The journey of Mr Book: Literary Agents

August 17, 2015, Article by Richard in Books, Mr Book


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We all love books, especially our little mascot, Mr Book. But how do they come to be? And who are the people who play a key role in getting books on shelves?

Following on from our piece by Fishbowl author Bradley Somer, today we’re continuing our look at a book’s journey to publication by asking…

What is a literary agent? And what do literary agents actually do?

To answer this, we spoke to Jamie Cowen, director at the Ampersand Agency, to tell us a little about his job. Over to Jamie…

A big pile of submissions can provoke a number of emotions in a literary agent: horror, despair, an urgent need to make a cup of tea.

But also excitement. After all, without authors writing books, and submitting them to agents, we would merely be useless hangers-on, spending our time eating nice lunches and holidaying in Tuscany. Indeed, there are many who would argue that this is the case even with the submissions.

There are many things that can draw my eye to a submission. Ultimately though, what I look for is writing that – in some way – I fall in love with, and that makes me want to read more. It’s difficult to put a finger on precisely what that means, as it is of course different for every book that I read, submission or not.

To put this another way, I have no idea what I am looking for until I read it.

When I do find that elusive something in a submission that puts me on the edge of my seat, the really exciting part of my job begins. I’ll immediately ask to read the whole thing, and – assuming it matches up to the quality of the sample – will begin the process of pitching the author in the hope of taking them on. This will usually involve a meeting, where both I and the prospective client will dig around a bit in the hope of finding out what makes the other person tick.

At that meeting, I will want to find out a number of things. Where did the book come from? Is it a life’s-work, ten-year labour of love or the result of a Nanowrimo-style four-week Pro Plus-fuelled blitz? What other ideas does the author have? Is this the start of a series, or a stand-alone? Do they work full-time? Could they write a book a year? These, among other questions, will help me build a picture of who the author is and what kind of prospect they are as a client.

The author will also have questions for me. (Frankly, I’d be worried if they didn’t.) What do I love about the book? What would I do were I to edit it? To whom would I consider selling it, and why? I prepare accordingly, usually making a bunch of notes to ensure I leave as good an impression as possible.

Let’s assume that the responses are encouraging, and the meeting goes well. The author accepts my offer! Hurrah! Champagne! Celebration! Then the really hard work starts.

I typically do one big structural edit on the books I take on, although this will change depending on the state of the manuscript. Regardless, having been an editor in a previous life I try to make sure I’m adding as much as I can at this stage, as not to do so would seem a waste of experience and skills.

I very much regard the editing process as a discussion – I will have strong feelings about where the book needs to go and what it needs to be, but nobody knows a book, and what is right for it, better than the author. A back-and-forth conversation will therefore commence, the result of which will – hopefully – be a tighter and better-presented manuscript.

While the edit is ongoing I will typically be ‘pre-selling’ the book to the editors I think it is best suited to. This bit is crucial: understanding what each editor, and imprint, is specifically looking for, what their taste is and what their list is lacking is a vital part of an agent’s role. Gaining this insight takes a colossal* (*reasonable) amount of hard work** (**lunches), and will inform the shortlist of editors I choose to pick up the phone to. In these conversations I’ll mention that I have something coming up that I think they will be interested in, and will give them a short pitch on what I think are the book’s strengths. I’ll then judge from their responses whether or not they will be a recipient of the finished script.

Once the book is edited and in good shape, I’ll decide on my final list of editors to send to, then send it out accompanied by a description of the story and high points, some comparisons for a steer, plus a few key details: rights that are on offer, whether the book is on ‘general submission’ (i.e. being sent to a number of editors simultaneously), what the author has planned by way of further writing and similar.

A period of hand-wringing, finger-crossing and sleepless nights then ensues while editors read and assess the book. Naturally though, they all love it and call within days to express huge excitement and offer vast sums for the privilege of publishing my latest client.

In the event that I receive multiple offers, my job is to clarify, as far as possible, how they differ: what the editors are like, what their lists are made up of, previous successes (and failures) and what the author could expect from the publisher should they pick them. I will always give a recommendation as to which option to pick, although ultimately the author has to make that call – after this stage, their relationship with the editor becomes the most important in their writing life.

So. The author makes a decision, and the deal is done. Hurrah! Champagne! (Prosecco if it’s HarperCollins.) Then, for the author, the hard work begins all over again. And as for me, it’s back to the submissions. Pop the kettle on, will you…

Jamie Cowen is a Director at The Ampersand Agency, specialising in sci-fi, fantasy, horror, YA fiction, crime and thrillers. He has worked in publishing for 13 years. 

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