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Curtis Brown Creative writing school: Interview with Rufus Purdy

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.

1) What was the inspiration behind starting Curtis Brown Creative?

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.

2) What makes Curtis Brown Creative different from other writing courses?

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.

3) What’s been the most challenging part of running the course?

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.

4) Does the publishing knowledge that students gain in the course help their writing?

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?

5) Have any of your graduates been published?

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.

6) What advice would you give anyone who would like to gain a place with Curtis Brown Creative?

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/

agent

How agents handle rejection: Juliet Pickering interview

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.

1) Please tell us about a recent submission you made that an editor rejected. How did you use the rejection to determine the next steps?

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.

2) How have you learnt to deal with rejection as part of your relationships with publishers?

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.

3) Has rejection helped you better assess why a book might or might not work?

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.

4) How has rejection helped you become a better negotiator?

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.

5) How would you coach a new agent through their first few rejections?

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.

6) What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned through being rejected?

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.

Literary Agent [JOB POSTING]

The Darley Anderson Literary Agency is a top London based commercial fiction and non-fiction agency representing bestselling authors worldwide. We are looking for a dynamic women’s fiction Agent who has enormous passion for the genre and strong eye for readers’ tastes and wants. They will join a small elite team and be in charge of building the list and finding exciting future bestselling talent.

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Literary agent

7 things your agent wants you to know

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.

1) Bonnie & Clyde

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.

2) Ultimate multi-taskers

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.

3) “Everything is subjective”

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.

4) We are Human

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!

5) Agencies – fat and skinny

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!

6) Hone those Blurbs

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.

7) We are Hungry!

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!

literary agent

On being a literary agent at book fairs: Ella Kahn interview

Ella Kahn is co-founder and literary agent at Diamond Kahn & Woods, where she represents a wide range of children’s and YA fiction, and adult fiction and non-fiction. She was a winner of the inaugural The London Book Fair Trailblazers Award 2016, and on The Bookseller’s Rising Stars list in 2013. Here Norah Myers interviews her.

1) Which titles do you hope to sell this year at LBF?

I have a couple of very exciting debut novels on submission at the moment. One is a middle grade fantasy adventure with incredible voice and atmosphere; the other is a sci fi space opera with an epic plot and a gutsy heroine. We’ll also be focusing on selling the international rights for the titles we’ve recently placed in the UK, in conjunction with our foreign rights agents at ILA. On the adult side I have Becoming by Laura Jane Williams, a ‘survive and thrive’ heartbreak memoir publishing with Hodder & Stoughton in June; and City of Good Death and its sequel City of Buried Ghosts by Chris Lloyd are fantastic police procedural novels set in Catalonia, Spain published digitally by Canelo. On the children’s side, I have new projects from David Owen and Vanessa Curtis, both of whom were Carnegie-longlisted for their previous books Panther and The Earth is Singing. The Fallen Children by David Owen (Atom, Spring 2017) is a dark and provocative contemporary YA/crossover novel inspired by John Wyndham’s classic The Midwich Cuckoos; and The One Who Knows My Name by Vanessa Curtis (Usborne, Spring 2017) is a historical YA which explores the secretive and disturbing legacy of the Nazi’s Lebensborn programme.

2) What is the best approach to take when selling at a book fair?

It depends on the project. Sometimes I’ll have sent a book out on submission before the fair so when I meet editors I already have an idea of who’s keen on the book and I’m updating everyone on the progress so far. Sometimes I’ll pitch a new project at the fair so I can whip up enthusiasm before I send the manuscript out afterwards. And we’ll be telling international editors about the buzz for projects already sold in the UK – publicity, awards, exciting events planned and so on. We have a rights guide with information about all the titles we’re pitching to show to editors, which we find really useful for giving them a flavour of the book.

3) What advice would you give agents on preparing for a fair?

Start preparing well in advance – we had the majority of our meetings scheduled by the end of February – and be targeted about who you want to meet. It’s a pretty obvious thing to say, but focus on the people you think are most likely to be interested in the projects you’ve got to pitch at that time; even with the fullest possible schedule of over 50 meetings in three days, it’s not possible to meet every editor in town! The same goes for putting together the rights guide – we always end up making last minute tweaks as sometimes you can’t be sure until a week before the fair whether a project will be ready to pitch, but the further in advance you can start compiling and editing, the less stressful the week before the fair will be – and your sub-rights agents will appreciate it too!

4) What are the most effective ways to get a submission in front of an agent?

Simple: read the submission guidelines on their website and follow their instructions. We read all our submissions if they fit our guidelines, and a little bit of research about our taste goes a long way. It can also be worth attending literary festivals and author conferences where agents offer one-to-one pitch feedback sessions – I’m doing an event like this at The London Book Fair called ‘The Write Stuff’ as part of their Author HQ programme. Writing groups such as the London Writers Café also offer opportunities to meet agents and get their feedback on your work.

5) What are you currently looking for as an agent?

I’m particularly keen to build the adult fiction side of my list at the moment. I’d really love to find some wonderful historical fiction, as this is a genre I read a lot in – I adore authors like Tracy Chevalier, Anna Hope and Jessie Burton. Some more science/speculative fiction would be fantastic too, something pacey and fun with a clever and ambitious premise. I’m also starting to develop my non-fiction list with wonderful memoir authors Laura Jane Williams and Meg Fee, and I’ll never be able to resist really great YA and children’s fiction if it’s high-concept, plot driven, and has exceptional voice.

 

literay agent

The top 5 skills a literary agent needs

This is a guest post by Rory Scarfe. Rory spent several years as a non-fiction publisher before becoming a literary agent, where he has worked with a range of authors across fiction and non-fiction. Here he lists his tip 5 skills  that an agent needs.

This list is highly subjective. It reflects what I have learned and the skills that I want to continue developing (among countless others). We operate in a fast-changing business but these are the top skills that, to me, will remain at the core of being a good agent.

1) Expectation management

This doesn’t mean setting your sights low. Yes, in part, it’s about protecting your client from disappointment but it’s also about stressing the uniquely wonderful things that publishing can offer. To take a well-worn, but true, example; a Premiership footballer on £100k p/week won’t see much commercial incentive in writing a memoir, yet the magic of publishing a book could be very real and persuasive. We need always to remember the specialness of our industry.

2) An eye for detail

I have to make an admission: as a publisher I was sometimes guilty of overlooking the finer details of a deal (to be absolutely honest, after the excitement of winning a book it could feel boring and secondary). As an agent, that sort of thinking will get you shot, and rightly so. Those details can equate to a substantial difference in an author’s prospects and are as integral to the deal as the top-line figure. When it comes to deal-making, eternal vigilance is the order of the day.

3) Boldness

Remarkable people write remarkable books all the time and if you don’t send that letter you’ll never know. Enthusiasm can be infectious. You just might be the one who persuades that legendary figure to dust off their typewriter and rock the publishing world. There’s nothing to be lost by asking, so leave your shame at the door. The same goes for deal-making: sometimes you have to trust your gut and believe your author can do better, even if that means being prepared to walk away.

4) Resilience

Publishing, for all concerned, is a business of ups and downs and as an agent your job is to play both the cheerleader and schoolmaster. When the publisher’s attention slips (God forbid), or when an author despairs, you have to be there to crack the whip and rally the crowd. As an agent, you seek always to pitch somewhere between approachability and firm-ness. No-one wants to work with an a**hole, but nor does it benefit an author to have a puppy dog in their corner.

5) A collaborative spirit

You hear stories of semi-mythical ‘glory days’ of agenting, when an author earning out meant only that their agent had failed to get them a suitably whopping advance. Of course, today, the object is always to secure your author the best possible compensation, but we’re also playing the longer game. Will a publisher follow through on their promises? Do they have the vision to work with your client to build that author’s career? These are the pressing questions that can unlock the best kind of success.

On being a Literary Agent in India: Sherna Khambatta interview

Sherna Khambatta founded Sherna Khambatta Literary Agency in 2007 after gaining a Msc. in Publishing. At the time, the publishing system in India didn’t have many agents so she saw this as an opportunity to bring in a certain amount of structure into the industry and help authors get their work sold. Here Stephanie Cox interviews her.

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From Scout to Agent: Sarah O’Halloran interview

Sarah O’Halloran is a brand new literary agent working at the Madeleine Milburn Agency. She began her career at The Agency (London) Ltd, before working at Curtis Brown and The Marsh Agency. Most recently she was a literary scout at Louise Allen-Jones Associates where she worked across all markets with a particular focus on children’s and YA.

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