Jonny Geller is Joint CEO of Curtis Brown and Managing Director of the books division. He tweets at @JonnyGeller. Here, Norah Myers chats with him about being named in 2017’s Bookseller 100 and his plans for 2018.
Jonny Geller is Joint CEO of Curtis Brown and Managing Director of the books division. He tweets at @JonnyGeller. Here, Norah Myers chats with him about being named in 2017’s Bookseller 100 and his plans for 2018.
Ariella Feiner started working at PFD in 2006 before moving to United Agents and is now nurturing her own client list which includes many bestselling, critically acclaimed and award winning authors across fiction and non-fiction, including a million-copy selling author and ground-breaking non-fiction. In 2017, The Bookseller named her as a Rising Star. Here, Norah Myers interviews her about being included in that list.
Norah Myers recently interviewed Curtis Brown Creative’s Rufus Purdy about Curtis Brown Creative, the writing school led by the team at Curtis Brown. Here, she follows that by interviewing Curtis Brown’s managing director, Anna Davis, about a new course from Curtis Brown Creative: Write to the End of Your Novel.
Write to the End of Your Novel is the second in a series of three short online courses which aim to help new writers get all the way from an initial idea for a novel to having a complete, polished novel ready to pitch to agents/publishers. This second course follows on from the first – so we expect that participants will already have their idea and their opening and will be trying to write their way through to the end of the first draft.
In a series of six modules (which we open up week by week) I try to say everything I can think of that could be useful – including my advice on pacing, building suspense, what to do when you’re stuck in the middle, how to write a good ending – and much more. The course makes use of teaching videos (from me), notes and tasks. Students will be able to share their work in a secure forum on our purpose-built learning platform.
We’ll be following on with a third course later in the Autumn called Edit and Pitch Your Novel. Students who come on each of these courses get continued access to all the materials so that they’ll have a set of resources they can make use of long after the course ends.
What I wanted to do – with the three short courses I’m talking about above, including Write to the End of Your Novel – was to offer great content at a much cheaper price than our ‘main’ 3 and 6-month courses (the selective courses we run for groups of 15 students in London and online). I wanted to provide something for people who can’t afford our main courses but who nonetheless want to study with us and get help with their novels. I also wanted to offer courses which would allow people to just pay-and-enrol (rather than go through the selective process we have for our main courses) so that they could have a go – it’s a chance to try your hand at novel-writing without making the bigger financial commitment that’s needed for our main courses.
These 6-week online courses can act as ‘tasters’ for our high end courses – our hope is that people who get a lot out of the 6-week courses might then feel they want to join a course where they will get intensive individual tuition and workshopping with a small group of students who’ve been selected on the basis of ability, in order to really make their novel as good as it can possibly be. Obviously not everyone who takes the 6-week courses will succeed in getting a place on our main courses (the places are quite heavily competed over) but we already have quite a few students on the longer novel-writing courses who came to us through studying on Starting to Write Your Novel.
However I also wanted the 6-week courses to cover the complete journey of writing and pitching a novel: Not everyone needs a longer course and individual tuition – for many people writing a novel, it’s useful just to have good, constructive advice, a group of other writers to share work with and a metaphorical shot in the arm. That’s what we’re offering.
So – yes – for our ‘main’ 3 and 6 month novel-writing courses, in London or online, we do operate a selection process. We ask people to fill in a form on our website and to send us the one-page synopsis and opening 3000 words of the novel they want to work on with us. Rather than talk about one individual applicant (because I think it wouldn’t be fair to do so), I’ll tell you about some of the features we frequently see in unsuccessful applications. Here goes:
Our team of literary agents at Curtis Brown and C&W contribute very generously to our 3-and-6 month courses. On the London courses, the agents come in as guest speakers, partnering with publishers and/or with authors they represent. On the 3-and-month online courses the agents take part in special ‘Q&A days’ where they answer all the students’ questions online. Our agents will talk about foreign rights – and indeed other rights such as film and TV rights – when they speak to the students about how they work with their clients to make the work available in all possible forms and formats and to maximise all avenues of income for the client.
Foreign rights are a very big part of what we do at Curtis Brown and C&W, and many of our authors have their work available many languages across the world. Having said all that, the most important way we work with our students is in helping them to write their novels as well as they possibly can. Foreign rights won’t feature in their lives at all unless they write a really great novel – and it’s our mission to help them to do that.
Agents want to find great novels – it’s as simple as that. We have a big team of agents here, all of whom have different interests and tastes – but I think they’d all agree that they want to find great stories and writing that really leaps off the page. Obviously it’s great if a writer also has a professional attitude, is open to working editorially on their novel to get it as good as it can possibly be, and is intending to go on to write more compelling novels (not just one). And yes, the agent/author relationship is a close and potentially long-lived one so it’s important that each likes and respects the other. But really the most important thing is the book.
I love getting to know the students (and their work) individually and collectively, and seeing how the groups of 15 shape up and bond with each other. Even as I’m typing this, now, I can hear laughter coming from the board room – it’s our current 6-Month London-based course, with tutor Louise Wener. They’re getting toward the end of their course now so they all know each other and each other’s writing really well. I’m certain that all or most of them will go on meeting up and giving each other support with their novels long after the course has finished. This camaraderie happens in our 3 and 6 month online courses too – and even on the 6-week Starting to Write Your Novel courses we’re seeing writers bonding and forming little groups and keeping in touch. Yes, I do think that’s what I like best. Writing is something you do alone, but it doesn’t need to be lonely.
Check out Curtis Brown Creative’s site for more information on all of their courses.
Anna is the founder and Director of the Curtis Brown Creative writing school. She is the author of five novels, published around the world in 20 languages: The Dinner, Melting, Cheet, The Shoe Queen and, most recently, The Jewel Box. She is currently working on her sixth. Anna has worked for Curtis Brown for more than a decade as a literary agent and has served on the management committee of the Association of Authors’ Agents. Previously she was a lecturer on Manchester University’s MA in Novel-Writing, and has also led many other writing workshops for organisations such as the Cheltenham Literary Festival and Ty Newydd. A former Guardian columnist, Anna has been the recipient of the Arts Council of England’s Clarissa Luard Award (2001) and an h.Club 100 award – presented to the most influential, innovative and interesting people in the creative and media industries.
Juliet Mushens founded Caskie Mushens Ltd in 2017 with Robert Caskie, after stints at PFD, The Agency Group (where she headed the UK literary division), and UTA. She has been shortlisted for literary agent of the year for the last three years running. Here, Norah Myers interviews her about her new venture.
I’ve always wanted to start my own agency – it’s very exciting to have the freedom to make decisions as to how to shape a company. I’m thrilled to do this with Robert Caskie, who has always been a mentor of mine.
Starting a new agency gives me a renewed opportunity to consider my career so far: where have I had success, but also, where is there room for improvement. It means I can really be strategic about the projects I’m taking on, but I’m also hoping to add to my list proactively this year.
The book is the most important thing, of course. But I also want someone who is willing to put editorial work into the manuscript, and someone who is pleasant to work with. It’s a long-lasting relationship so you want to get on well!
Nothing beats the excitement of finding a new manuscript and realising it has a lot of potential. I find editorial work really satisfying as well (like doing a puzzle!) and the buzz of running a big auction is great fun.
I’d love us to have a reputation for finding and nurturing new talent. We’ve kicked 2017 off with three Sunday Times bestsellers within a month, which bodes well!
Jonny Geller is the joint CEO of Curtis Brown. Jonny represents a wide range of bestselling and award winning writers. His clients include: William Boyd, Tracy Chevalier, John le Carré, Howard Jacobson, David Mitchell, David Nicholls, Ian Fleming Estate and Nelson Mandela foundation. Here are Jonny’s top tips for authors on handling rejections.
Rejection stinks. There is no getting around it. Recently, I tweeted “Rejection is wired into the creative process and longevity and success is mostly down to how you deal with this one issue”.
I wasn’t just talking about writers and how they handle it. Anyone who works in the creative industries is involved in rejection every working day of their lives. Every time an agent sends out a manuscript with a turbo injected pitch letter, he/she is inviting an editor to reject them. Agents tend to take rejection personally, too. The agent is putting his/her name on the line with every submission. After all, the most valuable asset an agent brings to the table is his/her reputation. Every time the agent sends out a book, he/she dares the publishers to expose him/her as a fraud, a fake magician, a rain maker. You are only as good as the last book you’ve sold.
An editor is haunted by rejection for different reasons. What if they miss The Next Big Thing? It will be on the record forever that THEY TURNED DOWN IT DOWN and they will see the reviews, the sales, the prizes sticking a big, fat literary tongue out at them for eternity.
But it is the writer who has to live with rejection the longest. An agent can move on to the next project, an editor can blame the sales force for excess caution,but the writer is left with their forsaken child, tattered dreams and a few, brief letters to decipher the opaque messages from publishers and agents. They are left to torture themselves with the question: What if they were right?
So, how can a writer cope with rejection if, as I say above, it is hard wired into the creative process? here’s a little guide:
A rejected manuscript is not a comment on your talent, your ambition or your future. it is a response to a specific proposal at a specific moment by a specific source.
Let me explain.
If you send a novel at the wrong time of year – around book fairs – it might just not get read very closely. We are looking for very particular projects that will sell in a certain way to maximise the hype fest that is the London or Frankfurt Book fair. If you send a novel to the wrong agent, his/her rejection is worthless. A romantic saga to an agent who specialises in military history is not a rejection. That is a mistake.
If you are unlucky enough to have written a Western about talking heifers as three others on the same subject have landed on agents’ desks that week, you have not been rejected. You have been sorted.
There are many ways to decipher the secret codes of publishing. A standard response with no hint of personal reaction is a clear rejection. This might be because the book is awful, and if you receive too many responses of this nature, you might take a pause. A response that hints at some level of engagement means that it managed to prick attention but not much more. A specific and detailed response to the failings of the novel is not a rejection – it is a signal that talent may be there, but the topic, writing or genre may just not have hit the spot. An invitation to send future work is also not a rejection. That is a commendation.
How you respond to repeated rejection can point to whether writing is a vocation or a hobby. Nobody who takes up writing as a pastime would want to endure the long periods of waiting, the helpless inability to change a publisher’s mind, the invitation to doubt oneself at the deepest level. You would have to be obsessed. Obsession means that small hurdles like rejection or delay are meaningless. These are the type of people agents look out for.
But when do you know when enough is enough? When do you stop reading articles about J K Rowling and every other major bestselling novel that was roundly rejected by publishers?
When you realise that there is life beyond being a writer.
Until that moment, keep writing and keep believing in yourself. There are too many books published. We all know that. If you are one of those people who believe this to be true but not true about their own work, then fight for your spot. But do remember: Nobody owes you a living.
For more from Jonny, you watch his Tedxtalk on ‘What Makes a Bestseller’.
Harry Illingworth is a literary agent at DHH Literary Agency, where he specialises in genre fiction and is actively building his list. He is also Marketing & Communications Manager at Goldsboro Books, an independent bookshop in Central London. Before that he gained experience in different departments of the publishing industry at Michael O’Mara Books, HarperCollins and Pan Macmillan. We interviewed him here.
It has helped hugely, allowing me to see what is selling in the industry, and what works for readers. I try and put all this to practice when I’m considering taking on a client as it allows me to compare and contrast with what is already out there. It means I’m also good at making a lot of noise about my authors’ books!
I can’t wait to see the development of the authors I already represent and see what they come up with next, but also I just want to keep on discovering new talent as there’s such a thrill to reading a new and exciting manuscript for the first time.
They are what I like to read the most, so it made absolute sense to begin looking in these areas. I love being able to really escape into another world when I’m reading and these genres allow me to do just that. I only represent what I’m passionate about and these are the genres that really speak to me.
I find that the most common mistakes are the most easily avoided ones. Submissions that say ‘Dear Agent’ or ‘To Whom it May Concern’ just mean that you immediately think the author hasn’t taken much care over the submission. Likewise, when you see 30 other recipients of the submission or there are spelling mistakes. It doesn’t take long to check these things and they are the kind of mistakes that cost you dearly.
That it’s a very close relationship, and you should really handpick which agents you think you’d like to represent. Make sure you’re sending your book to someone with the right interests, and remember that if an agent takes you on, they’re investing in your whole career. Getting an agent is only the beginning…
Right now I’d love to find a big genre-bending thriller that works in multiple markets, something with a really strong voice and original concept. And as ever, I’m also very keen to find a new epic fantasy project. I’ve just taken on a YA fantasy novel so, to be honest, you never know exactly what you’re looking for until you get it, but you can find more information on what I like on my bio page on the DHH website as I’d love to hear from you if you think your book is right for me.
Hattie Grunewald is an agent at Blake Friedmann agency. She assists Carole Blake, handles short fiction and permissions on behalf of Blake Friedmann clients, and has been building her list since the start of 2016. Hattie is looking for women’s fiction, crime and thrillers, and realistic YA and middle-grade fiction. In non-fiction, she is looking for personal development, accessible books about politics, economics and science, and funny and clever narrative non-fiction.
Agents are nothing without writers so when you’re first starting to build your list it’s important to meet as many as possible. I’ve been going to writers’ groups, holding pitching sessions and Q&As and taking every opportunity that comes my way to introduce myself to the writing community. It builds my profile, prompts hundreds of polished, high-quality submissions and broadens my sphere of contacts – and you never know when you’re meeting the next bestseller.
It’s not just important to meet writers – agenting is a relationships business and it’s vital to build contacts in publishing houses, scouting agencies and with your colleagues in agenting. Networking when you’re new to the industry and don’t know anyone can be very daunting, but whether it’s coffee with an editor or a huge summer party, it’s important not to pass up any opportunity that will broaden your network.
It’s vital to follow up with any new contacts via email. Not only is it basic manners to thank people for a party invitation, lunch or half an hour of their time, it also confirms that they have your details and can contact you if they wish, and can reinforce a good impression of you. And it’s not just for the hosts – if you have a great discussion with someone at a party, a follow-up email can take that contact to the next level… and the next time you go to a party, you know you’ll have a friend.
As agents we’re very used to coming up with ‘Elevator Pitches’ for our clients, but often we spend less time thinking about how to pitch ourselves. But agenting is becoming increasingly competitive, with new agents and agencies springing up every week, and it’s important to think about how to make yourself stand out, both to clients and to editors. This is about both the kind of agency you work for – and talking to your colleagues might help clarify this – and your own identity as an agent. Getting a clear idea of your tastes and preferences will not only help you locate new talent, but will also let authors know why they should come to you.
When you’re first starting out as an agent, there can be a lot of disappointment – whether it’s a book that doesn’t get sold or a dream author who chooses another agent. It’s important to stay positive, confident and optimistic. You can often learn more about an editor’s tastes from a rejection than an offer, and either way you have made a new contact. Every setback teaches you lessons you can learn from next time round – and when it comes, your success will be even sweeter for it.
Thérèse Coen is Rights Agent at Hardman & Swainson Literary Agency. She handles translation rights for the agency’s clients in all foreign language territories, and is building a boutique fiction and non-fiction list. Born and raised in Belgium, Thérèse is multilingual and studied at University College London. She previously worked for Ed Victor and at Bloomsbury Publishing. When not reading, she can be found circling Richmond Park on her bike plotting to win the first women’s Tour de France.
Although agents are initially attracted to an author’s writing, we take on the book just as much as we take on the author him/herself. It might feel like the focus is all on the book itself in the first stages, but the relationship becomes much more about building the author. Editors and publishing houses will come and go more than agents will (in theory anyway), but we’ll be your partner-in-crime for the long haul. We’re all about focusing on our authors’ careers in the long term – finding the right editor with the right vision and ambition, the right publishing house with the right resources, who want to champion our author for the years to come – and often develop some lifelong friendships with authors along the line.
Going into this industry, I had no idea how multifaceted the jobs would be. Obviously, we spend a lot of time working with books and authors, but we also become agony aunts, cake-bakers, expert postage calculators, dog-walkers, office movers, printer-jam fixers and prosecco connoisseurs. A large part of our job consists of checking in with our authors, advising on edits, book covers, publicity and marketing campaign and events, and giving all manners of advice to our authors – including what dress to wear at publishing parties or how to build an Ikea bookshelf. We’re pretty kick-ass, really.
The publishing business is highly and at times frustratingly subjective. Every agent has at one point or other have fallen head over heels in love with a book which sadly not a single editor has picked up. Editors also will champion their favourite books, which will then for reasons unbeknownst not be loved by the public. Lots of ingredients are needed to make a bestseller, and agent enthusiasm right from the start is absolutely key. So when we tell you a book isn’t quite our thing but we hope someone else picks it up, we genuinely don’t think it’s a terrible book, we just think someone else will be a better spokesperson for it.
We are nice people, promise! We sometimes get a little behind on our reading because we are sometimes drowning in manuscripts and emails, but we really care, and do our best at all times to get back to everyone with feedback and constructive criticism. We might look like a scary bunch, but we’re all pretty gooey in the middle – let’s face it, Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You makes us cry as much as any other reader!
Agencies come in all shapes and sizes, some are big and corporate with hundreds of years of cumulative experience, others are small with a more tailor-made approach to each author and their book. It’s worth doing your research before submitting, as some agencies’ style might suit you better than others, but it is worth remembering that ultimately what matters is finding an enthusiastic agent you “click” with and who is going to shout about your books from the rooftops and push the manuscripts into every single editor’s hands!
We often spent hours and hours looking through submission after submission, so to make sure you capture the agent’s attention with a fresh and exciting blurb, a neat layout, maybe some comparisons to other books and a few catchy shoutlines. You should talk firstly and mostly about the book, as that is what we, the editor, and ultimately the readers are going to be most interested in.
Not only do we consume an unnaturally large quantity of biscuits and cakes in the publishing industry, we are also always incredibly hungry for exciting new books and talent, and are always on the lookout for fresh manuscripts and original voices. We love our jobs, our books and most importantly, our authors. So keep sending us your submissions!
In these vastly uncertain economic and political times, there’s nothing more transporting than curling up with a brilliant novel. There’s some brilliant television on at the moment – dark, suspenseful drama and epic period pieces – but for something truly escapist, truly uplifting, sometimes only fiction will do. Much has been said about this new trend towards “up lit” within fiction – stories which emphasise kindness, empathy, sacrifice, forgiveness and small acts of heroism – and over the last few months there have been runaway successes in this new “genre” (including Gail Honeyman’s wonderful Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine), uplifting stories which provide welcome relief to relentless news headlines.
Curtis Brown Creative offers in-person courses and online courses for students interested in writing fiction and nonfiction. Norah Myers wanted to know more from a student who successfully completed an online course. Here, she interviews author Jane Harper.
I wanted to take a writing course because I felt I needed some external motivation to focus seriously on writing a novel. I was attracted to the Curtis Brown Creative online course because it offered good opportunity for feedback and discussion, and a Q&A day with the agents. I was also able to take part in the online course while continuing to work full-time.
I’ve always worked best to deadlines, and being on the course encouraged me to concentrate on writing and made me realise that I actually could finish the first draft of a novel if I focused. I found the group feedback very useful, and the discussions with course tutor Lisa O’Donnell and the other students motivated me to continue writing and to try to improve.
Come prepared to take your writing seriously and be willing to take the feedback on board. I learned so much from the group and one-on-one discussions, but it is only valuable if you are willing to act on it and make changes and do rewrites as necessary. It takes work to improve but it is worth it if you end up with a novel you are proud of. The online course is also a lot of fun and I really enjoyed getting to know other writers from around the world and seeing the work they produced.
My debut novel The Dry won the Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in May 2015 before I had submitted it to any agents. I very quickly had discussions with Curtis Brown as the Australian company approached me upon winning the prize, and I’d had that contact with the agency during the course.
I am now lucky enough to be represented by lead agent Clare Forster from Curtis Brown Australia, Alice Lutyens from Curtis Brown in London, along with Kate Cooper and Eva Papastratis managing foreign rights. With feedback from my agent, I worked up another, longer draft of the manuscript, and this was the one we submitted to publishers worldwide, selling first in Australia, then around the world.
My next book is another mystery set in isolated regional Australia. It will be out in October 2017 in Australia and early in 2018 in the UK and US. It’s not a direct sequel to The Dry, but the main character, Aaron Falk, returns — a little bruised but a little wiser. The novel is similar to The Dry in tone and feel, with a few twists and turns along the way!
Jane Harper studied the Curtis Brown Creative three-month online novel writing course in October 2014. During the course she wrote her first novel, The Dry, an atmospheric thriller set in a drought-stricken Australian community.
The Dry won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2015. Rights have since been sold in more than 20 territories and been optioned for a film by Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea’s production company, Pacific Standard. Jane lives in Melbourne and worked as a print journalist for 13 years on newspapers in the UK and Australia.
Feature image credit: Nicholas Purcell
Curtis Brown Creative is the only writing school to be run by a literary agency, and offers selective novel-writing courses in London and online. Here, its editor, Rufus Purdy, tells Norah Myers what sets CBC apart, and how 27 of its former students have gone on to get book deals.
My colleague Anna Davis – then a literary agent at Curtis Brown, as well as a novelist – launched Curtis Brown Creative in 2011 when she realised a lot of people were looking for novel-writing courses as an alternative to expensive Masters Degrees. She felt we were in the unusual position of having both a good understanding of the market and the expertise to help authors write and edit their work to give it the best possible opportunity of attracting an agent then a publisher.
We’re industry-focused. We’re the only creative-writing school to be run by a literary agency – and the agents at Curtis Brown and our sister agency C&W are closely involved with our novel-writing courses. So, unlike any other writing course out there, Curtis Brown Creative gives writers expert tuition and the opportunity to forge links with industry ‘gatekeepers’. We’re also selective. For each course, we’ll offer places to the 15 strongest applicants – as we believe it’s essential that the standard of peer feedback is set as high as possible.
Managing the expansion! Curtis Brown Creative is a very different company to the one I joined in 2012, when we ran just two three-month novel-writing courses in our office each year. Now, each year, we run four three-month courses, two six-month courses and a summer school – and that’s just in our London office.
We also run six online novel-writing courses, four online Writing for Children courses, and two new, six-week short courses, which are open to everyone – Starting to Write Your Novel and Write to the End of Your Novel. And, until last September, Curtis Brown Creative was just Anna and I. Thankfully our staff level has now grown to an impressive three.
Absolutely. Though Curtis Brown Creative isn’t prescriptive about writing, we do feel that our unique position in the book industry means we’re aware of what will and won’t work in the market.
A talented student pouring their efforts into an experimental novella based on the life of a famously litigious celebrity, for example, would be encouraged to put their energy into something that the book-buying public might want to read. And we think it’s essential aspiring authors understand the industry they want to be a part of. They may be brilliant writers, but how are they going to make their work stand out in a hugely crowded market?
Twenty-seven of our former students have gone on to get book deals after doing our courses – most notably Jessie Burton (The Miniaturist and The Muse), Jane Harper (The Dry), Nicholas Searle (The Good Liar) and Lisa Williamson (The Art of Being Normal and All About Mia). We’re very proud of them all.
The main things we look for in a candidate are writing talent and a good story, so if you’ve got those, we’d love to hear from you! We tend to avoid people who clearly feel they’ve ‘completed’ their novel, and just want to do the course to meet our literary agents – we’re dedicated to helping writers improve their work, and there’s nothing more offputting than someone who already thinks they’re the finished article.
And if I have to read another submission involving a young man waking up with an erection, and musing about what he drunkenly did last night, I’ll personally track down the author and batter them around the head with their laptop.
For more information on CBC and the courses they have open at the moment, please visit: http://www.curtisbrowncreative.co.uk/
Diana Beaumont joined Marjacq in 2017; she started agenting with Rupert Heath Literary Agency in 2011 before moving to UTA. Before that she was senior commissioning editor at Transworld. Diana was chosen as one of The Bookseller’s Rising Stars of 2012. Here Norah Myers interviews her.
I am looking forward to taking on new clients, developing my existing list and working with the friendly, dynamic team at Marjacq which has been expanding in recent years. I am also keen to explore the local area as our office is right in the heart of London with so much fascinating history as well as great places to eat.
There has been a lot of talk about diversity (or lack thereof) in the publishing world so it’s important to put our money where our mouth is. We need strong storytellers and writers who reflect our richly diverse society more than ever. And I want people to feel welcome to submit their work whatever their background.
I always loved working closely with authors on their manuscripts and it’s an increasingly important part of the role of an agent. Manuscripts have to be as polished as possible before you send them out. One of the things I love about being an agent is being involved in a project from its inception. It’s also useful to have an insight into how a publishing company works – it can be helpful to authors to understand what happens once you send their book out.
I think I would advise my younger self to spend less time worrying about things and just get on with it. What’s the worst that could happen? Really?
I’m not sure that other agents need my advice but social media is useful – putting your intentions out there. I am also approaching people who strike me as having something interest or pertinent to say. But I would say that we could all do with reaching out more.
Kelly Pietrangeli had a brilliant idea for a book. She and her friends had discovered a powerful way of managing the chaos and anxiety that seems an inevitable part of bringing up children today with a set of tools around life balance, productivity and goal setting. They’d been using the tools themselves with great success, and the next obvious step seemed to Kelly to write a book. Full of enthusiasm, she and a friend got started.
‘It just occurred to me one day, how are we going to get a book deal on this book called Project Me, when we have no website, no social media platform whatsoever, like, who are we, you know? We’re just a couple of mothers who are writing this book and I suddenly lost confidence in the idea.’
That’s where many book ideas start and end. Or Kelly could have decided to opt instead for self-publishing.
‘But then it occurred to me, well, we could kind of do things backwards here and set up a website, and take the chapters we’ve written so far and turn them into blog posts.’
Her friend and co-author was initially horrified. ‘What, we’re just going to take all this stuff we’ve been working on and just put it for free on a website so anybody can get it? Why would anybody later want to buy a book if it’s already there on the website?’
But Kelly convinced her it was worth the risk. They launched ProjectMe for Busy Mothers, first as a blog, then gradually as a suite of resources, online course, workshops, coaching and ultimately a community, and the book itself was forgotten. Until one day a member of that community, who happened to be a literary agent, said: ‘Kelly, there’s a book in this.’
And so the book was born, back to front. Instead of pitching the idea to publishers in the hope that they’d be the means of getting the word out and building her profile, Kelly found herself sitting at a table with publishers falling over themselves to sign her up.
She’d done the work. She’d build a following, proved her idea resonated with her target market, and created a back-end that would power the sales. (You can hear the full story here.)
Sometimes it seems like a particularly cruel Catch 22: you can only get a publishing deal if you’re already famous; if you’re already famous, you don’t need a publishing deal. But in fact it makes all kinds of sense for nonfiction.
As Adrian Zackheim, publisher at Portfolio, Penguin Random House, said when I interviewed him for the podcast recently (episode not yet broadcast):
‘There are so many tools at our disposal for communication and for building a following… anybody who is a compelling thinker and communicator who has been completely unable to build any sort of following or to even create a ripple of interest in the media world, when they come to us with their book proposal, we have to consider it with some suspicion, because how come nothing has happened around this idea set so far?… Particularly if you are now coming to us and saying, “I am dying to get this idea in front of a large community. You need to help me because this idea is so important, but I really have not been able to attract a single follower.”’
The next challenge is for publishers to go beyond seeing authors’ platforms and communities as simply a green light to take a risk on a book, to develop tools and expertise to support their authors to build their platform or business even further through the book. And as Mike Shatzkin pointed out on Book Machine last year, no publisher has this right yet.
Alison Jones (@bookstothesky) is a publishing partner for businesses and organizations writing world-changing books. She also provides executive coaching, consultancy and training services to publishers. www.alisonjones.com.
Isobel Dixon grew up in South Africa, studied in Scotland and now works in London. She is a director of the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency where she represents a wide range of writers from around the world. Norah Myers interviews her here.
Inclusivity is important to me as a life principle (especially as someone who grew up in as privileged white person in a completely segregated country, apartheid South Africa). It’s a principle I seek to carry through to my work, both with my client list and with my like-minded colleagues, aware though of how much more there is to do. I think in a political era where polarisation and open prejudice are on the rise it’s more important than ever to be proactive about promoting inclusivity and openness. There’s growing awareness of this in the agenting and publishing community and the Building Inclusivity in Publishing conference was a positive sign of collective effort on this front.
My colleague Juliet Pickering and I were both involved at the conference – we wanted to meet other people with shared concerns, get fresh ideas, be challenged to think more broadly – and I think the day was productive on those fronts. I went away with lots of food for thought and met people with whom the conversation will continue, including other agents. The Association of Authors’ Agents is keen to do more and will help facilitate more connections and action.
On the employment level we all need to look at our recruitment practices and (paid) internships and see what we can do to be more attractive as a profession to talented and ambitious candidates from diverse backgrounds. Organisations like Creative Access can be valuable partners here, but I think agencies have to make it very clear that they are actively seeking to hire in a more open fashion as well.
Taking on interns and entry-level staff via personal recommendation and family contacts in the old-fashioned publishing style limits the pool of talent to those already connected. The publishing industry needs to seek to forge new connections. At Blake Friedmann we recognise we have good university links, but need to find ways to reach schools as well, before students make their university pathway choices, to show that there are exciting and varied careers in publishing and agenting – in rights, marketing, the specialised finance expertise of royalty accounting and so on– not just editorial roles. We’re looking into all of this, also with regards to the internship project we’re launching next year, The Carole Blake Open Doors Project, where we want to draw candidates from beyond the London metropolitan area, from diverse backgrounds, and not necessarily with university degrees (Carole Blake, who was a hugely respected agent, and was posthumously awarded Agent of the Year by the Romantic Novelists’ Association, went into publishing straight from school). What we do require is a passion for books and an ambition to succeed in publishing – but we need to reach out and tell people more about the industry, throw the net out wide. You can see more here.
Yes. To start with I represent South African writers from a range of different backgrounds, with recent new UK deals done for Zakes Mda (his LITTLE SUNS sold to Jacaranda Books – where founder Valerie Brandes who is quoted in our Open Doors announcement, did an internship with us some years ago), and the Estate of K.Sello Duiker (his children’s book THE HIDDEN STAR sold to Cassava Republic). Achmat Dangor’s new novel has just gone to Picador South Africa who will also re-issue his Booker-shortlisted BITTER FRUIT. This month Blue Mark Books published the late Tatamkhulu Afrika’s classic novel BITTER EDEN and I am closing some exciting new deals for prize-winning Indian writer Manu Joseph. More great work on submission (or soon to be) by Australian-based South African Sisonke Msimang and British-Eritrean author Sulaiman Addonia, among others, also across the agency.
I am always interested in writers with different global perspectives, and try to attend varied events and read the shortlists for prizes like the Caine Prize. I heard Hannah Lowe read her poems about her Jamaican-Chinese father at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and it was the power of her words and the story she told that blew me away. However, I don’t take on many new clients, given the existing range of my list, but luckily I have fantastic colleagues, Juliet Pickering, Tom Witcomb and Hattie Grunewald actively building their lists. We’re very collegiate in sharing projects we think more suited to each other (though encourage authors to choose one of us to submit to – more guidelines here). Recently Juliet Pickering took on Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinene and worked with them on their proposal SLAY IN YOUR LANE: The Black Girl Bible, which went to Helen Garnons-Williams of Fourth Estate after a hotly-contested 9-publisher auction just before Frankfurt.
Literary agents wishing to expand the diversity of their lists have to think a bit more creatively about scouting out talent, not just wait passively for submissions. Keeping an eye on authors supported by organisations like Spread the Word, attending the growing numbers of festivals and events that feature more diverse talent is one way, and social media is also an important platform for young writers.
That people are starting to take the issue seriously now, having recognised there is a problem in the industry. A few years ago so few people thought this question mattered. Now it’s become part of the conversation, and I think some real momentum is building to effect multi-level change. But we still need more appetite for acquisition from publishers as well, as we so often encounter commercial caution here.
Some of the practical advice is above, but more generally there’s a watchword I also quote for writers, from Henry James: “Be someone on whom nothing is lost.” Keep your eyes and mind open. Don’t just follow fashion. Question your assumptions and be open-minded about genre too. Read widely, engage energetically, listen to what other people are reading and loving, be curious, and hungry for the stories no one has yet told, and find the people who tell them brilliantly. Then sell them – and therein is another whole chapter. You have to commit to work you are passionate about and feel you can sell, to earn an income for the writer, but you may often have to be pretty damned determined, if not downright stubborn, to succeed with work that’s not perceived as the most mainstream or easy. But that’s part of the adventure.
Isobel is also a poet. Her latest collection Bearings is out from Nine Arches in the UK and Modjaji in South Africa, and Scottish publisher Mariscat brought out her pamphlet The Leonids in 2016. See more on her agent page and her poetry website.
Juliet Pickering is an agent at Blake Friedmann, representing a list of both fiction and non-fiction authors. Her interests range from literary to bookclub fiction, from memoir and humour to food and gender issues. You can follow her on twitter @julietpickering – here Norah Myers interviews Juliet about handling rejection.
Manuscripts are rejected all the time! It’s part of the process: if I’m sending a novel to 15 editors, 14 of them may not love it as much as I do but our role is all about finding the one (and hopefully more!) editor and publishing team, that will.
If we don’t succeed in a first round submission then the author and I take stock of the feedback, we might want to edit the manuscript accordingly and then make a fresh submission.
It’s part of the job. There are some rejections that are harder to accept than others – if the editor loved it too but has been unable to get the support of their colleagues, for example – but it means that the agent and author regroup, take on board the responses from publishers, and think about the best way forward.
Absolutely. I try harder than ever to pre-empt any publishing concerns before a book goes to editors (by editing the book with the author), but for each publishing team the concerns will be slightly different.
I don’t think rejection helps negotiation as much as it’s helped build my knowledge of the publishing industry. The parameters of publishing successfully are always changing, along with the market, so I feel better equipped to send a new book to editors when I know the teams behind them – the teams who express their views on submissions I’ve made and reveal their approach to publishing in doing so.
I think it’s very important to trust your instincts: every single agent in the business deals with rejections, but arming yourself with editors’ likes and dislikes, and an effective pitch, means you’re making informed submissions and doing the best you can. You have to keep trying, and be ready to manage the authors’ expectations along the way. I pass on all the responses from editors to my authors, so they know the reasons for a yes or a no. It’s important to be honest and open.
Ultimately, we take on our authors because we believe they’re great writers and have several books ahead of them. If we can’t sell a book, we’ll work with them to find an idea for a book that will succeed.
To always treat authors kindly and with respect; the rejections that show an editor clearly read and considered a submission I made, make all the difference and soften the blow.