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The first ELT Agent [INTERVIEW]

Nick RobinsonFor anyone who has been reading my previous BookMachine posts you will notice that I’ve been writing a lot about people in the ELT industry. The last post looked at a group of ELT publishing specialists who have set up ‘ELT Teacher 2 Writer’  where teachers register to a database designed to help publishers find new authors and content. They also provide training and development opportunities for authors to help write their materials.
 
This time I interviewed Nick Robinson about being the first ELT Agent and how he set up his company ‘Nick Robinson ELT Author Representation’.

 

What did you do before setting up Nick Robinson ELT Author Representation?

I worked freelance for some of the biggest ELT publishing houses, including Cambridge University Press, Macmillan Education and Oxford University Press. I also had various in-house roles at CUP, including Marketing Executive, Development Editor, Senior Development Editor and Brand Manager. Most recently, I worked as Publishing Manager at English360. I was also lucky enough to be able write a few books, including Cambridge English for Marketing. So I have a lot of experience in ELT publishing, both from the publisher side and the author side.

 

What made you decide to set up an ELT agency?

My other passion in life is food, and having spent a number of years in the ELT industry I thought it might be a refreshing change to see if I could get into the cookbook publishing industry. So I visited a cookbook conference in New York. One of the things that struck me was that the cookbook industry, like most other areas of publishing, worked with agents. In fact, cookbook authors and publishers rarely talk to each other until a contract is signed; it’s all done through agents. And this, to me, coming from the ELT industry, represented a very different way of working. But the agency model did seem to make sense in the context of ELT. I know from experience that ELT publishers find it hard to source new authors, and I couldn’t find anyone who was trying to match authors to publishers. So that’s how I saw that there might be a need for an ELT agent.

 

How have you made it work?

Well I set about creating a business model in three phases. The first was really testing the concept: how was I going to do this? Would there even be a need? The second was figuring out where and how to find talent. And the third phase was figuring out how to connect the people I found with publishers – that is, how to actually find them work.

 

How do you find “the talent”?

I started off by advertising through the IATEFL and TESOL job forums. That generated a massive response. I’m also a great fan of social networking, so several of the people I’ve found have been through Twitter and LinkedIn. I’m always on the look out for teachers who are making waves in ELT, either through their blog or through other contributions to the community. I also go to lots of international conferences and seminars, which are great for meeting up with people face-to-face, both teachers and publishers. In fact, I first discovered two of my authors after seeing them give excellent conference presentations.

 

How do you decide who’s any good?

I ask prospective authors to send me their CV and a short statement explaining why they want to be an ELT author and why they think they’d be good at it. If I think they might be suitable, I then have an in-depth conversation with them (either face-to-face or via Skype), and then from there I’ll set a writing task. I have devised a series of rigorous tasks based on my experience at publishing houses. I feel that I have a strong sense of what makes good ELT material and how to tell whether a particular author has what it takes, and that’s what I judge them against. I’m not looking for publishable material; rather, I’m looking for an author’s ability to follow a brief and work creatively within its constraints. I’m looking for potential. If I have any doubts at all about a potential author, I wont take him/her on. It’s not only my reputation that’s on the line, after all; it’s the reputation of every author signed to the agency. I like to think of it almost like a collective: if an author does a great job for a publisher, it reflects well on the whole agency; that helps everyone at the end of the day. That’s why it’s so important that I’m only selecting the best.

As you can imagine, it’s really hard to reject people, so I try to give as much feedback as possible to everyone who applies for representation, even if I don’t end up signing them.

 

Are there any other elements that make you think a potential author is going to be suitable?

Other than doing a great job on the task that I set them, there are several other things that I look out for.

Firstly, it’s important that the author has had lots of experience, particularly in the field they want to write about. Secondly, if they’re active and well-respected in the ELT community, this can help; it means that the author might already have a fan base to sell their published material to. A good example would be a teacher who is very engaged in social media and presents regularly at conferences.

It also helps if the author has a particular specialism, such as young learners or teaching with technology.

 

What has the response been like?

It’s been great – from teachers and established authors, too. And the Publishers have also responded very well. I’ve had over 60 submissions, which I’ve now got down to a stable of 14 authors.

 

Once you have the authors, what do you do next?

I’ve been setting up meetings with the ELT publishers in the UK, and I plan to do a US trip in the autumn. At these meetings, I present my author portfolio, which contains a brief overview of each of the authors, as well as an easy-to-search index organised by subject area; it allows the publishers to very quickly see which author can write for which subject area. Because I’ve been working closely with the authors, I can talk about their strengths and experience quite easily. The meetings are also a great opportunity to find out the publishers’ needs are and assess whether any of my authors fit those needs.

 

How are you and your authors making money from this model?

Well I don’t charge anything to the publishers. And my authors don’t pay a thing unless they get work. At that point, I take a 15% commission on what they earn. That rate is the same for every single author I represent; it’s important for me that the agency offers a level playing field for all authors. So the model is nice and risk free for the publishers and the author. But it’s quite risky for me! But I like it that way: it means that the entire success of the business is tied to the success of my authors, which is exactly how I want it to be.

 

Once the author is signed, do you have any further input?

Yes, absolutely. I don’t see my job as being done once they have the deal. I really see my role and relationship with the author as just starting. Most of the people I’ve signed are still teachers and have never had experience of dealing with publishers. So I see my role more as mentor once the process gets going. I try to help them navigate the system; I’m there to look out for their interests.

 

Where do you see your agency business going in the next few years?

It’s early days at the moment, and I have asked myself what the scale is going to be like. With 14 authors, it’s manageable, and I feel that I’m really giving each of them the attention I need to be. How I would do this if I had, say, 50 authors is something I would need to think hard about. I would have to look at structuring the company differently, as I wouldn’t be able to manage it all on my own. But for the time being, it’s working well and I’m having a lot of fun. I really enjoy talking to publishers and spending time finding out what their needs are. And it’s a pleasure to be working with so many teachers and helping them to get onto the next stage of their careers.

 

Can you give us three reasons that make what you are offering unique?

  • I am a personal advocate for teachers that want to be authors.I’m highly selective in who I invite to join the agency, but once people are in I advocate for them personally and do everything I can to get them published.
  • I actively scout for new talent; I don’t just wait for potential authors to come to me.
  • I stay abreast of what the major publishers are working on and find ways to make sure they’ve got the writing talent they need.

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Sophie O’Rourke

Sophie O’Rourke works at emc design, a leading print & digital design agency for publishing. She is interested in how education is being transformed by new technologies, the web and social media. You can find her writing for emc design’s blog (emcdesign.org.uk), on Twitter @sophie_orourke or at the next Book Machine social!

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