution, and publicity. A good agent will not only help you secure this kind of rounded and detailed publishing, but see you through the many aspects of becoming an active and experienced author going forward, and any trouble-shooting involved.
“Writing it well, with coherence and flair and without predictability, is easier said than done – good luck and don’t give up too soon!”
My final piece of advice would be that, in our noisy world, what a writer decides to write, the story they choose and what it means in our society, has an instrumental effect on attracting readers. Ask yourself about what subject you are applying your talent and energy to – will it connect with readers here and now? If you can answer this in concrete ways, you’re partway towards a good case for your book to exist. Then comes the execution – or perhaps this has organically come first, ahead of the analysis. Writing it well, with coherence and flair and without predictability, is easier said than done – good luck and don’t give up too soon!
From a random Kindle browse, I downloaded The Familars by Stacey Halls (and read half of it) and William Styron’s Darkness Visible, a short lucid memoir on his near-suicidal spell and a stimulating, accidental quick read! Then I went back to The Familiars, as I’d heard the buzz and I like the premise about the Pendle witch trials. I tend to hop from literary to commercial and back again. I recently read two remarkable short novels, Max Porter’s Lanny and Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall, but can’t wait to read the new thriller The Chain. But I’ve just started My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite and will finish that first.