So, what does a literary agent do? And why do you need one?
Well, I’m delighted to welcome my literary agent, Anne Williams, to the blog today to give us an insight into her very busy and varied role within the Kate Hordern Literary Agency.
Anne worked for over fifteen years as a commissioning editor, first at Michael Joseph, then for thirteen years at Headline during which time she was Co-Publisher of the Review imprint and Publisher of the main Headline imprint. Anne commissioned and edited a number of Headline’s major commercial fiction authors, including the Sunday Times No. 1 bestsellers Sheila O’Flanagan and Lyn Andrews, top 10 bestseller Faye Kellerman and prize-winning crime writers Barbara Nadel, Manda Scott and Caroline Graham (on whose books the tv series Midsomer Murders was based). She joined the Kate Hordern Literary Agency in 2009 and is based in Central London.
I asked Anne questions I thought were not only interesting, but also helpful and informative for writers who are nearing the submission stage and want to gain representation.
Over to you, Anne!
1. On average, how many submissions do you receive in a month?
Around 80, I’d say. Some periods are busier than others. There always seems to be a flood after Christmas – I imagine people are finishing projects off in their holidays.
2. How many of these submissions fail to adhere to the guidelines?
I’d guess about a fifth. Some are clearly from people who send to every agent whose name they can find, regardless of where they are based or what they do.
3. How many writers did the agency sign from the slush pile last year?
One. We are a small agency and have to be hugely selective about what projects we decide to invest in.
4. Do you ever approach self-published authors to offer representation?
No, I never have.
5. What is your favourite thing about being an agent?
Placing an author with a publisher, which often means you are making something your client has only dreamed of happen. I like sending them their first royalty cheque too!
And your least favourite?
Not being able to sell something you hoped you might.
6. In an average month, how much time do you assign to each of the following:
- Reading new submissions
No set time. I try to look at every submission briefly when it comes in, reject it straightaway when I know it’s not for me, then go back to ones that might be of interest. I tend to read most afternoons, once the emails are done, though often this isn’t possible – too many other things to do. If a submission really interests me, I’ll make time for it – it’ll shout at me for attention! - and often read it at the weekend. Maybe sixteen hours a month?
- Meeting new or established clients
Again, no set quota. A literary festival where a client is speaking could take up days one month, including travel, then I’d have a month glued to the desk the next. I would always meet a client if they wanted to see me, and quite often go with clients to meetings with publishers. And if a client is passing through London, I’ll take the opportunity to catch up with them if I can. I always try and meet new clients if I can - a piece of advice the late, great Carole Blake gave me.
- Reading a client’s manuscript
Maybe a day a month.
- Editing a manuscript
Maybe a week a month – editing really demands a lot of time. You have to prioritise this kind of reading/editing because a client will have a deadline to keep. There is no way you can assign a set time – you have to do it when it needs doing.
- Pitching to publishers
Hard to say. When a project is ready to go, I hone the pitch, which might take me a morning to get right, though it will be a distillation of something I’ve been thinking about over a period of time. I then approach publishers by email or phone to ask if they want to see it, then send it off if they do. Sometimes I’ll have talked to them in person about the manuscript already. The actual pitching takes a lot less time than the work that’s gone into the manuscript before you reach that point, though it’s crucial to get your angle right. Having been an editor and on the other side of the selling equation, I think helps me with this.
- Meeting with editors
Maybe 8 hours a month – obviously more if it’s London Book Fair month. You’ll chat to editors at events too, as well as in one-to-one meet ups.
- Negotiating contracts
Varies enormously as to what’s on the go. Negotiating a big deal can dominate a week but once the deal is done it’s a question of ushering it through the system, which can be quite time consuming too, though more bitty.
7. What are some of the other tasks you have to manage in your agent role?
Guiding authors in their dealings with their editor and other departments such as publicity or rights, giving input on covers, putting matters that might arise with their publishers into context. Generally acting as a helpful (hopefully) conduit between an author and a publisher. Scrutinising sales and royalty statements and getting a sense of how an author’s work is performing. Being aware of what is happening in the market – what’s in demand, what kind of books are working and thinking about how your author stands in relation to this. Feeding information through to Kate, my colleague, who sells foreign rights, updating our website as a platform for our authors, updating my client list with new projects. Supporting authors on social media. Giving talks, attending publishing events. I could go on…
8. Obviously, you spotted something in my writing, and SAVING SOPHIE in particular - what was it that appealed to you?
I loved the believability and immediacy of the opening scenario, the realism of the family set up, the clarity of the writing and the way you gradually revealed Karen’s backstory, including her agoraphobia, which I thought was a brilliant
limiting/focusing device for the action. How does a mother try to protect her daughter when she is terrified of leaving the house? I also knew the fact that you had a background in psychology and had worked in the prison system was a real plus.
9 . What would be an ideal submission for you right now? Anything you’d absolutely love to see in the submission emails?
The publisher in me loves the idea of a really clever cosy crime series – I adore the way Ian Sansom’s County Guides mysteries have been packaged. And in women’s fiction I admire Cathy Bramley’s Ivy Lane allotment series – they take you into such a welcoming world.
At the other end of the crime spectrum, I’m a fan of Eva Dolan and would love to find a crime novel that offers a real insight into some of the immigrant communities we live alongside but often don’t know enough about. In a way, that was the attraction of Barbara Nadel’s Ikmen novels, which I launched as an editor – she wrote about the Yazidis, for example, way before ISIL’s appalling persecution brought them to people’s attention.
10. How can writers submit to you?
By email please – see our website for full guidelines.
(Link at top of page)
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Finding your voice as an author is so often an evolutionary process, as is finding the right market for what you want to say. The landscape is always evolving, both externally, in terms of the market and probably internally, in terms of your own development.
Thank you so much for taking time out of your hugely busy day to answer my questions, Anne! Being a literary agent sounds fascinating – a lot of hard work, but very rewarding. I am sure many writers will be able to take away valuable information and useful tips from your responses.
And it's clear for me to see, you need a literary agent - and I'm very lucky to have you!