Finding an agent
to represent you is the holy grail for most people writing a book. This means having someone
to dedicate a significant amount of their time to your work, champion
your work with publishers and negotiate the murky waters of the industry with
you trailing in their wake. It can seem like a never ending uphill struggle though, receiving rejection after rejection. Well, it was for me. I stopped counting them and made a selection of intricate paper planes to annoy my mother's dogs.
increase in the number of authors self-publishing, agents are still very much
at the heart of industry. This week I was lucky enough to speak to experienced
agent Caroline Hardman from Hardman &
Swainson, who has worked with some of the most famous authors of our
time, to ask her about the role of the agent, what her job involves and what
Caroline is looking for.
Despite the increase in the number of authors self-publishing, agents are still very much at the heart of industry. This week I was lucky enough to speak to experienced agent Caroline Hardman from Hardman & Swainson, who has worked with some of the most famous authors of our time, to ask her about the role of the agent, what her job involves and what Caroline is looking for.
Your agency - Hardman& Swainson
Location - Battersea, London
About you: I started my own agency with a former colleague in June 2012, after working as an agent at Christopher Little (famous for being JK Rowling's agent until last year), and The Marsh Agency, where I worked for 6 years primarily selling translation rights for a stellar list of authors. Before that I was at Waterstones for a short time, after completing my MA at the University ofLeeds.
Did you always want to be a literary agent? Ha ha, not at all! I used to want to be: a detective (a la Morse) at age 10, to work with animals at age 11, a dancer (13-17), and an academic (18+). I actually left school to go to full time dance school when I was 16, but had a rethink! It wasn't until I'd finished my BA and was already doing my MA that I thought about a career in publishing, after deciding I didn't want to stay on to do a PhD.
How did you get into it? I learned about the world of publishing! Once a career in publishing had occurred to me I really focused on getting to know the business: reading about it, researching jobs, looking at trade magazines, etc. Then I applied for any entry level jobs I saw advertised, whilst getting work experience (including at Tindal Street Press). My first publishing job, as a rights assistant and receptionist at The Marsh Agency was advertised in the Guardian graduate section, and had I known they'd have had so many applications I might have been put off! But they sold rights on behalf of Tindal Street Press so there was a connection there and for some reason (after two interviews) I got the job!
Why did you decide to start your own agency? I wanted to make a move but wasn't sure I wanted to move to another agency again. I had an opportunity to start up with Joanna, and as I had all the relevant experience including good knowledge of international publishing, rights, contracts, etc, we just decided to go for it!
How did you go about it? Told my clients and gave them the option to come with me, then we had to do all the usual start up things - get bank accounts, get an accountant, set up systems, create a website, get word out there that we were starting up. We had clients who came with me, so we were off to a running start, plus I was essentially doing the same job as I was before, so it was pretty seamless.
What have been the high points of your career, eg, best author/book discovery? It's difficult to say as I love all my authors and their books! This year has been particularly good, with the sale of The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait to Picador. It's a stunning novel and I can't wait for publication next April. Finding authors on the 'slushpile' is always hugely satisfying - again this year I sold a novel called The Separation, which was one of the big deals of Frankfurt Book Fair, and I found that author on the slushpile when I was at Christopher Little. She'd written a different novel, which I thought had potential but wasn't working, so I suggested she went away and worked on the other idea she had (with the help of another very talented author of mine). Happily she re-submitted to me and the Separation was born.
And the low? There are so many lows I couldn't possibly give them all! I feel my authors' disappointments very keenly. It's always difficult when you love a novel but publishers don't go for it. It's also very difficult when something you love sells to a publisher, but then doesn't sell well in the trade. The worst is an author not having a contract renewed because of poor sales.
What makes your job for you? Why do you do it every day? Well obviously I love books and reading (though came to it quite late), and nothing is more exciting than discovering great writing, and seeing that through to publication. I very much enjoy working with talented authors and editors. Publishing is full of very interesting people. On a personal note I've always liked working under my own steam. I enjoyed that about academia and it's similar in some ways.
Can you describe an average day for you? What does an agent do? My days vary quite a lot, depending on what I've got on and what time of year it is - eg, the time around book fairs is different and a lot more hectic than the rest of the year. Those days tend to be filled with pitching, submitting, meetings and creating our rights list for the fairs.
Most 'normal' days involve answering a lot of emails including queries from authors, emails from their editors or other editors I'm in touch with, chasing up contracts and payments, negotiating deals, troubleshooting if there's a problem, liaising with our foreign rights, US and film / tv co-agents, checking in on publication schedules and publicity plans, etc). I might also have one or two meetings, sometimes over lunch, with an editor, author or prospective author. If I have a book to send out to editors, I'll call them up and pitch the book over the phone (if I haven't spoken to them already in person about it), and then submit to them by email. And then that needs chasing up if I haven't heard back from those editors within few weeks. We have to send contracts to authors and back to their publishers for signature, file them, make sure they've done the correct tax form for foreign deals, and then make payments to authors when the money comes in and keep on top of the financial side of things. We have to read our authors' manuscripts at various stages, often several times before submission and sometimes after it's sold too. Last but not least, there are all those submissions to read!
How many authors do you work with at the moment? We have 23 clients on our website, but we're working with about the same number again who have projects at various stage of development.
What do you look for in a book? What makes a story for you? I'll just deal with fiction here. I have to be completely absorbed and to not want to put it down. That's the basic test. If I put it down and I'm not looking forward to reading again, then I know it's not for me. And I think that's down to great characterisation and an engaging plot. It's difficult to be too prescriptive, as great stories come in lots of guises, styles and genres. Like all creative works, what makes something great is often ineffable.
How should a potential author contact you? By email. Our submission guidelines are on our website and we're always happy to hear from people. I don't like being called on the phone though, as I prefer to see how an author presents themselves on the page.
What happens after you like the first three chapters? I ask to see the rest of the novel, and sometimes ask for it exclusively.
What happens when you receive the full manuscript? Do you pass it on to others to read? Who are they? If I love it then it's usually enough, though I do sometimes get other reads. Joanna (Swainson) and I share a lot of work with each other, so she's my first port of call. I sometimes get my mum to read manuscripts for me - she reads a lot but does it with an unbiased eye (ie, not compromised by working in the publishing business!) so it's very useful to get her view. I tend to ask her once I've decided to take someone on already though, and her view is just a bonus! If it's YA or children's, we have a couple of young readers who like to read for us (including Joanna's daughter Gerty).
What happens when you decide a manuscript is for you? I usually try and meet the author, or if that's not possible, speak on the telephone. If that goes well and we decide we'd like to work together, I offer representation and send our agency agreement. We'll then decide on next steps and what works needs to be done before submitting.
How many writers do you take on each year? That really varies too, and depends on the quality of the submission as well as how proactive we're being. Jo and I have probably taken on about 9 authors between us this year, but we're very much building the business so that's probably more than many agents.
How you do approach publishers with a potential novel? See above - I usually speak to them before submitting, either in person or on the phone. If they like the sound of it (and it's my job to make it sound great), then I submit the manuscript by email, along with a pitch / blurb, information about the author, and what territories are on offer.
How many readers or editors do you work with? Do you mean people who read for us, or editors who buy from us? We don't have set readers / editors.
Can you describe briefly what London/Frankfurt book weeks are like? What do you do there? These are right selling fairs, so it's the agent's job to go to the fairs to sell international rights in titles that have (usually already) been bought by UK and / or US publishers. We see editors from publishing houses all over the world and pitch our books to them in the hope they'd like to publish in their territory / language. Often the big deals happen before the fair, in anticipation - eg, I sold the Separation to Viking / Penguin and our rights agents The Marsh Agency had a 6 publisher auction for the book in Germany, where it ended up selling in a six-figure deal. All this happened just before the Frankfurt Book fair, but was announced at the fair so then other publishers would be interested.
Basically the book fairs are a bit like a big school trip! By day the book fairs are a little like speed dating - you see a different editor every half an hour and try to entice them into reading your authors' work! By night, they're more like an office party - there are lots of parties held by publishers, agents and scouts, as well as dinners, involving much merriment.
What are the agents in London generally like? Friendly/approachable/not scary/very scary, etc? I'm not sure I can comment on my brethren! They're just people - so some of those people are scary and some are lovely and approachable. Some agents have been around for a while and some are newer, so it really depends and not all authors want the same kind of agent, just as not all agents want the same kind of author! I have some very good agent friends and, for the most part, there's a lot of camaraderie, even though we're competitors. I will say that there are a lot of characters out there!
What do you think the future holds for agents? It's quite difficult to say, as the landscape of publishing has changed dramatically since I started in the business 9 years ago. I think we'll have to take a greater role in getting books to readers, whether that be through the traditional publishing model or through new avenues, such as direct e-book publishing. I think authors need someone to steer them and look after their rights no matter what, and a good agent is a constant for the author when everything around them is subject to change.
Will there be a backlash against self-publishing? I know Amazon has started a cull already! I imagine there probably will be! It's the way of the world.
Is there anything else you’d like to add for the readers about agents? Remember it's a subjective business, based on opinions. It's not scientific and no one knows the 'right' answer. Keep trying if you get turned down, but you have to write for the right reasons. It's not a way to make easy money and writing is HARD. Even if you get an agent, and then even if you get a publisher, it's a tough climb to get anywhere and it takes a lot of tenacity and hard work. I think the most important thing I want to say is to READ. I sometimes think there are more people trying to write novels than there are reading them. If you don't buy books and read them and talk about them, there won't be a publishing business left to publish your novel.