Amy St Johnston joined Aitken Alexander in 2018 and works with Clare Alexander and her clients. She is also building her own list, so we reached out to find out what she’s looking to take on and hear her advice for submitting writers.
What made you decide to become a literary agent after working in publishing for Pottermore and Egmont?
Amy: In short, I jumped at the chance when I was given the opportunity. I had always been interested in agenting and had worked closely with agents and agencies in both of my previous roles. I am a passionate reader and book pusher and a job where I could work with authors on their manuscripts right from the beginning, while also advocating for them and helping to grow their careers, just felt like the perfect role for me. I started at Aitken Alexander as reading submissions and during that time I found How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones (represented by Clare Alexander), which has recently been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, and Highway Blue by Ailsa MacFarlane (represented by Emma Paterson) who was chosen as one of The Observer’s 10 best debut novelists of 2021. I then joined the agency full time and I have recently begun to build my own list which I am very excited about.
Your Aitken Alexander profile tells us you have ‘a particular passion for dysfunctional families, heartache and unexpected twists’. Could you tell us a little more about what you’re looking for at the moment?
Amy: My passion for dysfunctional families is unwaning and I am always happy to read about them. I am looking for a sweeping story that has multiple POVs or crosses generations, packed with gasp out loud moments and unexpected (yet totally believable) twists. I love writing that’s light on its feet but packs a real punch. Something in the vein of Memorial by Bryan Washington, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell, Commonwealth by Ann Patchett or The Leavers by Lisa Ko.
‘I love writing that’s light on its feet but packs a real punch.’
I am also particularly looking for a thriller with a killer hook. I would love to find the literary equivalent of TV shows like Happy Valley, Mare of Easttown or Scott and Bailey, something that couples a compelling case with equally compelling characters. I am also interested in finding a really smart locked-room mystery with a bit of an edge (I’m thinking Jonathan Creek meets Jackson Brodie).
Are there any genres you don’t represent?
Amy: I don’t represent high concept sci-fi and fantasy or picture books.
Any tips for writing a first page that makes a literary agent want to read on?
Amy: My tip would be don’t write for an agent, write for a reader picking your book up in a book shop. The first page should give a reader a taste of what your book is all about. Try and pull them in and make them want to read on by showcasing your voice and your story. When submitting to agents your covering letter is as important as the first page of your MS. This is the place to pitch your novel and yourself. My top tip for a covering letter is to be yourself – it’s a great place to get your personality and unique viewpoint across. Also include recent books that your book is comparable to, this really helps agents get an idea of how you feel about your novel.
What are your first steps after signing a new client?
Amy: When I sign a new client I always spend time working with them on the manuscript. I love this part of the process – I like to work collaboratively with authors to make sure we get the best out of their novels. It’s a great opportunity to discuss the book at length and for me to really to get to grips with it. I usually start thinking about which editors might like the book from the beginning and I will keep adding to this list alongside our editorial work.
‘I usually start thinking about which editors might like the book from the beginning and I will keep adding to this list alongside our editorial work.’
Could you share about a novel or two that have impressed you recently, whether published or written by a new client?
Amy: I absolutely adored Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny. It ticked every box for me; it’s funny, sad, twisty, well-observed and totally charming – I would thoroughly recommend it. I also loved The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven was a tough act to follow but it’s just as amazing. Both novels wear their incredibly intricate plotting very lightly and the way she’s able to link seemingly disparate narratives together is astonishing. From my own client list; Someday, Maybe by Onyi Nwabineli is a powerful debut novel about a young British-Nigerian woman balancing grief with toxic in-laws, her boisterous family, and society’s pressure to ‘move on’ in the wake of her husband’s recent death. It is an incredibly sad novel with a wry, witty and totally captivating voice.
Find out how to submit to Amy on the Aitken Alexander website and follow her on Twitter here. If you’re preparing a submission, you might like to look at some recent BPA blog posts on Agent Research, Cover Letters, Synopses and Genre.